An aircraft goes down over Africa under “mysterious circumstances.” The secretary general of the United Nations and 14 others, the crew and other members of his team, died. The only survivor of the 15 was an American Army sergeant on special assignment to the secretary general as security. He flatly insisted that the plane was shot down. His statement was ignored and he was left in a fourth-rate African farm-worker hospital to die.

You wake from dreams of doom and…”― Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was born in Sweden on July 29, 1905. He died in a mysterious air disaster just inside the border of northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on September 18, 1961. He had been secretary general of the United Nations for just over eight years. The cause of his death?

In late June of 1961, the Congo was going to be given its independence by Belgium. Africa in the 1960s had country after country given its independence without proper preparation. The Congo had far less preparation than most and was a disaster waiting to happen.

“The Congo did not have one black African engineer, doctor, military officer, or senior administrator. Only a handful had a university degree,” said Dr. Ralph Bunche, UN HQ, 1 September, 1960. What it did have was a miserable and destructive history.

The king of Belgium had ruled the land in the late 19th century as a personal fiefdom. Private businesses used forced labor, especially in the rubber plantations. A worker missed a day because he was sick? His daughter’s arm would be chopped off so that he would not miss another day.

This continued until pressure from around the world (including Samuel Clemens in the U.S.) caused the Belgian parliament to make the land a Belgian government colony. Conditions improved, but forced labor continued under other guises. Unlike British and French colonies where the idea was to hand rules and laws to local chieftains, the Belgians had a more direct rule.

In 1955, Belgium thought that, with 30 years of preparation, the Congo could be granted independence. Too many colonial Belgians living in the Congo bitterly opposed any handover, and black political activists demanded immediate independence. Belgium had no stomach for what France had gone through in Indochina and Algeria, so the Congo would be dumped in 1960.