In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism

J.P. Daughton. Norton, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-393-54101-4
Stanford history professor Daughton (An Empire Divided) chronicles “one of the deadliest construction projects in history” in this meticulous and enraging account. Between 1921 and 1934, tens of thousands of Africans died in the course of building a 320-mile stretch of railroad between Brazzaville, the largest settlement in French Equatorial Africa, and Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic coast. After breaking ground without a finalized route plan or dedicated labor force, the company in charge of construction chose a path through the most treacherous parts of the densely forested Mayombe mountain range; eschewed modern construction machinery in favor of cheap and largely involuntary manpower; and failed to adequately feed and shelter its workers, leading to catastrophic disease outbreaks. European overseers also subjected African laborers to harsh physical discipline, and escaped consequences even when beatings caused severe injury or death. Though French journalists documented the hellish conditions, colonial governors and company officials employed the levers of bureaucracy (diligent yet partial record keeping, endless rounds of communication) to create an alternate reality of humanitarian uplift. Daughton skillfully reads against the grain of these official records to uncover the harrowing reality faced by native Africans. This is a devastating record of the horrors of colonialism. Photos. (July)
Reviewed on : 04/29/2021
Release date: 07/20/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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