During the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, a period when European powers competed relentlessly for control of African territory, an avaricious monarch, Leopold II of Belgium, carved out a private empire in the heart of the continent, naming it the Congo Free State. Leopold’s property covered nearly 1 million square miles and was 75 times the size of Belgium. Pondering a choice of title for himself, Leopold at first considered “emperor of the Congo,” but he eventually settled for the more modest “king-sovereign.”

Once in control, he set out to amass as large a fortune for himself as possible. Ivory was at first his main hope. But when profits from the ivory trade began to dwindle, he turned to another commodity, wild rubber, to make his money. Several million Africans died as a result of his rubber regime, but Leopold became one of the richest men in the world.

The madness of greed and violence that engulfed Leopold’s Congo Free State was immortalized by Joseph Conrad in his novel “Heart of Darkness,” which he began writing in 1898 after working as a riverboat captain on the Congo River, collecting ivory from Leopold’s agents stationed deep in the interior. As Conrad writes: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.” The central character in the novel, Kurtz, the head of Inner Station, is renowned for his exploits as an ivory collector. But he is a sick man, haunted by memories of his own savagery, and finally he dies, whispering in despair, “The horror, the horror.”

Ever since Conrad’s venture into the deep interior, a host of writers and historians has been drawn to Congo and its turbulent history. Among the recent accounts that stand out are Adam Hochs­child’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” a harrowing profile of Leopold’s Congo Free State; Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Poisonwood Bible,” the story of an American missionary family caught up in the turmoil of the early 1960s that accompanied independence; Ludo De Witte’s groundbreaking investigation into the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister; Michela Wrong’s “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz,” a riveting account of the last years of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s disintegrating regime; and Jason Stearns’s “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters,” which gives compelling insights into Congo’s interminable conflicts.

Now David Van Reybrouck has produced an overarching narrative covering the 140 years since the exploits of the journalist-explorer Henry Morton Stanley enabled Leopold to acquire what the king called “a slice of this magnificent African cake.” A Belgian writer based in Brussels, Van Reybrouck had no personal experience of Congo until 2003, when he decided to write a book about it. He embarked on the task intending not just to rely on historical research but to track down living witnesses to the many tragedies and upheavals that Congo has endured.

’Congo: The Epic History of a People’ by David Van Reybrouck (HarperCollins )

His efforts were well rewarded. During 10 visits to the country, he managed to find Congolese veterans with memories of early white missionaries and colonial officials, and tales of religious uprisings and resistance movements. His witnesses from more modern times included musicians, footballers, political activists, warlords and child soldiers. The result is a vivid panorama of one of the most tormented lands in the world.

Like most other African countries, Congo was a state constructed by European ambition. Before Leopold’s intervention, it was the homeland of about 400 disparate ethnic groups scattered across the great Congo Basin. This vast territory remained a blank space on European maps until Stanley’s epic journey down the Congo River in 1876-77 revealed that, beyond the chain of cataracts near the coast, which had hitherto blocked European exploration inland, lay a web of interconnecting rivers, navigable by steamboat, running for thousands of miles into the interior. Leopold duly hired Stanley on a five-year contract to build him a private empire and exploit whatever wealth he could find. By the time Stanley had completed his contract, he and his agents had collected some 400 “treaties” signed by local chiefs.

As a result of the public furor that eventually erupted over the Congo’s rubber regime and the system of slave labor, murder and mutilation that it spawned, Leopold was forced in 1908 to hand over his territory to the Belgian government. As a Belgian colony for the next 50 years, Congo remained an immensely profitable venture. No other European colony in Africa possessed such a profusion of copper, diamonds and uranium. The mineral riches of the province of Katanga, when first discovered, were memorably described as “a veritable geological scandal.”

A small management team in Brussels dictated events on the ground, keeping tight control and deliberately setting out to stifle the emergence of an African elite that might demand a change to the system. While Africans were encouraged to train as clerks, medical assistants or mechanics, they could not become lawyers, doctors or architects. The result was that when Belgium decided in a fit of panic to grant independence precipitately to Congo in 1960, no Congolese had acquired any experience of government, administration or parliamentary life. With bewildering speed, one disaster followed another. Indeed, since independence Congo has remained largely a disaster zone, plundered by all and sundry for its riches.

Van Reybrouck covers all this in engrossing detail, concluding with an account of the current agony of eastern Congo. His book is a valuable addition to the rich literature that Congo has inspired.

Martin Meredith is the author of “The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence.” His latest book, “The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour,” will be published in September.


The Epic History of a People

By David Van Reybrouck

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

Ecco. 639 pp. $29.99