Colonization Of Mongo Basin :Effects Essay, Research Paper
The Congo basin is a vast area of land in Africa which straddles the Equator. Its
historical records begin with the “discovery of the Congo River by the Potugese”.(Nelson
1994:2) This land was inhabited long before European arrival, the Mongo and other indigenous
people of this area already lived in this area. This essay will delineate the short term and lasting
effects of European Imperialism in the Congo basin in regard mostly to the Mongo.
To evaluate the changes which took place with the arrival of Europeans, first one must
learn about the Mongo prior to colonization. The Mongo lived in the segmentary lineage model.
They were arranged in small-scale villages, with kinship and seniority being large social
determinants. These were not the only factors involved, personal achievement played a very
important role in the Mongo. The result was a complex, competitive and dynamic
society.(Nelson 1994:13) The economy of the Mongo was based on the idea of subsistence but
in some areas specialization occurred and the result was trade among groups. This dates back to
the first settlers of the Congo basin. The first migrants moved to the most favorable living areas,
mainly by the water. These groups would fish for their food. Other groups would settle inland
and take up hunting and gathering as their main sources of food. These groups eventually started
to trade and a market system began.(Nelson 1994: 18) The Mongo were an inland group whose
main food producing activities included hunting, gathering, fishing and agriculture. No one activity
was dominant, each was equally important and was used according to the natural factors,
including season, and local interests.(Nelson 1994:19) The Europeans came to this part of
Africa and did not understand these people at all. This misconception led to much ignorance of
the native groups. The lifestyle of the Mongo and others were soon to change.
The ignorance on the part of the Belgians, on first arrival, to the Mongo way of life led to
many misconceptions on the part of Europeans. Firstly, the colonialists viewed the forest and its
inhabitants as uniform and stagnant.(Nelson 1995:15) Two ideas grew out of the Mongo’s
relationship to the forest. The first made the forest seem impenetrable and a cause of the
Mongo’s “non-development”. The second interpretation made the forest into a resource with
unlimited supply and the Mongo as the beneficiaries. Supposedly the forest made life easy for
the Mongo and they had become lazy.(Nelson 1994:15) The idea that Africans were lazy was
very common among colonizers. This gave them the right, in their minds, to force the Africans to
work so as to educate the natives in “proper” work habits.
The African has not our notions of work. His ideal is a
lazy existence typical of inhabitants of tropical
countries…The lure of wealth does not exist for him,
for he is content merely to live. The more [the African]
gains by working, the faster he will rest.(Leplae
The Belgian government, like any colonizer, used the Congo basin for its resources.
These resources included people, in the form of slaves, ivory from elephants and rubber.
Europeans did not actually go to collect these resources on their own, they had the natives bring
the goods to them. “Fishermen abandoned their traditional ways of life to become professional
slave and ivory traders.”(Nelson 1994:43) The Belgian government set up outposts all down the
Congo river as trading posts. With this increase in trade came an increase with contact between
the Mongo and Europeans. Trade had previously existed in this region but the new markets built
upon these trading routes making them more generalized and larger. As well an alteration to
these networks occurred introducing new patterns and relations of work and commerce. These
changes were not even throughout the basin. Communities which lived along the river were much
more affected by this new trading than were inland communities.(Nelson 1994:57) Belgium’s
relationship with the colony was definitely not mutually beneficial. Belgium bought the raw
materials at extremely low p prices and could then sell the goods at market prices and make a
considerable profit. Although many resources were taken from the Congo basin, the basis for
choice was always the major European market. As the price of one good fell, the government
would change their policy and concentrate their efforts on another good. This policy led to many
problems as it only considered the short-term and completely ignored the long-term
repercussions. The repercussions were the exhaustion of some resources. An example of this is
a village headman speaking to a British missionary:
Tell them [the rubber agents} that we cannot and
therefore will not find rubber; we are willing to spend
our strength at any work possible, but the rubber is
finished. If we must either be massacred or bring
rubber, well, let them kill us; then we suppose they will
be satisfied.(Harms 1975:85)
Not all natives simply worked as the Europeans told them to, many revolts against the
colonists occurred. An example is from the 1960’s where in Vanuata, islands in the Pacific
Ocean, a local man actually paid people to join a militia against the colonizers. Eventually the
group disbanded but many people joined in the fight against oppresion.(Jolly 1994:51-2) In
Africa however the earliest and most violent confrontations with the Europeans include the
African middlemen whose control of the river trade was in danger. Outposts were burned and
raided and two employees were murdered. This incident however was met with punishment by
the Europeans. An example was made of some groups in the form of slashing and burning of full
villages and killing all inhabitants. This “pacification campaign” did not work in shutting down
opposition but the large companies did take control anyway.(Nelson 1994:54) The revolts were
unsuccessful in stopping the Europeans but many times it succeeded in stalling operations.
Until the 1930’s, life in the Congo had changed but the social structure within the
communities had not. The great economic crisis of the 1930’s saw the collapse of all commodity
prices. Belgium had to change it’s colonization structure to increase profits once again. The result
was a plan called Total Civilization. It comprised many plantations on which crops would be
grown as well as social development programs for the African workers. Not surprisingly the
social development part of the Total Civilization plan never actually took effect and the new
system was little more than a new system to increase profits by increasing output. Compulsory
quotas were produced and control over the population increased through the issuance of
passbooks and the appointment of chiefs.(Nelson 1994:152-3) This new plan simply angered
the natives even more because not only did it disrupt their way of life as colonialism had from the
start but now they were forced out of their home and made to work even harder. The new
system simply fronted for an enlargement of the colonial oppression. Additional legislation was
passed which limited the power an itinerant trader could achieve. These laws showed the real
involvement in the economy of the Africans was limited to the feeding of raw materials,
foodstuffs, and labor to European centers.(Nelson 1994:160) This plan did not start off as
misguided as it end up. The Duke of Brabant and heir to the Belgium throne at the time returned
from a trip to the Congo with the goal of bettering the lives of the Africans. The idea behind the
plan is stated by on of the plan’s proponents, “Local production is best assured by the native
who is no longer a salaried worker but a free peasant, the proprietor of his own land.”(Hostelet
1954:267-9) Although this seems like the right course of action to the European who has no
other experience with development other than their own, the African would not necessarily want
this. The natives of this area had lived and would have continued to live in the same style as they
always had and did not seem to want their own piece of land to harvest. They already had a
system and the Europeans were trying to force another system upon them. The Europeans
thought that by giving the natives more technology they would immediately want it, but this
technology was not of use to the Mongo or the other communities because they had no reason
before the European arrival to grow more food than they already did.
The policies of Total Civilization contributed to a
fundamental and permanent split in Mongo society, a
division between the world of the village and a new,
more individualistic society evolving in the plantations
and in the urban centers of the Congo basin.(Nelson
On the plantations this new division was most noticeable. The companies hired African
capita’s to be an intermediary between the European owner’s and the African worker. This was
beneficial to the European because firstly the African would receive less pay and secondly the
white owner would not have to have as much contact with the workers. This new position is
quite important in Mongo history because for the first time one African is in charge of another
African. Classes started to develop even among the Africans themselves. Work on the
plantations was contracted for periods of a few months. This allowed the burden of subsistence
to be left with the local communities and not with the Belgium employers. In some cases entire
villages were moved closer to the plantations once again contradicting the stated Belgium goals
of not affecting traditional life.(Nelson 1994:185) Every aspect of work at the plantation was
arranged to maximize production and to minimize cost but with no regard for the actual human
involvement in the process.
The colonizer’s relationship with the Africans was a result of the European’s attitude
towards the colony. Although officially their motive was to bring development to a perceived
“primitive” culture, their actions contradicted their words. Forced labor and quotas made the
working environment a harsh and dreary place. The Africans worked out of fear of death or
imprisonment more than for the opportunity to “learn’. The economy was based on profit
maximization and not cultural maximization. The Mongo and the other indigenous groups of that
area were forced to change their entire way of life to accommodate the Europeans.
Although the colonial period is only a short time in the long history of the Mongo, many
significant changes took place as a result of the colonial rule. Many social, economic and political
changes have resulted from the colonial experience. Firstly the main social changes have been in
the way of life including their Western style of dress, the French language and the entertainment
which resembles the European model.(Nelson 1994:194) As well the social organization of the
communities has changed. A large portion of people now work on plantations which operate
much the same way as they did under colonialism. Economically since the plantations still exist
the common worker is still exploited to the full extent possible for the purpose of maximizing
profits. The political organization is now an autocratic dictatorship but instead of Belgians being
in charge Africans are in charge. Not much has changed except for the people in charge.
Workers are still exploited for an increased profit. Some regions of the basin are still the same
fundamentally as before colonization, but the legacy still lives on.
Although the Mongo suffered greatly during the colonial period they have survived and
continue to exist. They have not lost their traditional values, even if the values have changed
slightly. This set of values and their ability to perserverence have made them stronger and will
continue to do so as long as they can emphasize the importance of these values to the future
generations. Hopefully these generations will not have to face the atrocities which their ancestors
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