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Congo-Brazzaville: Should a Colonizer Be Honored Like a Founding Father?

For me, this De Brazza business is like someone telling you: “We got the crap beaten out of us, but at least De Brazza put on some vaseline while the others let our wounds dry. So let's give thanks to De Brazza.” (Fr) – From a reader at Mwinda.org

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza This week, the remains of French-Italian explorer and colonialist Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza was exhumed in Algeria and reinterred in a multi-million dollar mausoleum in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo which still bears his name.

The international mainstream media have barely mentioned the reinterrment, and where they have, much of the coverage has stressed De Brazza's humanitarian and anti-slavery work. However, many Congolese, as well as citizens from throughout French-speaking Africa, view De Brazza as a colonizer and are appalled by Brazzaville's decision to honor him like a founding father. For many, the event raises difficult questions about how to remember the past and build a national identity in countries whose very existence is owed to the same foreign powers that tried to dominate and destroy their people.

Mwinda Press, the journal of the Associaton of Congolese Democrats in France, has several articles (Fr) on the De Brazza story, each of which provoked a flurry of commentary from the site's readers. Below, I've translated some of the conversation at Mwinda Press as well as the blog of Togolese writer Kangni Alem (Fr).

Was De Brazza a “Benevolent” Colonizer?

The Congolese government and others who support the mausoleum project stress that De Brazza was different from other European colonialists, that he was a humanist and a pacifist who fought against slavery and protected African interests.

At the Mwinda Press, a reader called Moi quotes from www.Congo-site.com the official position of the Mbé royal court, which signed away its sovereignty to France in an infamous treaty negotiated by De Brazza and the illiterate king:

«De Brazza n’était pas arrivé sur nos terres à des fins de domination, de colonisation, mais plutôt à des fins humanistes, de tolérance, de justice, d’équité, contrairement à certains historiens qui ont déformé l’esprit de l’amitié entre Ilo 1er et Pierre Savorgnan De Brazza. L’histoire née de l’amitié entre les deux illustres personnages a été un certain moment avalée, elle n’existait presque plus. C’est pourquoi la cour royale se réjouit de cette occasion qui va certainement susciter à nos gouvernants du Congo, du Gabon et de France l’idée de rétablir cette histoire dans les écoles et dans les officines culturelles», a dit le 1er vassal de la cour royale de Mbé, Ngailino.

«Contrary to what certain historians who have “deformed” the spirit of friendship between Ilo I and Pierre Savorgnan De Brazza say, De Brazza did not arrive on our soil to dominate or to colonize, but rather for humanist reasons, for tolerance, justice and equity. This is why the royal court celebrates this occasion will surely inspire the leaders of the Congo, Gabon and France to think about bring back this history to the schools and cultural organizations», said the first vassal of the royal court of Mbé, Ngailino.

Many vehemently disagree with this interpretation of history. Moi is incredulous:

Combien a-t-il reçu pour ce discours amnésique? …Il y a toujours trop de congolais qui seraient près à vendre père et mère pour une minable enveloppe. Honte à vous Ngailino.

How much did they get to recite this amnesiatic nonsense? …There are still too many Congolese who are ready to sell their parents for a triffle. Shame on you Ngailino.

Reader dISSIDENT offers a sarcastic treatment of De Brazza's “altriuism”:

Durant tous ces voyages, en dépit de nombreuses hostilités, il s’était abstenu de faire couler du sang humain…fut-il celui des noirs !

During his voyages, despite numerous hostilities, he did not shed any human blood – he shed the blood of blacks!

Mwinda Press, has an article titled “De Brazza, false “humanist,” real rapist?” (Fr) about a video (Fr) in which Congolese egyptologist and historian Théophile Obenga allegdes that De Brazza raped a Batéké princess, igniting a flurry of reader commentary (Fr).

cherie, a Mwinda reader, cites other alleged atrocities:

J'apprend que Brazza avait même dynamité tout un village, CE N’ ÉTAIT PAS UN HUMANISTE, SASSOU LE FAIT POUR PLAIRE AU FRANÇAIS QUI AVAIENT ADOPTÉ UNE LOI CONTROVERSÉE SUR LES AVANTAGES DU COLONIALISME…

I've learned that Brazza even dynamited an entire village. HE WAS NOT A HUMANIST, [PRESIDENT] SASSOU HAS DONE THIS TO PLEASE THE FRENCH WHO HAVE ADOPTED A CONTROVERSIAL LAW ON THE ADVANTAGES OF COLONIALISM…

Togolese writer Kangni Alem thinks even if De Brazza the man was “just,” what he represents cannot be ignored:

Cela choque beaucoup de consciences, de voir ainsi célébré un homme qui fut quand même un colonisateur au service de puissants intérêts, même si l’on raconte que De Brazza aurait été une sorte de “colon justicier” en lutte contre les compagnies concessionnaires au Congo…

Even if De Brazza was a sort of “just colonialist” fighting against the concessionary companies in the Congo, it really is shocking to see a man who was a colonizer in the service of powerful interests celebrated in this way.

Another Minwa reader thinks that even if De Brazza was a little bit nicer than the other colonizers, it is ridiculous to be grateful:

Pour moi cette affaire de DE BRAZZA c’est comme un qui vous dirait : “On a été niqué, mais au moins DE BRAZZA mettait de la vaseline, les autres le faisaient à sec. Donc rendons grâce à DE BRAZZA”.

For me, this De Brazza business is like someone telling you: “We got the crap beaten out of us, but at least De Brazza put on some vaseline while the others let our wounds dry. So let's give thanks to De Brazza.”

Why Not Revere the Congo's Heros? Why Revere the Colonial Past?

For many, the interrment raised questions about why the Congo would choose to honor a European colonizer like a national hero, rather than one of their own.

Reader Appolinaire KOULAMA at Mwinda Press:

renvoyer les cendres de Savorgnant De Brazza, pour les remplacer à celles des héros congolais, les contributeurs de la liberté contre la colonisation représentée par Savorgnant De Brazza…

send back Savorgnant De Brazza's ashes and replace them with those of the Congo's heros, those who gave us freedom from the colonization that Savorgnant De Brazza represents…

Kitmien commenting at Kangni Alem's blog

C’est triste de se sentir appartenir à un peuple dont les dirigeants préfèrent honorer un colon pour le prétexte de ne pas faire la moindre place à son frère du même pays !

It's sad to feel like you belong to a people whose leaders prefer to honor a colonizer than to give an inch to a brother from their own country.

Kangni Alem quotes historian Théophile Obenga's theory on why Congo-Brazzaville would choose to glorify a foreigner in this way:

Puisque les Congolais n’aiment pas les Congolais, puisque les Congolais ont une haine politique vis-à-vis les uns des autres, ils préfèrent célébrer un homme politique étranger comme Savorgnan De Brazza, ça fait sens; puisque aucun homme politique n’a de la considération au Congo, ni Jacques Opangault ni Youlou, ni les Félix Maléka, il y en beaucoup. Aucun homme politique n’a de la considération au Congo, par les Congolais, c’est tout normal que par un complexe d’infériorité, ils adorent un étranger, un étranger qui est un colonial… »

Since the Congolese people do not love themselves, since the Congolese harbor a political hatred for one another, it makes sense that they prefer to celebrate a political stranger like Savorgnan De Brazza. No politician in the Congo was considered, not Jacques Opangault, not Youlou, not Félix Maléka. No politician in the Congo was considered. This is normal for the Congolese who, because of an inferiority complex, love a foreigner, a foreigner who was a colonizer…”

On the Cost of the Mausoleum

Reader Mbombo Mbua at Mwinda Press:

Imaginez plus de 10 milliards de frs à investir pour la réhabilitation de l'université de B/ville. Quel bonheur pour l'étudiant congolais! Mais non, cela n'arrivera jamais car notre dictateur national n'a aucun de ses enfants à l'université aujourd'hui. Alors il brûle l'argent des congolais en construisant des mausolées à la CON.

Imagine if more than 10 billion Congolese francs were invested in renovating the University of Brazzaville. What a thing that would be for Congolese students! But no, that will never happen because our national dictator has no children at university. So instead he burns the money of the Congolese people by building mausoleums to an IDIOT.

EB_Toutmosis3 comments on Kangni Alem's blog:

C’est une grosse honte…..pauvre Afrique !!!!!! On construit des mausolées, on célèbre, on vénère, ceux-là qui t’ont mis à genoux, pendant que, les maladies, la misère, la mal gouvernance, les guerres inutiles nées des actions de ces gens, déchiquètent ta belle face……

It really is shameful…poor Africa !!!!! We build mausoleums, we celebrate, we honor those who brought us to our knees, all the while illness, misery, poor governance, useless wars born of the actions of these people tear [Africa] to pieces…

Blaise KIBONZI comments on Kangni Alem's blog

…on construit un mausolée à Brazzaville à grand frais dans un pays où il manque un ascenceur dans le pricipal hôpital de la Capitale…Les malades sont montés jusqu’au 5ème étage de cet hopital (hérité de l’époque coloniale) à “dos de zaïrois” (comme on dit chez nous). Idem pour les cadavres. On paye les porteurs zaïrois 1000 CFA (1,75 euros) par étage.

…we build a mausoleum in Brazzaville at great cost in a country where the capital's main hospital doesn't even have an elevator…the sick are brought up to the fifth floor of this hopsital (inherited from the colonial era) on “backs of the Zarians” (as we say). Same for the corpses. The porteurs zaïrois are paid 1000 CFA per floor.

Reader Bahonda at Mwinda Press:

C'est une absurdité absolue. dépenser des sommes colossaux pour un monument
en faveur d'un certain debrazza alors qu'il y a des priorités : manque de
tables banc dans les classes, niveau de santé popublique médiocre, délestage
électrique quotidien, une population malnourrit.

It is absolutely absurd to send such a colossal sum on a monument in honor of De Brazza when there are other priorities: lack of school desks in the classroom, the poor level of public health, regular electricty, a malnourished people…

Apolinaire KOULAMA this the problem is not, at its heart, about the expense.< ?p>

Mon frère Bahonda…Même si nous avons un bon niveau de vie, même si nous avons des moyens collossaux, rien ne justifie, l'honorabilité d'un colon. J'ai écouté à la radio, c'est la première fois, dans l'histoire de ce monde, qu'un pays colonisé honore son colonisteur.

My brother Bahonda…Even if we had a good standard of living, even if we were rich beyond belief, nothing justifies honoring a colonizer. I heard on the radio that this is the first time in the history of the world that an ex-colony is honoring is colonizer.

Despite the cost of the mausoleum, Mwinda reader Potiphard thinks it could still serve a valuable social and educational purpose:

Certes ce mauselé a coûté cher, mais étant donné que le Congo ne dispose d'aucune structure de loisirs, de musée, d'endroits archéologiques, ça peut faire figure de musée, attirant ainsi les touristes et permettra aux élèves du primaire et du collège, de mieux comprendre l'histoire du Congo. N'ayons pas honte de notre passé, l'histoire ne change pas, qu'elle soit bonne ou mauvaise, elle est déjà inscrite et il faut l'accepter comme telle. Que les restes de la famille De Brazza soient au Congo ou en Algérie, on parlera toujours de cet homme dans notre histoire, il serait donc mieux qu'il soit à nos côtés, pour mieux comprendre notre passé.

Certainly the mausoleum was expensive, but given that the Congo spends nothing on cultural buildings, on museums, on archaeological sites, this could be a museum, attracking tourists and allowing elementary and middle school students to better understand the history of the Congo. We should not be ashamed of our past, history does not change, and whether good or bad, is already written and must be accepted. Whether the remains of the De Brazza family are in the Congo or in Algeria, we will always speak of this man in our history, and it would be better then that he is with us, to better understand our history.

Colonialism, Nationalism and the Problem of Building a National Identity

A strong theme explored by many of Mwinda's and Kangni Alem's readers was the challenge of constructing a national identity in post-colonial Africa and a sense of place in the context of an often painful history.

Mwinda reader Mbombo Mbua suggests that the problem is that the Congolese have no sense of who they are:

MAIS QUI SOMMES-NOUS A LA FIN?
Nous avons tout accepté. Nous continuons de tout accepter.

Revenons quelques années en arrière. Après la Révolution et pendant la période euphorique du marxisme-lenénisme, nous avons fustigé YOULOU qui avait “tout volé”. Son lit fut exposé au musée national. Auparavent, tous ses biens et ceux de ses collaborateurs avaient été détruits par les “révolutionaires”. Pourtant, Brazzaville est resté BRAZZAVILLE; le monument à la mémoire de De BRAZZA est resté intact, toujours à sa place, devant la résidence de l'ambassadeur de France.
Aujourd'hui, nous “refusons” le mausolée de BRAZZA. Regardons-nous en face. QUI SOMMES-NOUS?
Si nous avions changé le nom de notre capilale, si nous avions détruit le 1er monument de l'explorateur, qui aurait eu le toupet aujourd'hui de nous construire un mausolée en son honneur? NOUS SOMMES TOUS RESPONSABLES, car nous ne savons pas ce que nous voulons; surtout, nous ne savons pas QUI NOUS SOMMES.

BUT WHO ARE WE IN THE END?
We have accepted everything. We continue to accept everything.

Let's go back a few years. After the revolution and during the euphoria of the Marxism-Leninism period. We flayed YOULOU who had “stolen everything.” His bed was put on display at the national museum. Before that, all of his possessions and those of his collaborators were destroyed by the “revolutionaries.” And still, Brazzaville remained BRAZZAVILLE; the monument to the memory of De BRAZZA remains intact, still in its place, before the residence of the French ambassador.
Today, we “reject” de BRAZZA's mausoleum. Let's look at ourselves in the face. WHO ARE WE?
If we had changed the name of our capital, if we had destroyed the monument of the first explorer, if we had had the nerve today to build a mausoleum in his honor? WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE, because we do not even know what we want; what's more, we do not know WHO WE ARE.

In a similar vein, Musengeshi Katata (who also blogs at Forum Réalisance) writes:

il a perdu une grande partie de sa mémoire, sa spiritualité et son legs culturel. Et ne sait plus où il en est, ce qu´il est, où il va. Et cependant, maintenant plus que jamais il en a besoin pour se reconstituer son propre avenir, ses propres voies de réalisation. Ce qu´on voit actuellement en Afrique n´est que l´expression d´un profond égarement parce qu´on se refuse à commettre l´effort de se chercher, de se redécouvrir et de s´aimer soi-même en se projetant dans l´avenir. Trop longtemps on a supporté de se haïr en tant que noir pour ne respecter et acclamer que la culture et les ordres du maître blanc, sa culture et son sens de l´histoire. Ces temps sont révolus, mais tout le monde ne semble pas l´avoir compris

[the black man] has lost a large part of his history, his spirtuality, his cultural foundations. He doesn't know anymore where he is, what he is, or where he is going. However, it is now more than ever that he needs to build his own future, his own path for realizing himself. What we see happening now in Africa is really just a distraction, because we refuse to commit ourselves to the process of looking, of rediscovering, and of loving ourselves by moving forward, toward the future. For too long we have put up with hating ourselves while respecting and glorifying only the culture and the commandments of the white master, his culture and his sense of history. Those times are over, but no one seems to have understood that.

Reader Mouele Kibaya minimizes De Brazza's role in the country's history:

…l'histoire du Congo n'est pas le fait de Savorgnan de Brazza, mais simplement le fait du cours normal des choses due à l'évoultion de ce territoire, il se trouve que la rencontre se fit avec les Français, ça pouvait être des anglais. Tot ou tard les mbetis et les laris allaient se rencontrer, cessez de rattacher notre histoire à De brazza.
les hommes de ce territoire existaient avant et continueront à se battre pour leur survie quoi qu'il en soit peu importe la forme seules la liberté et la dignité font de nous des Humains…

…the history of the Congo is not owed to Savorgnan de Brazza, but is simply the result of the normal way of things owed to the evolution of this region, it happened that [the first interaction with Europeans] was with the French. It could just as well have been with the English. Sooner or later the mbetis and the laris were going to meet, so stop attaching our history to De Brazza. The people of this region existed before and will continue to fight for their survival in whatever form; it is only liberty and dignity makes of us Humans…

A few think that debate really isn't about colonialism, but about national identity and political legitimacy. Tima Bemba, commenting at Kangni Alem's blog, writes:

(Timba Bema ) la construction d'un mausolée en soi n'est pas un acte d'aliénation mais peut aussi être perçu comme une tentative de recréer une unité nationale après la guerre civile au travers de la personne qui rappelons le est à la base de la constitution de ce pays… il me semble donc que la critique de cet acte doit s’appuyer sur son discours de légitimation tel que produit actuellement par les responsables politiques congolais et non sur la sensiblerie anti-coloniale…

the construction of mausoleum in itself an act of alienation, but rather can also been seen as an attempt to recreate national unity after civil war through the person, let us remember, that is at the heart of this country's formation…it seems to me, then, that the critique of [the interrment] should be based on a discourse of [political] legitimacy, such as that now produced by Congolese political leaders and not on anti-colonial sensibilities.

Similary, Godefroy also thinks the government's efforts are an attempt to “create a national imagination,” but in no uncertain terms thinks glorifying colonialism is not the way to go.

(Godefroy) La consolidation d'un imaginaire national s'effectue de plusieurs manières. On peut se sentir plus proche par notre adhésion à un projet commun, tout comme la volonté de rompre avec une DOULEUR, comme la colonisation, peut consolider le sentiment d'appartenance. Ce à quoi aura servi le NATIONALISME dans d'autres contextes. Les identités se construisent et se consolident avec des procédés de “marquage de frontières”, ce que sassou vient ROMPRE. Non seulement il détruit notre pays, par sa gestion chaotique, mais, par ses initiatives, nous rappelle une histoire dont la GLOIRE ne peut appartenir à notre patrimoine national…

The creation of a national imagination can happen in many ways. We can feel closer to one another because of our involvement in a common project. Our desire to break with something PAINFUL, such as colonization, can bring together these feelings of belonging. This is the purpose of NATIONALISM in other contexts. Identities are constructed and reinforced by a process of “drawing lines,” lines which [President Sassou] is breaking. Not only is he destroying our country through the chaos of his administration, but, by his initiatives, he reminds us of a history whose glory cannot belong to our national heritage…

On Opposing the Government's Decision

The conversation at Mwinda Press eventually turns to what people opposed the mausoleum can actually do to make their voices heard.

Reader Moi at Mwinda Press:

Douste Blazy sera donc de la partie ou party (c'est le cas de le dire) ce mercredi? Dans une démocratie nous nous serions fait le plaisir de l'accueillir avec des oeufs et des tomates bien pourris. Mais hélas ce n'est pas possible parce que nous aurions été très vite calmés par des tirs de Kalachnikov ou, dans le meilleur des cas, avec du gaz lacrymogène et des coups de matraques, mais aussi parce que, même pourris, nous aurions préféré envoyer ces oeufs et ces tomates dans notre estomac car quand on est affamé les dates de péremption sont de la littérature inutile.

So Douste Blazy [the French foreign minister] is going to be at the party this Wednesday? In a democracy we would have the pleasure of welcoming him with rotten eggs and tomatoes. But no, this is not possible because we would be very quickly subdued by Kalachnikovs or, in the best of worlds, with tear gas and batons, but also because, even if they were rotten, we would prefer to eat those eggs and tomatoes, because when you're starving the expiration date has no meaning.

Of the reinterrment, The Guardian newspaper wrote that de Brazza is “one of the few white colonists still held in regard in Africa” and that the government wanted to “honour De Brazza for his work against slavery and his criticism of the abuse of African workers by Europeans.”

This is not a spin on the story most of these commenters share.

Dans notre grande impuissance tout ce que nous pouvons faire c'est du bruit. Chacun de nous peut pour une fois se rendre utile pour le projet commun de faire parler les médias sur la cérémonie du 3 octobre. A cet effet j'ai envoyé un e-mail au “Canard Enchainé” pour leur en toucher un mot.

In our powerlessness, all we can do is make noise. Each of us can for once make ourselves useful by trying make the media cover the October 3rd ceremony. To that end, I've sent an email to “Canard Enchainé.”

Another reader responded by automatically translating the page of what is now over a hundred comments into English and emailing them to the New York Times, L'Express, The Guardian, BBC, The Daily Telegraph. He writes, “I hope that this will make some waves. We must always try, especially when we have something to gain and lose nothing by trying…”

  • http://inanafricanminute.blogspot.com/ Joshua Goldstein

    This is a fascinating post. I’ve been dealing with the paradox in Uganda that the country desperately needs to be united but the various regions indeed have nothing to unite them. How do you connect a place that hasn’t been connected since inception?

    Do you establish a mythical past? Do you point to some anti-colonial event? None of these has been chosen in many of the neo-patrimonial regimes that still lack unity

    Joshua
    Global Voices- Uganda Roundup

  • http://jewelsnthejungle.blogspot.com Black River Eagle

    Ditto on what Joshua Goldstein writes in the comment above, this is a brilliant roundup post on the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. I first read an article about this guy over at BBC News online in September 2006. In the BBC From Our Own Correspondents article and podcast “Final Return to Congo” by David Willey (09/23/06) he writes:

    “The British, the French and the Belgians all grabbed what they could, but curiously it was an Italian – Pietro Savorgnan Di Brazza – who has emerged as the only European explorer and colonialist to be honoured at the beginning of the 21st Century for what he gave to Africa rather than for what he grabbed.”

    Another excerpt from this BBC News article states:

    “During this last visit to Africa he drew up a report to the government for which he worked – that of France, for by that time he had become a French citizen – denouncing the crimes committed by the colonial merchant companies which exploited Africa’s wealth for the benefit of their shareholders.

    The report has never been published and to this day remains locked away in the archives of the French Foreign Ministry.

    Its frankness about forced labour and cruel punishments of African workers in the rubber plantations was apparently the reason why it was never made public.

    The report was discovered many years after Di Brazza’s death locked inside a portable desk commissioned by the explorer for his African travels.

    The desk, which folded up and became a trunk during the sea voyage, was specially designed for the explorer by Louis Vuitton, the well-known French luggage manufacturer.”

    =========================================================

    Apparently the BBC News editiors should create a Have Your Say feature around this article and at least reference this blog post with all of the scathing criticisms and commentaries from French-speaking African blog authors and their readers on this important historical figure.

    One big question that I have is: Why does the French Foreign Ministry continue to keep Pietro Di Brazzo’s final reports under lock and key? Is there something in there that the world should not ever learn about, even more than a hundred years after his death?

  • Amb. T. Falade

    Kudos to the grateful ones in Congo who are committed to the collective heritage of Africa. Ingrates are never subjects in Africa. In fact The native African diction lacks the word “ingrate”. Once again, a double “gbosa” (kudos) to them for such act of gratitude.
    It’s a noble thing to honor those who covered our back during our cold and grey winter days but it is more noble to lay our hands on the construction tools when winter is over.
    Such honor is good but could be disturbing to a resting hero who was exhumed after his hard work of ensuring that Congo and that part of Africa live worthy of the freedom they deserve only to see a yet struggling Congo and Africa as a whole. It’s indeed dishonoring to bring a hero’s bones in contact with the same stinking breeze he spent his life purifying.
    Africans, it’s high time we began honoring those who sacrificed their convenience to buy us convenience. It’s time to stop struggling to carve out neozion while the antique ones are left unoccupied. The greatest honor we can offer our heroes is to make Africa what they had dreamed it to be.

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