Sunday, May 19, 2019

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE KINGDOM OF KONGO

I wrote this in 1993, perhaps, in a two-bedroom house where I lived for a year on the outskirts of Lawrence, Kansas, a half-block from Haskell Indian College. It was the first of a four-part series on the history of the Congo: The others had to do with the Red Rubber Campaign, the assassination of Lumumba, and Mobutu's kleptocracy. I never succeeded in interesting a publisher in any of them and I've lost the other chapters, as well as a fully footnoted version. I wonder what the scholarship has done since to the story as I told it here. I was reading and rereading Ian Frazier's Great Plains at the time, and though I suppose every gardener imagines himself a Capability Brown,  there are sentences here I wouldn't entirely disown.

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE KINGDOM OF KONGO

And the Rise of Black Slavery in the Atlantic


In 1482, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cao set sail from Lisbon harbor in search of a passage to the Indies. In a three-masted caravel, Cao traveled in a broad arc past the Canary, Savage, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands; rounded Cape St. Vincent and Cape Nao in the Maghreb; suffered his sailors’ puns—“He who reaches Cape Nao will return or nao (not)”; revictualed at Arguin, a slave entrepot above the Senegal River, at Fort Mina, an armed post flush with gold dust from the trans-Saharan trade, and at Cape Santa Catarina below Africa’s bulge, until then the outer limit of the known world. Then, trimming his lateen sails to navigate against the prevailing headwinds, he sailed into the Southern hemisphere, in whose unfamiliar skies neither his astrolabe nor his almanacs availed him further. Soon he came to the effluence of a river whose discharge sent sweet red water and clumps of grass and bamboo for miles into the Atlantic, so he named it the Powerful River, or Rio Poderoso. Thinking it might lead him to the fabled realm of Prester John, he coasted into its mouth on an afternoon breeze. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses lay stunned by heat on banks of brilliant orchids. Flocks of parrots chattered at sunset from tangles of mangrove. Eagles wheeled overhead.