book review

Book Review: Tim Butcher’s Tragic and Engrossing ‘Blood River’

Go to any library anywhere in the United States and you’ll almost invariably be able to find picture books, along with framed pictures on the walls of how things used to be in the area where the library is located. Old cars, horse-drawn carriages too, dirt roads largely bereft of cars, people and businesses that are now dense with all three. Call it progress simply because it is.

Contrast this with two visits Alan Greenspan made to the former Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century, albeit roughly thirty years apart. What struck him was that the tractors in usage were the same both times despite the massive time lapse. Describe the latter as decline, simply because it was. Stasis is the embodiment of economic decline.

Fast forward to the present, and contemplate the politicians (Trump, Biden, myriad others) who promise to “bring back” the jobs of old. Think factory work, mining work, and other “smokestack” forms of production that “China” and others supposedly took from us. The joke is on the politicians, of course. If they could ever bring back the jobs of old, they would only do so at the expense of prosperity. Sorry, but wealth is a function of leaving the past behind.

All these notions (and many more) came to mind while reading Tim Butcher’s brilliant, but desperately sad account of his 2004 trip across the Congo, Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. The poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC from now on) truly defies description, and surely exceeded even Butcher’s ability to describe it.

So with progress borne of change top of mind, it’s perhaps best to begin this review with Butcher’s arrival in Mukumbo on a motorbike driven by a native, and a visit he had with the chief in this desperate locale. It was Butcher’s first evening stop after his journey had begun. The Mukumbo chief speculated it was 1985 when he last laid eyes on an automobile. Yes, the cars that are everywhere in developed and undeveloped parts of the world. Keep in mind that it was 2004 when Daily Telegraph Africa bureau chief Butcher decided to try the “impossible,” whereby he would attempt to retrace the path taken in the 19th century by legendary explorer (and Telegrapher himself) Henry Morton Stanley across the Congo, the “most daunting, backward country on earth.”

It’s notable that when the chief talked of having seen a car twenty years before, the young kids eagerly gathered around. In the chief’s words, “All these children you see around you now are staring because I have told them about cars and motorbikes that I saw as a child, but they have never seen one before you arrived.” They were interested to hear about the world that was. Stop and think about that. Think about the aforementioned books and pictures in libraries, or for that matter the restaurants, vacation locales and parties in the world you the reader live in, and that celebrate a look back in time. We look back because we can. The past is a curiosity that would repel us if it were real. See the U.S. cities stuck in the past. They’re empty, or increasingly so. Think Aliquippa, or Flint. The crushing reality for the vast majority of the Congolese is that as Butcher explains it, “it is the grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren.” He goes on to write that “I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” Which requires a pause.

In pausing, stop and think about those in our midst (including some perhaps reading this) who lament that today’s youth have it “too easy,” that we’re “raising fragile creatures,” that the kids of today are too soft owing to too much ease. No, change is progress. Sorry, but ease is progress too. More specifically, what improves on the past is progress. That the kids of today enjoy living standards that well exceed that of their parents and grandparents is a sign of undeniable, wildly prosperous progress. It means the young people of today can learn and do all new things precisely because they’re freed from having to learn and do what those who came before them had to learn and do. Contrast this with Butcher’s aforementioned observation that “it is the grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren.” What a tragedy. The Congolese children of today have it worse than their parents and grandparents.

Please remember the desperately reduced circumstances of Congolese children vis-à-vis their parents and grandparents the next time some well-to-do individual from the developed world bemoans the ease of childhood today, and the allegedly “entitled” kids this ease is producing. Utter nonsense. Those who naively yearn for the past better hope it never comes for them. Talk about a sign of decline. Butcher writes that “history is a luxury people cannot afford around here,” to which it will be added that complaining about “these kids today,” or “anxious generation” alarmism that Jonathan Haidt is profiting from in ghastly fashion, is surely the stuff of staggeringly well-to-do people who are thoroughly oblivious to what a luxury it is to whine about kids who have the time and means to be spoiled, depressed, and yes, “anxious” as an alleged consequence of being able to communicate on the supercomputers that sit in their pockets.

As for those who say Trump, Biden, Obama, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Reagan (or name your president) are “destroying” America, or taking us on the path to Venezuela, you’re worse than the kids. Seriously, what could be greater evidence of spoiled or entitled than someone even joking that the U.S. is “broken,” “ruined,” or on the path to “banana republic” status?  

Alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Upon crossing the Congo from 1876-1877, Stanley eventually traveled back to Europe to generate interest in the continent. The colonialists in Great Britain didn’t bite, but King Leopold II of Belgium did. Butcher writes that Leopold saw the Congo as the “main artery of a huge Belgian colony, shipping European manufactured goods upstream and valuable African raw materials downstream.” And so it became the proverbial jewel (literally and figuratively some will point out) in Belgium’s crown.

While Butcher has strong, and rather negative opinions about the impact Stanley and the Belgians had on the Congo (this will be discussed toward the review’s conclusion), he notes that up until 1960 when it attained independence, “there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary about the Congo.” While Butcher’s planned crossing of the most dangerous country on earth was yet again viewed as “impossible” in 2004, that as a white man he would “need something more than luck” to make it across, his mother made it across with ease in 1958. Back then all manner of boats and – yes – cruise ships could be found on this mother of all rivers.

Butcher reports that Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) was the “hub of Africa’s largest airline network, and the Congo itself was “integrated with the rest of the world.” Contrast that with the present where, with the exception of Kinshasa, the DRC is “one of the rare places on earth that fails the Coca-Cola test,” a country so cruelly separated from the world that without exaggeration seemingly, Butcher “could no more buy a Coke in 2004 than fly to the moon.” Contrast the DRC of 2004 with a 1951 Belgian Congo travel guide happened upon by Butcher, and that “runs to 100 pages of information for visitors.”

To say that the DRC has traveled backward since 1958 or independence in 1960 brings new meaning to understatement. To try to at least sort of understand what’s happened, stop and think about what things looked like where you’re sitting in 1877. That’s how primitive living conditions are in the DRC now, though surely worse. Figure that Stanley crossed the Congo in 1877. The few (any, though Mike Martin, Chloe Baker and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell made it across as chronicled in their spectacular 2017 book, Crossing the Congo: review here) who attempt to do so today are yet again seen as doing the impossible in the scariest place on earth. An individual who had canoed part of the Congo River decades before described Butcher’s plan as a “death wish.”

So while he had “never been so terrified” when he first visited the DRC in 2001, Butcher returned in 2004. Merely landing in the country (Butcher flew from Johannesburg to Lumumbashi) is an adventure as upon exiting the plane, “you negotiate just to get your luggage.” The simple truth is that the country is defined by utter chaos. It brings to mind John Stuart Mill’s observation that the path to a lawless society is paved with lots of laws. In DRC terms, “the Congo is a police state maintained by numerous security services.” All sorts of rules, but no rule following. It wouldn’t matter even if people did follow the rules since the law in the DRC is intensely corrupt. Everyone wants to be paid for everything. In other words, all actions outside the stationary state occur after bribes.

Butcher’s journey began in Kalemie, where he happened upon an individual who told him “my friend here knows a man with a motorbike.” Think back to Mukumbo. In the DRC interior some have never even seen one of these. It truly staggers the mind. Think about it. As you read this, look outside at the cars, mopeds, Coca-Cola signs, the bright lights, the people walking freely. In the DRC, most have never seen any of what you see all day, every day.

As for money, it’s dollars. End of story. This truth is yet another rejection of Milton Friedman’s monetarism, monetarism an economic school that purports against all reason and reality that money in circulation can be centrally planned. No, not a chance. The Fed didn’t deposit so-called “money supply” in the DRC, but since products for products is the basis of all exchange, dollars can even be found there, facilitating the meager economic activity taking place.

Later in the crossing when Butcher is trying to reach Ubundu, he tells Malike “I will pay you fifty dollars if you get me there in four days, and double if you get me there in two.” Malike takes him up on it as “a single fifty-dollar note represented a fortune in his riverine village.” Butcher ultimately paid $200 for the transportation, which was “untold wealth.” What would dollars get you there? It’s hard to say, but Butcher’s use of dollars throughout the crossing is a reminder that contra Keynesians, Neo-Austrians, monetarists, supply siders, and surely other economic religions, there’s no such thing as “easy money” care of central banks or “printing.” Money that actually commands real resources is always and everywhere hard to come by. At the same time, it’s everywhere as evidenced by its use as a medium of exchange in one of the most backward locales on earth.

What about free markets? They’re essential. They’re the path to growth, health, and all good things. At the same time, a read of Blood River might wipe the smile off of the faces of the most happy-talker of free market types. Butcher writes that Africa is “the only continent on the planet where the normal rules of human development and advancement simply don’t apply.” To read about how backward everything is in the DRC, it’s easy to speculate that what works in Hong Kong and Singapore wouldn’t work as readily there. Something’s really wrong.

One more thing on Kalemie: while there, Butcher visits with the last Belgian in town, a 77-year old woman named Genevieve Nagant. While fully cognizant that “everything is upside down” relative to how things were, her dedication to her adopted country was fascinating, uplifting and surprising at the same time.  

Indeed, imagine the contrast. From a tourist destination to a death wish in a very short time. Butcher reports that in 1949 the Belgian Congo could claim 111,971 kilometers worth of roads. As of 2004, maybe 1,000…Which meant the motorbike portion (with a plastic seat) of his crossing took place on paths that quite simply weren’t. As for the water that Butcher had to boil in order to maintain a semblance of purity (malaria pills were taken daily): “I rationed myself to a gulp every 15 minutes” during one particularly awful ride.

What about eating? We rich Americans naturally lament our “obesity epidemic,” but in towns like Kasongo (where Butcher saw his first electric light in 535 kilometers) “the striking thing was just how painfully thin everyone was.” Well, yes. The diet in the interior is a variation of the same thing: cassava leaves.

For the kids it’s amazing yet again to read about a place that’s fallen so far backwards. Untreated disease takes over 1,000 people per day, and then it’s notable that a baby born in 2004 was more at risk than one born 50 years before. Of course, and as readers can probably imagine, it’s not just healthcare that’s gotten much worse. Everything is. While we’re inundated with ads from producers the world over who are eager to meet our needs, the kids and adults younger than fifty years old have no sense of being courted, though in some instances “faded advertisements could just be made out” from pre-independence days. There were even luxury hotels in the Congo of old. No less than Katharine Hepburn stayed at Kisangani’s L’Hotel Pourquoi Pas during the filming of The African Queen, but in modern times those hotels largely “had no electricity or water and the rooms were mostly empty shells.”

All of which no doubt helps explain what Butcher refers to as “the desperate willingness of people to cling to the old vestiges of order as an anchor against the anarchy of today.” The view here is that Butcher insults anarchy…Still, what to do? What’s the answer for a country that is literally destroyed relative to what it was?

Butcher notes that his mother “knew nothing of the brutality that the Belgians used to maintain their rule” back in 1958, and that seemingly enabled her easy Congo crossing, but how could the past brutality in any way hold a candle to the immense, endless and desperate horror that defines the present? Say what one might about Belgian rule, the country was apparently livable then, and the people plainly had opportunity relative to the present. About opportunity, surely the saddest story of so many sad ones involves Oggi. He lives in Kisangani, and speaks impeccable English owing to the DRC’s relatively more ordinary past that included him taking regular visitors from the outside world on boat tours. By 2004 there’s nothing. And when Butcher is soon to leave Kisangani on a UN boat down the river as he nears completion of his crossing, Oggi asks Butcher to take his 4-year old son with him and “give him a new life.” Twenty years later, it’s scary to contemplate what Oggi’s son is doing, as there was no way for Butcher to take Oggi up on his request. As for Oggi himself, in the rest of the world knowledge of the English language is quite literally the path to the middle class and up. But in Kisangani, his “skills and talents were spent on a daily struggle to survive.”

Despite the disaster that the DRC has become, despite four million Congolese killed between 1998 and 2004 alone, Butcher surprisingly clings to the notion that outsiders did it, that “local tribesmen had survived in peace for generations” before adventurers, “asset strippers,” and colonialists ruined it. And it never rings true. So many countries have been colonized, only to recover intact. As Ali, the Malaysian captain of the UN boat that Butcher boarded in Kisangani replied to the colonialism excuse, “That is rubbish. Malaysia was colonized for centuries too, most recently by the British, a colonial rule that that was cruel and racist. We got independence at roughly the same time as the Congo in the early 1960s,” but “somehow Malaysia got through it and the Congo did not.”

It’s hard to disagree with Ali, but Butcher keeps trying to disagree. He writes that Henry Morton Stanley is “tainted as an arch-colonial brute,” as though Stanley created this modern hell. Think of all the people, the countries, and the races brutalized over the centuries only to emerge prosperously, but we’re supposed to believe Stanley and the Belgian colonialists who followed possessed the unique ability to destroy a country? No, it can’t be that simple.

Furthermore, Butcher’s critiques of Stanley reek of what George Will refers to as presentism whereby we judge the past based on present conventions. How easy it is to look back. While there will be no denial here of Stanley’s coarse ways or subsequent Belgian brutality, it yet again seems a reach to suggest that the Belgian past was anything like the tragic, murderous, desperate present.

After which, it’s hard to take seriously the notion that the independence movement was about liberty, or freeing the Congolese people from Belgian brutality. Please. Without knowing, the speculation here is that independence was all about a lust for riches, and yes, the asset stripping, that Butcher ascribes to the Belgians then and capitalists now. And then as Butcher acknowledges, Mobutu Sese Seko et al didn’t institute freedom once in power, rather they copied the Belgians, albeit unsuccessfully.

Butcher then pivots to the notion on p. 334 that what failed wasn’t independence, but those handed power once the Congo was independent. He writes that the “elites” given power were “driven by self-interest.” Well, yes. Who isn’t driven by self-interest? If the elites hadn’t taken over, does anyone seriously think that various Thomas Jeffersons waited in the wings among the commoners?

About these disagreements, hopefully readers won’t take them as a critique of Butcher’s brilliant book more broadly. The simple truth is that this is one of the most interesting and important economics books that I’ve read in a very long time. Whatever the disagreements with the great and courageous Tim Butcher, the knowledge attained from this most essential of books will stay with me, and be used by me in books and opinion pieces for a very long time.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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