Harvard’s Maya Jasanoff vists the Congo and discovers people there probably live harder lives than they did 100 years ago when Joseph Conrad was there

Historians in the News
tags: Harvard, Congo, Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch

Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.”

... I took a walk down the riverfront road, past a market of thatched stalls tumbling down the muddy slope and street vendors in the shadow of colonial bungalows, when I spotted something startling. Behind a whitewashed wall stretched a shipyard for Onatra, the national transport agency, and on the grassy bank sat the rusted-out hulls of four or five old steamers. I approached a group of men sitting in the shade outside the office and asked to have a closer look.

One of them led me to the craft that had caught my eye. The Yanonge, he explained, was a wood-fired, stern-wheel paddle steamer built in 1928 from pieces cast in Hoboken, Belgium, and assembled in Kinshasa. It had a 250-horsepower engine and traveled at nine kilometers (about six miles) per hour, the same speed as the faster boats now. It had electricity, showers, a kitchen and refrigeration.

I’d never imagined I would see something so similar to Conrad’s Roi des Belges, and the feeling of proximity to the past was electrifying. And then, just beyond the hull of the Yanonge, I saw the passenger boats of today, so overcrowded and so squalid they look like refugee camps.

Conrad was rightly skeptical about imperial promises of progress. I left the shipyard sickened by a hideous realization: Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.

We left Mbandaka the next day for the last leg of the journey. I sat outside Nadine’s place while she cooked dinner and talked to her mother, a jowly lady who never smiled. Nadine’s mother had been traveling up and down the river since she was 18.

What are the biggest differences between boats then and boats now? I asked. “These aren’t boats,” she said. “Then, there were boats, with cabins, restaurants. This” — she paused — “this isn’t a boat, where everyone sleeps under the stars.” ...

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