In 1860 Western forces burned the Summer Palace, a wonderful and magnificent building to the northwest of Beijing, China. British and French troops pillaged the palace, and then burned it to the ground in a terrifying act during the Second Opium War. Here, Scarlett Zhu explains what happened and responses to the attack.

The looting of the Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860.

The looting of the Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860.

"We call ourselves civilized and them barbarians," wrote the outraged author, Victor Hugo. "Here is what Civilization has done to Barbarity."

One of the deepest, unhealed and entrenched historical wounds of China stems from the destruction of the country's most beautiful palace in 1860 - the burning of the Old Summer Palace by the British and French armies. As Charles George Gordon, a soldier of the force, wrote about his experience, one can "scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places being burnt."


The palace that once boasted of possessing the most extensive and invaluable art collection of China, became a site of ruins within 3 days in the face of some 3,500 screaming soldiers and burning torches. Dense smoke and ashes eclipsed the sky, marble arches crumbled, and sacred texts were torn apart.  At the heart of this merciless act stood Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, a man who preferred revenge and retaliation to peace talks and compromise. He was also a man highly sensitive to any injustices or humiliation suffered by his own country. Thus, the act was a response to the imprisonment and torture of the delegates sent for a negotiation on the Qing dynasty's surrender. However, as modern Chinese historians would argue, this was a far-from-satisfactory excuse to justify this performance of wickedness, as before the imprisonment took place, there had already been extensive looting by the French and British soldiers and the burning was only "the final blow".

The treasures of the Imperial Palace were irresistible and within the reach of the British and French. Officers and men seemed to have been seized with temporary insanity, said one witness; in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit: plunder. The British and the French helped themselves to all the porcelain, the silk and the ancient books - there were an estimated 1.5 million ancient Chinese relics taken away. The extent of this rampant abuse was highlighted even more by the burning of the Emperor's courtiers, eunuch servants and maids - many estimates place the death toll in the hundreds. This atrocious indifference towards human life inflamed international opposition, notably illustrated by Hugo's radiant criticisms.


The response to the attack

But there was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Qing soldiers were in the vicinity - perhaps they had already anticipated the reality of colonial oppression or did not bother themselves with the painful loss of the often-distant imperial family. But the Emperor, XianFeng, was not an unreceptive spectator; in fact, he was said to have vomited blood upon hearing the news.

However, there was evidence to suggest that some soldiers did feel that this was "a wretchedly demoralizing work for an army". As James M'Ghee, chaplain to the British forces, writes in his narrative, he shall "ever regret the stern but just necessity which laid them in ashes". He later acknowledged that it was "a sacrifice of all that was most ancient and most beautiful”, yet he could not tear himself away from the palace's vanished glory. Historian Greg M. Thomas went so far as to argue that the French Ambassador and generals refused to participate this destruction as it "exceeded the military aims of their mission", and would be an irreparable damage to an important cultural monument.

Nowadays, what is left of the palace are the gigantic marble and stone blocks, which used to be backdrops of the European-style fountains situated in the distant corner of the Imperial gardens for entertaining the Emperor, since those made out of timber and tile did not survive the fires. The remains acted as a somber reminder of the West's ransack and the East's "century of humiliation".

This is more than a story of patriotism, nationalism and universal discontent. History used to teach us that patriotism isn't history, but rather propaganda in disguise. Yet how could one ignore and omit a historical event so demoralizing and compelling on its own, that it is no longer a matter of morality and dignity, but a matter of seeking the truth, tracing the past and its inseparable link with the present? When considering the savage and blatant destruction of the Old Summer Palace, along with the unspoken hatred of the humiliated and the suppressed, it seems therefore appropriate to end with the cries of the enraged Chinese commoners as they witnessed the worst of mankind's atrocities: “Kill the foreign devils! Kill the foreign devils!”


Did you find this article of interest? If so, tell the world – tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below.


1. Hugo, Victor. The sack of the summer palace, November 1985

2. Bowlby, Chris. "The palace of shame that makes China angry"

3.  M'Ghee, Robert. How we got to Pekin: A Narrative of the Campaign in China of 1860, pp. 202-216, 1862

4. "The Burning of the Yuan Ming Yuan: 150 Years Later",

5. "Fine China, but at what cost?”,

How did the American Revolution reach its fascinating end?

In episode 5 of the American Revolution History podcast series, you will find out!

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The  Siege of Yorktown  by Auguste  Couder

The Siege of Yorktown by Auguste Couder

We follow on from episode 4 in our series on the American Revolution, World War, and finish the story of how America became a nation. In this episode we look at the events that led to the American Revolutionary War ending. We shall see how the battle for the Southern colonies came to a close, and the amazing events around Yorktown, Virginia. Then there were the battles that continued to take place around the world that were linked to the conflict. And the aftermath.

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George Levrier-Jones

When faced against the American rebels, France and other European Powers, how did Britain gain the upper hand in the American Revolution?

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General George Washington

General George Washington

In this podcast we look at how the American Revolution became a truly global war over the years from 1779. The war spread to more countries and territories dotted around the world, and Britain herself became involved in the fighting. However, the most important battles ultimately took place in the Thirteen Colonies, especially the southern states. All that plus how 2.6 square miles of land became integral to the American Revolution as we see how the British took this growing global challenge in their stride and inflicted serious damage on the rebels – for a time.

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George Levrier-Jones

Could Britain build on its success around New York in 1776, and put the final nail in the rebellion against its rule in the Thirteen Colonies?

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A major decision taken by General Burgoyne in 1777. But what did he do?

A major decision taken by General Burgoyne in 1777. But what did he do?

Today, we see what happened in the fateful years of 1777 and 1778, years of great contrast in the war. In 1777, the British were trying to ambitiously destroy American forces. They had a major force in the north, and another further south that was to attack Philadelphia, the seat of the rebel Continental Congress. These moves would lead to a seismic shift in the war and led to the Great Powers of Europe becoming involved in it.

We can even say that these years made the war.

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George Levrier-Jones




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How did Britain and the Thirteen Colonies come to the point of no return, leading to the start of the American Revolutionary War?

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The Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran (1909)

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran (1909)

In this episode we see what happened on the fateful day of April 19 1775 and understand how one single shot became so very important. We will also see what took place over the course of 1775 and a very famous declaration that took place in 1776, as well as the Battle of Bunker Hill, fighting in Canada, and the Battle of Long Island.

In short, we see how the war really broke out.

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George Levrier-Jones




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Just how did the United States of America gain its independence? It’s a story familiar to some of us, and George Levrier-Jones is going to tell the story in his own informed, concise way.

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The Boston Massacre, Alonzo Chappel, 1878

The Boston Massacre, Alonzo Chappel, 1878

This revolution had it all. A yearning desire for liberty, great battles, constantly shifting sands, a result which left the world in a very different place. It also happened at a time when the world was going through a new stage of globalization and so set the tone for what was to happen in the revolutionary and colonial late 18th and 19th centuries.

And in this episode we set the scene to the war by telling you about 18th century America, the French and Indian War, and those major events that happened in the years before the American Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence broke out. The Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Continental Congress were just a few of these events…

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The French started to send prisoners to their colony in French Guiana in the nineteenth century. The penal colonies set up there are probably some of the worst ever. Harsh conditions, dangerous animals, little medical care, brutal guards, and backbreaking labor led many to die in them. And the system lasted well into the twentieth century. Robert Walsh explains…


‘The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.’

 - Rene Belbenoit.

The typical inmate’s attitude in the colonies, from Rene Belbenoit’s   Dry Guillotine  .

The typical inmate’s attitude in the colonies, from Rene Belbenoit’s Dry Guillotine.

It is 1852. In France, Emperor Napoleon III, increasingly worried by rising crime and insufficient colonists to consolidate France’s empire, devises a new, dreadful solution. Napoleon isn’t interested in social reform, he’s interested in social cleansing where criminals can simply be exported elsewhere and forced into servitude, preferably never to return. His brainchild will become the most infamous penal system in history. Even today it’s a taboo subject for many French people. His plan is for a system of penal colonies in French Guiana. Inmates call it ‘Le Bagne’. Former inmate and escaper Rene Belbenoit called it the ‘Dry Guillotine’ and his 1938 book damned both the colony and the ideas behind it. The wider world still calls it ‘Devil’s Island’.

Many people today think of the Guiana colonies in that way, three small islands off the Guiana coastline (Royale, St. Joseph and Devil’s). They weren’t. Out of approximately 70,000 inmates, only 50 were incarcerated on Devil’s Island. It was also reserved for French political prisoners, not conventional criminals. 70,000 inmates went out to Guiana, only 2,000 or so returned. Only around 5,000 survived to finish their sentences. The rest succumbed to disease, murder, execution, failed escape attempts and deadly animals populating the Guiana jungle. Conditions were so bad that between 40% and 80% of one year’s intake would be dead before the next year’s intake arrived.


The trip begins

Inmates were collected from all over France, confined pending transportation at St-Martin de Re near the port of La Rochelle. Twice a year an old steamer named ‘Martiniere’ left for Guiana. The inmates were escorted from the prison to the dock under military guard. Specially trained Senegalese colonial troops with fixed bayonets marched them through the town where their friends and families would have their last sight of ‘Les Bagnards’ as they left, mostly never to return. To quote its most famous inmate Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere: “No prisoner, no warder, no gendarme, no person in the crowd disturbed that truly heart-rending moment when everyone knew that one thousand, eight hundred men were about to vanish from ordinary life forever.”

Their suffering began aboard ship. Crammed below decks like sardines with only a half-hour a day on deck for fresh air and sunlight, with hardly any hammocks leaving many inmates sleeping on steel decks, with any trouble below decks punished by the guards turning hot steam hoses on the inmates, life aboard ship was miserable. Guards could also flog inmates who disobeyed even insignificant orders. Inmates often murdered each other to settle grudges or robbed each other of whatever small possessions they had. Life in Guiana, for those who survived the three-week voyage, was immeasurably worse. All an inmate had to endure the voyage was issued prior to embarkation; a convict uniform, wooden clogs, a hat and a small secret device known to convicts as a ‘plan’ or ‘charger’. A ‘charger’ was a small metal tube carried internally, perhaps containing money, gems, small escape tools, a map and maybe a small knife for self-protection. If an inmate was discovered carrying one, or indeed broke any other rule aboard ship deemed too serious for a mere flogging, they spent the rest of the voyage shackled in the bilges in searing heat and deafening noise, directly over the engine room and boilers.


In St. Laurent

New arrivals landed at St. Laurent, capital of the Guiana penal system. At St. Laurent most inmates would serve their sentences unless they were interned on the islands or sent straight to jungle work camps. At St. Laurent they were classified according to security risk and criminal record. Standard inmates were ‘Transportes’, transportees who had committed more serious crimes. Lower down were ‘Relegues,’ serial petty offenders with records for crimes like shoplifting or burglary. The few surviving their sentences were listed as ‘Liberes,’ in theory freed inmates. The worst of the worst were ‘Incorrigibles’ or ‘Incos’. ‘Inco’ went straight to the feared jungle work camps where food was short, work hard, danger significant and life expectancy seldom more than a few months. If not the jungle camps, then a permanent posting to Royale was their most likely destination.

Inmates especially hated ‘Doublage’. Any prisoner serving less than eight years had to spend the same amount of time in Guiana as a colonist. Anyone with more than eight years was barred from ever returning to France or leaving Guiana. A two-year sentence effectively became four, assuming the inmate survived.

Conditions were appalling. Food was barely edible and never enough for anybody performing forced labor. Medical care existed, but the prison hospital was poorly equipped and chronically under-staffed. Discipline was brutal, floggings, extended solitary confinement and the guillotine being the order of the day. In the jungle camps inmates worked to stiff daily quotas while underfed, malnourished and brutally disciplined at the slightest infraction. The camps were also breeding grounds for disease. Yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, typhus, cholera and leprosy were commonplace. The jungle was also home for deadly animals like jaguars, snakes, venomous centipedes and flesh-eating ants. The Maroni River was home to piranha and caimans. If these weren’t enough, mosquitoes, leeches and vampire bats were capable of infecting their human hosts with rabies and other blood-borne diseases.


The ‘human factor’

Perhaps the worst aspect was the human factor. The Penal Administration wasn’t concerned about how staff treated inmates provided work quotas were met and the inmates kept in line. Inmates not meeting their daily quota one day would be fed a small amount of bread and water the day after. Every failed day after that meant no food at all until the inmate met a day’s quota and also cleared their backlog of unfinished work. Otherwise, they’d starve, weaken and probably die.

Discipline was harsh, usually brutal. All guards carried pistols, many also carried rifles with orders to kill any inmate attempting escape. They also carried clubs and whips. Inmates could be publicly flogged even for minor infractions. Solitary confinement was a common punishment. Sentences lasting from six months to five years with multiple sentences served consecutively were standard. First escape attempts added two years in solitary to existing sentences. Second attempts added five.

The guillotine at St. Laurent.

The guillotine at St. Laurent.

For more serious offences, especially attacking or murdering a guard or colonist, the guillotine was freely used. It was operated by convict executioners who were the most hated inmates in the penal system. One executioner, Henri Clasiot, was so hated that other inmates tied him to a tree filled with flesh-eating ants, smeared him with honey and left him to a slow death. At St. Laurent, inmates were paraded before the ‘Merry Widow’ as the guillotine was known and forced to kneel. The execution would take place and the executioner would hold up the severed head while declaiming ‘Justice has been done in the name of the people of France’. It was a nauseatingly brutal spectacle designed to intimidate convicts as much as possible.     

The first thought occupying many inmates at Guiana was the same as for inmates everywhere; escape. Naturally, Guiana was chosen to make escape as hard as possible. There were only two realistic ways an escaper could escape the penal colonies; through the jungle and across the sea. The jungle was swarming with hazards; deadly animals, flooded rivers, unfriendly natives, diseases, search parties from the prison and, most hated of all, the ‘Man-hunters.’ Man-hunters were liberes-turned-bounty hunters, tracking escapers through the jungle for a reward, dead or alive. Being paid regardless of their prisoner’s condition, many of them killed recaptured inmates and delivered their bodies rather than endure the extra risk and difficulty of guarding a live prisoner. Other liberes made a lucrative (if loathsome) living by offering to help escapers through the jungle before robbing and killing them. Very, very few escapers were heard from again once they entered the jungle and those who were had either successfully escaped or been recaptured.

The sea was every bit as deadly, but the hazards were different. The border between French Guiana and neighboring Dutch Guiana and British Guiana was the Maroni River, itself infested with piranha and caiman, small crocodiles that took swimmers like any other prey. A boat was the only option. Dutch Guiana also handed back escapers found within its borders, while British Guiana only gave them two weeks before either they left or were returned to St. Laurent under guard. Boats could be stolen, but inmates with money could smuggle a bribe to liberes in return for a boat, compass and provisions to last a few days. Assuming, of course, that the boat wasn’t wrecked in a storm, neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Colombia didn’t decide to hand escapers back at their own discretion and the liberes didn’t take the bribe and still provide nothing useful. The sea wasn’t the most likely option for an escaper; it was simply the least lethal. As a former Warden once put it: “There are two eternal guardians here; the jungle and the sea.”


Failed escapes

Recaptured escapers faced harsh punishments. If a guard or civilian was killed during an escape, the guillotine was a virtual certainly. A first failed escape added two years in the dreaded solitary confinement cells, known as the ‘Man-eater’, the ‘Devourer of men.’ on St. Joseph Island. Second failed attempts added five years more. The solitary block became known for its rule of silence, prisoners being forbidden to speak a single word unless first spoken to by a guard or other staff member. The cells were damp, moldy and disease-ridden. They were also riddled with cockroaches, venomous centipedes and other dangerous animals and the prisoners were deliberately fed poor food only sufficient to keep them alive without keeping them healthy. As a former Warden at St. Joseph described it when Henri Charriere entered for his first two-year sentence: “Here we don’t try to make you mend your ways. We know it’s useless. But we do try to bring you to heel.” A small infraction meant an extra thirty days added to an existing sentence with longer additions for each additional infraction. Other punishments included screening a prisoner’s cell and leaving them for months in total darkness and perhaps cutting their rations by half. This in addition to potentially being guillotined for attacking a guard. Some inmates committed suicide and went unnoticed for weeks due to the rank conditions in the gloomy, disease-ridden cellblock. In short, an inmate didn’t so much live in the ‘Man-eater’ as exist until they died, took their own lives or went insane which, given the conditions, was more than likely.

Royale Island was the home of the ‘Incos’. ‘Incorrgibles’, if not worked to death in jungle camps like Cascade, Charvein and Godebert or along the unfinished roads ‘Route Zero’ and ‘Kilometer 42’ (which were never intended to be finished, existing solely as make-work for slave laborers) would be permanently interned on Royale. Some inmates and officials made a living by taking bribes to have a prisoner’s status changed, making them a regular ‘transported’ instead of an ‘Inco’ and so seeing them shipped back to the mainland where escape was more likely. This was a confidence trick. ‘Inco’s had their status decided back in France. Even the Guiana Penal Administration couldn’t have it altered. The most notorious inmates were quartered in the ‘Crimson Barrack’ where card games ran night and day, staff were too scared to enter unarmed and unescorted and even blatant murders were regularly committed. The threat of violent death firmly discouraged informing on anybody.

Royale had its own hospital, albeit understaffed and under-resourced. It had a chapel, several workshops, was disease-free for most of its existence and was generally the least worst part of the colony except for would-be escapers. The jungle didn’t guard the island’s perimeter and the staff didn’t have to do too much, either. Instead, guard duties were left to the nine miles of open water between Royale and the mainland, the rip tides that could force swimmers and makeshift rafts out past the islands to be lost in the Atlantic and to the man-eating sharks that infested local waters. Even the sharks served the penal system, both as guards and in a deeply macabre form of waste disposal. Convicts on the islands didn’t have their own cemeteries. Deceased inmates were taken out just off the island coastline and tipped overboard at dusk to the sound of a bell tolling. The sharks learned to appear at the sound of the bell when a free meal was guaranteed. To make things even more macabre, the sharks themselves were hunted by local fishermen, sold to the island authorities and fed to the convicts, completing a rather revolting circular food chain. Inmates weren’t deemed worthy of a decent burial, nor did the island have the space to cope with a constant flow of funerals. Burials at sea became the practical, if rather gruesome, solution.


Devil’s Island

The last of the three island prisons was Devil’s Island, also guarded by fierce rip tides and sharks with a few staff on hand too. It’s odd that the smallest and least-used part of the penal system became the totem for the entire network. During the 99 years of the penal colonies only around fifty prisoners were ever kept on Devil’s Island itself. They were all political prisoners and not felons. Devil’s Island owes its fame and symbolic status to having been the unwanted abode of Captain Dreyfus. Falsely accused of espionage, stripped of his rank and sent to Devils Island forever, Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and reinstated after a global campaign to prove both his innocence and the rampant anti-Semitism of his accusers.

Having spent over five years on the island, Dreyfus returned to France for a rehearing, pardon and reinstatement in the French Army, but only after heart-breaking misery at being framed and made a scapegoat by a country he loved and had served honorably throughout. A principal player in the Dreyfus campaign was famed French writer Emile Zola, whose famous essay ‘J’Accuse’ condemned the anti-Semitism in France and the cowardice of the French state in its treatment of Dreyfus while firmly supporting his claims of innocence. As a result of the Dreyfus case at the start of the twentieth century the world finally began to pay attention to Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous and sadistic pet project.

Further unwelcome attention came from Rene Belbenoit and Francis LaGrange, both former inmates of the colonies. Belbenoit, a petty thief given eight years for a small-time burglary, escaped successfully at his fourth attempt and made his way to the United States. His 1938 book ‘Dry Guillotine’, so named because the penal colonies killed as well as a guillotine only more slowly, was reprinted eight times in the first two months since its release and is a collectible to crime buffs and penal historians. LaGrange, a former art forger, also provided unwelcome publicity through sketches and drawings depicting life in the colonies and used in Belbenoit’s book. Increasing international scrutiny forced the French Government to stop sending inmates to the colonies in 1938 and their closure was scheduled until the Second World War intervened. During the war the islands were taken over by the Americans, who feared the Vichy government might try and make them an Axis base of operations. In 1946 the camps and islands began to be gradually phased out. Between 1946 and 1953, when Devil’s Island itself finally closed forever, the camps were shut one after another and the inmates repatriated. Over 300 inmates refused to leave, many staying on in St. Laurent as French Guiana remained a colonial possession. They decided that they had been too changed by their experience to fit back into French society and that Guiana was the only life they could remember. They were probably right. Of those inmates who were repatriated, a substantial number either returned to prison or were declared insane after failing to re-integrate into French society. Some even took their own lives. It was bitterly ironic that many of these men, men who had previously been cast out of French society, found it taking care of them in their last years.



It wouldn’t be right not to give a greater mention to Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere. Papillon’s eponymous book, first published in the 1960s after the colonies had closed, revived unpleasant memories for the French of an episode many would rather have forgotten. Even today the Guiana penal colonies are a taboo subject for many French people. Papillon’s honesty and whether or not he merely appropriated large parts of his book from other inmates’ experiences has been hotly debated, but his storytelling skills are beyond doubt. Although French authorities claim that only around 10% of his claims are true and it’s certainly true that he never served time on Devil’s Island (he was a safecracker convicted of the manslaughter of a pimp, a charge he always denied), the 10% would still be a damning indictment of the Guiana penal system and its purpose of socially cleansing France of its underworld. It even failed to do that, eventually.

There’s another irony in the penal colony story even today, one not recognized by many people. French Guiana is the site of France’s Ariane rocket space program. The rockets are launched from near Kourou, formerly one of the dreaded jungle camps, with control equipment being sited on Devil’s Island. The space project site is constantly under the guard of the French Foreign Legion who also use Guiana for jungle warfare training. Odd really, when you consider that many of those who have joined the Legion at some point might very well have once found themselves headed for Guiana unwillingly, wearing a different type of uniform altogether.

Modern-day France is ashamed of the penal colonies. In the words of writer, ex-convict and former Foreign Legionnaire Erwin James: “France is right to be embarrassed.”


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, set in the Belgian Congo, illustrates some of the worst abuses of colonialism. It is important to remember that the book was very much based on real events though. Julia Routledge tells us about the book and contrasts it with actual happenings in the Congo.


‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish… The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps… And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.’


The human condition has always embraced the allure of adventure; for Charles Marlow, the intrepid protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novella, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ this fascination with the unknown manifests itself in an urge to command a steamboat down the mighty Congo River. It reminds him of ‘an immense snake uncoiled,’ and he recalls that ‘it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.’ The ensuing tale is a damning exposition of the corruption and insatiable greed of colonialism, and of mankind’s capacity for savagery. Yet this story is rooted in historical fact: it stems from Conrad’s own disillusionment whilst working on the Congo River in 1890, and Marlow is thought to be his alter ego.

Proprganda from the Belgian Ministry of Colonies in the 1920s.

Proprganda from the Belgian Ministry of Colonies in the 1920s.

Exploration in the Congo

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium hosted the Brussels Geographical Conference, aiming to garner support for sowing seeds of civilisation amongst the indigenous people of the Congo. He advocated the creation of an International African Association, under whose umbrella various countries and groups would collaborate: it would be the purveyor of progress to the benighted natives of Central Africa. Leopold was instated as its first chairman, and, whilst his intentions were ostensibly philanthropic, in reality, he used his authority to further Belgian interests in the region.

At around the same time, Henry Morton Stanley – famous for locating the Christian missionary, Dr Livingstone – set out to explore the uncharted territories of Central Africa and to trace the Congo River to the sea. He discovered a region replete with natural resources and ripe for development, yet British financiers were lukewarm about his findings. In King Leopold, however, he found a zealous leader who required an agent to expedite the establishment of a Belgian presence in the Congo. Leopold’s de facto hegemony over the area was confirmed at the Berlin Conference in 1884, where fourteen European states convened to carve African territory into national possessions. The Congo Free State was proclaimed the following year; unusually for an overseas colony, it did not belong to a country, but was instead Leopold’s private fiefdom. Its population was about to experience the ruinous consequences of an ‘enlightened’ man’s unfettered power.

Leopold began swiftly to assert his authority by funding railway construction to facilitate exploration, and challenging the troubling existence of Arab slave gangs, led by the formidable Swahili-Zanzibari dealer Tippu Tip, along the Lualaba River. Leopold had pledged to tackle African slavery at the Belgian Conference, but the gangs’ presence in the north-east also constituted an intolerable threat to the economy, for each labourer or portion of ivory claimed by the traders detracted from the Belgian regime’s power. After several years of tense co-operation, open conflict broke out between the unhappy bedfellows in 1892, and the Arabs were ultimately subdued and crushed.

Leopold promulgated various decrees which stifled free trade and curtailed the natives’ rights, until these subjugated citizens were little more than serfs. He also established the Force Publique: a loyal private army of indigenous soldiers and European officers who enforced his rule with breathtaking brutality. The region offered a cornucopia of exploitable materials, notably ivory and rubber, and although demand for the latter significantly increased with the advent of motor cars and inflatable bicycle tubes, it was around the ivory trade that Conrad centred his book.

Marlow is confronted by the reality of colonial oppression soon after arriving at his Company’s station. In a narrow ravine nearby, he stumbles upon ‘black shapes… in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.’ It is self-evident that the labourers have come to this place to die: ‘They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought back from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air – and nearly as thin.’


Fiction and fact

Charged with relieving a company agent, Mr Kurtz, from his station, Marlow ventures into the depths of the sprawling, primordial wilderness on his steamboat. Mr Kurtz’s reputation precedes him: he is a remarkably productive ivory trader who possesses ‘universal genius’, and Marlow nurtures a growing obsession to meet this enigmatic figure. At the end of his perilous journey up river, he finds an individual wallowing in his own supremacy, and so engorged with authority that he coerces the native people to revere him as a god-like entity. Through his quasi-divine status, Kurtz obtains prodigious amounts of ivory from the Congolese; yet lurking behind this glamour is an egregious relationship of elaborate manipulation and viciousness, captured by the gaunt heads on stakes that surround Kurtz’s dwelling.

Colonial cruelty and exploitation were just as dreadful in reality. Appalling punishments were meted out to natives who failed to harvest enough wild rubber to meet their quotas, including the burning of their villages and the murdering and mutilation of their families. One of the most infamous punishments carried out by Force Publique soldiers was to chop off the right hand of a native in order to verify that he had not been squandering his resources on hunting and had instead been actively implementing Belgian authority. Photographs from the era attest to this perverse discipline: in one image, Congolese stare bleakly at the camera, each consciously bending the remainder of their arm inwards; in another, two impassive militiamen grasp severed hands: grotesque tokens of their dominance. Famine, disease and exhaustion were other major killers: they stalked the country, seizing first upon the elderly and weak labourers, before welcoming the able-bodied into their chilling embrace. Although it is impossible to ascertain the true human cost of Leopold’s avaricious and merciless regime, some estimates place the death toll in the region of ten million.

This flagrant indifference towards human life inflamed international opinion, and Heart of Darkness contributed to this outburst of moral revulsion. Leopold might have been able initially to conceal the hideous underbelly of his regime, but by the turn of the century, criticism was mounting. The British government was compelled to establish an investigation into the reality of life under Leopold’s administration, the findings of which were published in the 1904 Casement Report. Roger Casement, a British diplomat and human rights activist, had listed Belgian atrocities meticulously, and an interview with a native illustrates the rampant abuse:

‘We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts – the leopards – killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: “Go! You are only beasts yourselves; you are nyama (meat).” We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short the soldiers came up our towns and shot us. Many were shot; some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes round their neck and bodies and taken away… Our chiefs were hanged and we were killed and starved and worked beyond endurance to get rubber.’


The report engendered further outrage at the plight of the Congolese, and also triggered the foundation of the Congo Reform Association, a movement which counted Conrad, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle among its notable supporters. Leopold’s position was becoming increasingly untenable, and he eventually succumbed to international pressure by conceding the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908. Yet it was not until 1913 that the Congo Reform Association officially disbanded: a reflection of the Belgian government’s reluctance to investigate or even acknowledge the crimes perpetrated under Leopold’s regime. When considering the abhorrent and systematic abuse of the Congolese, it seems therefore apposite to end with Kurtz’s final, ambiguous yet visceral, exclamation before he died: ‘The horror! The horror!’


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Michael Collins was an Irish leader who helped his country achieve independence. However, a few years after the Irish Republic was proclaimed, Collins was dead. His death remains a mystery. Here, SM Sigerson, an author of a book related to the assassination, tells us about four myths surrounding his death. 

Michael Collins, his life and times, command an inexhaustible fascination for people everywhere. This is perhaps because they are a sort of microcosm of a political predicament that continues to repeat itself all over the world.

An ancient, semi-feudal oppressor. A people literally dying for self-determination.  A vigorous new generation, chomping at the bit to ‘have a go’. A wealth of new thought and thinkers, transforming political debate, intellectual and cultural life.

Among the best and brightest, a young leader steps into the breach: with the genius, vision and courage that turns the key and brings it all together. Spearheaded by him, his people sweep all before them.

Such popular leaders are sometimes fortunate, and live to rule; shepherding the people through the pangs of establishing their republic. Others fall in the conflict; tragically cut off in their prime, setting their world back decades.

Michael Collins addressing a crowd in Dublin, 1922.

Michael Collins addressing a crowd in Dublin, 1922.

We've seen this drama replayed in many nations. If mythology was created to teach us of classic dilemmas that may be cyclically repeated by humanity down through the ages, perhaps this is one of the key dilemmas.

No wonder that Collins' story has so much to say to us even now. If it's the stuff that dreams are made of, it has also been plagued by myth making in every sense. Mythology can have two potential functions: to illuminate the facts, or to obscure them. Some myths give meaning. They help us understand our mysteries. Another sort may simply be disinformation: concocted expressly to prevent understanding.

Because there has never been any full, official inquiry in to the death of Collins, his story is not much more than a folk tale. A number of myths about it have taken on a powerful life of their own; often tolerated and even disseminated by official sources.

In “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?” eleven popular misconceptions are listed which, almost without exception, have served to mislead the public about what really happened.

Most of these are easily traceable to sources by no means entirely objective or disinterested - when not to actual political opponents of the man whose death they seem to trivialize. We are going to consider a few such myths here.

Myth 1:  That there is an "official story"; that we know what happened.

Myth 2:  The anti-Treaty side did it.

Myth 3:  "No, stop and we'll fight them."

Myth 4:  Collins died because he was "careless of personal danger"


Myth 1: That there is an "official story"

Origin: Anecdote, folklore, irresponsible commentators.

Translation: "No investigation necessary."

That there never has been any official, public inquiry into the death of Michael Collins [1] is a glaring omission that cannot be excused in any modern democracy.

We haven't even the basic dignity of an official story to pull to pieces. We have only the illusion of one. Unexamined anecdote, conflicting testimony and rumor have been allowed to stand in its place. In reality, there is no official story.

As matters stand there is no real evidence to show what caused his death, and we can only presume it was caused by gunshot. There is no evidence to show that Collins didn't die of a heart attack, or that he was not poisoned and that the wounds were not inflicted afterward. [2]

The eyewitness reports are highly contradictory. None of those present were ever formally questioned by the authorities. There is no autopsy report that we can read. All we know for certain is that shots were exchanged at Béal na mBláth and that only Collins died.

Yet inquests were held in the death of Cathal Brugha, Harry Boland, Sean Hales, Liam Lynch "and a host of others who died from gunshot wounds... Contemporary newspapers show inquests in the deaths of soldiers as well as officers killed in action were commonplace." [3] The authorities' failure to convene any such examination in Collins' death is more than a regrettable oversight.


Myth 2: The anti-Treaty side did it

Origin: Popular assumption, based on contemporary press reports.

Translation: "Case closed."

The assumption that the anti-Treaty soldiers (that is, those who did not support the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that led to Ireland coming into being) shot Collins is no more than that.  As such, it is directly attributable to the lack of any official investigation.

Allegations that he was shot by someone other than the ambushers is not a far-fetched theory, but originates with corroborated eyewitness testimony.


Myth 3: "No, stop and we'll fight them."

Origin: Emmett Dalton.

Translation: "Dalton was not to blame. Collins (i.e. the victim) was to blame."

How many discussions of the events at Béal na mBláth turn on references to these words? How many of the journalists, politicians and others who've quoted this famous line have any idea of its provenance?

Like so much conventional wisdom about Béal na mBláth, this anecdote originates in the account given by one single witness only. It is the version of events given by Dalton. Significantly, it is the version which most seems to excuse Dalton's failure, as chief bodyguard, to keep his priceless charge alive. It is not corroborated by any other source.

This should be enough to restrain prominent commentators from quoting it as gospel.


Myth 4: "Careless of personal danger"

Origin: Folklore, well-meaning biographers.

Translation: "Collins (i.e. the victim) was to blame."


Where courage and judgment are equally required, I would rather send in a clever coward, than a stupid hero.

-  Michael Collins, 1922 [4]


No one survives the kind of attention that the British secret service focused on Michael Collins by mere ‘luck’. In the course of several years on their ‘most wanted’ list, he survived continuous, organized, sophisticated efforts, by the world's most formidable imperialist war machine, to infiltrate his organization, capture and/or kill him.

Running an army entirely dependent on volunteers and constantly recruiting them, he was particularly exposed to such assailants. A number of operatives joined the movement, distinguished themselves, and managed to penetrate quite near him. Expressing a keen desire to meet Collins, some were ultimately exposed and executed.

This sent a very clear message indeed: trying too hard to find Collins was a short way to end in a ditch with a hole in the head. Then there are the many eyewitness reports, scattered throughout his life in Dublin, of his stunning skill in swiftly dispatching the occasional lone armed attacker, with his bare hands and championship wrestling skills.

These were dangerous times. The Irish were playing for high stakes, and had their eyes on the prize: the golden ring of national freedom, which had eluded their forebears for centuries. The struggle required great physical courage in its combatants, and a willingness to take risks.

Yet no one in Collins' position could have survived the War of Independence, had he been ‘careless of personal danger’.


"The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?" by SM Sigerson is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


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1) He is referred to herein as "Collins"

2) John M Feehan The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?  Mercier Press, Cork, Ireland, 1981

3) Ibid.  Tim Pat Coogan, in his authoritative biography Michael Collins, seems to err in asserting that no inquests were held in deaths that occurred during "military action."  Arrow Books, London, 1991

4) Hayden Talbot, Michael Collins: His Own Story Hutchinson & Company, London, 1923

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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Our image of the week is about the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan and the circumnavigation of the world.


Ferdinand Magellan set off from Seville, Spain in 1519 on a trip that would make history. Below is a painting of Magellan that is from the sixteenth or seventeenth century

The reason that Magellan’s voyage made history was that it would be the first to circumnavigate the globe. The voyage included a trip through Tierra del Fuego, also known as the land of fire, at the southern tip of South America, as well as an epic crossing of the Pacific. Finally, after crossing the Pacific Ocean, Magellan was to die in the Philippines in 1521. The voyage pressed on though, and in the end a small number of those who left Spain in 1519 arrived back there in 1522. These men had suffered terribly, but they were lucky enough to have survived.

Below is a depiction of the Victoria, the only ship that made the journey around the world. The image is taken from a late sixteenth century map made by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

20140513 Detail_from_a_map_of_Ortelius_-_Magellan's_ship_Victoria.png

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones