Stanford historian’s new book examines French colonial abuses in the Congo

J. P. Daughton

Telling the story of the Congo-Océan railroad, one of the deadliest construction projects ever undertaken, was a way for historian J. P. Daughton to remember the tens of thousands of Africans who perished between 1921-34 at the hands of French colonizers intent on completing the ill-conceived project, no matter the cost.

Daughton’s new book, In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism (Norton, 2021), captures the gravity of this tragic story that’s still largely unknown amongst the general public. The government of France, which prided itself on its humanitarianism and liberalism, allowed and documented the deaths of thousands of African men, women and children, Daughton said. At least 20,000 people are believed to have perished in the building of the railroad.

“The people who built the railroad underwent horrific treatment and extraordinary suffering,” said Daughton, associate professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Their stories need to be told.”

Forest of no joy

In the years following the end of World War I, the Societé de construction des Batignolles, one of the largest French engineering firms at the time, began building the Congo-Océan railroad in the southern part of French Equatorial Africa, a region often referred to simply as “the French Congo.”

The project had long been heralded by the colonial government as essential to the economic development of the region by connecting the colony’s largest settlement on the upper Congo River, Brazzaville, to Pointe-Noire, on the Atlantic coast, where the French planned to build a deep-water port.

Covering 318 miles, the railroad crossed difficult terrain including the treacherous Mayombe rainforest, where rails had to be placed on unstable, sandy soil while winding through a region of dense forests, mountains and gorges.

While photos from the period show well-fed, smiling Frenchmen, photos of the unnamed Black workers show malnourished, overworked and under-clothed Africans. The latter were recruited by force and coercion and made to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, without proper allocations of food or medical care.

“The railroad’s brutality was petty, unthinking and often cruel – justified by racist beliefs that conveniently displaced moral responsibility,” said Daughton. The French administrators in the Congo kept records of the death toll of the project. Reports of the large loss of life to the French Parliament resulted in well-known writers of the time traveling to the Congo to report on the situation. They soon wrote scathing reports, criticizing the terrible loss of lives. However, when the French Parliament debated the issue, the government resorted to well-worn tropes of how their efforts were bringing European notions of humanity and civilization to Africa.