“The land of the Mayombe doesn’t want us.” The Brutality and Folly of the Construction of the Congo-Océan Railroad
J. P. Daughton on the Unspeakable Toll of the Colonial Project
From This Year’s Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism by J.P. Daughton.
For the men, women, and children who survived the hundreds of kilometers of marching, the sun and rain, the hunger, and the overcrowded barges, arrival at the worksites of the Congo-Océan provided little respite. Recruits from the north were housed for a period in Brazzaville. The Congo-Océan had helped transform the colonial capital, increasing both its African and its European populations, though it remained, in Marcel Homet’s assessment, “only a big, very ill-equipped village.” He counted just over a thousand inhabitants, who all lived without reliable water, sewage, or electricity. In truth, Brazzaville was more like a collection of disconnected and racially segegrated villages, including a small central European district, a Catholic mission, and the two main African villages of Poto-Poto and Bacongo. Once the railroad was complete, the city would become a key transit point for goods coming from upriver. In the decade before that, it was the place where recruits, over a thousand at a time, were held in camps and introduced to what passed for French “civilization” in Equatorial Africa.
In Brazzaville, recruits had medical inspections and time to rest from their travels, to acclimatize, and to be trained to be productive workers on the construction site. Then began the process of remaking villagers into laborers. As officials imagined it, this was the moment to train workers in clearing, terracing, and sanitation, in how to use a shovel and how to push a minecart. Recruits were meant to be taught French notions of hygiene, to feed themselves, and to keep their bunks. Those deemed “unfit” or “weak” were given medical treatment or reassigned to less demanding jobs. Those who were healthy were sent to their new assignments, to camps that lay two weeks’ to a month’s hike from Brazzaville.
Working and living conditions were taxing and dangerous all along the line. But one stretch of the railway more than any other came to represent—in the minds of workers as much as in the pages of books, articles, and reports—the extreme physical and emotional challenges of the project. The Mayombe is a low, densely forested mountain range that stretches southward from Gabon through Middle Congo into what is now northern Angola. The mountains of the Mayombe are not terribly high-class few peaks are more than three thousand feet—but the tree-lined ridges and precipitous flanks capture cool air and cast much of the region into darkness, even in the midafternoon. The Congo-Océan passed through about seventy miles of the Mayombe. The entire railroad construction site was measured and mapped by the kilometers of each point from the end of the line at Pointe-Noire; the Mayombe stretched roughly from Kilometer 60 to Kilometer 170. To the west of the Mayombe lay the coastal plain that ended at the Atlantic; to the east were the rolling hills of the plateau that led to Brazzaville.
While accounts of the railway could differ dramatically, almost everyone who visited or worked in the Mayombe agreed that it was an utterly inhospitable place to do much of anything, let alone build a railroad. In the 1930s, Marcel Sauvage, a journalist, poet, and essayist, penned an evocative description of the Mayombe in Les Secrets de l’Afrique noire. Sauvage went to the Mayombe to see for himself the project that had, in his estimation, already cost fifty thousand workers their lives for “the useless establishment of a little railway line that could have gone elsewhere.” But it was the forest—a world unto itself, a primordial realm plagued by an unrelenting climate and vibrant flora and fauna—that fired his imagination. The “low, sick, violent sky, lacerated by lightning,” he wrote authoritatively, “dumps between seven and thirteen meters of water annually”—the height of a four-story building. It was a striking image, if wholly overstated; annual rainfall in the Mayombe is less than seven feet—still an extraordinary amount. Even when the sky did not open up with rain, he noted, the forest choked man and beast alike; it was a “hell of humidity where, apart from several outcasts of [African] humanity, only prodigious gorillas survive.”
“The virgin forest of the Equator,” Sauvage continued, “constitutes the triumph of vegetation, in an atmosphere of steam and fever”—a scene that was nothing short of “ferocious and shivering.” Trees reached to the sky, creating a “leafy vault” above and a “mattress of rot” below. “From dawn,” he wrote, “we were attacked by clouds of flies, and in the evening, as soon as my lamp was lit, a thick swarm formed, an aerial purée of niamas, mosquitos, into which the lamp and I completely disappeared after about five minutes.” Such tribulations took unspeakable tolls on mind and body. For part of his trip, Sauvage traveled with a civil servant who developed a skin disease that rendered him “no more than a skeletal generator of pus.” Here in the low mountains of Equatorial Africa were plagues of darkness, locusts, and boils. “You lose the measure and the notion of human realities,” Sauvage observed. “You sink into a dream that constantly turns into a nightmare.” The Mayombe, in short, was “the forest without joy.”
Sauvage’s prose certainly had its purple flourishes, but his was hardly the only account of the Mayombe to revel in its miserable and otherworldly characteristics. Suffocation was a common theme in other travelers’ accounts. Gabrielle Vassal wrote that, on the construction site, “a deadly weight seems to squeeze all life out of brain and body.” Albert Londres remarked that he had never seen such trees; as soon as he and his companions strayed from the trail, “the forest closed around us like a tunnel.” Robert Poulaine echoed this sense of being enveloped. He described the canopy of the forest as a “dark vault,” with “gigantic trees interlaced with creepers large like bushes, undergrowth infested with thorny plants.” The atmosphere, Poulaine continued, was “heavy and fatally debilitating to the lungs of whites and blacks” alike. “And that’s not all!” The forest was a “vegetal barrier” put up by “a nature rebellious to human progress.”The hostility of the climate led African workers to coin an expression as simple as it was accurate: “The land of the Mayombe doesn’t want us.”
Photographs of the forest offer glimpses of its intimidating majesty. A number of photographers and postcard makers tried to capture the Mayombe’s impenetrability, even occasionally in stereoscope. The results of shots straight into the bush were flat, dark, dense images that struggled to capture the multistoried forest. At best, they offered a mere evocation of the towering evergreens and palms, the foliage of herbaceous and epiphytic plants, and the steep mountainsides that left not a horizon in sight. Where paths had been cut for road or rail, photographs revealed canyons of foliage, with towering trunks and dense canopies forming walls along the edges of the clearing. They hinted in sepia tones at writers’ allusions to Bible and epic. The Mayombe was mile upon mile of “Dantesque chaos,” of “Apocalypse.” The rails would have to cross it if Brazzaville were to be linked to the sea.
Europeans and Africans alike knew of the Mayombe’s dangers. In 1925 one official noted that the route through the Mayombe “brings the railroad… into a deserted region, insalubrious to the point that the former inhabitants have disappeared, and the European personnel as well as the native labor will have much to suffer from.” Another reported that the “chaotic configuration of the ground, with steep hills separated by deep ravines,” and its adverse impact on health, gave the region a menacing reputation among the indigenous population. The hostility of the climate led African workers to coin an expression as simple as it was accurate: “The land of the Mayombe doesn’t want us.”
Early plans for the railroad had bypassed the most treacherous parts of the Mayombe. But changes, including the decision to build the main coastal port at Pointe-Noire and a desire to shorten the route, drew the final path right through the region. The Mayombe thus became the primary center of effort. It was where the engineering feat was at its most bravura: unstable soil, precipices and chasms, waterways and erosion, meant that the Batignolles had to construct hundreds of small bridges, massive viaducts, and a 1,700-meter-long tunnel under Mount Bemba, the longest in Equatorial Africa.
Until 1928, when part of a service road was completed, all food and supplies had to be carried into the Mayombe, along “goat paths” if any at all, on African porters’ backs or heads. The construction effort in the mountains was intensive. One engineer estimated that it would require more than 10 million individual workdays to complete the passage through the region, or about 107,000 days per kilometer of track. To complete this stretch, the Batignolles would have to rely overwhelmingly on a single source: more and more men.
By the late 1920s, to the railroad’s critics, the Mayombe had come to represent the folly of the project. In 1929 a French Communist deputy in the National Assembly in Paris explained the deadliness of the Congo-Océan by simply pointing to where it was being built. The Mayombe, he noted, was “an unhealthy, humid forest which hardly sees the sun and where the work is extremely tough”; his colleagues on the far left cheered, “Très bien! très bien!” in agreement. The deputy’s reasoning might have been overly reductive, but it contained certain well-known truths. Tens of thousands of men and women passed through the Mayombe; many thousands of them never went home.
Header photo: Archives nationales d’outre mer, via Stanford
Excerpted from In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism by J. P. Daughton. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2021 by J. P. Daughton.