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    In Our Time: The Berlin Conference

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    Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Berlin Conference. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

    The Berlin Conference


    After the programme ends we have approximately 13 minutes in the studio. Then a World Service programme moves in. In those 13 minutes we grab a cup of tea and a bit of fruit and generally talk through the programme. In this instance, the three contributors talked as fast, as enthusiastically and as intensely as they had done on the programme itself. In no particular order.

    I learned that North America, China and Western Europe – all three! – would fit into Africa. Joanna Lewis said that her favourite film was Anchorman and she managed to see it through twice while flying over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our under-appreciation of the sheer size of Africa has come about because of the ubiquity of Mercator maps.

    One of the problems with Africa is massive over-population and that it's extremely difficult to grow temperate crops. Where you could grow temperate crops – in the land of the Zulus – they took huge advantage and at one stage, in battle, defeated the British.

    It appears that one of the German "representatives" in Southern Africa was Carl Peters, who appears to have been a total swine. He was responsible for the virtual genocide of two peoples, the Herero and the Nama. He reduced their population to 10% of those who had been there before he got there. His patch of land was sitting on diamonds and diamonds didn't need all that many people and he didn’t like black people at all. We did not have time to get round to the viciousness of the racism involved in all this land grab. However, it turns out that Carl, who was eventually sent back to Germany, was resurrected as a heroic figure by the Nazis. He became a hero of Goebbels and of Goering, whose family came from South-West Africa.

    There doesn't seem to be much point in grading shame in Africa, from what our contributors said. Lever Brothers and other European businesses were in the Congo doing the work that King Leopold's hateful forces were spearheading. Leopold, by the way, was discovered to be using a London brothel to bring over young girls. This scandal was suppressed at the time because the Prince of Wales was using the same brothel and it was thought it might become a little tricky all round.

    Mark Twain, it turns out, wrote a very long poem about King Leopold called 'King Leopold's Soliloquy'. According to our contributors, Twain "got him".

    There were jobs in the Congo called 'the keepers of the hands'. These were men whose job it was to smoke the cut-off hands of people who were not deemed to have tapped enough rubber on that day or in that week.

    It also came out that there were African warlords who would move around the country with the guns that were supplied from the West, and with child soldiers and a highly mobile army and support force, numbering on some occasions one and a half million people, say, in the Sudan. They would set up camp cities as they looted and raped and stamped their presence on the benighted continent.

    I must say the programme left me almost winded with information and in the guilty knowledge that so much had not been said. I went downstairs in the lift with Tom and into the BBC entrance where we chewed it over a little, and outside on the pavement – blow me down – the three contributors were standing together, intently continuing (with no sign of concluding) the discussion they'd had so vividly for the rest of us in studio 50F a few minutes ago.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

    PS: So far at the House of Lords – I've been here half an hour – there have been two comments on the programme. The first was from someone who told me off for rushing people too quickly and not giving them the time they needed to finish what they were saying. I see the problem he had, but it was nothing compared with the problem I had to allow these wonderfully informed people to say as much as they could while getting the programme in on time. Still. Point made. Secondly, someone came up flatly and said "why was there no black historian on the programme?" Again. Point made.


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