The Congo in Sunnyside

One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.

By Amy O’Hair

Congo Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood runs nine blocks, from Circular Avenue to Bosworth Street, from the edge of the I-280 freeway to the edge of Glen Canyon Park. It makes the ‘C’ in the short run of alphabetical street names that begins with Acadia Street on the east and ends with Hamburg Street on the west (changed to Ridgewood Avenue in 1927).

The name has been a mystery of sorts to many. A scooter messenger I once knew who liked to contemplate the city’s enigmas used to find himself pleasantly puzzled when stopped at Congo on his way out Monterey Boulevard. If you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy for the name to become part of the furniture—used but not noticed.

Unlike the picturesque set of river-themed street names in a Sacramento suburb, where ‘Congo’ sits next to ‘Klamath’ and ‘Nile,’ Sunnyside’s Congo seems without meaningful context, being next to streets named Detroit and Baden. How it came to be the choice of the Sunnyside Land Company when the district was laid out in 1891 is the story of idealized capitalist aspirations that would soon meet the realities of imperialist atrocities against indigenous peoples in the heart of Africa.

In the two decades following the naming of the street in Sunnyside, the Congo in Africa was the site of a genocide of staggering proportions. Many people have told the story; this article highlights only some of it, including a few heroes of humanitarian reform of the time who should be better known, as well as an African American poet who evoked the Congo throughout his long working life.

And the Congo has resonance in the immediate present: the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium may finally knock the villain responsible for the atrocities, King Leopold II, off his plinth. Better a century too late than never.

The King of Terror

Leopold’s motive for making himself sovereign of the Congo was first and always massive profits, disguised by a tissue of missionary improvement of the indigenous population. It is an old story, enacted in too many places on the planet over the last couple centuries, but the number of dead there makes this episode stand out. When Leopold began in the late 1880s, the plunder of choice was ivory, but this soon pivoted to natural rubber. In the name of greed, Leopold’s regime enslaved, starved, sickened, tortured, displaced, and murdered tens of millions of people for twenty years before international condemnation slowed the reign of terror.

When Congo was picked for a street name in Sunnyside, few outside of the Congo itself knew of the horrors taking place there. For contemporary enthusiasts of western imperialist capitalism, it was held up as a place newly opening to the wonders of industry. Indeed the land is rich with resources: First rubber in the decades before it was manufactured synthetically, then later copper and other minerals. During WWII, a single mine there provided the uranium for the Manhattan Project and the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also damaging the miners who dug it from the ground. Still today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the biggest source of cobalt, providing three-fifths of the world’s supply; the smartphone on which you may be reading these words would be impossible to manufacture without that mineral.

Stanley Africanus in San Francisco

The nexus of these two threads—the idealized prospects and the appallingly real crimes—occurs in the spring of 1891, with the arrival in San Francisco of the famed self-promoting explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, whose work was critical to Leopold’s Congo plunder.[1]

SF Call, 12 Mar 1891.

Stanley, then an aging man, had for decades been recording his exploits in Africa in several widely read accounts.

He gave two talks at the War Memorial Opera House, on 12 and 13 March. The events were packed to the ornate rafters with the city’s elite. His adventures in the service of King Leopold were generally lauded; he was seen then as opening up the ‘dark’ continent to European and American capitalist exploitation. He had charted the route of the Congo River, which was necessary for the companies doing his business there to know how to get around on the land in pursuit of their rubber booty.

Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Henry Morton Stanley in earlier days. Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

The week after his lectures in the city, Stanley and his entourage took a tour of counties to the south of the city, in a custom railway car.

Stanley and his entourage, touring Monterey County in a custom railway car. 19 Mar 1891. Library of Congress.
19 Mar 1891. Stanley and his entourage, touring Monterey County in a custom railway car. Library of Congress.
Stanley and his entourage, touring Monterey County in a custom railway car. 19 Mar 1891. Library of Congress.

Sunnyside’s Congo

The men who initiated the purchase of land from Adolph Sutro in 1890 that would become Sunnyside, Miraloma Park and other neighborhoods were led by Los Angeles developer James P McCarthy and his son E Avery McCarthy. Although the misanthropic Behrend Joost probably sat out the Stanley lectures, these two men are likely to have joined the rest of the city’s upper crust at the War Memorial lectures.

Avery, a young man then, was a fan of accounts of adventure such as Stanley’s numerous best-selling books detailing his violent romps in Africa. As evidence I offer the fact that later in life, Avery wrote his own rather tamer travelogue, which features his “impressions” of places from Cairo to Los Angeles, with Paris, Seville, Algiers, Granada, and other locales in between.

Impressions not the record of a jungle adventurer, but rather that of a middle-aged wealthy real estate tycoon seeing civilized sights. Nonetheless it is likely that Avery, who was eighteen when he and his father embarked on the Sunnyside project, was a fan of such accounts, and may have been the one to suggest the street name. It was a choice that brought together adventure and enterprise, and neatly fit into the A-to-H run of streets in their new development.

Congo was picked to sit next to Detroit Street. That city in Michigan, which in the previous century was the site of French exploration and the subsequent highly profitable and monopolized fur trade with indigenous peoples, had by 1891 begun its climb towards being a powerful metal manufacturing industrial center—although in 1891 it was stoves, not automobiles, that were being churned out in massive numbers, a site of the sort of virtuous productivity admired by the capitalist class then.

On the other side of Congo Street is Baden Street, named for the town of Baden in San Mateo County, which is now South San Francisco. Founded in the 1850s, with the official tagline line “The Industrial City,” it was very largely focused on manufacturing and production—just the thing to warm the hearts of capitalist investor Behrend Joost et al.

Baden was also the first terminus for Joost’s San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway, the pioneering project developed in coordination with Sunnyside. Electricity for the line was provided by the Sunnyside Powerhouse located at Baden Street. That the street name echoed the name of an esteemed resort town in Germany, Baden-Baden, surely also pleased the largely German-immigrant investors.

Stanley’s presence in the city came at the very moment when the Sunnyside Land Company was finishing their plans; the City approved the homestead map for the new district about two weeks after Stanley’s well-attended talks.

Sunnyside Homestead map, approved on 1 April 1891 by James P McCarthy, Behrend Joost, and Rudolph Mohr. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
1891. Text on Sunnyside homestead map. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

Railway Fever

Another conceptual link to Sunnyside was the matter of railroads. To move those rich resources in the Congo, a railway was needed. The river itself with its multiple massive falls could not provide the continuous highway from interior to coast for shipping the spoils. It was fervently hoped that short stretches of railway would circumvent the unnavigable passages, and so make the extraction possible. This railway was thought then to be great a leap forward, essential infrastructure that would change everything in the Congo—just as Sunnyside’s electric railway would change the future of streetcars in San Francisco.[2]

The railway in the Congo proved a much harder thing to build than anticipated, due to the massive inefficiencies built into the slave labor system used by Leopold’s commissary companies.

Velo Culpa: The Bicycle Craze

What made rubber so profitable that men rushed to this mostly unknown land, risking life and health, to procure it at all costs? The key emerging market then for rubber was bicycle tires—the pneumatic tire brought bicycling into the mainstream, making it appeal to many more than the odd extreme-sports fanatic of the time. Its use on automobile tires lay years in the future.[3]

A bicycle is certainly a virtuous mode of transport, but it was in fact the huge boom in cycling that drove the demand, which drove the forced-labor system of the rubber trade in the Congo in the 1890s.

Congolese Lives Matter

It took me two years to finish this article, as this story is hard to read and hard to tell. I started in 2018 by reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, a brilliant piece of work . The Black Lives Matter movement this year (2020) pushed me to finish.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the atrocities which took place in the service of rubber-gathering plunder in the two decades when King Leopold was the self-proclaimed sovereign of the Congo Free State, as it was called then. The population decline is estimated at sixty percent. To compare for a moment, the genocide of Native American peoples resulted in an eighty percent decrease, but this took place over centuries. The genocide of the Congo took just two decades.

Ten million native Congolese died, directly from the slaughter carried out by Leopold’s commissary henchmen, and indirectly from the impacts of their actions on the indigenous population: displacement, famine, starvation, and a host of deadly diseases.[4] Under some scholars’ definition of ‘genocide,’ this reign of terror and resulting massive decline in the population does not qualify to be so called, but it is a distinction lost on many people, including me.[5] It is generally called the Atrocities in the Congo Free State.

To compare figures, the whole of the transatlantic slave trade from the 1500s to the 1800s transported 12.5 million Africans to the new World, 10.7 million of whom survived the Middle Passage, and 388,000 of whom ended up in what would become the United States. The entire enslaved population of the US on the cusp of the Civil War in 1860 was four million.[6]

Half a century after slavery had been abolished in the US and elsewhere, the slavery system in the Congo killed over twice that number of Africans.

Millions more were maimed due to methods of terror used by the overseers plundering the rubber. Chopping off hands and feet, and whipping until mortally injured were common torture practices employed by the overseers. Women suffered sexual violence and sexual slavery. The lawlessness of those who came to the Congo to plunder suggests that the prospects of the commissary system seemed to attract men with extreme sadism to spare and an itch to be free of the constraints of civilized behavior. The ‘savagery’ of Africa was very often a European import.

Visit this gallery of images on

Millions of people in the Congo were displaced during those years, as whole villages were emptied, people driven out into forests as they tried to avoid the brutality of the slave labor system employed by the companies profiting from the rubber collection. Family members were routinely held hostage, to force people to collect the rubber and meet quotas, which involved climbing rubber trees, spreading the raw rubber directly on their skin, and ripping it off at the end of each day.

The land was severely depleted of rubber, and the slave operations moved frequently in search of the profitable material, decimating more villages and spreading more terror. The bewildering stories of these times were told and retold by the Congolese peoples, in a collective attempt to make any sense at all of the disease, assault, and trauma that blighted every corner of their country.

Where was Justice?

How could such widespread murderous and abusive practices continue unabated for two decades? The atrocities were reported by Christian missionaries who came to the Congo to convert the indigenous peoples, but not much taken heed of by governments or the public.

One man who raised the alarm far and wide at a very early point was George Washington Williams (1849-1891) an American military hero, lawyer, accomplished author and historian, journalist, and Baptist minister. Williams wrote the first history of African Americans, a massive work in two volumes, The History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880, Negroes As Slaves, As Soldiers, and As Citizens. (Read this original work here. Read a new assessment of Williams in the JSTOR Daily series ‘Black Radicals’ here.)

George Washington Williams at the time he left for the Congo.
George Washington Williams at the time he left for the Congo. 

‘A Passion for Freedom’

Initially hopeful about the prospects of the Congo, Williams appeared before the US Senate committee on Foreign Relations in the late 1880s, in order to urge the US to recognize the nation. After visiting King Leopold in Europe, he set out to tour the Congo in 1890 to assess whether it would be a good place to re-locate African-Americans as teachers, workers, and role models, an idea that fit to some degree into the post-Emancipation Back-to-Africa movement. Violence against African Americans was pervasive in the 1880s and would reach a peak in the 1890s, and this was seen as some sort of solution to the miseries of life in our deeply racist country.

Leopold did not want Williams to go to the Congo, and Williams soon found out why. He saw what was being wrought upon the lands, villages, families, and bodies of Africans there. In July 1890, Williams wrote down what he had seen in “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo By Colonel, The Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the United States of America”. It was circulated in Europe and the US. Read it here.

In a document of over 4000 words, Williams condemned Leopold, the companies he commissioned to collect rubber and ivory, and the heinous slave system they employed. He called out Henry Morton Stanley for his role in lying, killing, maiming, and displacing Congolese. Carefully categorizing and enumerating the areas in which Leopold had committed his crimes, he spent as much time listing the deceptive, inefficient, and unfair business practices as he did on the torture, murder, and displacement of the indigenous people, knowing I am sure that such mercantile offenses would cause as much or more outrage in a late-Victorian man of business as those pertaining to human rights of indigenous peoples.

“Your Majesty’s Government is excessively cruel to its prisoners, condemning them, for the slightest offences, to the chain gang, the like of which can not be seen in any other Government in the civilized or uncivilized world. Often these ox-chains eat into the necks of the prisoners and produce sores about which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound; so the prisoner is constantly worried. These poor creatures are frequently beaten with a dried piece of hippopotamus skin, called a ‘chicote’, and usually the blood flows at every stroke when well laid on. But the cruelties visited upon soldiers and workmen are not to be compared with the sufferings of the poor natives who, upon the slightest pretext, are thrust into the wretched prisons here in the Upper River. I cannot deal with the dimensions of these prisons in this letter, but will do so in my report to my Government.”

Too Late for Sunnyside, Too Early for the World

On 1 April 1891, two weeks after the Stanley lectures, James P McCarthy, Behrend Joost, Rudolph Mohr, and the rest of the Sunnyside Land Company investors, were granted approval by the City for Sunnyside as planned in the homestead map. They also left more personal names on the streets of the district: Rudolph Mohr’s first child was Edna, giving Edna Street; Behrend Joost’s name is on the longest of Sunnyside’s streets, and McCarthy left the names of his wife Myra and daughter Lulu on nearby Miraloma Park streets.

Although Williams’ letter was circulated in Europe and the US beginning in mid-1890, it was not actually published in the US newspapers until April 1891. One month after Stanley gave his highly popular talks at the War Memorial Opera House, and two weeks after Sunnyside got its stamp of approval, the San Francisco papers published a recitation of the crimes against humanity enumerated in Williams’ Open Letter, in both the Examiner and the Chronicle.

How the news came to San Francisco was this: On Monday 13 April 1891, in the late edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Williams’ Open Letter was published in its entirety. In a short introduction, we learn that it was given to the editors by a well-respected Brooklynite, Col. Alexander S Bacon, just the day before. Bacon was a white man who personally vouched for Col. George Washington Williams, although Williams hardly needed that boost, as his reputation was well established by then. This was the first time that the general reader in the US could have been exposed to the Williams’ detailed accusations about the crimes in the Congo.

The following day, excerpts were published in newspapers all over the US, including in the Examiner and Chronicle in San Francisco, along with biographical details about Williams. The New York Times led with a refutation of the charge by HM Stanley, before printing any of the “Open Letter”. Stanley accused Williams of ‘blackmail.’ (How does that work, then, when your ‘blackmailer’ has published all your secrets for the world to see?)

However, in the San Francisco Chronicle, the article began with an account of Williams’ accomplishments, calling Williams “An American” in the subhead. The matter of his race is not referred to until the third paragraph, when the reader may infer that he is black by his military achievements as an “officer of colored troops during the Civil War, and [who] was recently a member of the Ohio Legislature. The difference in tone between the coasts, with the same source material, is striking. The scourge of racism bit less harshly in San Francisco’s newspapers, perhaps.

As for the matter of Stanley’s counter-charge of ‘blackmail’, both SF newspapers leave that until the very last paragraphs, when Stanley was asked for a quote–he was still in the city on that day, just about to leave for England. The same day the letter was published, King Leopold, undaunted, personally appointed Stanley to the post of Governor of the Congo State.

Despite Williams’ best efforts, any real chance for reform in the Congo would have to wait another twelve years, for another brave whistle-blower.

And it was too late for Sunnyside’s Congo. If there ever was a chance that the land company would reconsider glorifying this site of mass slaughter and crimes against humanity, it had passed.

A Phrase for Our Century

George Washington Williams was the first person to use in print the phrase “crimes against humanity”, coined to fit the magnitude of the atrocities he witnessed.[7] This term would come to be used more widely in the later twentieth century for many other mass crimes, but it was for the Congo that this phrase was invented.  In a letter to the US Secretary of State, Williams wrote:

“The state of Congo is in no sense deserving of your confidence or support. It is actively engaged in the slave trade and is guilty of many crimes against humanity.”[8]

Death of a Remarkable Young Man

The year after he wrote his Open Letter, and four months after its publication in US newspapers, Williams died in England, at age forty-one. He had been on his way back to the US. The cause of death was tuberculosis and pleurisy (inflammation of the lungs).

“Almost immediately this remarkable young man passed from memory,” wrote his biographer John Hope Franklin.[9] It was Franklin’s work later in the twentieth century that recovered the facts of Williams’ life and accomplishments. In the Ohio Statehouse, where he served as the first African American in the state legislature, there is a room in honor of Williams, with art depicting his likeness.

Bust of George Washington Williams at the Ohio State. Sculptor: Ed Dwight.
Bust of George Washington Williams at the Ohio State. Sculptor: Ed Dwight.

A Dark Heart

At the same moment George Washington Williams was writing his Open Letter to King Leopold (and the Sunnyside Land Company was planning their little district), the adventurer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) arrived in the Congo to captain a steamer boat in service of one of Leopold’s commissary companies. He stayed from June to December 1890.

What he saw and did during that time became, eight years later, the novella Heart of Darkness, his best-known work. The experience of witnessing and participating in atrocity firsthand there permanently changed him, leaving him with a deep pessimism about human evil, something he never shook off.

Heart of Darkness tells the story of a steamboat captain named Marlow who goes in search of a powerful and cruel white trader named Kurtz in the Congo, in whom he expects to find some rationale for the sadism and exploitation that pervades the land. Conrad’s work does not answer the question, and leaves Marlow (and the reader) with dying Kurtz’s last words “The horror! The horror!” Read Heart of Darkness at the Gutenberg Project.

Much literary analysis in the twentieth century centered on an internal, psychological interpretation, such that many students had the experience of studying the work without ever being exposed to the actual historical atrocities that Conrad struggled to make sense of by writing the book.

Conrad condemned the published ‘adventures’ of Henry Morton Stanley, whom he met while working in the Congo, as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” In Heart of Darkness, he used Stanley as a model for “the depraved and monstrous side” of the character of Kurtz.[10]

And a Timorous Heart

Conrad was clear on the evil of what he witnessed. In a letter in 1903 to Roger Casement (more on whom later) he said:

“It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe, which seventy years ago has put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds, tolerates the Congo State today. It is as if the moral clock has been put back many hours.” He put the ultimate cause at European commercial policy, “where ruthless, systematic cruelty towards blacks is the basis of administration.”[11]

But in the end Conrad was not a willing driver of reform; when people in England later raised the alarm that finally could not be ignored, Conrad resisted joining as an active member of the Congo Reform Association (CRA), although he encouraged their work to stop the atrocities.

“I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.”[12]

Joseph Conrad later in life.

He had concluded that wherever there was the profit motive, men would abandon all pretense of humane behavior, and this meant that the capitalist system itself was at fault. For him, no amount of superficial reforms could unmake this truth.

Fellow Travelers

When Conrad arrived in the Congo in 1890, he met and befriended an Irishman named Roger Casement, who was also there for adventure. The two men remained in contact for many years to come, bound in part by the knowledge they shared about what took place there—brothers in trauma and conscience. Although in the end Conrad shunned involvement in Congo reform work, his friend Roger Casement became a hero of the struggle to stem the abuses.

Bringing a Blackthorn to the Fight

Roger Casement (1864-1916) is a remarkable and lively figure; his heroic work for human rights is his outstanding legacy, even if he started life as a mere adventurer.

San Francisco now has a bar named after him in the Mission District. High up on one of the walls, you can see a portrait of the man, and there’s a biography on the bookshelf above one of the booths. If you ask, the bartenders will tell you a bit about him. (More here.)

Roger Casement.
Roger Casement.
Casements Bar, San Francisco. 2019.
Casements Bar, San Francisco. 2019.

Thirteen years after Williams’ Open Letter that cried out for justice for the Congo, Roger Casement made it happen. He and many others had known over all the intervening years what was being done there in the name of Leopold, but in the climate of persistent denial, if anything were to shift, it mattered who was speaking, and in whose name. The British Foreign Office sent Casement to the Congo to report on the matter in 1903. The weight of that weighty office was now behind him.

Casement travelled in the Congo for about six months, documenting everything he saw, despite being hampered by those there who wished to hide the worst of the atrocities. During his time there, he wrote letters back to his colleagues.

“This vile thing [the rubber trade] dares to call itself commerce…were I to touch on the subject of the treatment of the natives under the rubber régime, my indignation would carry me beyond the limits of official courtesy….I do not accuse an individual, I accuse a system,”[13]

When he returned to England in December, he wrote a report that was exhaustive, laboriously cool in tone, and piled with precise documentation. He knew there was no place for emotion in a report that must change everything—showing a shred of ‘hysteria’ would discredit him in the eyes of many government types, the men who must be moved to take action and who would look for any excuse not to.

Although well respected in public life, in private Casement could be volatile, using vulgar language about his enemies and taking offense when challenged. Anyone then wishing to keep in the good grace and employ of the British government did not regularly call his critics ‘curs’ and ‘abject pifflers’, not even in private letters.[14]  Of one of his naysayers in government, he said:

“He is beneath contempt—but I’d like to lay some of the same contempt on with a good thick Irish blackthorn.”

Casement took things personally and had a reactive temper. But that is just what was called for to finally move the needle on the Congo disaster. People disinclined to upset others or established systems had been to the Congo, seen the carnage, and done nothing of substance. Casement’s temperament kept him pushing back against his enemies, who ranged from the Congo State authorities who thwarted his freedom of movement there, to Leopold’s spin-doctors who attacked his report and his person, to the stalwarts of his own government who took more offense at Casement’s words than at the atrocities he described. His sustained rage was critical in order to push through the practice of deep denial that passed for free trade and diplomacy then.

Casement’s report could not be ignored; it broke the logjam of inaction. A cascade of events ensued, driven over the next several years by the tireless labor of another man, ED Morel. Morel used Casement’s documentation to establish the Congo Reform Association (CRA) in the UK. That organization’s diligent work would soon tip over the dominoes of international condemnation, which would finally wrest the Congo from King Leopold’s grip in 1909.

Death of a Hero and a Martyr

After the Congo, Casement was soon sent to South America, where he documented a similar rubber slavery in Peru. Later he was a revolutionary in the fight for independence in Ireland, his native land. The British Government executed him in 1916 for his involvement in soliciting German backing for the Easter Rising. His remains were only relocated to Ireland from the prison grounds at Pentonville, UK, in 1965, and his reputation has since been restored.

At the time of Casement’s execution, the British authorities held diaries that purported to have been kept by him chronicling his many sexual encounters, mostly with young men and often paid for. The authenticity of the documents is contested by some, but one researcher pointed out that the inclusion of Up-Country Congolese dialect words points to authenticity; it is difficult to imagine a functionary in the British government embellishing a forged document with such outré touches, working feverishly in some dimly lit office, in order to discredit Casement before he was brought to trial. The diaries are the prime evidence for Casement being gay, a very closely held secret during his lifetime.

It would be a long time before the humanitarian generosity that Casement espoused for indigenous peoples in the Congo would also extend to queer folk anywhere in the world.

Another American Voice is Raised

Although George Washington Williams was an American, his Open Letter had little effect in the US during the short time he had to raise the alarm before his death. In the wake of the Casement Report, it was Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) who brought the matter before the American public. Twain is an author that San Francisco in some sense stakes a claim upon, as it was here that Clemens ‘became’ Mark Twain while working as a journalist in the 1860s.

Twain came to play a role in the push for Congo reform in the US after exchanging communications in 1905 with ED Morel, founder of the Congo Reform Association (CRA). He was deeply enraged by what he learned about the atrocities. To move readers to feel the same outrage, he created a short fictional work, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which imagines Leopold railing at his critics and excusing his own atrocities.

The work used drama, irony, and imagery to reach into his white readers’ hearts. With every complaint about those who publicly decried the horrendous practices of his companies in the Congo, Leopold reveals the depths of his narcissism and depravity under the hypocritical veil of missionary purpose. Twain aimed to wake up an American readership and fill their hearts with “a fury of generous indignation.”[15]

“Yes” says King Leopold in the book, “they go on telling everything, these chatters!…They tell it all: how I am wiping a nation of friendless creatures out of existence by every form of murder, for my private pocket’s sake, and how every shilling I get costs a rape, a mutilation or a life….[They remark that] if the skeletons of [my] ten millions of starved and butchered dead could rise up and march in a single file, it would take them seven months and four days to pass a given point!…Damnation, it makes me tired!”[16]

Leopold is a villain splayed on the page for hating; he titters with “evil joy” and coolly rationalizes the repellent practices of his minions—but only in answer to critics. He has no interest in these matters himself. He recounts the astonishing numbers of dead, then states one must understand the context.

Regarding the sheer number of the Congo dead, Leopold perversely seems to boast that his regime had outstripped any previously recorded mass death; the Great Famine in India (1876-1878) is put at just 2 million dead. (Later revisions revised the death toll to 5.5 million.)[17]

“They call me a ‘record’….Oh yes, they call me a record.”[18]

Twain's Soliloquy excerpted in the Sunday paper, with many of its images. SF Examiner, 15 Oct 1905.
Twain’s Soliloquy excerpted in the Sunday paper, with many of its images. SF Examiner, 15 Oct 1905.

The Camera Works

The Soliloquy is important for its unstinting inclusion of visual evidence. Photos of children and adults with missing hands and feet, drawings of endless queues of skeletons, piles of skulls, and a Croesus-like Leopold hoarding his gold coins illustrate the work. The power of the image pushed many readers out of the comfort of remote textual description into the fury that visceral compassion engenders. Images had been circulated before, but largely among missionaries or other closed circles.

“In the arithmetic of collective violence, these images of atrocity may have been equal to the thousands of works with which they were paired.…In including different modes of visual imagery…Twain aimed to haunt his readers….[and] hoped to inspire a response that would lead to political intervention,” wrote Nora Nunn in a recent analysis of the work.[19]

Twain succinctly puts the words into Leopold’s mouth: “[T]he incorruptible kodak…the only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe.”[20]

However, Nunn rightly calls out Twain’s blindness to the violence against people of African descent within his own country, which during the same years was exacting a terrible toll. He missed the atrocities closer to home—the lynching and repression of thousands of African Americans during the post-Emancipation and Segregation Eras.

In the San Francisco News

In late 1906, a year after Twain published his Soliloquy, a San Francisco figure entered into the mix. Local attorney Henry I Kowalsky had been hired by King Leopold to exert some heavy spin on all the terrible press he was getting in the US, and to lobby US lawmakers into ignoring the widely circulated and well-substantiated reports about the Congo atrocities and Leopold’s culpability. The job was not an admirable one, but the pay was fabulous—the retainer alone was over $2 million in today’s dollars.

Leopold then dropped Kowalsky cold when that irascible man got into a public fist-fight in a courtroom. Kowalsky returned the insult by turning over his damning correspondence with Leopold to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, revealing an ugly trail of subterfuge.

The scandal brought Twain’s exposé back into the limelight. In San Francisco, Hearst’s paper, the San Francisco Examiner, published the Kowalsky piece next to restatement of Twain’s accusations from Soliloquy.

SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1906. Henry Kowalsky is pictured on the left.
The Kowalsky scandal and Twain’s work to expose Leopold come together. SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1906. Kowalsky is pictured on the left. View larger. 

Turning his Back on ‘the Bloody Monster’

Although Twain actively worked to promote the work of the CRA in the US during the time just after publication of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, later he, like Conrad, became deeply cynical. “Twain was more cheerful than Conrad, but he still conceived himself too uncommitted to be an activist.”[21]

He felt there was little chance of real reform taking place, and he would not even open his mail if it related to the matter. It was not that his outrage had in any way lessened; in the last years of his life, he recorded autobiographical dictation in which he cast doubt upon the superiority of nineteenth-century civilization, calling Leopold a “bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere.”[22]

Mark Twain at about the time of his Congo work. Photo: AF Bradley.

As a result of refusing to come in contact with any Congo-related news or correspondence, Twain never knew that in late 1906 the US policy toward King Leopold reversed itself, and Roosevelt committed the country to supporting reform in the Congo.[23] He also never knew that in 1909 Leopold was finally forced by his own government to renounce the Congo as his pet sovereign state, and to give its administration over to the Belgian government.[24] Twain died the following year.

Abuses in the Congo continued after it was taken from Leopold’s grip, but the tide had turned and the worst of the atrocities were over.

Langston Hughes and the Congo

In 1920, as a teenager, Langston Hughes wrote one of his most anthologized poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers

Hughes later wrote in his autobiography about the creation of the work. He was on the train to Mexico, to join his estranged father:

“Now it was just sunset, and we crossed the Mississippi, slowly, over a long bridge. I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage.

“Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think about other rivers in our past—the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa—and the thought came to me: ‘I’ve known rivers.,’ and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, with I called ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.”[25]

We Too, Congo

Unlike Twain, Hughes brought together the threads of violence against black and brown peoples, and the places, far and near, where they had lived and had labored as slaves, such as on the Pyramids and in the rainforests of the Congo. Rather than a mere blurry reference to the connections of Africa and the diaspora, the rivers he invokes were also sites of contemporary resistance; Hughes deployed the precise locations of “active anticolonial struggle for poetic purposes.”[26]

The previous year had seen an uprising in Egypt against British rule, and a Kurdish revolt in the Euphrates Valley that was crushed by the British. In the US, the Mississippi represented for African Americans a long history of oppression that Emancipation had only begun to lift; Hughes was very engaged with the struggle for civil rights during the Segregation Era.

Hughes came back many times to the Congo as a reference in his later work, deepening its relevance and meaning for the African American struggle for rights.[27] In 1963, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Act ending legal segregation in public places and employment discrimination, he wrote in a revision of “We Too”:

We, too,
Congo brother,
Rise with you.

Analyzing Hughes’s poem, Ira Dworkin wrote in 2012: “ ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers” can be read as part of a literary, cultural, and intellectual tradition that saw the Congo … not as a euphemism for the ‘dark continent’ but as, in fact, the Congo, a familiar place whose nearness is evoked in Hughes’s verse.”[28]

Langston Hughes in 1936. Photo:Carl Van Vechten.
Langston Hughes in 1936. Photo:Carl Van Vechten.

Mini-wiki: The Name, the River, the Land, the People

The name of the country comes from the name given to the river by European sailors in the sixteenth century, derived from the Kongo people, whose name come from the name of the Kongo (or Kikongo) language.

Community members fishing along the Congo_Photo by International Rivers
Fishing on the Congo River.

The Congo River is a massive and powerful river, one of the greatest in the world. It is second only to the Amazon in the volume and velocity of discharge at its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean—about 16 Olympic swimming pools per second on average.[29] It is the deepest river in the world, with a maximum depth of 220 m (720 ft). There are numerous dramatic falls along its course from far inland to the coast.

Map of the Congo River, lakes, and feeder rivers, with falls shown with double lines.
Map of the DR Congo, the Congo River, lakes, and feeder rivers, with falls shown with double lines.
Inga Falls, Congo River.

The population of the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is currently over 84 million. It is the most biodiverse country in Africa, and very rich in several different resources. However, the lack of development, centuries of corruption, and commercial and colonial exploitation have left it ranked at the very bottom of the Human Development Index. Warfare and human rights abuses have killed millions of Congolese in recent decades, including an ongoing conflict in Kivu in the east.

Market in Mbandaka, DR Congo.
Market in Mbandaka, DR Congo.

The DRC is one of the poorest and most beleaguered countries in Africa today. The chaos and violence have deep roots in King Leopold’s bloody and traumatic reign and the Belgian colonial occupation that followed on it for another 50 years. “Belgian authorities anxiously avoided the formation of a Congolese social, political, and intellectual elite; only a tiny minority of so-called evolués [sic; the ‘evolved’] adopted Western habits and acquired secondary school of technical training; When the colonial bond was suddenly severed in 1960, after an outburst of nationalism in the black population, the country had to face independence completely unprepared. This partly explains Congo many misfortunes [that followed].”[30]

Adam Hochschild, whose 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost has done the most to make known the atrocities and the heroes of reform, locates the prolonged failure of the Congo as a state, in the wake of the Belgian decampment in 1960, to the native-born dictator who followed in Leopold’s footsteps, Joseph Désiré Mobutu. In every way, for three decades, Mobutu’s greed and rapaciousness mimicked Leopold’s, from his looting of the national resources to his palaces encrusted with baroque luxury to his self-aggrandizing one-man rule. Hochschild quotes the pioneering Tunisian statesman and historian Ibn Khaldun, who noted in 1377 the ways in which the conquered one imitates the conqueror, taking on the customs and trappings of the one who subordinated him.[31] Hochschild offers this reason for the Congo’s continuing problems.

Names They Are A-Changing

Names of streets count for something, and as they take up visual and aural space in our lives, on paper, on screens, and in our speech, they remind us of people, places, and events from history, if vaguely, often below the threshold of awareness.

In June 2018, the name of a San Francisco mayor who held racist views and implemented racist policies, James D Phelan, was removed from one of the streets in Sunnyside, and changed to Frida Kahlo Way. This was a first in this city, erasing the name of a dishonored figure of the past and replacing it with someone who is esteemed today. This was not like the renaming of short, out-of-the-way alleys for beloved local cultural icons, like Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac, Isadora Duncan, William Saroyan, Kenneth Rexroth—and Mark Twain—such as San Francisco has done for many years.

The closest thing to the Phelan Avenue change was the renaming of Army Street to Cesar Chavez Street in 1995. That did not remove a controversial name, however. It did impact a great many more households than the Phelan change; Noe Valley residents objected to the degree that they placed an initiative on the ballot that year to reverse the change back to Army Street, which failed. It’s unlikely most people living on the street were attached to the romance evoked by the name ‘Army’ as part of their home address, but just preferred to avoid a change. The renaming brought forward a revered figure in California labor history. (There are also streets named for Chavez in several other places in California, as well as Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, and Michigan.)

This year, the San Francisco Unified School District formed a School Names Advisory Committee to consider the matter of schools in the city named for figures who were directly culpable for colonization, genocide, slavery, racism, or other human rights abuses. Read the committee’s Guiding Principles here.

A candidate for renaming nearby to Sunnyside is Balboa High School.[32] In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa explored the Americas in the sixteenth century, like Henry Morton Stanley did three hundred years later in the Congo. His explorations made it possible for a great many royally sanctioned loot-hunters to get to work, leaving behind a trail of blood, tears, and death as they hauled away gold.

The name Balboa is used for lots of places and things in the Americas. Yet the person is pretty remote from history that directly bears on San Francisco. The name Balboa Park was chosen in 1910 by the City for the 100-acre planned recreation space that would later become (mostly) City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus. I wish someone at the Board of Supervisors had thought that one through a bit better, and at least picked someone relevant to the city. Later, in 1926, they did just that for McLaren Park; so far the legacy of the city’s own visionary of parks John McLaren has not been revised to brand him a racist, although that of his friend and fellow horticulturist John Muir has.

The name of the reservoir land adjacent to Balboa Park (now City College) began being called the Balboa Reservoir soon after. The reservoir site is now planned as a housing development, which so far is keeping the name. The Balboa Park name also gave rise to nearby Balboa High School in 1927, and the Balboa Park BART/Muni Station in 1972.

All these ‘Balboa’ names are in some sense lost opportunities, as they have little historical connection with the city’s past or its heroes–and the city (and the neighborhoods) deserves more than that, given its own rich history.

If anyone is asking, I nominate Jean Bonnet to replace the park’s name. A transman who empowered several women to resist abuse by their panderers, he also made a good living catching frogs for the ‘French’ restaurants downtown, in Geneva Lake, a substantial body of water once located just to the east of Balboa Park Station. He and his lover Blanche were murdered at McNamara’s hotel adjacent to the present station, by Blanche’s enraged ex-pimp. (I recommend this novel based on his life.)

Jean Bonnet as drawn by an SF Call artist. 2 May 1893.
Jean Bonnet as drawn by an SF Call artist. 2 May 1893.

During the same time, more or less, Mary Ellen Pleasant had a ranch, called Geneva Cottage, also located adjacent to the present-day transit station. She controlled this property from the 1850s until it was sold in 1900 to make way for the Geneva Carbarn and Powerhouse. She was famously an engine of resistance to racism in nineteenth-century San Francisco, and yet nothing of substance has been named for Pleasant in the city. Pleasant BART Station, anyone?

To Return to Congo Street

The name has been on the street in Sunnyside for 130 years. Such things take on inertial weight with the passage of time. The name may not meet the criteria for renaming as laid out by the SFUSD committee, not being a person responsible for crimes against humanity. But it does refer to a place of genocide and, by the context of its naming, it valorizes the era of genocidal crimes of colonization there.

Sometimes the change of a street name can be sparked not by the drive to unseat a dishonorable person from a place of honor, but by the chance to replace something associated with past attitudes with someone worth honoring. That can bring forward a little known figure. Recently in Berlin, a street with the vague but anachronistic name Moor Street (Mohrenstrasse) was changed to honor a particular and accomplished Black German philosopher. (Read more at the Guardian.)

If there were a reason to change the name of Congo Street, it would be to erase the tribute to an imperialist site of plunder and appalling genocidal crimes, and then take the un-naming as an opportunity to honor someone worth remembering.

Putting aside for a moment the obvious upheaval it would mean to residents, maps, public records, subscriptions, and so on, I suggest the human-rights campaigner and all round firebrand-for-justice, Roger Casement—a name that keeps the street’s alphabetic place between Baden and Detroit and foregrounds a significant person who fought injustice in the Congo and elsewhere in the world.

Roger Casement (right) with friend, sculptor Henry Ward.
Roger Casement (on right) with his friend, sculptor Henry Ward.

Casement is pictured here with his friend, the sculptor Henry Ward. They met in the Congo. A recent novel, Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray, imagines their lives and friendship. Read a review here.

My thanks to: Seventeen, for planting the question years ago; and Andrew, for his unflagging support and copyediting.


Primary sources, contemporary documents

Williams, George Washington (1890). “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo By Colonel, The Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the United States of America”. Accessed at (link).

Conrad, Joseph (1899). Heart of Darkness. Accessed at Project Gutenberg (link).

Casement, Roger (1903). The Casement Report. Accessed at (link).

Conan Doyle, Arthur (1909). The Crime of the Congo. New York: Doubleday Page and Company. Accessed at (link).

Morel, E[dmund] D[ene] (1919). Red rubber: the story of the rubber slave trade which flourished on the Congo for twenty years, 1890-1910. Manchester [UK]: The National Labour Press Ltd. Accessed at (link).

Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens] (1905). King Leopold’s Soliloquy, (2nd ed.) Boston: PR Warren Company. Accessed at (link).

Histories, articles, commentary, poetry

Bruckner, Pascal (1983). The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt. (William Beer, trans.) New York: The Free Press.

De Mul, Sarah (2011). “The Holocaust as a Paradigm for the Congo Atrocities: Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’”. Criticism. 53 (4): 587–606.

Dworkin, Ira (2012). “’Near the Congo’: Langston Hughes and the Geopolitics of Internationalist Poetry”. American Literary History, Vol.24, No.4, pp.631-657.

Franklin, John Hope (1979). “Afro-American Biography: The Case of George Washington Williams”. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol.123, No.3 (18 Jun 1979). pp.160-163.

Geras, Norman (2011). Crimes Against Humanity: Birth of a Concept. Manchester [UK]: Manchester University Press.

Harms, Robert (1975). “The End of Red Rubber”. Journal of African History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1975), pp.73-88.

Hawkins, Hunt (1978). “Mark Twain’s Involvement with the Congo Reform Movement: ‘A Fury of Generous Indignation’ ”. New England Quarterly, Vol.51, No.2 (June 1978), pp.147-175.

Hawkins, Hunt (1981-1982). “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement”. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol.9, No.1 (1981-1982). pp.65-80.

Hochschild, Adam (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. London: Pan Books.

Hughes, Langston (1920c). “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Accessed at the Poetry Foundation (link).

Hughes, Langston (1993). The Big Sea: an Autobiography. Accessed at google books. The original publication seems to be 1940. There seem to be a great number of editions of this with different publication dates.

Lindsay, Vachel (1914). The Congo and other poems. New York: Macmillan. Audio recording accessed at (link). Warning: some may find this material to be offensive, appropriational and presumptuous; included for historical interest. Read it here on the Gutenberg Project.

Louis, William Roger (1964). “Roger Casement and the Congo”. Journal of African History, Vol.5, No.1 (1964), pp 99-120.

Meyers, Jeffery (2016). “Henry Morton Stanley and Emin Pasha: New Historical Sources for Heart of Darkness”. Conradiana, Vol.48, No.1, pp77-82.

Nunn, Nora (2018). “The Unbribable Witness: Image, Word, and Testimony of Crimes against Humanity in Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)”. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal. Vol.12, No.1 (2018), pp.84-106.

Renton, David (2013). The Congo: Plunder and Resistance. London: Zed Books.

Sante, Luc (1998). “Leopold’s Heart of Darkness” [review of Hochschild book]. San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 27 Sep-3 Oct 1998. Accessed at the SF Public Library.

Tully, John (2011). The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber. New York: NYU Press, Monthly Review Press.

Vanthemsche, Guy (2006). “The Historiography of Belgian Colonialism in the Congo” (PDF). In Csaba I. Lévai (ed.). Europe and the world in European historiography. Pisa: Pisa University Press. pp. 89–119.


*This was the 1980s, so “scooter” is not one of those electrified verrsion of push-scooters, the things lying around on sidewalks waiting to be smartphone-rented. It is a vespa type machine, sent out beyond the bounds of where bike messengers usually went.

  1. You can read more about HM Stanley in this Wikipedia article, although it astonishingly makes no reference to the Atrocities in the Congo Free State that subsequently resulted from Stanley’s work for Leopold.
  2. As with all of my work on the street names in Sunnyside, I have surmised sources and rationale, given the names of the investors, their personal and business histories, and the mores of the times. Read more about Sunnyside street names here: .
  3. Read more about the early days of the rubber tire in the history sections of these two Wikipedia pages: AND
  4. The death toll has been debated and set at different numbers. I find Adam Hochschild’s detailed breakdown in King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) convincing. There have been higher figures; Mark Twain included lost natural reproductive increase in his own tally in 1905, and set the figure at fifteen million.
  5. In particular, Raphael Lemkin’s massive but unfinished work on genocide and its definitions did not include the Congo Free State at the time of his death, although it is said he planned to. Congo is not on the chart ranking the genocide death tolls on Wikipedia, where, if it were included, it would rank second after German-occupied Europe.
  6. These three articles by reputable academics really helped me understand the numbers behind slavery in the US.       –Berry, Daina Ramey (2014) “American Slavery: Separating fact from myth”.–Gates, Henry Louis, Jr (2014) “Slavery by the Numbers”, The Root.–Mullen, Lincoln (2014) “These Maps Reveal How Slavery Expanded Across the United States” Smithsonian Magazine.
  7. Geras (2011). GW Williams used the phrase in a letter to US Secretary of State James G Blaine, dated 15 Sep 1890: Quoted in Geras, Chapter 1. The phrase then re-emerges in common usage with the Nuremburg trials after WWII.
  8. Franklin (1979). P.
  9. Franklin (1979). p.162.
  10. Conrad writing in “Geography and Some Explorers” (1926), quoted in Meyers (2016). P.79.
  11. Hawkins (1981-1982). P.70. Emphasis mine.
  12. Hawkins (1981-1982). P.71.
  13. Letters from Casement to Lansdowne from the Congo, quoted in Louis (1964), p105, 107.
  14. Louis (1964). P.112.
  15. Twain, in a letter to Conan Doyle in 1909, wondered why the atrocities in the Congo had not roused Christendom to “a fury of generous indignation.” Quoted in Hawkins (1978) page 150, and also in the title of the paper. The letter is in the Mark Twain Papers are in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
  16. Twain (1906). p.9,12.
  17. “The Great Famine of 1876-1878”
  18. Twain (1905). p.25.
  19. Nunn (2018). p.89-90.
  20. Twain (1905). p.39.
  21. Hawkins (1978). P.166.
  22. Quoted in Hawkins (1978). P.172.
  23. Hawkins (1978). P.172-173.
  24. Hawkins (1978). P.174.
  25. Hughes (1993). P.55.
  26. Dworkin (2012). P.636.
  27. Dworkin (2012). Pp.645-651.
  28. Dworkin (2012). P.651.
  29. League table of rivers on Wikipedia:
  30. Vanthemsche (2006). P.91.
  31. Hochschild (1998). P.304.
  32. Read about it in the Ingleside Light [paywall]:

2 thoughts on “The Congo in Sunnyside”

  1. “Names of streets count for something, and as they take up visual and aural space in our lives, on paper, on screens, and in our speech, they remind us of people, places, and events from history, if vaguely, often below the threshold of awareness.” What a powerful historical narrative! From one who grew up in Sunnyside neighborhood and traversed Congo Street hundreds of times, I had no idea. Casement is certainly a more fitting name, but perhaps “Congo” should still be included in parentheses, lest we forget, “to remind one of the imperialist site of plunder and appalling genocidal crimes.” Kudos Amy for connecting so many profound dots.

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