From black tyres to blue helmets: How the Irish shaped the modern Congo
Irish History

From black tyres to blue helmets: How the Irish shaped the modern Congo

STRONG emigration flows, a knack for political organisation, and a healthy dollop of Gaelic pluck and tenacity, have all enabled the Irish to punch above their weight on the international stage.

From the Kennedy dynasty in America to the large construction companies that rebuilt post-war Britain, one does not have to look far for examples of the Irish diaspora making its mark.

Relatively little is known about Irish influence in farther flung regions of the world, though, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo – or, as it was known at the outset of this story, the Congo Free State.

In her book ‘The Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers Story’, Rose Doyle tries to unpack why 155 Irish men, almost all in their early 20s, were manning an outpost in Jadotville (now Likasi), in the southern Congo, while 3,000 “heavily armed Katangese Gendarmerie soldiers” descended upon them.

This by now familiar tale was also portrayed in the film ‘The Siege of Jadotville’, starring Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan.

What Doyle and Dornan do not do, however, is start the story at the beginning – the very beginning.

By way of offering some context to the Siege, Doyle writes that “The Congo, newly independent after 80 years’ rule from Brussels, was in turmoil…”.

The operative word here is ‘from’, and not ‘by’, Brussels; for to begin with, it was the Belgian king, and not the government, who controlled the Congo as if it were his own personal property.

Presiding over a tiny nation, and a people he had a barely disguised contempt for, King Leopold II was runt of the litter among the European monarchies of his day.

But he had grand ambitions of becoming richer than the king of a paltry country like Belgium could expect to be.

Jealous of the global clout commanded by Great Britain and the likes of his cousin Queen Victoria, Leopold set about acquiring full legal ownership of the Congo – a vast central African expanse not yet colonised by the major European powers.

What followed was a remarkable feat of diplomatic manoeuvring.

To attain international recognition for his African venture, the PR savvy Belgian Monarch appealed to the moralism and paternalistic attitudes toward the non-Western world that were a hallmark of the Victorian era.

As Tim Jeal writes in ‘Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer’, Leopold wrote to the Times of London in March 1883 comparing his activities to “the Society of the Red Cross”; as “[his association] does not seek to gain money”, and “has been formed…with the noble aim of rendering lasting and disinterested services to the cause of progress”.

This squeaky-clean spiel held much sway at the time, and the following year Leopold’s right to the Congo was acknowledged at the Berlin Conference of 1884, now remembered in infamy as the conference that carved up the African continent.

But this was just the first hurdle to his proprietorship of an area over 6,000 km away from, and 77 times larger than, his home country.

While Leopold had managed to hoodwink Europe’s most eminent statesmen into believing his Congo venture was a form of philanthropy, he had yet to make it profitable.

In fact, the closed-fisted king was pouring vast amounts of cash from his inheritance into what was beginning to look like a commercial failure.

This all changed in 1887 when a Scotsman living in Belfast, John Boyd Dunlop, made some modifications to his sons’ bicycle.

Dunlop, founder of the eponymous sporting goods company, pumped the wheels of the bike so that it could better traverse the cobbled roads of the Northern Irish city.

What followed was the invention of the pneumatic tyre, which revolutionised the automobile industry and created a profound surge in the demand for rubber around the world.

The concept was patented in 1888, the Dunlop tyre company was floated the following year, and with the help of Dublin-born financier Harvey Du Cros, mass production began shortly after.

On Christmas day 1890, the first tyre shipments were bound for the US, which meant that Leopold, while down a small fortune in Belgian francs, had a new and lucrative market for a natural resource that his African estate had in abundance – white rubber vine, or as it later became known, ‘red rubber’.

Nowhere on earth were the effects of Dunlop’s invention felt more acutely than in the maddeningly hot and humid depths of the Congolese rainforest.

Extracting the white milky sap from the tree vines, some of which wrapped hundreds of feet above the ground, was a labour-intensive job that required a large and willing workforce.

In his gripping popular history of the period, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, Adam Hochschild quotes an excerpt from an 1899 British Vice Consul’s report which details how Leopold’s gendarmerie recruited this workforce:

“This officer’s method was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain etc., out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the district brought in the required number of kilogrammes of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.”

Children were not exempted from this grim ritual of blackmail induced bartering and often had to trek days to find trees that had not already been sapped.

Doyle writes that Commander Pat Quinlan, who 60 years later would lead his beleaguered UN troop into battle in the Congo, believed that “small things can alter world events.”

This chimes with the Congolese saying: “The sting of a fly can launch the end of the world.”

In a tropical climate, where the faintly audible buzz of a mosquito can sound the death knell for entire villages, it is possible that this proverb was meant in its most literal sense.

In the case of Dunlop’s invention, what enabled one child to glide seamlessly across cobbled streets placed others, indeed, millions of other people living halfway across the world, into back breaking servitude.

While the well-documented sadism among Leopold’s gendarmerie needed little external encouragement, it would nonetheless be bolstered and formalised by a strong commercial incentive.

Leopold initiated three decrees which relegated the local Congolese to serf status and then set about building a railway to spirit away the rubber at a pace in keeping with global demand.

This was characteristic of his ambivalent personal interest in the colony, treating it with a mortician's care on the business side, while maintaining an alpine monarchical aloofness to the morality of the enterprise.

And the widely held Victorian belief in the virtue enhancing effects of hard work on the native population offered his enforcers a fig leaf to mask their otherwise naked brutality.

The industrial scale with which the hands and feet of locals were amputated for missed quotas could lead an outside observer to wonder whether these were commodities of value in and of themselves.

A long-knotted whip crafted out of dried hippopotamus hide, the chicotte, was used to mercilessly beat uncooperative workers, stripping the flesh from their backs in the process.

If the catalyst for this humanitarian calamity can, via Dunlop and his Dublin-born financier Du Cros, be traced back to the shores of Ireland, then so can the seeds of its eventual undoing.

In 1903, the Balfour government of Great Britain sent its consul at Boma in the Congo Free State, a man with extensive experience in the region, to compile a report on Leopold’s colony.

The man, who would later become as Hochschild points out, “the first knight of the realm” to be charged with high treason “in several hundred years”, was the Irish nationalist Roger Casement.

Casement travelled extensively around the Congo Basin and used his remarkable eye for detail and bureaucratic know-how to document the full breadth of Belgian atrocities.

The product of his labours was a report that was as hard to ignore as it was to refute – and ultimately, one that would spark a humanitarian campaign throughout much of the English-speaking world.

The Casement report was finalised while its author was returning from a sojourn at the country house of none other than Joseph Conrad, whose novel the Heart of Darkness remains the uneclipsed fictional narrative tale detailing the terrors of Belgian colonialism.

The report greatly bolstered the mounting moral and legal case against Leopold’s Congo Free State, and the Belgian monarch, who by this point was becoming increasingly eccentric – often referring to himself in the third person and living with a French prostitute he had met when she was 16 years old – reluctantly signed it over to the Belgian government 1908.

At the outbreak of the first world war, the anti-colonial and Irish nationalist sympathies that had been brewing inside Casement turned from romantic daydreams into concrete, albeit ill-advised action.

The Irishman and former civil servant of Her Majesty’s Government embarked on a treasonous voyage to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Berlin to drum up support for the cause of Irish independence in December 1914.

Casement was eventually returned, courtesy of a German submarine, to the shores of Banna Strand in Tralee Bay, County Kerry, in the early hours of 21 April 1916, three days before the Easter Rising began.

Recurrent bouts of Malaria that had plagued him since his days in the Congo meant that he was too weak to travel far, and soon after his arrival he was found with German train ticket stubs in his pocket and arrested.

His wartime treachery caused many notable friends, including Joseph Conrad, to disown him.

Though the profound humanitarian effect that Casement had on the Congo led even staunch English patriots like Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle to petition the government for a pardon – but to no avail.

Roger Casement was executed at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916, at the age of 51.

While the atrocities became less pronounced, the proceeding 52 years of Belgian rule in the Congo inflicted subtler damage to the country’s prospects by failing to cultivate an educated professional class to replace the old colonial administration.

In the absence of a viable civil service, a clear separation of government powers, and above all, agreement among various political factions, the country soon fell into chaos following independence in 1960.

Among the groups jostling for position were the Katangese separatists led by Moïse Tshombe, who wanted to carve a separate state out of the resource-rich Katanga region in the southern Congo.

Following a request from Patrice Lumumba, the newly independent state’s first prime minister, UN troops were dispatched to help to restore balance in the country.

Among them were the 155 Irishmen of A Company, 35th Battalion of the Irish Army, led by Commander Pat Quinlan.

They were deployed to the town of Jadotville, located in hostile Katangese territory and near to the Shinkolobwe Mine, which then supplied the bulk of the world’s copper, cobalt, and uranium.

It even supplied the uranium used to make the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

Boasting the largest uranium deposits on earth, it was naturally a point of interest for both Moscow and Washington at the high point of Cold War nuclear brinkmanship, and 155 Irishmen, mostly in their 20s, were tasked with protecting this strategically important area along with its local population.

But Katangese separatist forces, financed by Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, the Anglo-Belgian conglomerate that owned the mine, had their own ideas about who should control it.

The Katangese forces took the opportunity to strike after the UN mounted an attack on their positions in Elizabethville, the capital of the breakaway state located 130km way from Jadotville.

Quinlan’s unit were kept in the dark about the UN offensive, and so were taken unawares when on the morning of September 3, 1961, 3,000 Katangese troops descended on Jadotville in a revenge attack.

The men had just finished an open-air Mass when the assault began, but thanks to the orders of Commander Pat Quinlan, they had already dug out trenches, stockpiled water, and always had their rifles with them.

The siege lasted for five days.

The Irish side, outnumbered by around 19-1, put up a herculean effort in defence of the base. Remarkably, only 5 Irish were wounded, and none died.

The Katangese forces, on the other hand, left the standoff with 300 dead and 750 injured.

The defensive techniques that Quinlan used have been incorporated into military textbooks around the world, and the near impossible odds the Irishmen faced have been compared to the greatly outnumbered Spartans at the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae.

As it became apparent that UN support was not forthcoming, the Irish surrendered.

After six weeks in captivity the men were met with mockery and derision upon their return home. Maligned as cowards and dubbed the 'Jatodville Jack', several of them took their own lives in the aftermath.

Dunlop and Du Cros’ launching of the pneumatic tyre, Casement’s meticulous documentation of Leopold’s crimes, and the exceptional gallantry of Quinlan’s peacekeeping force show that over a period of seventy years, the Irish have made a strangely outsized contribution to the Congo.

For better or worse, it is hard to imagine the modern Congo without this Irish influence.