Blood River

By Tim Butcher

One of the most ancient of all literary tropes is that of time as a river. And so when Conrad has Marlow go up the Congo river to find Mr. Kurtz he is also heading back into the past, toward some experience of a dark, primitive state of nature. “Going up that river,” he says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” In 2004 journalist Tim Butcher reversed direction and went down the Congo, following the 3,000-kilomoetre route of the first European to chart its course. This was fellow Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Morton Stanley, whose voyage of discovery in the 1870s opened the Congo up to a subsequent history of unimaginably brutal colonial rule and post-independence anarchy and exploitation.

Stanley’s mission wasn’t really about bringing progress and the fruits of civilization to the Congo. And since independence even the trappings of progress have fallen apart. Butcher’s journey downriver turns into more of a Conrad-esque voyage into the past than a vision of its future. Progress in the Congo is a concept that has been turned on its head. Butcher has many occasions to observe how “the normal laws of human development and advancement simply don’t apply” in the Congo, and “normal laws of development are inverted.” Grandfathers have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren, and babies born in 2004 are more at risk than those born in the same place fifty years ago. The country’s infrastructure – its towns, roads, railways, and power grids, almost all of it left over from the days of Belgian rule – lies rusting and rotting and sinking beneath the resurgent jungle like a sinking colonial Atlantis. On a narrow jungle trail his boot hits something unnaturally hard and he scrapes a way a layer of soil to find an underground railway:

It was a moment of horrible revelation. I felt like a Hollywood caveman approaching a spaceship, slowly working out that it proved life existed elsewhere in time and space. But what made it so horrible was the sense that I had discovered evidence of a modern world that had tried – but failed – to establish itself in the Congo. It was a complete reversal of the normal pattern of human development. A place where a railway track had once carried trainloads of goods and people had been reclaimed by virgin forest, where the noisy huffing of steam engines had long since lost out to the jungle’s looming silence.


It was one of the defining moments of my journey through the Congo. I was travelling through a country with more past than future, a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.

Moments like these, layered as they are with informed historical digressions, make Blood River an engaging and revealing travelogue. The only false note sounded is Butcher’s heroic posing. He thrills to have “faced down the Congo, the most dangerous, chaotic, backward country in Africa.” One would have thought his adventures had taught him more humility. Admittedly parts of his journey, especially through the eastern part of the Congo, are dangerous. But Butcher doesn’t travel Stanley’s route so much as he is transported over it like a piece of luggage by a series of professional baggage handlers. Ironically, the closest he comes to cutting the expedition short is when he gets bored and homesick while cooling his heels in Kisangani.

In every other respect, however, Blood River is a terrific read that takes the reader on a fascinating voyage of discovery into the heart of the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II and its longest ongoing human tragedy. It is estimated that over four million have died in the Congo over the last ten years, with another 1,200 dying daily as a direct result of the violence and insecurity. And yet this has largely passed beneath the Western media’s radar. Which makes this book all the more necessary in helping to better understand what is still one of the dark places of the earth.

Review first published September 8, 2007.

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