Axel Werner Hoppenrath

The Parker Expedition and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

A Swedish Captain

On the face of it there would seem to be little connection between a British-led expedition to Jerusalem seeking the Ark of the Covenant and a book written about imperial madness in the Belgian Congo.  However, there is a connection and that is the Swedish captain Axel Werner Hoppenrath. He worked in the Congo for decades as a steamboat captain and played a role in an event which spurred Conrad to write Heart of Darkness.

In Juvelius’ fictionalised account of the expedition he wrote about a character called Captain Nierot who was clearly based on Hoppenrath. He describes him as cynical, arrogant, rude, not trustworthy, unscrupulously selfish and boundlessly material, having strange notions of the rights of ‘higher’ races with ‘lower’ ones, and of owning slaves.

A Belgian missionary anthropologist and explorer called Constant Pierre-Joseph De Deken wrote how Hoppenrath had conducted a party of Catholic missionaries and nuns on the Stanley steamer in 1894. He said that even if you travelled slowly with Hoppenrath you could be sure of arriving.  De Deken recounted ‘an amusing tale’ (his words not mine) of how Hoppenrath had members of the crew whipped with the chicotte, including a boy, as they had not chopped wood for the ship’s boiler.

Axel Werner Hoppenrath

The Belgian Congo was the most venal and corrupt of all European empires which were established in the 19th century in the Scramble for Africa. It was a stealth vanity project of King Leopold and was his personal fiefdom. When he founded it, there was no oversight from the Belgian government. Leopold established it under spurious humanitarian pretexts. He claimed its goal was to end slavery and bring civilisation to the region. Instead, Leopold built the Free State on mass forced labour and outright enslavement of much of the African population. The regime became synonymous internationally with severed limbs.

Many of these mutilations were a systematic tactic in rubber harvesting. This violence was so great there was an international chorus of criticism towards the end of the 19th century. The Free State and King Leopold were denounced across the world. The most evocative account of the madness of the Congo is Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad spent six months in 1889 as a steamer captain in the Congo so saw conditions for himself. However, he only started to write Heart of Darkness several years later. Conrad was an avid reader of the Saturday Review and on the 17th December 1898 they reprinted an article from the diaries of an English explorer who, while an employee of the Free State, worked in the Belgian Congo. The articles first appeared in an article entitled ‘Cruelty in the Congo Free State’

In the diary, Glave describes travelling upriver on the river steamer the Stanley, captained by Axel Werner Hoppenrath. One diary entry recounts how the employees of the state ‘are compelled to bring in ivory and rubber and are permitted to employ any measures considered necessary to obtain this result.’ It goes on to detail the resentment this caused, which led to an attack by locals on a white outpost. In this attack, two white men were killed. So:

“Arabs were sent to punish the natives; many women and children were taken, and twenty-one heads were brought to the (Stanley) falls, and have been used by Captain Rom as a decoration round a flower-bed in front of his house!”

Captain Leon Rom

Joseph Conrad’s work uses this incident in one of the most powerful scenes in the book. The work focusses on a journey upriver by an English sailor called Charles Marlow. His long voyage by paddle steamer is to retrieve a European agent, called Kurtz, from a remote station. Kurtz has gone mad and as a result ‘ruined’ the business in the district. The first river steamer captain Marlow meets in the Congo is a Swede. The book portrays the horror of the regime on the trip.

The book’s most memorable description of the madness is when the steamer finally arrives at the outpost. As the outpost comes into view they see Kurtz’s house. The narrator is struck by the incongruous attempts at decoration surrounding the house. Outside the house are half a dozen posts, each topped with what he initially believes are round, carved balls. As they get closer, he looks through his binoculars again and suddenly realises what he is looking at. He is shocked to discover what the ‘balls’ really were:

“I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids,—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”

The description of the garden ornamentation of heads, which Hoppenrath saw, is so similar to the description in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that it is hard to imagine that this is coincidental.

The explanation of whether Kurtz is based on Captain Rom is detailed in Adam Hochschild’s incredible work King Leopold’s Ghost. He also discussed the idea that Kurtz is based on Rom in this video around 44 mins into the video.

The connections to Turkey

The mapping tool has current countries and not those that existed just over a century ago. So the title is somewhat misleading as Turkey did not exist as a country at the time of the expedition and so the connections of the expedition were really with the Ottoman Empire which was ruled from Constantinople, the modern-day Istanbul. The expedition to Jerusalem was to a city which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. However, this post will focus on the connections to the Ottoman Imperial government. The connections to Jerusalem and other parts of what was Palestine will be dealt with in a separate post about connections to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The Sublime Porte

In November 1908 the syndicate sent a small party to Jerusalem to explore Juvelius’ cyphers. The three individuals in the party were Parker, Hoppenrath and Juvelius. After they left Jerusalem Parker went to Constantinople. He installed himself in the best hotel in the city, the Pera Palace Hotel. The hotel was built at the end of the 19th century for passengers arriving on the recently completed Orient Express. It was the first hotel in the city to have electricity, running water in all rooms and an electric lift. Years later, Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express there. When he arrived, Parker sent a letter to Ziya Pasha, the Ottoman finance minister, saying that, following long research, he believed he had found a ‘very important treasure within the Ottoman Empire’. He wrote in French as this was the language of diplomacy at the time. Parker unashamedly used all devices to get the Ottoman authorities to take his approach seriously. He used his military rank and position and signed the letter as the Honourable Captain Parker of the Grenadier Guards. He also played up his British establishment connections. His father had been a government minister and his elder brother was a member of the House of Lords.

Constantinople

1908 was a challenging time to negotiate an agreement with the Ottoman authorities as it was a time of great upheaval in the Empire. A hereditary dynasty of sultans had run the Empire for centuries. The sultan was Abdul Hamid II, who had ruled since 1876. During his reign, the Ottoman Empire had contracted and had lost significant amounts of territory. The Ottoman government struggled with the level of national debt and there was great unrest about the resulting level of taxation. There was also a sense that the Ottoman Empire was slipping further behind Europe. The discontent prompted challenges to the centuries-old system of rule. The Young Turk revolution broke out, led by elements in the military. In the summer of 1908, they forced the sultan to give up absolute power and become a constitutional monarch. The sultan reinstated the 1876 constitution and Parliament. None of this upheaval stopped Parker. He was successful in his negotiations with the authorities in Constantinople. On the 26th November 1908 he signed two agreements with the Ottoman Imperial government. Ziya Pasha, the finance minister, signed on behalf of the Ottoman government and Parker signed the contracts as a resident of the Turf Club, Clarges Street, London.

The two contracts Parker signed were in Turkish and French, the latter still the international language of diplomacy. The first contract dealt with the purchase of the land for the excavations. The syndicate would pay the Ottoman government to purchase or expropriate the land required. They would have exclusive use of the land for the period of the excavations and then hand it back at the end. The second contract had twelve key clauses detailing the close collaboration between the expedition and the Ottoman authorities. All the costs of the excavations would be paid by the syndicate. The Ottoman authorities would provide ‘the military force necessary’ for Parker’s and his workers’ safety, the cost of which would be met by the syndicate. The Jerusalem governor was also required to ‘help facilitate through all means the task of the Hon. M. Parker’. The contract specified the Imperial Ottoman government and syndicate would split the fruits of the excavations.

The contract also provided that the Ottoman Imperial government could appoint two commissioners to oversee the work. the two commissioners appointed were Abdulaziz Mecdi Efendi and Habip Bey. They were both members of the Ottoman Parliament and were happy to accept the generous salary and easy life.

Because of the Ottoman regime’s instability, Parker had to negotiate with a succession of prime ministers and ministers in Constantinople. He secured unprecedented cooperation from the Ottoman Empire, probably helped by some generous bribery. Parker had to negotiate annual extensions to the contract. The last one allowed them to dig in 1911.

Djavid Bey

After the 1911 Haram al-Sharif incident the Ottoman Imperial government instituted a major inquiry into what had happened and this reported to the Ottoman Parliament. The ministers of war, interior and justice jointly agreed to set up just such an inquiry. They appointed a high-level group from around the Empire. It began its work on 30th April. Officials went to Jerusalem to interview all concerned and establish the facts of what had happened. A week later, on the 8th May, the Ottoman Parliament held an emergency debate on the Haram al-Sharif incident. Two notables, who were the representatives from Jerusalem, attacked both the Jerusalem governor and the Imperial Ottoman authorities. Ruhi al-Khalidi made a harsh, at times sarcastic speech. He said that the issue was a mysterious one which started like a tale from One Thousand and One Nights or Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.

At the same time as the inquiry was going on Parker was in Constantinople negotiating that the expedition could return to Jerusalem to resume their work. The Ottoman government agreed to this.

Other geographical connections

The connections to Sweden

Ice cream makers, naval captains and investors

Two of the expedition members were Swedish and there were many Swedish investors in the venture including the Swedish ambassador to the United Kingdom Count Anton Magnus Herman Wrangel af Sauss.

Johan Millen

It was Johan Millen who went to England to raise the funds for the expedition. Millen was a Swedish businessman who had tried his hand at different ventures including setting up Sweden’s first ice cream company. He had worked in Denmark and Belgium and had contacts in England. Millen moved to England during the expedition. However, he returned to Sweden a few years later. In December 1915, he gave a lecture about the excavations and the Ark at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The talk was not well received. He also wrote an account of the expedition which he published.

Axel Werner Hoppenrath

Axel Werner Hoppenrath was a Swedish captain who worked in the Belgian Congo for decades. His service in the Congo was only broken by his time on the expedition. He was a critical member of the Parker expedition. He negotiated the purchase of land and signed a contract with the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem.

The official biography of service in the Congo records that Hoppenrath worked hard and with ‘a rare competence’. His passengers also appreciated Hoppenrath’s qualities as a steamer captain. In 1894, when he was the ‘Stanley’ steamer’s captain, he carried a party of Catholic missionaries and nuns. One of these was Constant Pierre-Joseph De Deken. He was a Belgian missionary, anthropologist and explorer who later wrote an account of his time in the Congo. De Deken thanked the Swede for his tact and good manners, which lessened their long voyage’s monotony. He wrote that even if you travelled slowly with Hoppenrath, you could be sure of arriving.

The most famous depiction of the madness of the Belgian Congo is arguably in Joseph Conrad’s work Heart of Darkness. Hoppenrath played a part in inspiring its most famous scene:

“I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids,—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”

The official Belgian Biography of Colonial Service paid tribute to Hoppenrath:

‘During a fine colonial career of more than 30 years in the Congo, Hoppenrath rendered remarkable services to the Colony.”

On his retirement, he returned to Sweden and died in Stockholm in June 1932.

Henning Melander

Henning Melander was a Swedish writer who published books and articles over many years about the Ark of the Covenant. He believed that the Ark was hidden in Jerusalem. In 1881, he had visited Jerusalem and researched the locations where he believed the Ark was hidden. He returned home and pursued a career as a surveyor in the Swedish army. He also wrote about his theories. Twenty years before Juvelius went to London, Melander had published a book entitled The Ark of the Covenant of Israel and its Rediscovery. He was also a friend of Theodor Herzl the founder of the Zionist movement and discussed with him organising an expedition to dig in Jerusalem for the Ark.

Melander later published The Hidden Temple Treasures of Jerusalem. He believed that the prophet Jeremiah, together with the High Priest Hilkiah, had hidden the Ark during King Josiah’s reign. He claimed they had buried it in a place called Hakeldama or Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna. Juvelius read the book and wrote to Melander saying that he agreed with his theories. He asked to cooperate with Melander. They exchanged information and Melander’s work was influential in where the Parker expedition ended up digging. He sent maps and photos of Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel to Juvelius. At the end of the correspondence and before he talked to Johan Millen and Axel Werner Hoppenrath Juvelius wrote:

“I now believe that I have empirically proven the correctness of Henning Melander’s extremely ingenious deduction that the entrance (the one from the valley side) to Jerusalem’s temple archive is in Hakeldama! Also that the temple archive stands still untouched in its hiding place!”

However, Juvelius decided to exclude Melander from the project and this produced a great deal of bitterness later on. Melander accused Juvelius of stealing his ideas and worse.

The Ambassador

In February 1914 after Clarence Wilson had gone mad and the expedition’s main source of funds has been closed down a delegation of Jerusalem creditors, including the mayor of Silwan, came to London. They were chasing money they were owed. Parker refused to meet them. Millen resolved the issue by selling some of his shares and giving the proceeds to the creditors. He sold £250 of shares, the equivalent of £30,000 today. Millen somehow persuaded the Swedish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Count Herman Wrangel, to invest in the dying venture.

The Swedish Investors

Other than Johan Millen and Count Herman Wrangel there were eight other investors in the expedition who were listed as being Swedish residents. They were:

Oscar Bjorkman living in Wimmersby
Ada Uggla living in Stockholm
Victoria Wallen living in Stockholm
Edward Leffler living in Gothenburg
Gustaf Leffler living in Gothenburg
Anna Nilsson living in Arvika
Elin Allen living in Stockholm
Edith Sophie Carlsson living in Stockholm

Other geographical connections

The connections to Belgium

Imperial Madness & Soap

Two of the expedition members had close links to Belgium although neither of them were Belgian.

Johan Millen

It was Johan Millen who went to England to raise the funds for the expedition. At the time he worked in a soap manufacturer in Antwerp.

Axel Werner Hoppenrath

Axel Werner Hoppenrath was a Swedish captain who worked in the Belgian Congo for decades. His service in the Congo was only broken by his time on the expedition. He was a critical member of the Parker expedition. He negotiated the purchase of land and signed a contract with the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem.

The official biography of service in the Congo records that Hoppenrath worked hard and with ‘a rare competence’. His passengers also appreciated Hoppenrath’s qualities as a steamer captain. In 1894, when he was the ‘Stanley’ steamer’s captain, he carried a party of Catholic missionaries and nuns. One of these was Constant Pierre-Joseph De Deken. He was a Belgian missionary, anthropologist and explorer who later wrote an account of his time in the Congo. De Deken thanked the Swede for his tact and good manners, which lessened their long voyage’s monotony. He wrote that even if you travelled slowly with Hoppenrath, you could be sure of arriving.

The most famous depiction of the madness of the Belgian Congo is arguably in Joseph Conrad’s work Heart of Darkness. Hoppenrath played a part in inspiring its most famous scene:

“I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids,—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”

Hoppenrath was married to a Belgian woman named Jeanne-Marie Charlier. He married her on his return to Europe shortly before the expedition. She later joined him for part of the expedition to Jerusalem.

Investors

In addition to Hoppenrath and Millen’s connections to Belgium there was also one Belgian shareholder in J. M. P. F. W. Ltd.

FCW Stachow a Civil Engineer of 146 rue des Palais, Brussels was a shareholder.

Other geographical connections