In a refreshing departure from more conventional narratives, he frames his book not as the history of one country, with borders drawn by nineteenth-century Europeans, but of the area covered by the forest. On today’s political map that includes, besides much of the DRC, swathes of several former French colonies to its west and north: the Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic. (Parts of the giant rainforest reach into several other countries as well, but Harms restricts himself to those colonized by France and Belgium.) He quotes the explorer David Livingstone on the forest people when confronted with heavily armed invaders who wanted their raw materials: they were “little dogs in the presence of lions”. The villagers had few weapons to resist armed slave raiders and were even more helpless against the colonizers who arrived in the late nineteenth century aggressively seeking ivory and then rubber. The Europeans had repeating rifles, machine guns and small, mobile cannon, as well as the crucial tool that conquered the territory’s thousands of miles of rivers: the steamboat.
Spreading his net as widely as possible, Harms uses a variety of contemporaneous and first-hand accounts to liven up his narrative. The major omission, of course, is African voices. ‘Aside from a few oral accounts by African villagers and a few documents written by Arab traders,’ he writes, ‘the sources are mainly from Europeans who participated in the colonization of the Congo basis rainforest.’ Despite this handicap, Harms has produced an important book: deeply researched, vividly written and profoundly moving.