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Publisher's Summary

The epic story of the Congo-Océan railroad and the human costs and contradictions of modern empire.

The Congo-Océan railroad stretches across the Republic of Congo from Brazzaville to the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noir. It was completed in 1934, when Equatorial Africa was a French colony, and it stands as one of the deadliest construction projects in history. Colonial workers were subjects of an ostensibly democratic nation whose motto read “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, but liberal ideals were savaged by a cruelly indifferent administrative state.

African workers were forcibly conscripted and separated from their families, and subjected to hellish conditions as they hacked their way through dense tropical foliage - a “forest of no joy”; excavated by hand thousands of tons of earth in order to lay down track; blasted their way through rock to construct tunnels; or risked their lives building bridges over otherwise impassable rivers. In the process, they suffered disease, malnutrition, and rampant physical abuse, likely resulting in at least 20,000 deaths.

In the Forest of No Joy captures in vivid detail the experiences of the men, women, and children who toiled on the railroad, and it forces a reassessment of the moral relationship between modern industrialized empires and what could be called global humanitarian impulses - the desire to improve the lives of people outside of Europe. Drawing on exhaustive research in French and Congolese archives, a chilling documentary record, J.P. Daughton tells the epic story of the Congo-Océan railroad and in doing so reveals the human costs and contradictions of modern empire.

©2021 J. P. Daughton (P)2021 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Masterful.... what makes it so compelling is the divide it exposes between the often admirable intentions of colonial bureaucrats who did genuinely think they were lifting Africans out of poverty, and the grim reality that they enabled." (The Economist)

"[An] unsparing history.... By highlighting individual stories, Daughton upends the Eurocentric narrative of the documents he studies, in which ‘white triumph would always discount African trauma'." (The New Yorker)

"In this tour de force of historical research, J.P. Daughton tells the horrifying story of the Congo-Océan railroad, a massive, ill-conceived construction project (1921-34) whose French overseers doomed some 20,000 African workers to die. This story, revealing as it does France’s imperial hubris and callous disregard of human suffering, should have been told a long time ago. But it has been buried by bureaucrats, overlooked by historians, and made invisible to those who chose not to see. We owe Daughton a great debt for bringing it to light and for masterfully adding a new chapter to the tragic history of Central Africa under European colonial rule." (Edward Berenson, department chair and professor of history, New York University, and author of The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town

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disappointed

I was expecting information about the physical building of the road as well as about the people who built it and their trials. But went on and on about the terrible treatment the workers got, so much so that I got sick of the negativity and stopped without finishing, though went twice as far inti the book as I should have. Disappointing