Monday, March 2, 2020

Robert Harms

Robert Harms is Henry J. Heinz Professor of History and African Studies at Yale University. His new book is Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa.

From Harm's Q&A with Deborah Kalb:

Q: You've spent many years working on the history of this area. What inspired you to write this particular book?

A: There are two reasons – one personal and one professional.

The personal reason was that this book allowed me to integrate and consolidate research I have conducted over the years in equatorial Africa.

In 1969-71, I worked as a teacher in a secondary school in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a.k.a. Congo-Kinshasa). The school was located among the Lega people in Manyema province, and I was fascinated to learn about the secret Bwami Society and the works of abstract art produced by the Lega.

While there, I collected over 1,000 Lega proverbs outlining the philosophy of the Bwami Society, and I was even able to attend a Bwami initiation ceremony. From reading history, I knew that Manyema was also the heart of Tippu Tip’s ivory and slaving empire in the late 19th century.

During my subsequent graduate studies in African History at the University of Wisconsin, I wrote my Masters’ thesis on the ABIR rubber company in the Congo, using a collection of original documents that the university had recently obtained.

Later, I did Ph.D. dissertation research along the upper Congo River, looking into the Bobangi ivory trade in the 19th century. I spent two and a half years traveling up and down the river in a dugout canoe powered by a 6 hp motor and collecting oral histories in the riverside villages.

Land of Tears allowed me to integrate the history of Manyema with the histories of the ivory trade along the upper Congo River and the depredations of the rubber companies in order to tell the larger story of the exploration and exploitation of the Congo River basin.

The professional reason was my dissatisfaction with...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue