By Femi Nylander:

Just as Voulet’s column moved through Niger, in other parts of Africa (as well as other parts of the world) colonialists were equally engaged in atrocity throughout the 19th and early 20th century. As we see in African Apocalypse, the impact continues to shape lives today.

1885, Congo (Congo Free State, Belgian Congo) – state sponsored policy killing millions still not accepted as genocide

From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold of Belgium reduced by direct policy the population of what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo by around 10 million people. The exact numbers are not known. Whole villages were forced to work on plantations producing natural rubber mostly to satisfy European demand after the invention of the pneumatic bicycle tyre.

Together with epidemic disease, famine and a falling birth rate caused by the disruption of enforced labour anyone refusing to work would be killed and entire villages razed with private companies free to do whatever they wished. Mutilation including amputation was an accepted form of punishment. Quotas for rubber production were unrealistically high and soldiers were paid for the chopped off hands of villagers they had shot. According to missionaries of the time, the collection of hands became a sort of currency in itself, even setting village against village to avoid their own massacre when they couldn’t fill their quotas.

Missionaries brought the atrocities to the world’s attention documenting murders and even the display of decapitations and body parts as described by Conrad at Kurtz’s encampment.

The exploitation and oppression in Congo is what moved Conrad to write Heart of Darkness and his earlier short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’.

In June 2020, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium, King Philippe of Belgium sent a letter to the Congolese president expressing his “deepest regret” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” that were committed in the Congo under Belgian occupation. But he stopped shot of issuing an apology.

Rubber plantation workers in Congo

Rubber plantation Belgian Congo

Rubber plantation workers in Congo

Hunting and boy in Congo Free State

1898, The Battle of Omdurman (known as Karari in Sudan) – military might and the massacre of the wounded

‘Nothing like the battle of Omdurman will ever be seen again…it was a good moment to live…of course we should mow them down’.

Winston Churchill, correspondent at the battle in September 1898, from his autobiography.

The battle was little more than a massacre. For the loss of 47 British soldiers, 10,000 Sudanese troops were killed in a day, mown down by the newly invented Maxim guns. After the battle, 20,000 lay wounded. London newspapers reported that General Horatio Kitchener (later made famous with his ‘Your Country Needs You’ 1WW poster) sent out squads of soldiers to ‘kill them off in order to save lint and other medical necessaries, and the limited staff of nurses from being overworked’.

The First Geneva Convention of 1864 did not extend protection to non-European wounded.

The skull of the defeated Sudanese leader, the Mahdi, was brought to Kitchener in a box. It was said Kitchener used it as a paperweight for his documents while he organised the occupation of Sudan. When she heard about it, Queen Victoria is reported to have said this smacked ‘too much of the Middle Ages’. But that still did not stop her from awarding him ‘a purse of £25,000 and putting him in the House of Lords as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum’.

Even today many English towns – including Southampton, Swindon and Sheffield – have streets named after Omdurman, the massacre and the war crime long forgotten and the battle remembered only as a glorious victory.

Rubber plantation workers in Congo

Slain men and horses, Omdurman

Rubber plantation workers in Congo


1904, Namibia (German South West Africa) – extermination of the Herero people

In October 1904 – six months after Britain ceded Voulet’s murderous gains to France – German General Adolf Lebrecht von Trotha gave orders for the extermination of the Herero people. The Germans had previously captured their rich farm lands and trapped the population in the Namib desert. Ravaged by starvation and dehydration the beaten Herero were then imprisoned in reserves, which were little more than concentration camps. It is estimated between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereros, 10,000 Nama and an unknown number of San died. Von Trotha’s edict ruled that any Herero found within German-controlled territory was to be shot.

The official German army report concludes (with a macabre poetry): ‘the month-long sealing of desert areas, carried out with iron severity, completed the work of annihilation. The death rattles of the dying and their insane screams of fury resounded in the sublime silence of infinity’.

In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the action of 1904 as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South West Africa, and therefore one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century

In August 2020, the Namibian government refused a German offer of 10 million euros to ‘heal the wounds’ of the colonial atrocity. Germany refused to apologise, admit their killing was a genocide or call the payment reparations.

In 2018 however, Germany returned 19 skulls of murdered Herero which had been stored in museums, hospitals and universities for over a hundred years.

Femi Nylander
October 2020

Rubber plantation workers in Congo

Execution of Herero leader

Rubber plantation workers in Congo

Herero prisoners hung