Through the remains of court cases, company archives and private archives, renowned historians and archivists from universities and scientific institutions in Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America have revisited in this book lesser-known or long-lost archives that are crucial for a deeper understanding of the 30 years of the Congo Free State that marked Belgium’s entry into the colonial era.
In a micro-historical approach, they brilliantly demonstrate what the archives can still offer us to perfect our knowledge and refine our opinion in the long term. In particular, they highlight the fact that this history is part of a global and local history of Central Africa.
Table Of Contents
- About the authors
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Foreword: Re-Examining the Colonial Archives of the Congo Free State, Revisiting Congolese Historiography (Charles Tshimanga-Kashama)
- List of illustrations
- Introduction: The Congo Free State: What archives can tell us (Mathilde Leduc-Grimaldi and Patricia Van Schuylenbergh)
- Part 1: CFS archives survey
- An ‘Archival Labyrinth’? The archives related to the Congo Free State kept in Belgium and their finding aids (Luis Angel Bernardo y Garcia)
- The archives of the Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tom Morren)
- The awakening of the sleeping archives: The Goffinet archives (Olivier Defrance)
- Part 2: From global context to local history
- To be international or not to be: Stanley within the ‘Congo Scheme’ (1878–1884) (Mathilde Leduc-Grimaldi)
- Naming self and the other in Arabic and Swahili correspondence in the Congo Free State (Xavier Luffin)
- The Kurtz and Prospero myth models in Congo Free State archives (David M. Gordon)
- The personal papers of Clément Brasseur and the Africanization of the Congo Free State in Katanga (Giacomo Macola)
- King Leopold II and the English Catholic Church towards the anti-Congolese campaign, 1902–1905 (Mathieu Zana Etambala)
- Part 3: Justice, trade and capital
- The Tilkens – Morel correspondence. A matter of confidence (Gert De Wolf)
- Free trade and fair justice in the Congo Free State? The origins of the Rabinek case (1901) (Guy Vanthemsche)
- The Congo Mirror (River Congo, No. 1, 22 April 1891) Glimpses at the entry of Congo on a global scene (Jean-Luc Vellut)
- To live, work, and die for Kasai rubber: Confession of a Belgian trader (1900–1914) (Patricia Van Schuylenbergh)
- Meet the authors
- Series Index
Luis Angel Bernardo y Garcia
State Archives of Belgium
Gert De Wolf
Open University of the Netherlands
King Baudouin Foundation
David M. Gordon
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Université libre de Bruxelles
Sapienza Università di Roma
Royal Museum for Central Africa
University of Nevada, Reno
Patricia Van Schuylenbergh
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Vrije Universiteit Brussel←23 | 24→
Université catholique de Louvain
Mathieu Zana Etambala
Royal Museum for Central Africa/KU Leuven
AA Archives Africaines (Belgium Foreign Affairs) (Brussels)
AAM Archives Archevêché de Malines
ABIR Anglo-Belgian Indian Rubber Company
AE Archives de l’Etat en Belgique – State Archives in Belgium (Brussels)
AEG Archives Evêché de Gand
AHV Afrikaansche Handels-Vereeniging
AIA Association Internationale Africaine
AIC Association Internationale du Congo
ALC African Lakes Corporation
APCM American Presbyterian Congo Mission
APR Archives du Palais royal (Brussels)
ARSC Académie royale des Sciences coloniales
ARSOM Académie royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer
AT Ősterreichische Staatarchiv (Austrian State Archives) (Vienna)
BBOM Biographie belge d’Outre-Mer
BCB Biographie coloniale belge
BMS British Baptist Missionnary Society
CCCI Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie
CEHC Comité d’Études du Haut Congo
CFC Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Congo
CFS Congo Free State
CK Compagnie du Kasai (article Van Schuylenbergh P.)
CK Compagnie du Katanga (article Vanthemsche G.)
CRA Congo Reform Association
CSK Comité Spécial du Katanga
FIN Finoutremer Papers←25 | 26→
ILA International Law Association
ILI International Law Institute
IRCB Institut royal colonial belge
KBF King Baudouin Foundation
LSE London School of Economics
MAE Belgium Foreign Affairs (Brussels)
MGC Compagnie des Magasins Généraux du Congo
MR Morel Papers
NA Nationaal Archief (The Hague)
NAHV Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Vennootschap
PB Plymouth Brethren missionary
PHS Presbyterian Historical Society
RGS Archives of the Royal Geographical Society (London)
RMCA Royal Museum for Central Africa (AfricaMuseum) (Tervuren)
SA Stanley Archives
SAB Société Anonyme belge pour l’Industrie et le Commerce du Haut-Congo
SEE Sandford Exploring Expedition
WDA Westminster Diocesan Archives (London)
Fig. 1: Brussels, 1909. Funeral procession of King Leopold II. Behind the clergy, the King’s main collaborators including the Goffinet twins, recognizable with their identical white goatees and bicorn hats. Postcard, 1909, from the Archives of the Royal Palace.
Fig. 6: Antoon Greshoff (left), with Dr. Louis Carré, MD at the Stanley-Pool and Édouard Richard, military officer from Luxemburg, Stanley-Pool (HP.1959.29.702, collection RMCA Tervuren; photographer unknown, ca 1895, © Royal Museum for Central Africa).
Fig. 7: Map (1/500.000e) of the Kasanza Factory on the Lutshima River (1909), drawn up by A. van den Hove. The CK buyers’ settlements are underlined (in red in the original version) (Archives A. van den Hove © RMCA).
Fig. 8: Maps (1/800.000e) of a part of the territories exploited by the CK, based on its agents’ itineraries, and corresponding to the Kwilu area (Source : La Compagnie du Kasai à ses actionnaires, Bruxelles, 1906). Wider concentric circles from right to left mark the area of Adrien’s increasing activities, according to his successive tours.
Mathilde Leduc-Grimaldi and Patricia Van Schuylenbergh2
Archives do not speak for themselves … Their users have the power to construe as best they like archival findings previously construed by those who conceived of them.3
A new outlook on the complexities and contradictions of the colonial world is being stimulated by historical sources that were previously unknown or whose methodology and use are in a process of constant renewal. To gain a deeper understanding of the grey areas of colonial history regarding interactions between the people of Africa and Europe (or Belgium) that can vary across time and space, the study of individual pathways and biographies offers new bottom-up insights that can help untangle the complexity of the process in place and offer levels of understanding closer to the reality on the ground. For this purpose, several researchers have highlighted the need and the importance of publishing archival documents that have for some reason remained unpublished or not fully usable, to nurture knowledge, give new insights and stimulate new research. In his time, Pierre Salmon had published in full several historical sources of private origin on the Congo Free State (CFS) ←29 | 30→period.4 Although somewhat underused since, this traditional approach has returned with special force over the past few years. Such series as Fontes Africanae, published by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (ARSOM) in Belgium, or the British Academy’s Fontes Historicae Africanae in the UK, give researchers the chance to introduce and discuss a wide range of documents that have remained unpublished or have been translated from local languages. They thus also open the possibility to present more specific, contextualized archival materials complete with a substantial critical apparatus, as for example those concerning certain protagonists of European expansion and colonization in central Africa or major African players.5 We should also note the publication of specific monographs based on historical sources, such as the commendable new edition of Stanley’s Cinq années au Congo6 or, more recently, the critically revised account of his expedition in search of Livingstone.7
This volume appears at a time when archives are very often perceived as political stakes in international relations, rather than regarded as mere vestiges of a remote history that has lost all relevance relative to contemporary issues. If several researchers are working at present on oral history, ←30 | 31→fieldwork and memory-based approaches, archives nonetheless remain fundamental sources playing a major role in the reconstruction of the facts of the past. Archives regarding the Congo Free State are rich in facts, links and networks pertaining to that brief but remarkably troubled period in central Africa. It is reassuring to see that, despite the prevailing ethos or the effects of fashion, historians and archivists continue rescuing from oblivion or from the mazes of reclassification some unique documental findings enabling apprehension of the multiple faces of a State in the making.
Along with redeployment and reconditioning of archives and with acquisitions through public or private sale, or thanks to the availability of writings that had hitherto remained in private hands, such archives contribute to explanation or investigation of events in loco and of orders sent from Brussels, stimulating interest in documental materials previously known and systematically studied since being made accessible to the public. Indexed and consulted over a long period, such materials might have been seen as intangible monoliths with nothing left to say. Yet adding materials recently discovered or made available means allowing archives to speak again: although less well known or perhaps more modest, they nonetheless contribute supporting complementary information or redress bias relative to facts previously assumed as unchangeable certainties.
Returning to the archive remains vital for researchers to gain renewed knowledge on the CFS period or do justice to those sides of its history that might have remained obscured for want of documentation; it is as important for the wider public, independent scholars or decision-makers needing a clearer view of the past to better respond to questions of contemporary relevance. The assembling of such archives, their study and diffusion allow the creation of a much finer, more nuanced, and often more engaging picture. Emotion is seldom absent from archives, as shown by the Kafkaesque fate of the Austro-Hungarian trader Gustav Rabinek, arrested and tried by the CFS for ‘illegal trading’.8 And when, to cite only one example, Stanley exclaims in his journal ‘Oh my poor 67 Zanzibaris, how they have worked!’,9 the generally accepted image we might have of him is challenged.←31 | 32→
These archives invite multiple readings through contemporary diffractions, as well as deconstruction and reconstruction of such myths as the contrast between ‘Kurtz archives’ and ‘Prospero archives’.10 It is to be hoped that archives will be revisited with an inquisitive gaze and will nourish new themes of study.
Lessons from the Congo Free State
In 1877, with the revealing of the outline of the map of Congo, previously unsuspected chances glimmered before the eyes of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. At the end of 1878, the king asked Henry Morton Stanley, who had previously reconnoitred the course of the River Congo, to implant colonization in central Africa. Between 1879 and 1885, the king proceeded under the cover of an international organization with many names, pushing for the establishment of numerous stations in the Congo Basin. From 1879 to 1882, however, he became impatient with Stanley, his ‘field agent’, whose progress he deemed too slow. Leopold feared being outrun by France and pressed Stanley to accelerate the process and to aim straight for the target: namely, to have this organization – a purely nominal association – recognized as a sovereign power ruling over the lands ‘ceded’ by local chieftains. As a payback, recognition of such sovereignty would greatly advance the interests of European, American and Ottoman imperialist powers by a total obliteration of local and regional political configurations. Recognition was mainly due to the work of the General Act of the Berlin Conference of 24 February 1885, inducting the Association Internationale du Congo as a partner and granting Leopold II personal sovereignty over a political entity grouping all the despoiled territories under the name of Congo Free State (État Indépendant du Congo, or EIC).
At its inception, the CFS was composed of forty-five stations along the River Congo, often established in a rather precarious manner, with scant means despite the capital invested by the king in the enterprise and lacking one of the fundamental features of a State: namely, internal sovereignty. In the entire basin progressively occupied by the CFS, concessionaries and private commercial companies quickly sought to ←32 | 33→confiscate any directly available reserves of African manpower and raw materials. Both CFS and commercial agents were faced with unfamiliar, often unsuspected realities, and attempted to impose their own laws on local authorities who signed agreements without assessing their full scope and force or their impact on the populations opposing them. Nonetheless, international law stated that these populations, purportedly ‘placed in humanity’s wide sphere’, would receive protection from the State to which they were entrusted, and according to public international law as enforced at the time, they were granted nothing more than – ‘natural or purely human recognition’. By depriving them of the constitutive elements that are the basis of State formation, the international community denied them access to its body politic while granting the protecting or colonizing State ‘complete respect, entire responsibility for the fulfilment of international obligations and jurisdiction over any infringements of international law committed on the territory of the budding colony or protectorate’.11 In light of the Berlin Conference, the CFS officially became an independent neutral State presided over by its creator, the king of the Belgians.
One way or the other, this framework set in motion the cogs of an administrative machine that, while attempting to establish the governmental structures needed for the progress of a State, under pressure from the king increasingly came to resemble an instrument of systematic exploitation. Its armed section, known as the Force Publique, was placed entirely at the disposal of an administration whose decisions depended from Brussels. Caught between authoritarian land occupation, unregulated exploitation of populations and their resources, and involvement in clashes with the Arab-Swahili sultanates, the societies of central Africa were inserted into a production and exploitation economy that had devastating effects on the political and social plane. Nonetheless, this conquest having cost very dear to the ‘sovereign king’ who counted on revenue from his domain to pursue the State’s expansion while increasing his personal fortune, any means of exploitation were made licit – notably including coercion and several forms of violence. Following the ←33 | 34→international outcry sparked by denunciations in Britain and Belgium of the ‘deeds’ of agents of the CFS and commercial companies over Congolese populations, the entire system was questioned. Under pressure, the king ceded ‘his’ State to Belgium, who voted its annexation in 1908 and turned it into a Belgian colony.
For several years, colonial violence, especially in connection with the exploitation of human beings and natural resources during the CFS period, has been at the centre of public, media, and academic debate, mobilizing a number of European, North American and African intellectuals and artists who see a direct link between past and present situations. The Leopoldian regime is routinely presented as a peculiar historical phenomenon dominated by greed and brutality. Mostly pursued by Anglo-Saxon authors such as the diplomat Martin Ewans or the journalist and great traveller Tim Butcher,12 studies in the field have been much advanced by the 2007 reprinting of Hochschild’s work and of a number of ‘classics’ of the genre13 by Belgian or French publishers such as Aden or Les nuits rouges, independently of the positions taken in the studies themselves. While Jules Marchal closed his series on the abuses of the Leopoldian regime and colonial system by documenting forced labour imposed on Congolese manpower in plantations and mines,14 Daniel Vangroenweghe, in the context of the pillaging of ivory and rubber, chose to shed light on the ‘Stokes Affair’: the case of Charles Stokes, an ←34 | 35→Irish trader hanged by H. Lothaire after a summary trial for ‘illicit practices’.15 Some historians have in turn contributed new elements relative to the practices of violence, whether politically structural or connected to economic cycles internal to the CFS,16 whether denounced by witness statements at the time or imposed on local populations within particular contexts such as the war effort17 or the economic crisis.18 Over the past few years, a number of studies delving deeper into systematic violence in the CFS, decried by some foreign authors as a genocide or a holocaust,19 confirm a prevalence of top-down accounts centred on Leopold II’s personality and motives and on his often strained relations with the CFS government, both in Brussels and in the Congo.20 Such works also flag up the need for a transcolonial comparative approach apt to move forward from the abiding narrative of violence as the most blatant sign of the exceptionalism of Leopoldian rule, as well as the necessity for case studies focused on regional particularities and not discounting the history of sensibilities.21 It is a matter of analysing the deep causes of the CFS’s violent nature within the context of the changes affecting central Africa, such changes bringing together operators coming from diverse places, impelled by diverse motives (whether political, economical or religious) and shaped by diverse outlooks.←35 | 36→
In this regard, case studies on a local scale, often based on previously unpublished archives,22 highlight the complexity of different situations and show how violence structural to the CFS in certain regions did not embody a ‘modern’ colonial project, but should rather be seen as a continuation of the rule of warlords, as is the case in Katanga,23 and sought to find a place and be deployed in spaces that were at time greatly invested with powerful political and economical African structures.24 Parallel with the violence structural to the State, other forms of violence, also concerning the period of the Belgian Congo, are beginning to be more widely taken into account. These notably include violence perpetrated by the concessionaries and through the practice of forced labour in agricultural and food processing enterprises such as the palm oil plantations in the Kasai,25 or the racial and sexual abuse internal to a repressive colonial order.26 Similarly, some researchers have concentrated on the complexity and wide number of motives at the root of violence in inter-racial relations but also among Europeans, with close focus on individuals subjected to injustice by State authority.27 Publications focusing on historical ←36 | 37→sources have also appeared, among them the commendable reprinting in Belgium of Stanley’s Cinq années au Congo,28 and, more recently, the critically revised account of his expedition in search of Livingstone.29
The contributions brought into this collective work thus aim to give a preponderant place to previously unpublished written archives, whether in manuscript or printed form, and to show their crucial importance for the purpose of revisiting the history of the CFS.
Ranging across the destinies of hundreds of men of varying origins and status and of a handful of pioneering women, CFS archives are astonishingly diverse: from private family archives to those of Christian missions, from confidential manuscripts or circulars to private correspondence with the royal entourage, from intimate diaries to explorers’ reports. If the voice of Leopold II is at times heard, that happens most often via his trusted men in Brussels or in the Congo,30 officers in the Force Publique or directors of commercial companies. The archives offer a wealth of detail on the daily life of CFS authorities and also of sub-contractors, workers, traders, village inhabitants and clerical personnel employed at different levels in this new society. They are also challenging the widely-held assumption by which colonial ‘discourse’ ignores colonized populations and places Europeans at the centre of the narrative, obscuring the role played by African populations in the course of history: contrary to this accepted view, the archives show that the ‘dead corners’ of colonial history, hiding interactions between the different forces in play during the crucial CFS years, can be updated so as to untangle the complexity of ongoing processes and represent a mutating social order.31
Parts of the archives dating back to the CFS period have certainly disappeared – some by express demand from the king. This has not however ←37 | 38→silenced all the witnesses of the time. Public and private archives held in several Belgian institutions are finally becoming increasingly conspicuous: the State Archives, the Foreign Ministry in Brussels and the Royal Museum of Central Africa have opened new perspectives for research. Contributions to this work by several authors show in close detail the history and present evolution of the archives,32 including those of the royal palace, by now incorporated in the State Archives, as well as the Centre de Documentation Guerre et Société (SomaCeges). The updating of certain documental materials, such as the archives of the Goffinet brothers,33 close collaborators to Leopold II, will surely also open further perspectives. Neither should one forget the private archives deposited in libraries or museums or still held by individuals. This is the case of the archive entrusted to the RMCA in 2007 and containing the private correspondence of Captain Jacques de Dixmude, which offers unpublished information on the wars between the CFS and the Arab-Swahili sultanates. Other archives are also placed on sale by professional brokers on specially appointed premises, or sometimes unearthed in such unsuspected locations as antique shops or flea markets. This was how the unpublished family correspondence of Sublieutenant Albert Lapière, one of the participants in the repression of the Tetela revolt in Luluabourg,34 was recently discovered.
We can thus note the availability of a considerable body of archival materials, often of private origin, bringing to life some of the crucial protagonists in the Leopoldian enterprise. They were mainly young Europeans contracted as administrative or military cadres for the new State, but also personalities from an African background who, far from appearing as an anonymous mass, are often well differentiated and described in detail: village chiefs, warriors, soldiers, traders, craftspeople, refugees, ‘boys’. While the authors of the materials contained in the private archives presented in this work mainly offer west-centric views, one should not overlook some sets of written documents produced by ←38 | 39→representatives of the Arab-Swahili culture, and thus invested with great historical and heritage value.35
Unfortunately, certain documents, most often those placed on public sale, risk being irretrievably lost to researchers, as was the case for the travel notebooks of Captain Edmond Hanssens, who reached the Ubangi River region in 1884.36 These are the most endangered archival materials: having been in all likelihood already shared or dismembered, they will pass into the property of private buyers, thus losing their overall consistency, visibility and accessibility.
For these reasons, private partners or philanthropic bodies such as the Fondation Roi Baudouin are actively pursuing a policy of salvage of the Belgian heritage. The foundation has made acquisitions of huge importance, such as the Stanley and Goffinet archives, which, without this ‘rescue mission’, would probably have been purchased by private collectors. Stanley’s private archives, for the most part bought back from Stanley’s descendants in Britain, are one of the flagship collections of the RMCA. Such archives are priceless for the purpose of reconstructing the history of central Africa in the period starting with the few years preceding the creation of the CFS and ending in 1889, the year when Stanley, during his voyage in search of Emin Pasha, witnessed the emergence of the Mahdist movement and of the Arab-Swahili occupation of eastern Congo.37 The archives of agents engaged by such commercial companies as the Compagnie du Kasa, to cite just one, provide another remarkable source of documentation allowing a more nuanced recontextualization of the economic and social landscape of the CFS and, more importantly, of the ways of these newfangled capitalist operators.38
Outside Belgium, several research institutes hold archives that, while forgotten or not very much in demand, are nonetheless relevant to an ←39 | 40→analysis of certain aspects of the CFS. The archives of the London School of Economics and School of Oriental & African Studies, those in Aix-en-Provence and Rome holding the Brazza documents (to mention just one of the French colonies bordering the CFS): this is far from a comprehensive list of all the museums, archive centres and libraries holding other CFS materials, whether in Belgium or abroad.39 Mention should also be made of the Nationaal Archief in the Hague, holding one copy of a rare journal, The Congo Mirror,40 not forgetting the archives of the archbishop of London, with their documental materials relative to the campaign against the Congo.41
This is the painstaking task of historians who are here engaged in almost archaeological work in search of the missing pieces. The work of contextualizing these archives that has engaged the authors of this volume shows how fruitful it can be to weave new, more precise and pregnant connections with archives that are already available.
Vox clamans in deserto?
Not all has been revealed or written on the history of the CFS – far from it. As noted above, parts of the archives related to this history are sourced from a past in which they have long remained confined, whether totally or partially. In this post-colonial period, decolonization of knowledge is rightfully operating a rebalancing of words and claims, but also becoming the moving force behind more political challenges denouncing this history in the name of present-day moral judgements and often denaturing it by disregarding the context of its times and its prevailing ideologies. Anachronism often looms.←40 | 41→
So is there a real will to take the time to find out what these archives have to say? Or are they relegated to the periphery of research, as if there were nothing left to expect from them? Or again, have they been pushed back into the shadows by the widely distributed publications that so moved the public? These are long-standing, far from idle questions. Stanley was already thinking about the fate of his correspondence, that marked the origin of the CFS – and he made a direct link between its importance and the destiny of the CFS itself: ‘I do not know that these letters will ever see the light of day. If the Congo State survives, they will be of interest, if it succumbs to a stronger power, they will have lost their value’.42
As noted above, CFS archives have eluded curating from the outset, owing to the unexpected context of the creation of the State. This was not an intrinsic factor: for some archives, curating only intervened very late, after the colony attained independence; for other materials, intervention had to wait until these early years of the 21st century. With no localization or inventories, private and public archives remain unknown and incommunicable. Parts of the CFS archives have long remained silent: being forgotten or privately held, they were never given a voice. And too often authors have based their conclusions on returning to archives that were already known and acknowledged as beyond discussion. By great good fortune, paper and especially digital inventories and archival guides today give us a chance to fill these lacunae by offering a wide view of existing archives.43
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2022 (March)
- Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 412 pp., 8 fig. b/w.