Adam Curtis
As well as our relationship with Afghanistan, I am researching the legacy of other European empires - in Africa. We think of those empires as history but actually they still haunt our everyday lives in the strangest of ways.

These are notes on some of the people and events that have formed that strange link with the past.


Just like Kabul, in the 1960s Kinshasa was a place that fascinated Europeans. It was both violent yet exciting. And it became a place where Western dreams of Africa and African dreams of the West met and started to feed off each other.

Here is a report from the night club Saint-Hilaire in Kinshasa in August 1967. For weeks the white population of the city had been in lockdown under the orders of the new President Mobutu. Now they were celebrating what looked like peace.

At the same time a new fashion was emerging in the Saint-Hilaire and other clubs in Kinshasa. To dress perfectly like Europeans. It had begun 500 yards across the Congo River in Brazzaville but had spread to become a cult of elegance among young Kinshasans.

They were members of what they called La Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes - Sapeurs for short. At the heart of the vision was a dream of Paris. It had started in the 1950s with trying to dress like post-war Parisian existentialists - or "existos", but now it was all about wearing labels like Dior.

Those involved saw it as much more than simply being a dandy. It was an alternative universe to the corrupt politics and the violence that had taken over the Congo. It was a dream of another kind of society with its own beautiful rules and values.

I have tried to find archive of the sapeurs from the 60s and 70s. So far all I can find is is a tantalising shot of Basseka Kandza holding up photographs of himself as a young Sape. It is part of a site of fantastic photographs of contemporary Sapeurs by Hector Mediavilla.

Another was the Congolese painter Bodo. Here is a painting by him from the wonderful collection of Jean Pigozzi in Geneva. Bodo will reappear in this story along with others painters like his friend Cheri Samba. They believed they could use painting to change the course of history.

Che Guevara was also dedicated to changing the course of history. And in 1965 he came to the Congo to try and transform it into his vision of a socialist state.

Che was convinced the Congo was the weak point in western imperialism. So he made the ultimate sacrifice and shaved off his moustache and beard to disguise himself. Here is a photo of of him shaving and another of him in the disguise.

Guevara travelled secretly with a small group of Cubans across Lake Tanganyika to the eastern Congo. He had a theory he called Foco which he had developed with a Parisian intellectual called Regis Debray. The theory said that tiny groups of revolutionaries could inspire the people of a country to a big insurrection. To do this the revolutionaries had to set a moral example and then the Congolese rebels around them would be transformed into "New Men"

But nothing went right. Che had given himself the codename "Tatu", which means three in Swahili. The Congo rebels thought this meant he was only third in command and didn't listen to anything he said. He in turn was shocked at how all the rebels believed in magic - Dawa - which would make them invincible to bullets. This meant they didn't bother to train and sat round drinking all the time.

Then Che led the rebels on an attack on a Hydro Electric plant. Some of the soldiers said they had heard an elephant and ran away. The rest closed their eyes and fired their guns randomly. Che was very depressed. Then they tried to attack an army barracks, but the Congo rebels had a superstitious fear of trenches so they wouldn't get into the holes they themselves had dug - and many were killed.

Faced by disaster Che gave in. He told the rebels he had found a witch doctor with more powerful Dawa. As a result things started to go better, until he came up against a group of mercenaries led by Colonel "Mad" Mike Hoare.

Hoare is an interesting man. He had singlehandedly created the modern African mercenary. Groups of European soldiers from the old colonial power who hired themselves out to the new African governments

Here is very degraded footage of the mercenaries attacking the Congo rebels

And this is part of an interview with Hoare where he is quite honest about the brutality and looting.

Che spent his days waiting in the mountains for the rebel leader Laurent Kabila to turn up. He gave the rebels classes in how to be "new men" but they laughed at him, he got dysentery, he lost his pet monkey, and then Kabila finally arrived but was completely drunk. Che Guevara gave up any hope of creating a revolution. He wrote Fidel Castro a despairing letter. In it you can feel the 20th century dream of transforming oppressed people into new kinds of powerful beings quietly dying away.

Che left and went off to try and transform the Bolivian peasants instead.

But almost immediately another person turned up in the very same mountains in the Congo who would be central to the rise of a new liberal idea. The belief that far from being different and superior to nature, we should recognise that human beings are intimately connected to all other species in the "web of life". It is the belief that dominates the west today.

She was called Dian Fossey. Fossey was an American - from California - who was obsessed with gorillas. In 1966 she met the famous British scientist Louis Leakey. Leakey had discovered the fossil skull in a central African gorge that proved Darwin's theory that human beings had first emerged in Africa, descended from the apes.

This is a section from a BBC programme that catches the new mood that Leakey's discovery had created

Leakey now wanted to study chimpanzees and gorillas from the region to learn more about human evolution at that time. He had already persuaded Jane Goodall to spend her life with chimps, and now he asked Dian Fossey whether she would like to go and live with the gorillas.

Fossey agreed immediately, and in early 1967 she climbed into the Virunga mountains just north of where Che Guevara had fought his battles. Nine days later she found her first gorilla troupe. They charged at her, but Fossey was determined to gain their trust. So she sat quietly next to them pretending to be another gorilla. She mimicked their noises of contentment. She nibbled at wild celery, and spent hours crouched in a submissive posture.

It is an image that the National Geographic Film Department would make famous around the world. Television - especially the BBC - was going to become the central conduit for spreading this new ideology. It did this through these emotional images of a human being uniting with the gorillas. Here is one of the earliest of the National Geographic sequences showing Fossey waiting.

But even as Fossey waited, the rebellion in the Eastern Congo began again.

Joseph Desire Mobutu had seized complete control of the Congo and he moved against the rebels. This time though the white mercenaries switched sides and worked for the rebels. But they had lost Major Hoare, their old leader, and they rapidly spun out of control. The mercenaries committed horrific acts of violence against Congolese rebels and civilians. To the Congolese it was as though the ghosts of the horrors they had suffered under the Belgian King Leopold had been reawakened.

This is part of an interview with one of those mercenaries. He is remarkably open about both what he did and what he felt as he did it. You don't see anything, but what he describes is really not for the squeamish.

In response President Mobutu made a radio broadcast warning his people about these white foreigners. Many of his people took this as an instruction to attack the white population. Hundreds were kidnapped and killed, and in August 1967 a group of Congo army soldiers came and took Dian Fossey down from the mountains.

Fossey was shut in a metal cage and she was then raped repeatedly over a period of 16 days.

As the horror mounted in the Congo the western media became fascinated. The underlying implication in much of the reporting was that it proved what those who had run the empires always said - Africans are savages who need to be controlled and guided otherwise they will behave just like the primates they live among.

The BBC programme Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life tackled this attitude. Here is part of it. First a sketch and then a discussion, dominated by a BBC journalist called James Mossman. Mossman is a fascinating character - who will reappear. He had been, and probably still was, a member of MI6. But much of his reporting of the post-colonial world at the time was driven by his belief that unless we understand the roots of this violence in our own exercise of power through our empires then it will come back to haunt us and corrode our own sense of ourselves.

At the end of August Dian Fossey managed to escape from the Congo soldiers. She fled across the border into Uganda where Louis Leakey rushed to meet her. He fell desperately in love with her. For four weeks they had a passionate affair. But then Fossey retreated - both literally and emotionally.

She climbed up into the Virunga mountains again - but this time not in the Congo - and set up a new camp. She began to approach the gorillas again and ignored Leakey's desperate appeals of love. She wrote to him:

"You will be very happy to know that I've found a utopia - not only for the gorilla but for me as well. Not only is this area teeming with gorilla, it is beautiful beyond description."

The utopia was Rwanda. And here is the famous National Geographic image of Fossey being accepted by the gorillas as one of their own. Its message is the opposite of the dream Che Guevara had tried to bring to the Congo. He wanted to take the Africans forward, but the Europeans are looking backwards to a prelapsarian past when they were at one with nature - and thus better people.

But both were idealistic dreamworlds using the Congo.

And as Fossey began again in Rwanda, Che Guevara was captured and shot in Bolivia.

James Mossman was rude to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on live TV. He was forced to make arts programmes instead. And three years later he killed himself

Many of the mercenaries who had fought in the Congo committed suicide. This is part of an interview with Mike Hoare about this. Followed by his admission that he was now being approached by revolutionaries who wanted him to arrange coups to topple African leaders. A bit like what Che Guevara was trying to achieve.

Louis Leakey went to live with Jane Goodall's mother

And President Mobutu decided he had to dress like an African not a European. But he still had all his leopard skin hats made by the best furrier in Paris.


This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 14. Posted by Moor Larkin

    on 14 Jul 2010 22:42

    The popular TV show of 1964/65, Danger Man, had more than a couple of episodes featuring *African* storylines. One episode features a night-club full of black folks dressed in western styles.

    Another episode is actually called "The Mercenaries" ..

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Juan

    on 1 May 2010 19:16

    Just came on here to say that the "Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life" segment doesn't seem to work any longer. I live in the UK, so I'm quite puzzled as to why it's no longer "working properly".

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Lee Ravitz

    on 14 Oct 2009 01:14

    Actually rather a difficult piece to 'enjoy', as the story it tells is, in so many ways, so tragic and distressing, but eminently readable, nonetheless. At the risk of lowering the tone (?), I have always been fascinated by the way in which pop culture reflects the preoccupations, nightmares, social concerns, prejudices and assumptions of an era, and am always intrigued by what prevailing fads for cowboy movies, international style architecture, transcendental meditation or enthusiasm for solar power, say, can tell us about the deeper motivations of a bygone day. In the case of scenarios such as those you are now examining - where the emphasis is, at least in part, upon the reflexive effect that significant and actual politico-social changes in the non-Western world bring to bear upon Western sensibilities, this seems even more striking in its importance.

    Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that the imagery that most came back to me reading this article was that of the BBC's 1959 (?) broadcast of 'Quatermass and the Pit', featuring a prototypically conservatively minded cross section of middle class WASP thespians agonising over the implications of unearthing ancient human remains of Leakeyean antiquity, and eventually, through a series of misadventures coded through the typically xenophobic fear of 'alien invasion', tapping an apparent seam of nascent human savagery that would surely have received an approving nod from Robert Ardrey.

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Michael Stephenson

    on 12 Oct 2009 15:55

    @gordonnic: This book?
    As for content, is it mainly speculative, or are the conclusions you draw supported by reasonable evidence?

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by gordonnic

    on 10 Oct 2009 11:57

    Adam's research on Fssey interests me. Does he know how she died and who was responsible? Has he read my book on this? gordonnic

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by gordonnic

    on 10 Oct 2009 11:56

    have you read my book on Fossey? Gordonnic

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by lloydforth

    on 9 Oct 2009 08:08

    It seems some folks are having a problem with the content outside of the uk. You should look at using a UK based Proxy server service , can be a little techy to set up but will bypass restrictions

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by mountainrover

    on 8 Oct 2009 15:41

    I fully agree with mickstephenson. It is the lack of left and right dogma, and seeing things from a totally different viewpoint that makes this work attractive to me. I would like to point out to the neocon that in "The Power of Nightmares", Adam Curtis did indeed tackle "Islamism" and the ideas of Ayman Al Zawahiri and it seemed that they had a lot in common with neocons. The interplay of ideas is fascinating, but unfortunately for most people in the real world beyond the ivory towers, the consequences are quite deadly.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by NobleHonestJohn

    on 8 Oct 2009 14:40

    Well put mickstepheson, I couldn't agree more with your post!

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by NobleHonestJohn

    on 8 Oct 2009 14:33

    I've just joined this blog and admire all of your work, I'm in the USA, and have tried to spread the word to all I know about you. Unfortunately I'm unable to view any of the video links here. Do you have any thoughts on making this content (from this blog) available elsewhere outside the UK?

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