“Comfortable in their use of force … Europeans inspired men without tools to build a modern engineering wonder”—a 320 mile railway west of the Congo River, from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire, through daunting terrain—effectively by hand (307). But, as Daughton goes on to say, “The decisions [by colonial administrators] to start building a railroad without a map, to start recruiting [labor without a plan] … and to clear forests inaccessible … reflected the delusional self-confidence common to … empires” (309).

Those are but modest criticisms of a brutally racist enterprise to develop French Equatorial Africa (modern Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, and the linchpin Republic of Congo) by connecting its capital at Brazzaville to the sea by rail. Daughton’s carefully researched book details the immense extent to which the construction of that rail line depended on the forcible recruitment of as many as 100,000 laborers from the near...

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