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The Congo Free State
Map of Congo Free State (1896)
Public DomainMap of Congo Free State (1896) - Credit: J. Lebègue & Cie
Flag of Congo Free State
Public DomainFlag of Congo Free State - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coat of arms of Congo Free State
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCoat of arms of Congo Free State - Credit: Lemmens, Tom & MS05L

The novel’s shadowy African setting of ivory grabbing ‘pilgrims' was none other than the Congo Free State, where Conrad spent six months in 1890 as an employee of the Belgian trading company, the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.

In existence between 1885 and 1908, the Congo Free State was the private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, a vast area of Central Africa which included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). For three decades, the Belgian monarch ruled the area as his own personal fiefdom, accruing vast profits through the ruthless exploitation of the territory’s natural resources and its people. His reign lasted until 1908, when growing international outrage at the atrocities committed against indigenous people forced him to cede the colony to the Belgian state. It was renamed the Belgian Congo.