It’s holiday time in Europe, so we blog much less than we usually do. Vacation also means reading, so we took a wonderful book, “Congo” by the Flemish writer David van Reybrouck. He describes what effect a famous invention had on the people and lives of African Congo. When the Scottish inventor John Born Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire in 1888, this not only changed the way people travelled in Europe, but millions of people in the center of Africa, former Belgian colony Congo, dramatically changed as well. After the invention the worldwide demand for rubber rose sharply. Congo possessed one of the largest areas with rubber trees. Leopold II, the Belgian king who personally owned and ruled what in the late 19th century was known as the “Free State” Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire) grabbed his chance, ivory income waned and his privately owned colony was poised on the verge of bankruptcy. Congo in 1891 yielded only hundred tons of rubber, in 1896 this increased to 1,300 tons, in 1901 it produced 6,000 tons. Many of the beautiful buildings in modern Brussels, like the Jubelpark museum , the Africa museum and royal palace in Tervuren and the Venetian Galleries in Oostende are being paid by the proceeds from Congolese rubber exploitation.
There was a much darker side the invention of the rubber tire had on the lives of millions of Africans, as David van Reybrouck decribes in his historic novel “Congo”. Harvesting rubber was a long and difficult work that many men assumed. King Leopold had found his ideal tax means: rubber. The men who were collecting the rubber were paid to the amount of rubber collected. No rubber, no pay. So they did everything possible to maximize the yield. In practice, this meant terror over the African population.
So, a wonderful invention that changed lives of many, also knew its darker sides, that I am sure not many of us know about.