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Blank Space

Annett Busch and Florian Schneider


"When I grow up I shall go there." The nine year old Konrad Korzeniowski points his finger into the middle of nowhere. The grown up, then called Joseph Conrad later designates it as "the blankest of all blank spaces". The little Konrad was a noble polish boy, son of a patriotic writer, who was exiled to the cold north of Russia. He was looking at the map of Africa and chose his destination with "absolute assurance and amazing audacity" as he recalls himself when he became the famous writer Joseph Conrad.

"To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples..." With these words the "King of the Belgians", Leopold II. welcomed the participants of the "Geographical Conference" that took place in September 1876 at the Royal Palace in Brussels. Only nine years after nearly one million square miles in central Africa, an area that Joseph Conrad once called "the blankest of all blank spaces", has been named the "Congo Free State". For the next 23 years it was the private property of Leopold II. During that period at least 8 million people lost their lives under a regime of terror and exploitation.

Blank spaces are not blank at all. They have been blanked out in order to be appropriated. It is a negative act of imagination that eradicates anything that is there in order to be able to properly own it. The blank space is the canvas on which imagination projects: an allegedly empty signifier which may stimulate the phantasies of nine-year old Konrad.

But in fact it has been emptied out of meaning. Leopold and his handyman in the Congo, well-armed explorer H.M. Stanley managed to make treaties with nearly 500 "native chiefs" in which they signed over their land to the "king of the belgians" for almost nothing, like a few pieces of cloths and a couple of bottles of gin. With the help of an Oxford scholar Leopold promoted the right of private companies to act as if they were souvereign countries.


Blankness and ignorance correspond to a fascination for depth and darkness. In the perspective of imperial romanticism the blank and the dark are mutually dependant: They refer to unknown and unconscious streams that are running in the deep inside. "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that water into the mystery of an unknown earth?... The dreams of men, the seeds of commonwealths, the germs of empires." Joseph Conrads "Heart of Darkness" opens on the river Thames, in the very centre of colonialism.

On the other side, the Congo river then is described as "a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land." The jungle and African wilderness is used as a metaphor for human sub- or unconscious, which is penetrated "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness". Africa becomes increasingly "impenetrable to human thought".

From late 19th century literature, silent movies in the 1920ies to todays TV series and soap operas this pattern is repeated ad nauseam: the scramble for Africa is depicted as a kathartic experience that rectifies the unsettled psyche of the colonizer in crisis who tried to escape from either bourgeois ennui or social declassation.

Like Edward Said wrote: "What they saw as a non-European "darkness" was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain sovereignty and independence, and not, as Conrad reductively says, to re-establish the darkness."


Joseph Conrads "phantom world of darkness" is inhabited by a prototype of radical evil, the industrialized mass murder that several decades later has been carried out to perfection. Hannah Arendt who called Heart of Darkness "the most illuminating work on actual race experience in Africa" has noted that in the "fictituous world of totalitarianism" radical or absolute evil may appear as sheer banality.

The new adventurers are "reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage". It is hollowness that shapes the characters from King Leopold II to the blueprints of Mister Kurtz like station chief Leon Rom or ivory trader Georges Antoine Klein, from the infamous "Kongo-Mueller" of Heynowski/Scheumanns documentary "The laughing man" to german mass-murderer Carl Peters whom Arendt considers the model for Conrad's Kurtz.

Hollowness fuses blank surfaces and the dark interior. Humanitarianism and genocide, racism and philantropy are not opposed to each others at all. Leopold robbed his private colony and set up his slave labour regime of all things on the basis of the noble cause of abolitionism. At the before mentioned "Geographical conference" in 1876 he proposed the establishment of an international benevolent committee for the "propagation of civilisation among the peoples of the Congo region by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the 'Arabic' slave traders."

What at the first glance may appear as hypocrisy constitutes in fact a topology of industrialism that is both, radical in its desire to exterminate the other and banal in the sense of a bureaucratic vanity that takes care of the atrocities.


1890, Joseph Conrad finally realised his childhood ambition and, as a captain, travelled in a steamer up the Congo river. Based on these experiences he wrote his novella "Heart of Darkness" which gained him worldwide fame as a fiction writer.

In the same year George Washington Williams adressed an "Open Letter to His Serene Majesty". Williams was an african-american minister and lawyer who originally was seriously impressed by Leopolds anti-slavery rhetorics and met him in Brussels before he started his expedition into the "Congo Free State".

"Good and Great Friend", he starts his report of twelve "carefully investigated charges" against Leopolds government: "How throroughly I have been disenchanted, dissapointed and disheartened, it is now my painful duty to make known to your Majesty in plain but respectful language."

Long before it was used in the Nuremberg trials Williams coined the term "crimes against humanity" in order to characterize the regime of terror, exploitation, and atrocities carried out by King Leopold as the sole proprietor, banker and stakeholder of the "Free State of Congo". But it took another 18 years, many letters and international campaigning before the Belgium government was forced to annex the Congo by buying it from King Leopold. In recognition of the "great sacrifices" he has made for the Congo, Leopold received a huge payout on top of the riches he has extracted from Congo in the years of the rubber boom.


According to Edward Said the postcolonial situation is characterized as a network of interdependent histories. Letters written out of these histories cannot be sorted and delivered to their legitimate addressees; they keep bouncing and return to the sender.

If it is safe to say that industrial capitalism is based on colonial genocides that pave the way to the natural resources and raw commodities, what are the blank spaces today? There is a blankness that expands from the proxy wars that turned the independency of Congo in 1960 after only a few months into a battlefield of the cold war, that runs across the three-decade dictatorship of Mobutu propped up by western allies and multinational corporations and leads to todays "Tantalum wars" financed by the exportation of Coltan, a metal powder that is used for the production of capacitors for portable computers and mobile phones.

Matonge is a neighbouhood in Ixelles, in the south of Brussels. The quarter near Porte de Namur intersection, is renamed after the marketplace and the commercial district with the same name in Kinshasa. It is situated about five hundred meters from the Royal Palace and in between two upmarket zones: the European ‘Leopold' quarter and the Avenue Louise. Since the late 1950ies immigrants from Congo moved into the district and shaped the neighbourhood in a style to resemble the original Matonge.

Today, the blankest of all blank spaces is called Europe. And one of the many bouncing letters to Leopold keeps telling the story of those who may today point their fingers on the map towards Europe saying: "When I grow up I shall go there."

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