"a precious trickle of ivory"
Porters carrying ivory in the Belgian Congo (c. 1910)
Public DomainPorters carrying ivory in the Belgian Congo (c. 1910) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1890, when Conrad made his visit to the Congo, ivory was still the colony’s most prized commodity, accounting for over half the value of exports from the Congo Free State between 1889 and 1895. Congolese elephant hunters were generally paid in small amounts of cloth, beads and other cheap goods, or the brass-wire and rods (known as mitakos) decreed to be the territory's main currency.

At the peak of the ivory trade, towards the close of the 19th century, an estimated 800 to 1,000 tonnes of African ivory was sent to Europe alone, where it was used to make everything from billiard balls, chess pieces and dominoes to combs, fans and piano keys.