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The Name Game

After Mobutu's fall, yet another name has been affixed to the heart of Africa. From Kongo to L'Etat Independent du Congo to Zaire to Congo, will this new name create a new identity for a suffering people?

May 25, 1997|Adam Hochschild | Adam Hochschild, who has written widely about Africa, is the author of "Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels" (Syracuse University Press). He is just finishing a book about King Leopold and the Congo, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin

SAN FRANCISCO — When triumphant rebel leader Laurent Kabila changed the name of his country from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, it was only the latest in a series of names imposed over the centuries on a long-suffering people. Whether a change of life for the better will accompany the change of name remains to be seen.

There is always politics to name changes, and nowhere more so than in a country long swept by conquests and upheavals. Is there any territory on Earth that has been called so many different names? Kongo, the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo, Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo--the various names given to this land have seldom, if ever, been chosen by its inhabitants, and say far more about the ambitions of their rulers than the identity of the state.

One reason for the territory's new name is an attempt to summon up a past era of glory. In 1482, when a Portuguese explorer and his crew became the first Europeans to step ashore in this part of the world, they found a large, thriving kingdom of several million people, stretching over some 300 miles square. It was known as the Kingdom of Kongo, with its hilltop capital at the town of Mbanza Kongo.

The kingdom was ruled by the "ManiKongo," a king chosen by an assembly of clan leaders. To symbolize his royal authority, he wore a small leopard-skin cap and carried a zebra-tail whip. He commanded a sizable army and sat on a throne made of wood inlaid with ivory.

The towering figure in early Kongo history was a ManiKongo who took the throne in 1506, after converting to Christianity, learning to read and write Portuguese and taking on the name Affonso. Affonso had a tragic awareness of a new force that had begun decimating his kingdom: the Atlantic slave trade. In 1526, he wrote King Joao III of Portugal:

"Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise, that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects . . . even nobles and their sons . . . . They sell them . . . after having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night, so as not to be seen. As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron."

His opposition to the overseas slave trade made Affonso hated by the small group of Portuguese merchants and priests living in his capital. Several tried to assassinate him as he was attending Mass on Easter Sunday in 1540. Affonso escaped, but many indigenous leaders in later years who displeased the Europeans would not be so lucky.

The Portuguese could buy all the slaves they wanted at the coast, so they never ventured far inland. The first European to cross the entire territory today known as Congo was the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, in 1874-77.

Stanley's feat caught the eye of an aspiring empire-builder, King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was brilliant, charming and greedy--and immensely frustrated by being the ruler of such a small country. To his further exasperation, it was a country with no interest in empire. No matter. If Belgium didn't want colonies, he would find his own. He hired Stanley, and for five years Stanley traveled for him up and down the Congo River by steamboat, persuading chiefs, most of whom had little idea of what they were doing, to acknowledge Leopold's sovereignty. In 1884 and 1885, the United States and all major European nations signed treaties recognizing the territory--with essentially the same borders as today--as Leopold's.

The name of Leopold's colony-in-the-making was unusual, for the king didn't want it to appear as a colony. The great powers were starting to jockey for position in Africa, and Leopold knew his best chance at getting them to recognize his claim was to portray himself as merely a philanthropist trying to bestow civilization and Christianity on the benighted Africans. So the entity was called the International Assn. of the Congo.

Leopold was merely the chairman of this charitable-sounding entity, he said. The International Assn., the king insisted in an article he wrote for the Times of London, was a sort of "Society of the Red Cross; it has been formed with the noble aim of rendering lasting and disinterested services to the cause of progress."

However, names still offered a clue to whose progress was being served here. In the land controlled by the International Assn., there was a Leopoldville, a Leopold Hill, a Leopold River and a Lake Leopold II--not to mention Stanleyville and Stanley Falls. Once Leopold was safely in control, all pretense of philanthropy evaporated and he changed the name. In mid-1885 was born l'Etat Independant du Congo, or the Congo Free State.

It was neither independent nor free. The Congo was the scene of the worst single blood bath in the European conquest of Africa. Between 1880 and 1920, demographers estimate today, the territory's population fell by some 10 million.

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