Civilizing the imperial river
Constructing the Congo
in The ideal river
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If the Rhine represented an internal European highway to be tamed for European civilization, and the Danube represented a liminal space between the civilized European self and the semi-familiar other to the east, then in the late nineteenth century the Congo represented an abstract and empty colonial geography waiting to be filled with European ideas, practices, and institutions. Chapter 6 examines the construction of the Congo – by European legal experts, cartographers, and explorers – as a colonial highway that would impose commercial rationality and European civilization onto a conceptually empty space. This imaginary of the river collapsed time and terrestrial space into the same civilizational and developmental continuum that elevated Western Europe as the model of progress. However, I contend that exporting civilization to the Congo basin not only erased indigenous histories and political agency but contorted Europe’s own messy experience with state-building and economic development into a generalizable model applicable across time and space. At the same time as the Congo represented endless possibilities for ambitious colonizers, it also represented a disconnected geography separate from the normal politics of civilized European society and a foreignness that threatened to reverse rationality and uncivilize those Europeans who traveled upriver – a fear made vivid in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I highlight how European imaginaries of the Congo looked inward at European superiority and anxieties about Europe’s own geopolitical and civilizational position in the late nineteenth century.

The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order

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