J. P. DaughtonJun 13, 2023
In the Forest of No Joy
The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism
W. W. Norton 2021
J. P. Daughton's In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism (W. W. Norton, 2021) examines the complex and violent French construction of a line of railroad in Equatorial Africa from the coast inland. Begun in 1921, the Congo-Océan took 13 years to complete and resulted in the deaths of between 15,000 and 23,000 African lives. Daughton's book is a careful account of the brutality, harrowing labor conditions, and deprivation of these thousands of Africans whose very bodies were abused and destroyed in this iteration of the "civilizing mission" and "modernity" in empire.
Working through a broad range of archives located in France, Switzerland, the U.S., and the Congo, the book's several chapters outline in visceral detail the individuals and structures involved in making the railroad a reality, from the forced enlistment of African labourers, through the challenges of resistant landscape, the suffering of those physically tasked with its conquest, to the justifying rhetoric of those who championed the project and the denunciations of those who sought to reveal its atrocious human cost.
Key individual architects, company, and government representatives appear throughout these pages along with the powerful forces and voices of the French imperial state. Working with and against the presentation of the project in official documents, Daughton seeks to illuminate the experiences and voices of the African workers who made the railroad a reality. Completed by the 1930s, the Congo-Océan was also a large-scale humanitarian failure. Interested in broader questions of colonial violence and how scholars engage with and respond to that violence, Daughton's narrative and analysis will be accessible to wide range of readers. This, despite the difficult and painful subjects and stories it takes on.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and empire. She is the founding host of New Books in French Studies, a channel launched in 2013.