The British Empire Library

Blood River - A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

by Tim Butcher

Courtesy of OSPA

Harry Mitchell QC (Sierra Leone 1954-59)
The author is the foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph who in 2004 courageously undertook a perilous journey across Africa from east to west, following more or less the same route as that undertaken by H M Stanley in the 19th century. For much of the way, particularly when traversing the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo he found a continent which had "gone back to bush". Roads and railways had ceased to be usable, major towns no longer had cars, electricity, water or other amenities and there had been a major collapse of law and order. I was much impressed by the courage and endurance of the author. Even with the backing of a major newspaper, in crossing a continent in which modem communications had ceased to exist he was risking life and health. But admiration for this achievement was undermined by his harsh views on colonialism, which he appears to regard as having been an unmitigated evil, a time during which the European powers merely exploited Africa. In many passages he makes clear these views but fails to appreciate the contradiction between them and the laments also expressed throughout the book on the disappearance of the material benefits which colonialism brought, notably law and order and the basic infrastmcture of a modem state. The following is one of many examples:

Page 334: "Before Stanley and white rule the people of the Congo genuinely enjoyed a sense of local power. Society was tribal, with authority lying in the hands of village chiefs and above them, paramount chiefs ...

All of that changed with white mle, not just in the Congo but across Colonial Africa. All aspects of sovereignty were stripped from the people of Africa and they have never, to this day, got it back ...".

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in Butcher's view, pre-colonial Africa was a happy continent which was mined by the coming of the Europeans. He ignores the slave trade, in which many African chiefs were involved, land disputes, war and cannibalism. In what sense can it be said that Africans living in the conditions in which explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley found them were enjoying sovereignty? Whatever the shortcomings and the sins of the colonial powers, their main achievement was to do much to improve the lives of the people of Africa. They imposed law and order, built roads, railways, schools and hospitals and overall created an environment in which the ordinary citizen for the most part enjoyed peace and protection and trade, education and other activities of a civilised society could flourish. An important fact of colonial African history which the author overlooks is that the colonial powers created not only an infrastructure, but also new units of government and the machinery of government which simply did not exist before. The international boundaries of present day Africa have hardly changed since independence. It has at times been fashionable to criticise the colonial powers for having imposed arbitrary boundaries but African nations have shown little inclination to revise those boundaries.

Sometimes the author seems to say that the former colonial powers are not even to be excused blame for whatever ills have befallen their previous colonies many years after independence.

"... the outside world's tolerance of a dictator in the Congo like Mobutu, whose corruption and venality were overlooked for strategic expedience, was no different from what happened in Zimbabwe, where the dictator Robert Mugabe was allowed to run his country and its people into the ground because Western powers gullibly accepted the way he presented himself as the only leader able to guarantee stability and an end to civil strife!' (Emphasis supplied.)

In the light of current events in Zimbabwe this is outrageous. Butcher accuses Britain of having installed Mugabe as a matter of convenience while Mugabe himself in the midst of the chaotic and murderous conditions which he himself has largely created accuses Britain of supporting the opposition and trying to oust him. Clearly Britain and other former colonial powers cannot win whatever happens.

At page 320 the author reflects as follows on arrival in Kinshasa after all the horrors he had experienced in his journey across the Congo:

"... I had travelled through a country where I had seen human bones lying so thick on the ground to be given a decent burial; where a stranger like me was implored to adopt a child to save him from a life of disease, hunger and misery; and where some people were so desperate they actually pined for the old and brutal order of Belgian colonial life." (Emphasis supplied.)

There are many other passages in similar vein. In spite of these searing impressions it obviously did not occur to Butcher that the life of Africans under Belgian rule might not have been so brutal as he seems in some perverse manner to have concluded. Is it really surprising that people enduring the appalling conditions he so graphically describes throughout the book should yearn for some security and a better life, a life which the older people among them could remember as having been a reality in colonial days?

On the subject of infrastructure, the author tells us that whereas in 1949, eleven years before independence, the Belgians maintained 111,971 kilometres of motorable road in the country; in 2004, the year of his journey, he doubted whether there were more than 1,000. His travels took him along roads which had gone back to bush, whose bridges and culverts had collapsed and which were passable only by bicycle or scooter or on foot. He refers also to the collapse of the former extensive railway system and of the boat services which used to operate on the upper reaches of the Congo River. He passed through several large towns which had been busy centres of population and commerce but which were now without water, electricity supplies or motorable roads. Along with law and order, medical services and education, the transport infrastructure was a major part of the legacy left by the Belgians. It has all now disintegrated because of neglect, corruption and incompetence.

I have no doubt that many valid criticisms of Belgian rule can be made. But the many passages in the book where the appalling decline in every way of conditions in the Congo is described are incompatible with other passages in which the author condemns the Belgian colonial administration and will say nothing but ill of it. He further makes bold to claim that his criticisms are equally valid of other ex-colonial African territories. The book makes many sweeping statements about the state of Africa but seriously fails to attempt any proper objective analysis of Africa's problems. The author describes his own appalling experiences in much detail but contradicts the conclusions to be derived from those experiences by ill judged comment on the colonial history of tropical Africa.

Your editor was reluctant to accept this book review from me because reviews in the Overseas Pensioner are normally intended to encourage readers who are interested to buy or at least read the book. My own reaction when I read it was one of anger. So for any member who might think of reading Blood River, I hope that this review may serve as a health warning.

British Empire Book
Tim Butcher
Vintage Books
978 0099494287