Surviving the Heart of Darkness: A Consul’s Tale
Review by Michael W. Cotter
Captive in the Congo: A Consul’s Return to the Heart of Darkness. By Michael P. E. Hoyt. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 275. $29.95 cloth.)
As the former American consul in Stanleyville (now Kisangani), Congo, Michael Hoyt has produced a fascinating memoir that makes compelling reading. His book is one in the series created by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) and Diplomats and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR) to—as the introductory note explains: “increase public knowledge and appreciation of the involvement of American diplomats in world history… to demystify diplomacy by telling the story of those who have conducted our foreign relations, as they saw them and lived them.”
>Less than a month after his arrival in 1964, Hoyt and his colleagues at the U. S. Consulate in the Congolese capital were taken hostage by the Simba rebels. Their nearly four month ordeal ended when Belgian paratroopers rescued them and several hundred European and American hostages on 24 November. While all of the U. S. diplomats survived the rescue attempt, two American missionaries and eighteen foreigners did not.
Only readers looking for a history of the Simba Rebellion or the early years of Congolese independence will be disappointed in this harrowing tale of Foreign Service bravery and professionalism. Although there is an excellent introduction by former U. S. Ambassador Monteagle Stearns (then Political Counselor at the U. S. Embassy in Leopoldville) that does provide some historical context.
What Hoyt sets out to do in this compelling memoir of one consul’s trial by fire is to provide a day-by-day, and at times hour-by-hour narrative of his ordeal as a hostage of the Simba rebels in the Congo. He recounts events that must have been horrible to live through. For instance, Chapter six–entitled “Last Words”–begins with: “You need to write your last words,” Patrick Nothomb, the Belgian consul, shouted excitedly as he bounded up the residence steps,” thus introducing the tale of one of several instances when rebels issued orders to kill all of the American consular officials. Hoyt’s almost eerily dispassionate narrative of his captivity leaves the reader with the clear impression that even after more than thirty-five years, recalling and committing these events to paper was not an easy task for him.
This gripping account of American resolve abroad demonstrates the benefits of keeping a running notebook of important events as they happen. Hoyt and his colleague, Vice-Consul David Grinwis, kept such a record, which they later compiled into an unpublished diary. Those materials, along with cable traffic between Stanleyville, Leopoldville, and Washington obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, provide the foundation upon which the author builds his narrative. Thus his tale does not depend on fading, thirty-five year memories alone. The result is a book full of the vividness one would expect of a description of much more recent events.
Hoyt writes in a straightforward manner that will seem familiar to readers who do or have worked for the government. He is less comfortable with descriptive phrases, sometimes slipping into the use of cliches. But the flow of the narrative kept this reviewer (who served in Zaire, as the Congo was then known, some twenty years after Hoyt) pinned to his chair from start to finish. The book has excellent footnotes, many of which refer to the source materials, but others of which expand very usefully on the text. The volume’s one shortcoming is a lack of maps. There is a small map of the Congo before the first chapter, and a map of the central part of Stanleyville in the chapter describing the rescue mission. Additional maps of the Stanleyville consular district and the city would have made it easier to track the location of the consulate, government buildings, and the various places the hostages were held. That shortcoming is a minor distraction in a book well worth reading.
Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter is associate publisher and vice president of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers. In addition to his tour in Zaire (1984-88), Ambassador Cotter was posted to Vietnam, Bolivia, Ecuador, Turkey, Chile, and Turkmenistan, where he served as ambassador. Living in the Chapel Hill area, he is involved in community volunteer activities and writes and lectures on international topics.