In Le Chemin de fer du Congo (1907), Louis Goffin mentions the high mortality rate among African workers during the construction of the railway, and how they often withdrew into the bush to die. By the time the railway was completed in 1898 it had cost an estimated 1,932 lives (1,800 Africans and 132 Europeans). Renovation work between 1923 and 1931, using convicts and forced workers, would result in a further 7,000 deaths.
The Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Congo (Congo Railway Company) had boasted that ‘friends of humanity will find that the Congo railway is the means par excellence of allowing civilization to penetrate rapidly and surely into the unknown depths of Africa.’ Conrad’s ‘grove of death’ shows the railway for what it was: an instrument for hastening the mechanism of oppression. Alongside the building of roads and the development of steamship routes, the railway made possible the easy transportation of rubber, ivory and troops; it facilitated rapid, efficient exploitation of the Congo’s vast, previously intractable region.