In This Review

In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism
In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism
By J. P. Daughton
400 pp, Norton, 2021
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The Congo-Océan Railroad today links the Atlantic Ocean to Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, a distance of 312 miles through thick rainforest and steep terrain. Built at great human cost by the French colonial administration between 1921 and 1934, it has long been viewed as emblematic of the murderous cruelty of colonialism in Africa. Daughton’s accessible history of its construction discusses how French authorities used forced conscription—with ridiculously low wages—to find the necessary labor for the railroad. The awful working conditions led to between 15,000 and 60,000 deaths. But the railroad never came close to realizing the economic and financial objectives bandied about by its supporters. Relying on journalistic accounts from the period and the excellent use of archival materials, his book paints a vivid picture of colonialism in central Africa: the vast and sparsely populated terrain with virtually no communications infrastructure, the petty racism of the handful of colonial officials on the ground, and the bureaucratic delusions and highflying patriotic rhetoric of a poorly informed government back in Paris.