AIDS – the eerie ghost behind Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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This is simply an eerie coincidence – but it’s a coincidence I can’t help reflecting on and feeling. Here’s the coincidence: Joseph Conrad travelled up the Congo river by steamship in the early 1890s to pick up a sick employee who died during the return trip. He based Heart of Darkness on these experiences.

During that very same period, it’s quite possible that the ancestor of the human HIV virus was spread – along the Congo river, by steamship.

OK – taking a step back. Here’s what lies behind this. My information comes from “The Viral Storm” by Stanford Univ. biologist Nathan Wolfe, who’s an expert on the spread of epidemics.

First, on the known origins of the human HIV virus:

“Our understanding of HIV is more advanced than our understanding of the origins of probably any other major human virus….the pandemic form of HIV is a chimpanzee virus that crossed into humans. There is no debate within the scientific community on this point. The cumulative evidence with regard to how it originally entered into humans is also increasingly unequivocal. It was almost certainly through contact with chimpanzee blood during the hunting and butchering of chimpanzees.”

Second: location, timing and what assisted its spread:

“In 1892 steamship service began from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the very heart of the central African forest. The steamship service connected populations that had been largely separated, creating the potential for viruses that previously might have gone extinct in local isolated populations to reach the growing urban centers.”

Wolfe writes that, based on a sample from an infected women in Kinshasa dating from 1959, researchers established that the ancestor of the human virus “split from the lineage sometime around 1900 and certainly before 1930” in DRC.

Thirdly – the wikipedia entry on the background to the writing of Heart of Darkness:

“About eight and a half years before writing the book (published 1899), Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Upon arrival at his station in the Congo, he found that the steamer he was to command had been damaged and was in need of repair. Yet the next day he headed up river on a different steamer that was captained by another. When that captain became ill during the journey Conrad assumed command. At the company’s inner-most station they picked up its agent, Georges-Antoine Klein, who died on the return trip. Conrad himself became very sick and returned to Europe before serving out the full three-year term of his contract to the trading company.”

I’m not suggesting that the illnesses that Conrad and Klein had were HIV infections, (although it can’t be ruled out entirely) but the fact that the virus was being spread by the very same means that Conrad was using – ie a steamship up the Congo river – I find eerie. As if the darkness spread out, eventually, to the whole world.

Postscript – recent research has established that AIDS reached the US from Congo, via Haiti – and quite possibly it was linked with the UN involvement in Congo after the fall of Patrice Lumumba, and its peacekeeping operations there – (interesting tangent: spearheaded by Secretary-General Dag Hammaskjold, who was later probably assassinated while trying to broker a peace deal for the country – his plane was probably shot down, possibly organized by a conglomerate of Belgian and British mining interests).

Extract from a short article describing the resent research:

“Relying on previous genetic research and African colonial records, Dr. Pépin showed that H.I.V. was carried from Kinshasa to Haiti in the 1960s — most likely by one of the thousands of Haitian civil servants recruited by the United Nations to work in the former Belgian Congo after colonial rule collapsed.”

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