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Free Study Guide-The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver-Free Summary
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Literary/Historical Information

The history of the Congo as it applies to the novel can be traced to the late 1800's exploration by H.M. Stanley who stirred the interest of Leopold II of Belgium. Heading a group of European investors, Leopold authorized Stanley to establish posts along the upper Congo River and to negotiate with some of the tribal rulers. By 1884, Leopoldís committee had agreements with over 400 independent African tribes, and on that basis declared a right to govern the entire territory. In 1884, the territory was named "The Congo Free State," and Europe recognized Leopold as king.

Leopold extended his control into the interior and built a railroad to get around a section of rapids in the Congo River. Leopold and his military directed mining activities for diamonds and cobalt and were notorious for maltreatment of the natives, including forced labor, whippings, hostage taking and mutilation for even minor offenses. The stories infuriated the people of Europe and by 1908, Leopold was forced to turn the Congo over to the Belgian government. The Congo Free State was renamed, the "Belgian Congo."

In the 1920s, a religious movement began that slowly turned the people against European culture and Christian missions. In 1957, the people were given their first opportunity to vote, and on June 30, 1960, Belgium granted independence to the Congo and installed Patrice Lumumba as prime minister. Within weeks, rival factions brought about a meeting among the army and police, and Lumumba was forced to call upon the UN to establish some sort of order. Lumumba made the mistake of threatening to seek help from Russia and was accused of being a communist. He was ultimately arrested and murdered and temporarily replaced by Joseph Kasanubu.


Meanwhile, European immigrants fled the country as rumors abounded of the killings of white people. The UN stayed in the country for four years, but was ineffective in preventing the succession of Katanga. Nor did the UN feel any sense of obligation over the killing of Lumumba who quickly became a symbol of African nationalism.

Moise Tshombe, a puppet of Belgian mining interests, gained power briefly in 1964, but was quickly ousted by General Mobutu. Mobutu was able to establish relative stability with all members of his government belong to the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution or MPR. Although Mobutu brought about improvements in foreign relations and investments and started a nationalist movement involving place-name changes, he did little to improve the lot of the villages, nor did his trade negotiations-involving massive sales of cobalt, diamonds, and copper-bring about reforms in the standard of living for the Congolese people. In fact, by the time of Mobutuís death, Congo was considered one of the poorest of all African nations.

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