At independence, the Congo had only two graduates, and such fabulous riches that the country inevitably became a magnet for rapacious foreign companies and for the Western intelligence services. Kinshasa, as the capital Leopoldville was renamed, swelled with worldly businessmen not averse to secret deals. Once Lumumba was out of the way, the government was easily manipulated into becoming the linchpin of the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations throughout much of the continent, and particularly in connection with the liberation struggles in Angola and in South Africa. In the thirty years which followed the granting of independence from Belgium, much of the history of the region was intimately tied to the very special circumstances of Congo, rebaptized Zaire by Mobutu in the sixties. For example, Zaire was closely implicated in the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Adam Hochschild’s bookfootnote illuminates the particular character of Belgian colonialism in Congo and goes a long way to explain a crucial episode in modern racism and the foundations of the most venal state in post-independence Africa. In so doing, he also throws light on the dynamic behind the catastrophic failed rebellions of the last three years in Congo.

Hochschild estimates that as many as ten million people—half the population of Congo—died in the forced labour system used to tap wild rubber for King Leopold II’s companies at the height of Belgian exploitation of the country. So successful was his system judged by stock-broking circles that it was used as a model for rubber concession companies by the Germans in Cameroon, the Portuguese in Angola, and the French in Congo-Brazzaville. Here, too, the death rate was similarly devastating, but the rape started later, and because the countries were smaller, and mostly did not have the great resources of Congo, the later history—even the horror of Angola today—has been less dramatic.

Hochschild, in an immensely readable and engaging fashion, illuminates this appalling history in part through a sequences of striking portraits, which include not only the royal predator himself but also such dramatis personae as Congolese rebel soldiers, Joseph Conrad in his Congolese phase, E.D. Morel, George Washington Williams, and a host of others.

Congo’s tragedy began with a different greed—the slave trade of the early sixteenth century. Portuguese traders, missionaries, teachers and adventurers threw themselves enthusiastically into the organization of the traffic and, by the 1530s, 5,000 or so slaves a year were shipped across the Atlantic to Brazil and the Caribbean. A hundred and fifty years later, 15,000 captives were taken from Congo alone and the slaves’ destinations included the tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland. The forty or so great slavers’ castles of Ghana, or the slave island of Goree off Dakar, testify to the massive volume of the trade at its height. Hochschild’s account of the traders’ records gives an idea of the complete dehumanizing of Africans which it involved.

Slavery existed in Africa as part of the chiefs’ control system well before the Europeans arrived, although it had a rather different character as many slaves were captured in war, or were criminals being punished. And slaves were, in some areas, granted their freedom. But the lure of beads, mirrors, cloth, and guns, brought many chiefs into the market and fired the traders to go ever deeper into the interior of the continent to bring out the hapless bodies of those who, if they even survived, would live only to build economies on other continents.