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The European powers discuss the partition of the Congo

Chapter I Scramble for Africa


On 15 November 1884, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invites representatives of the European great powers, the USA and the Ottoman Empire to a conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Bismarck emphasises that “all the governments invited, share the wish to bring civilisation to the natives of Africa”. Above all, the Berlin West Africa Conference is to bring clarity on the division of the colonial territories, resolve border conflicts that have arisen and thus maintain peace among the Europeans. Prior to this, many explorers and commercial traders had set off for Africa to acquire huge swathes of land on behalf of European rulers or for their own account.

Map The European colonies in Africa, around 1900




Great Britain 


The final document of the Conference: General Act of the 1885 Conference of Berlin

Facing a five-metre high map, the Great Powers wrangle about the division of the continent for several months. The Congo Basin, in particular, is hotly contested: both France and Great Britain want to secure cohesive territories on the African continent. But thanks to some successful lobbying, the largest portion of the Congo Basin goes to Leopold II of Belgium. He names his new private colony the Congo Free State. The western portion goes to France and becomes the French Congo. The area known as Cameroon today initially goes to the German Empire. No one is at all concerned that the arbitrary borders take no account of geographic or cultural borders.

Bismarck distributes Africa like pieces of cake
The colonial masters forced the local population to collect ivory

Chapter II The King’s Colony


King Leopold II soon discovers the benefits of his private colony and systematically exploits its natural wealth. He covets White Gold, precious ivory that he buys from the natives for a song.

Map Belgian King Leopold II ruled the CONGO FREE STATE as his private colony from 1885 to 1908

In 1888, the British vet John Dunlop develops a revolutionary invention. With the advent of his air-filled rubber tyre, rubber becomes the new great export commodity. In order to satisfy demand, the colonial masters rule without mercy. Tens of thousands of people are rounded up by the Force Publique, the Belgian King’s mercenaries, and forced to harvest natural rubber. Anyone failing to meet the quotas suffers draconian punishment. The chicotte, a whip made of hippopotamus hide, becomes a symbol of the White Terror. Women are kidnapped and raped. Villages that offer resistance are burned down. The system of brutality brings rich rewards and destroys an entire country.

Forced labourers score the bark of a rubber tree to obtain latex for rubber production
Red Rubber is the revealing report by Edmund Dene Morel on the Congo atrocity

Edmund Dene Morel, a British journalist, discovers the Congolese atrocities by accident. In his writings, he records: “[…] I felt sick and dizzy when I realised what my discovery meant. It’s bad enough discovering one murder by chance. But I had stumbled across a society of murderers, whose accomplice was the King himself.” In the summer of 1900, he publishes a report about the tyranny in the Congo Free State in the magazine The Speaker. When missionaries also began to smuggle reports and photographs of atrocities back to Europe, the outcry in the media forces the Belgian monarch to act. In 1908, Leopold II sells his private colony to the Belgian people and the Congo Free State becomes the Belgian Congo.

Pierre de Brazza loved the African continent and its peoples

Chapter III A Report Disappears


Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza prepared the groundwork for the colony which became the French Congo. with his expeditions to the Congo Basin. In 1885, the explorer is appointed its Governor General. He establishes an infrastructure, sets up hospitals and schools and champions the rights of native workers. In comparison to the Belgian reign on the opposite bank of the river, the French colonial empire is regarded as exemplary. In 1898, de Brazza learns of his dismissal as Governor General. He had fallen out with the French colonial masters when he spoke out against the exploitation of the territory’s natural wealth at the expense of the local population.

Map The French colony is located on the west bank of the Congo River; the colony of the Belgian king lies on the eastern bank

Belgish Congo 

French Congo 
Louis Vuitton manufactured a day bed trunk for de Brazza’s expeditions Brazza Portrait: Pietro di Serego Alighieri (Archivio Storico Capitolino).

Following media reports about the Congo Free State, the French government sends de Brazza back to Africa in 1905. He is to report that living conditions in the colony in no way resemble the scandalous conditions in the Belgian Congo Free State. However, de Brazza finds the opposite is true and reports an arbitrary reign of violence. He cannot believe what has happened to the country that he loved so much. Private concession companies have begun exploiting the territory. In order to transport export goods from the jungle in the north-west of the country to the ports, they are putting together gangs of porters. Men are being brutally forced to leave their families. The entire population is uprooted, centuries-old family and social structures destroyed. De Brazza summarises his discoveries about the brutal practices of the French colonial masters in a detailed report, but dies shortly afterwards during his return voyage to France. His revealing report disappears in the state archives. Today, the capital of the Republic of Congo still bears his name: Brazzaville.

Every year, millions of tons of bush meat are consumed in the Congo – including monkeys

Chapter IV From Chimpanzees to Humans


The answer to the question of when the first human being could have become infected has been occupying scientists for decades. Insights into the origin of HIV could help us understand it better and fight it. According to current research conclusions, the virus started to spread in humans around 1908.

Map As far as we are aware today, the first transmission of HIV occurred in the south-east of Cameroon

There are no HIV samples from this time. But since viruses mutate constantly, the American scientist Professor Michael Worobey has been able to calculate from two HIV-positive samples from 1959 and 1960, at what point in time the viruses contained had mutual ancestors. His calculations specified a probable period of 1884 to 1924, with the greatest convergence at about 1908. The first infections from this time have since been followed by over 70 million additional cases.

The Sangha, a tributary of the Congo River, forms a natural boundary for chimpanzees

It had long been suspected that the virus came from African primates. But the exact place where the first cross-species transmission took place can be determined more precisely. Chimpanzees stay in one place over generations, because they don’t like water and will not cross the rivers that surround them. The team working with the German-born scientist Beatrice Hahn spent years collecting faeces samples from chimpanzees showing evidence of SIV, the simian form of HIV.

Local researchers need a lot of patience to find ape droppings in the rainforest. These droppings provide important information about the developmental history of HIV

Dr Hahn identified several types of virus that had been passed down for generations within the colonies of chimpanzees. Only a few of these have spilled over to humans. Most patients are infected with a particular form of HIV, the HIV-1 M type. This most closely resembles the form of SIV with which the chimpanzees in the rainforests in south-east Cameroon are infected. The first human must therefore have become infected with the virus in this area. Pathogens that normally infect wild animals are primarily transmitted when preparing or eating bush meat. In particular, small injuries when gutting the animals make it more likely that infection will occur.

A colonial doctor numbers patients before giving vaccinations

Chapter V The Fatal Sleep


In the 20th century, sleeping sickness depopulated entire areas of Africa. This tropical disease became rampant in the crowded camps of porters and plantation workers. It is transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly and affects the lymphatic and nervous systems. Initially, there is subtle swelling of the lymph nodes and fever, but eventually, sleeping sickness leads to extreme lethargy and death.

The tsetse fly spreads sleeping sickness

For fear of losing their valuable workers, the colonial powers combat sleeping sickness with massive medical campaigns; doctors give injections to thousands of people. In the years 1917 to 1919 alone, the French physician Eugène Jamot treats 5,347 cases of sleeping sickness in French Equatorial Africa. At that time, disposable syringes had not yet become standard medical equipment. Jamot uses only six syringes for his campaign of inoculation. Nevertheless, his treatments were often successful, and only a few of his patients die of sleeping sickness.

The needles used to vaccinate against sleeping sickness were not sterile and often spread diseases unnoticed

The Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pépin calculated that in French Equatorial Africa alone, 3.9 million vaccinations against sleeping sickness were given – most of them with unsterile needles. Other diseases, too, such as leprosy and malaria, were treated with injections. It seems very likely that HIV spread further in this way – unnoticed, a single infected person could have infected many other people.

Map Sleeping sickness occurs primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to the tsetse fly

According to estimates from the WHO, more than 500,000 people in Africa are still suffering from sleeping sickness today. It occurs only in countries south of the Sahara, because the tsetse flies that transmit the sickness are only found there. The number of new infections in recent years has increased, particularly in countries with unstable political situations. In temporary refugee camps, people live crowded together in catastrophic conditions – the ideal breeding ground for disease.

Syphilis is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium, which enters the body through minute skin lesions

Chapter VI Battle against Syphilis


When the colonial masters travel from Europe to Africa, syphilis travels with them. This bacterial infection is transmitted mainly through sexual intercourse, and in its final stages, causes the destruction of the central nervous system. Whilst people in rural areas of Africa are threatened above all by sleeping sickness, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) spread like wildfire in urban conglomerations. Attracted by the possibility of finding work, mainly young men are drawn to the rapidly growing cities at this time. From 1923, Léopoldville, known as Kinshasa today, develops into a metropolis and soon becomes the largest city in Central Africa. In 1960, it already had 400,000 residents, most of them men. There is a boom in prostitution. In the beginning, the Ndumbas, the free women, are still involved in a relatively “low risk” business. Every woman has three or four regular customers who not only provide for them financially, but also spend their free time with them. But increasing prostitution in the cities rapidly becomes a catalyst for the spread of STDs.

A contemporary poster showing the typical signs of syphilis infection

In order to limit the epidemic, the Congolese Red Cross sets up two clinics in Kinshasa in 1929, called Dispensaires Antivénérien. These specialise in combating STDs. In the 1930s and 1940s, doctors give around 50,000 injections of arsenic compounds a year, rising to 100,000 in the 1950s. Many of these are unnecessary – the tests used to diagnose STDs are not reliable. Some patients die of poisoning after the treatment. But the much greater threat remains undiscovered. Increasing prostitution, the spread of syphilis and the many unsterile injections also foster the rapid spread of (as yet unrecognised) HIV– the wounds in the genital area so typical of syphilis increase the risk of HIV infection by up to 400-fold.

Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Congo after independence, became an iconic figure in the fight against white oppression

Chapter VII The Congo Celebrates


On 30 June 1960, the Congo gains independence from the Belgian colonial power. Public pressure on Belgium had been great and the anti-colonial currents too strong. But the old conflicts are apparent, even at the independence celebrations. Whereas the Belgian King Baudouin praises the achievements of colonial rule, the legally elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba sharply criticises the oppression practised by the Belgians.

On 30 June 1960, thousands celebrate their country’s independence in the Congolese capital Kinshasa
Map The borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo are the same today as they were when it was established in 1960
[...] We have known ironies, insults, blows that we edured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes [...]
Lumumba's speech at the ceremony caused an outrage. King Baudouin immediately wanted to leave the Congo

The joyous celebrations quickly give way to a civil war which has gone down in history as the Congo Crisis. Parts of the country secede and there is a rebellion in the east. White mercenaries ravage the land. Patrice Lumumba is removed from power and later executed. In 1965, the Army Chief of Staff, Mobutu Sese Seko, seizes power in a coup and maintains his authoritarian regime until 1997.

During the chaotic 1960s, soldiers, displaced persons, itinerant workers and prostitutes spread HIV unnoticed. The prostitutes no longer serve three or four men. They are visited by more than 1,000 men a year and thus compound the spread.

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence, the Congo sinks into chaos and ruin

The oldest HIV-positive samples stem from this period. In 1959, a blood sample is taken from a man in Léopoldville. The sample turns out to be HIV-positive and later, under the name ZR59, it becomes known as the oldest sample to date. The second sample from this period, DRC60, is from 1960. It is contained in a paraffin block found by the team of Mike Worobey, Dirk Teuwen and Jean-Jacques Muyembe in a pathology laboratory at the University of Kinshasa. At that time, tissue samples of unknown diseases were embedded in paraffin wax to preserve them from decay.

Once the Belgians have withdrawn their personnel, skilled labourers from Haiti start work in the Congo

Chapter VIII HIV in Haiti


After independence, there are few trained professionals in the still young Democratic Republic of Congo. The Belgian colonial masters had trained very few Congolese and had withdrawn their own personnel. The United Nations therefore calls for international support for the African state. Thousands of skilled workers, including many teachers and doctors, travel from Haiti to the Congo in the following years to work for the UN there.

Map Almost 10.000 kilometres separate the Caribbean island state of Haiti from the Democratic Republic of Congo

It is probably one of them who unwittingly took HIV to Haiti with him on his return from Africa to the Caribbean island between 1962 and 1970. This is the first time the deadly virus travels from the African continent to the New World, and is simultaneously the start of its global spread. At the time Haiti was of the poorest countries in the world and continues to be so today. With little education and limited health care, the virus is able to circulate undiscovered for several years. It also manages to get into blood banks – a factor that accelerates the spread of the virus. From Haiti, HIV finally finds its way to North America – in blood plasma purchases and through same-sex sex tourism.

Many people are infected with HIV through contaminated blood transfusions

Today, HIV still represents a great health threat for the Haitian population. The island state has the highest HIV infection rate outside Africa. Of its population of ten million, around 140,000 were infected with HIV in 2013.

People infected with HIV often rely solely on their families for support and understanding

Chapter IX Aids Hits the Headlines


Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals ran the New York Times headline on 3 July 1981. It circulated around the world and has gone down in history. Five homosexual men from the Los Angeles area are suffering from a rare lung disease that usually attacks people with a weakened immune system. Shortly afterwards, an outbreak of Kaposi’s sarcoma occurs among homosexuals in New York. The public hysteria quickly turns into homophobic discrimination. But soon more and more patients emerge. They include drug addicts, patients who have had blood transfusions, newborns and heterosexual women. In 1982, the disease is given the name by which it is known today – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. By the end of 1982, the disease can be found in 14 countries, including England, Germany and France.

In 1983, Luc Montagnier and his team at the Institut Pasteur discover that the mysterious disease is caused by a viral infection

In 1983, a group of French researchers working with the virologists Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi publish a research paper describing HIV for the first time. In 2008, they receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work. Gradually, the transmission routes of the deadly virus are uncovered. The virus can be passed on by direct contact with blood, sexual intercourse and mother-to-child transmission. There are high hopes of finding a cure, but these are soon dashed. In the meantime, the number of cases is growing. In 1983, 3,000 people are infected with HIV in the USA, and over 1,000 of them have already died.

Infection by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes progressive failure of the immune system, leaving the sufferer open to life-threatening opportunistic infections
Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer.
This article from the New York Times of 3 July 1981 triggered a wave of hysteria

In 1985, the death of film star Rock Hudson shakes the public. Only now do people realise that AIDS can affect anyone, from celebrities to the person next door. In 1987, Randy Shilts criticises US President Ronald Reagan for his ignorance and apathy in dealing with AIDS in his book “And the Band Played On”. Shilts believes that the death of hundreds of thousands of people could have been prevented if the government had reacted quickly and decisively. In 1995, AIDS is the most common cause of death in the USA for men between the ages of 25 and 44.

Long before cases of infection were seen in Europe or the USA, HIV was responsible for deaths in Africa

Chapter X Journey to Kinshasa


The Belgian physician and microbiologist Dr Peter Piot works in the Institute for Tropical Medicine at the University of Antwerp from 1980 to 1982. There he treats the first AIDS patients. During his examinations, he is taken aback by the fact that most of those infected are mainly Congolese and Europeans who have lived in the Congo. If so many patients with this new disease can make the long, expensive journey from the Congo to the hospitals of Europe, how many patients must there be in the Congo itself?

Unexplained deaths became frequent in the Mama Yemo Hospital in Kinshasa in the 1980s
Peter Piot dedicated his life to the war on AIDS. In this interview he explains why

In 1983, Piot decides to travel to Africa to follow up on his suspicion. In the Mama Yemo Hospital in Kinshasa, his worst fears are exceeded. Within a few days, he encounters dozens of AIDS patients. Both men and women showing signs of immune deficiency lie dying. “I was lost for words when we left the hospital,” recalls Piot in 2013, at a lecture given to the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “I remember it well – a physical sensation that was so strong I wrote it down. It wasn’t the happy, tingling energy of scientific discovery. It was the overwhelming feeling that we were facing a truly momentous catastrophe. And I suddenly realised that this epidemic would take over my life.” At the time, Piot is sure he has found the epicentre of the AIDS pandemic.

Nowadays, drugs make it possible to live a life free of symptoms – despite infection with HIV

Chapter XI Today & Tomorrow


Nowadays, HIV can be controlled by new medicines. The combination drugs currently used are highly effective in extending the patients’ lives – those infected can live for decades, nearly without symptoms. But the disease is still not curable, even if some research results are promising.

In many countries of the world, patients still find medication unaffordable

Treating a HIV patient costs around 200 dollars a year. It is therefore now substantially cheaper than a few years ago, but still unaffordable for patients in poorer countries. Generic, inexpensive copies of current medicines with the same active substances are the only possible way to fight the epidemic in those countries. However, the necessary infrastructure is often lacking, as well as the medical knowledge required to achieve comprehensive coverage with antiretroviral drugs, even though providing drugs is key to the prevention of new cases. The number of new infections due to sexual intercourse is reduced by up to 96 per cent through medicinal treatment, and mother-to-child transmission is also significantly reduced.

Global HIV infections Pass your pointer over a country to see details of numbers


Almost half of all HIV sufferers around the world have no access to medication

As of the end of 2012, 36 million people worldwide have already died of AIDS. Another 25.3 million are living with HIV, two-thirds of them in southern Africa. There are still around 3.4 million new infections each year. According to the Robert Koch Institute, around 3,400 people became infected with HIV in Germany in 2012. That same year, 6,100 people were confirmed as being newly-infected in France, and 6,360 in Great Britain. In Asia and Eastern Europe the number of people infected with HIV is rising – partly because of a lack of information. In the future there will be other new infectious diseases that threaten humankind. Investigating and understanding the origin of the AIDS pandemic can help discover and confine future epidemics faster.

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  1. The Congo Conference in Berlin, 15 November 1884 to 26 February 1885, Wood engraving from a drawing by Adalbert von Rößler, 1884. akg-images

  2. Line of porters carrying ivory at Fort Rousset (Congo). Bernard Lefebvre aka Ellebé. Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer

  3. Pierre de Brazza with men and women – Jacques de Brazza. Pietro di Serego Alighieri (Archivio Storico Capitolino)

  4. Material from the film „The Bloody Truth” by Carl Gierstorfer

  5. Battle against Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) – preparations for vaccination with arsenic against sleeping sickness. Archive Nationales d’Outre-Mer

  6. DPhotomicrographic evidence of pathogens in the testis of experimentally infected rabbit, Dr Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., 1986. CDC – National Center for HIV/AIDS

  7. Negotiations on Congo’s independence held in Brussels: Lumumba shows his bandaged wrists, which had been injured by Belgian police handcuffs, 1960. akg-images

  8. The National School of Law and Administration in the Congo was established in 1961 in Leopoldville with the aid of the United Nations. The School trains Congolese to fill judicial and administrative positions. Professor Jean Reynalds from Haiti teaches mathematics, 1962, Leopoldville, Democratic Republic of Congo. UN Archive

  9. A mother embraces her son with AIDS, Bruce Ayres. Getty Images

  10. Material from the film „The Bloody Truth” by Carl Gierstorfer

  11. Nigeria, a poor country in West Africa with a population of 140 million, has the highest number of HIV-positive people after India and South Africa. Ton Koene, 2006. akg-images/ Horizons