A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo

A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo

by Nancy Rose Hunt

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In A Nervous State, Nancy Rose Hunt considers the afterlives of violence and harm in King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Discarding catastrophe as narrative form, she instead brings alive a history of colonial nervousness. This mood suffused medical investigations, security operations, and vernacular healing movements. With a heuristic of two colonial states—one "nervous," one biopolitical—the analysis alternates between medical research into birthrates, gonorrhea, and childlessness and the securitization of subaltern "therapeutic insurgencies." By the time of Belgian Congo’s famed postwar developmentalist schemes, a shining infertility clinic stood near a bleak penal colony, both sited where a notorious Leopoldian rubber company once enabled rape and mutilation. Hunt’s history bursts with layers of perceptibility and song, conveying everyday surfaces and daydreams of subalterns and colonials alike. Congolese endured and evaded forced labor and medical and security screening. Quick-witted, they stirred unease through healing, wonder, memory, and dance. This capacious medical history sheds light on Congolese sexual and musical economies, on practices of distraction, urbanity, and hedonism. Drawing on theoretical concepts from Georges Canguilhem, Georges Balandier, and Gaston Bachelard, Hunt provides a bold new framework for teasing out the complexities of colonial history. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375241
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/30/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Nancy Rose Hunt is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and the author of the prizewinning A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo, also published by Duke University Press. 

Read an Excerpt

A Nervous State

Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo

By Nancy Rose Hunt

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7524-1


Registers of Violence

Even Mark Twain took on the Congo cause. In 1905, his King Leopold's Soliloquy poked fun at the plight of the Belgian king, caught out by Kodak cameras sparking international outrage. But the famous American novelist soon "retired from the Congo," pulling back from further campaigning for the Congo Reform Association in 1906. Being "tangled up in the Congo matter" menaced his independence: "What have I been doing?" he wrote, "Dreaming? Walking in my sleep? ... I wake up and find myself tacitly committed to journeys, & speeches, & so on — perfectly appaling [sic] activities." Twain also compared himself with the masterful publicist who organized the humanitarian campaign: "I am not a bee, I am a lightning-bug. ... If I had Morel's splendid equipment of energy, brains, diligence, concentration, persistence — but I haven't; he is a 'mobile, I am a wheelbarrow."

There was good reason to liken E. D. Morel to a buzzing automobile. Entering into the immense humanitarian corpus about Leopold's Congo still takes tenacity and resilience. The stories are graphic and gruesome, the layers thick with repetition, the photographs stark, shocking, and insistent. The reasons we want to recoil are not as simple as refusing knowledge. There is an unrelenting, grisly logic to this propaganda about violence and suffering, an economy to the way it snaps images that produce horror and revulsion. Voyeurism was at play when Europeans and Americans traveled to Congo at the time. They chased to spot a mutilated person, to snap another photograph, if they could. Frederick Starr learned that none could be found anymore near Ikoko; he was advised to continue up to Abir territory instead. Anti-Leopoldian rhetoric became hackneyed, the violence often reduced into simplified stories or photographic assemblages of Congolese amputees. Pro-Leopoldian propaganda also soared, spreading images of good works and technology — bridges, engineering, schools, obedient soldiers, and efforts in civilizing, including photographs of military brass bands or schoolchildren playing as part of a fanfare. We will meet fanfares, music, and fond memories again.

Some images travel, others fade away. Many, like photographs of violence from Leopold's Congo, are repackaged and reframed over and over. Adam Hochschild's moving, redemptive King Leopold's Ghost includes some of the most recycled photographs: one of a Congolese father looking at the severed hand and foot of his young daughter; another of two youths with handless black stumps on display against white cloth. Each was part of a magic lantern show that circulated in Britain and the United States during the anti-Leopoldian campaign. The photographer was Alice Harris, a missionary at Baringa, a Congo Balolo Mission station in the Abir rubber concession territory (see figure 1.1). Her pictures and the lantern shows enabled Morel's propaganda machine to gather force, moving ever larger British and North American publics. By 1907, the Congo Reform Association in London had sold ten thousand copies of Camera and Congo Crime, a brochure with twenty-four Harris photographs. Riley Brothers Ltd. was marketing a standard show, "Lantern Lecture on the Congo Atrocities." An image of "A savage Abir" appeared quickly, then a whipping scene, followed by one of women chained: "The treatment of women hostages." Six pictured Congolese men and boys with missing hands or feet. An advertisement arranged the sixty slides into a salvationist trajectory, moving from violent rubber system to the redemptive promise of missionary work.

The Congo atrocity photographs overwhelmed. They still do. As "shock-photos," they produced "public revulsion" in Europe, America, and Britain, ultimately working to "change the course of history." The Free State came to a halt. These photographs reify maimed, black bodies, producing a traumatic form with an "insistent grammar of sight." Their persistence, as Cathy Caruth has suggested, yields an "effacement of the event."

Effacement is one subject here. It is time for a fresh reading of Leopold's Congo that moves beyond humanitarian earnestness and does not blame, publicize, or shock. Conquest in Congo and its extractive rubber economy produced spectacular violence in Equateur. Yet we know little about the ground and senses of everyday lives. The region was an intricate milieu with a wide range of categories and individuals, many with knowable names. A rich documentary record enables thinking about witnessing, immediacy, duration, and memory. This chapter rethinks the production of violence, visceral and sensory effects, and their sexualizations.

Hochschild's conceit is that the history of violence in Leopold's Congo has been suppressed through manipulated politics of memory invested in public forgetting. This is not untrue — for Belgium at least. But it is not right for Equateur, where memories were vivid through the 1930s and knew substantial rekindling during the harsh years of the Second World War. An epic story line, with an altruistic hero (Morel) battling against a greedy rogue, the imperial king dreaming tall, is not only too simple. It is too remote.

Seeking the immediacies of lives, imaginations, and injuries, this interpretation moves toward the visceral and acoustic. Fresh source material, read obliquely, paves the way. Hochschild evoked a familiar evidentiary problem when explaining why within his book "nearly all of this vast river of words is by Europeans or Americans." He acknowledged: "Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence." I would be the last to propose "African voices" as the best corrective, especially given the unsettling quiet still over parts of Equateur. Rather, the point is Congolese did speak and write during this time of wars and abuses to British Consul Roger Casement and appalled missionaries. In 1904–5, they testified before the Commission of Inquiry, sent to investigate by the King after the release of Casement's devastating report to the British Parliament. Some fifty years later, as part of a contest organized by the Catholic mission, teachers, students, clerks, and chiefs wrote down some 170 memory essays that tell of making war, maneuvering, overtaking, sowing terror, and weeping aloud.

While of course all sources are mediated, ranking evidence for African histories by racial provenance is misguided. European diaries, journals, and reports are invaluable, and I draw on the critical investigatory report of Casement and the private record book of a Belgian colonial hero, famous during its foundational "Arab War." In 1904, Baron Françis Dhanis became inspector for the notorious rubber concession, Abir company, just before the King's Commission arrived. I use bits from these sources to unsettle simplicities about atrocity, many produced by Morel's propaganda machine.

I do not want to haunt. Nor is it possible to know, in a simple, unmediated way. Yet partial knowledge about matters urgent emerge from striving to hear senses, words, and images not only of Congolese, but from the texts produced by these contrary figures, Casement and Dhanis.

Visual evidence embraces photographs and images in explanations, accounts, and memories. Mutilation photographs of severed hands and became phantasmagoric among humanitarian spectators in the West. Roland Barthes's notion of "shock-photos" is useful, since these photographs still shock, and fright and scandal have endured. Their circulation then and since matters, while the images that never made their way into contemporary circuits are also important. Disaggregating the visual is useful. An image of a basket of human hands in an immediate field of vision is unlike the counting of hands in memory's eye. Both differ from a maimed youth pictured in a photograph that once circulated, as it does today, influencing memory's eye wherever it alights. Photographs may be projected onto large screens for audiences too, and magnification produced humanitarian distress in Europe and America at the time.

When the photographic becomes relentless, its disruption is important. I track the acoustic to short-circuit the tenacity of the visual, to push beyond the effects of photographic shock blotting out all else. Instead, the idea is to move near to structures and perceptions of violence, distress, and dismissal. Pushing beyond seeing as the primary mode of perceiving the past enables being wakeful to other senses and capacities, especially the field of hearing, producing, and muffling sound. Working with bits and a few dream images, this chapter considers persons laboring, refusing, ailing, and abiding within one region with many armed men, probing visitors, and busy inspectors crossing through. Reading with an attentive ear yields sounds, but also smells, sights, peering, sensing, and the invisible.

Listening is a "technique of nearness," in the senses proposed by Benjamin. Such moving in close conveys the everyday and the spectacular. Minor moments and slight words bring near a human scale within the immediacy or remembering of violence. It means attending to dins and echoes, the unsayable and silenced, but also wondering about nonnarrativity and agitated, disturbed sounds of madness. Laughter is a thin, instructive thread here. Nervous, twisted, anguished laughter erupted alongside violence in Congo's Equateur.

The approach highlights immediacy more than the duration of duress. Leopoldian milieus bled into post-Leopoldian ones in Equateur, through imaginations, ongoing traffic, and the reproduction of capital and extraction in this forested world. Afterwards are important. The history of Free State violence has hardly ever been told from the standpoint of results, endings, and aftereffects. Nor has it been told from a vantage point of near, with immediate sounds and images offsetting jumping too quickly into a narrative of aftermath. Violence in Congo's Equateur was structural, corporeal, symbolic, psychic, and sexual. These modalities intertwined. Hunting persons as animals, commandeering girls, stealing wives, raping and sexually tormenting women, all went with bodily and psychic effects and forms of refusal.

How aggression became repetition, perhaps somatizing over time, is a critical, refractory problem. So are questions about assertion, dissent, and flight. Sexual economies were critical, and some injury was surely reproductive, literally and metaphorically. Somatic effects surfaced as an implicit colonial question from at least the 1910s. An emphasis on making claims enables discerning how bodily, mental, and aggressive processes crossed.

Sexual economies went in tandem with immediate fields of vision and remembering eyes: who could see whom, who liked to watch whom, and who acquired and had access to whom. In aiming at elements of a soundtrack that secures a new handle on Free State violence, harm, and fright, this reading examines sexual, visual, and racial economies as well as kinds of refusal and desire. A biopolitical daydream emerged in the years that followed, telling about opposition and avoidance during and after these "red rubber" years.

Nearness with Casement

It is time to skirt the spectral prose of Conrad's modernist novel, Heart of Darkness. I instead parse another canonical source, Roger Casement's serious, rhetorical investigative report. Optics and acoustics operated with studied restraint in this circumspectly composed indictment of Leopold's Congo. Casement wrote of emotion and "mental depression," of a man who broke down in tears before him. Yet his report did not brood or haunt. Once he witnessed several instances of mutilation, he saw his work as done. Material objects were present. Some rubber collectors received shirt buttons as payment. Casement based his sense of extensive depopulation on what he saw, contrasting this sight with what he remembered seeing some ten years before. His idea of slavery came from a past trade, which the Free State managed to end. He did not comprehend that much population dispersal accompanied the breaking up of big, riverain trading "houses," managed by Congolese entrepreneurs, when the strongly armed Abir moved in (see map 1.1). Immense commercial houses like Basankusu and Wangata expanded by the early nineteenth century, absorbing large numbers of raided slaves, followers, and dependents. They were still in place when Stanley first arrived in 1877. Casement did not understand the complex layering of chronotopes with a new rapacious rubber economy building networks right on top of, often with the same human material as, the Zanzibari- and Sudanic-associated economies in war and persons that had been linking Equateur with the East and North since at least the early nineteenth century. Casement's access to Congolese worlds was limited. This sensitive Irishman hardly left the central river channel and its zones of partial "civilization." Even his lodging usually came through English-speaking missionaries and their riverain posts.

Some sounds were words, voiced out loud. Casement heard many, including of five young girls rescued near Lake Tumba. One girl's fear meant her "voice was very small." Some sound was visceral or eruptive. A chief "broke down and wept, saying that their lives were useless to them." Some sounds were technological, emitted by new objects that moved, killed, and made troops march to time — steamboats, rifles, cap guns, bugles, and the military bands known as fanfares. To Bonsondo's young ears, memories of a bugle call suggested a white officer was present when soldiers attacked her village. Not all sound-making objects were new. The "noise" of brass anklets slowed Bonsondo's pace when on the run, at risk of being sighted and caught. Death produced weeping and sounds of lamentation. Yet fright also led to a loss of voice. Bikela remembered that after one massacre, those left buried the bodies amid "very much weeping." When soldiers killed her mother with a shot: "I cried very much." Afterward, when soldiers told her sister to call for her, Bikela "was too frightened and would not answer."

Casement was hyperattentive to visibility and audibility, in keeping with the charged atmosphere of imperial accusations, investigations, and denials. One of the king's commissioners told some American missionaries their "ears are too long." Reverend Clark snapped back that "their eyes were sharp. ... We see and know." Casement observed, and people offered up visible evidence: "Several ... showed broad weals," while "a lad of 15 or so, removing his cloth, showed several scars across his thighs." Images of cruelty are plentiful in Casement's report. Ncongo saw a basket of two hundred hands being counted out for a white man. Casement himself saw "fifteen women in the shed ... tied together, either neck to neck or ankle to ankle, to secure them for the night, and in this posture I saw them twice during the evening." In the morning, a sentry ordered "in my hearing to 'keep close guard on the prisoners.'" While writing that those in the Abir zone "were not happy," Casement wrote: "it was apparent to a callous eye that in this they spoke the strict truth." The consul knew that whatever he reported on — as seen or observed — became a fact, adding that things heard "from their lips" might double the truth effect. Casement made his readers aware of the scopic economy at work: eyes watching and guarding, the filling of sacks "taking place under the eyes of ... a State sentry." Casement used his eyes and ears — "viewing their unhappy surroundings" and "hearing their appeals" — to argue that Congolese felt "a very real fear of reporting." Though some did speak, "the broad fact remained that their previous silence said more than their present speech."


Excerpted from A Nervous State by Nancy Rose Hunt. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations  ix

Acknowledgments  xi

Introduction  1

1. Registers of Violence  27

2. Maria N'koi  61

3. Emergency Time  95

4. Shock Talk and Flywhisks  135

5. A Penal Colony, an Infertility Clinic  167

6. Motion  207

Conclusion. Field Coda and Other Endings  237

Notes  255

Bibliography  309

Index  343

What People are Saying About This

Megan Vaughan

"In this compelling account, Nancy Rose Hunt draws on an astonishing range of archival sources and her own interviews to move the history of the Belgian Congo beyond the externally driven 'catastrophe' narrative to something far more complex. Violence and death are still at the core here, but so are birth and healing and nervous laughter."

The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy - Veena Das

"With stunning insight, Nancy Rose Hunt makes a distinguished contribution to African history that goes a long way toward generating a critical understanding of colonial projects, their alignment with forms of early capitalism, and the brutal practices of extraction industries. By braiding these issues with the emergence of new healing cults, Hunt helps us to better understand the complex social process of colonialism. A Nervous State will greatly impact African studies, colonial history, and the anthropology of medicine and violence."

The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy - Veena Das

"With stunning insight, Nancy Rose Hunt makes a distinguished contribution to African history that goes a long way toward generating a critical understanding of colonial projects, their alignment with forms of early capitalism, and the brutal practices of extraction industries. By braiding these issues with the emergence of new healing cults, Hunt helps us to better understand the complex social process of colonialism. A Nervous State will greatly impact African studies, colonial history, and the anthropology of medicine and violence."

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