Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck (2010)

In Africa an archaic social organisation collides with the supremacy of a technical civilisation that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it…simply by being ourselves , we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
(from the diary of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a Russo-Belgian agriculture engineer in the 1940s)

Kimbanguism

Simon Kimbangu was born the son of a traditional Congolese healer in 1899. Taken in by British Baptist missionaries, he became a catechist i.e. highly instructed in the faith, before, in 1921, having a revelation that he himself had miraculous powers, given directly by Jesus Christ. Simon healed a dying woman (named Kintondo, p.146) and stories about his healing powers spread like wildfire, that he healed the deaf and blind, that he even raised a woman from the dead. From all over the region people abandoned their fields and markets and flocked to behold the saviour.

The authorities in the shape of district commissioner Léon Morel quickly became alarmed, van Reybrouck saying the Protestant missionaries (who had trained Simon) took a moderate and sympathetic view of his teachings, but the Catholics lined up with the colonial authorities to find Kimbangu a threat to order and conformity (p.149).

Kimbagu was arrested and put through a show trial, without the benefit of a defence lawyer. Van Reybrouck gives us extensive quotes from the transcript of the trial and points out its similarities to the trial of Jesus Christ, another religious zealot shopped by the religious establishment who the prosecuting authorities found difficult to convict of any particular crime. The part of Pilate was played by commander Amadeo De Rossi (p.149). The result was a foregone conclusion and Kimbagu was sentenced to death when, to everyone’s surprise, he was given a personal reprieve by the Belgian monarch, King Albert, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life in a Belgian prison, most of it in solitary confinement, 30 years in a small cell, longer than Nelson Mandela.

The authorities tries to suppress Kimbagu’s followers, arresting them, sending them to remote parts of the Congo, outlawing his sect, sending his chief followers to camps fenced with barbed wire where they were subjected to forced labour, as many as one in five dying in the process (p.152). But this policy had the perverse result of spreading the faith throughout the country, with witnesses appearing all over to testify to miracles and healings performed by the imprisoned master. The result is that Kimbaguism has become a solidly established religion, a spinoff from Christianity in the style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Today around 10% of the population of the Congo are followers, with devotees and churches established in many other countries.

Van Reybrouck not only devotes an extended passage to Kimbagu’s biography and trial but makes a personal pilgrimage to what has become the Kimbanguists’ holy city, Nkamba, where he describes the peaceful atmosphere, and then interviews a leading figure in the church, Papa Wanzungasa, one hundred years old and still going strong. Indeed Kimbanguism is now a recognised religion. Some 10% of the population of Congo are followers. Papa Wanzungasa tells van Raybrouck about the early days of the movement, and describes how his own family members were forced to convert to Catholicism or sent to labour camps in the 20s and 30s, how the true believers held secret conventicles in the jungle, using coded messages to rendezvous at safe spots like the early Christians meeting underground in ancient Rome (p.153).

Van Reybrouck broadens the story out to place the Kimbanguists in context among a number of other charismatic religions which broke out in the Congo between the wars: Ngunzism, a spinoff from Kimbanguism which was overtly anti-colonial; Mpadism, founded by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, whose followers engaged in ecstatic dances; Matswanism, founded by First World War veteran André Matdwa; the Kitawala, the name a corruption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine, the Watchtower; and many more.

And then van Reybrouck gives a brilliant sociological explanation for all this, explaining that the new charismatic sects arose in precisely the parts of Congo where traditional life and beliefs had been most disrupted by European intervention, Kimbanguism in the coastal region of Bas (or Lower) Congo, the Kitawala (which grew to become the second largest indigenous religion after Kimbanguism), in the highly developed mining region of Katanga, in the far south-east of the country.

In all instances, then, it was a response to the disruption or destruction of the old tribal beliefs and social systems, their very imperfect replacement by zealous but thin Christianity, and maybe most important of all, to the simple fact that most Congolese, after half a century of promises, remained second rate citizens in their own country, most of them caught up in conditions of semi-forced labour to vast European mining and agricultural businesses, which ruthlessly exploited them and their entire families, uprooting villages, relocating entire populations, with no hope of any end in sight.

All these charismatic native religions offered hope to their adherents that a new and better life, one the colonial authorities had completely failed to deliver, was at hand. The Tupelepele (meaning the Floaters) followed Matemu a Kelenge (known to his followers as Mundele Funji, or ‘White Storm’) who hoped for a return to the time of the ancestors who would restore balance and prosperity for all. Its followers threw their identity papers, tax receipts, bank notes and all the other symbols of the European capitalist system which had ensnared them into the river in anticipation of a Great Liberation (p.162).

David Van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo is a brilliant and stunning achievement, a history like no other, and his extended treatment of Kimbanguism (pages 142 to 154) exemplifies many of its many strong points.

1. Van Reybrouck is not British

Van Reybrouck is not British. Much of the writing about the nineteenth century explorers is by British chaps about British chaps and, despite its best intentions, can’t help falling back into the gravitational pull of admiration for the plucky epic exploits of someone like Livingstone or Burton or Stanley. Van Reybrouck is completely clean of all this cricket and tiffin cultural baggage. He is Belgian. It’s quite a relief to read a book about colonial Africa in which the British are barely mentioned. In this book the European power which takes centre stage are the Belgians, their kings, parliaments and civil service, with walk-on parts for the French, Germans and Portuguese.

(I was pleased to read the first hand account of a Congolese who fought in the Second World War describing his initial transfer to British-run Nigeria where he found that local Africans were treated hugely better than they were in the Congo – properly fed, treated with respect, and he was amazed to discover that black Africans held senior posts in the Nigerian army, something still unthinkable in the segregated Belgian Congo of the 1940s).

2. Van Reybrouck is not a historian

Van Reybrouck is not a historian, at least not by training. He trained as an archaeologist and his first publication was of his doctoral dissertation, From Primitives to Primates. A history of ethnographic and primatological analogies in the study of prehistory, in 2010. Since then he has gone on to write historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry and plays, but somehow this archaeological background helps or might explain why his book feels open to a far wider range of influences and sources than a more narrow and conventional history by a professional historian would.

For example, it explains the brilliant and illuminating passage in the Introduction where he imagines five slides, each depicting the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Congo at widely separated moments of time, namely:

  1. 90,000 years ago on the shore of Lake Edward (the time and place where the bones of a group of prehistoric humans have indeed been found)
  2. a Pygmy boy in the rainforest two and a half thousand years before Christ
  3. AD 500 as the slow spread of agriculture (specifically, the fast growing ‘new’ crop, the plaintain) as well as basic iron tools arrive at the village where our 12-year-old lives
  4. 1560, when the 12-year-old lives in a society where small isolated villages have given way to clans of villages, themselves building up, especially on the savannah, into complex societies which can be called kingdoms, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba and the Kuba
  5. 1780, when there’s a fair chance our village 12-year-old will have been trafficked by enemy tribes down to the coast and bought by European slavers who ship him off under terrible conditions to Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South

So by just page 23 van Reybrouck has already given us a breath-taking sense of the historical and geographic scope of his account, that it will be a wide-ranging and, above all, beautifully imaginative and creative history.

3. Van Reybrouck is interested in byways

A conventional historian might mention the rise of charismatic sects and religious leaders in the 1920s and 30s as a result of the ongoing deracination of the Congolese population, but it is distinctive of van Reybrouck that he finds the story or angle which brings such a theoretical topic to vivid life. He not only gives us transcripts of the trial of Simon Kimbangu but then travels to the Kimbanguists’ holy city to interview leading adherents for himself.

What I’m driving at is that van Reybrouck’s account not only covers the conventional history and dates and events, but turns over all kinds of odds and ends and details and fragments and insights which bring the country, the Congo, and its people, really vividly to life.

He stumbles across the huge statue of Stanley which used to dominate the main square in Leopoldville, now taken down and dumped inside one of Stanley’s own early steamers in a junk yard in Kinshasa (p.99).

He explains the origins of the pop music and jazz which took Kinshasa by storm between the wars, and its mix of African languages and American jazz with the (rather surprising) importation of Cuban rhythms and sounds to create what is called Congo rumba. He tells us about Camille Feruzi, the great accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, and Wendo Kolosoyi whose guitar playing laid the basis of Congo rumba ‘the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century’ (p.168). African Jazz ‘the most popular band in the Congo on the 1950s’ led by Joseph Kabasele.

He mentions the godfather of Congolese literature, Paul Lomami-Tshibamba, who published elegant essays immediately after the Second World War questioning colonialism and was arrested and beaten in prison for his trouble before fleeing into exile in the (French-controlled) Republic of Congo, across the river (p.170). I immediately went looking for his first novel, Ngando, and am very irked to discover it has never been translated into English.

His book is studded with scores of other facts and byways and insights about Congo and its social and cultural and musical and artistic and social life which combine to build up a much more vivid and colourful portrait of the country than any purely ‘historical’ account could do.

4. Van Reybrouck has carried our many interviews

Van Reybrouck makes the commonly made observation that so many histories of Africa omit the voices of actual Africans – the difference is that he has done something about it. From his first trip to Congo in 2003, van Reybrouck sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find, eye witnesses who saw at first hand the events they describe, or had them from parents or grandparents.

It is typical of van Reybrouck that he travelled to the Kimbanguist holy city to see for himself. Historians working from colonial records in libraries and archives don’t do that. Van Reybrouck combines history with the vivid sense of journey and place of a good travel writer. And then, the qualities of a good journalist who knows how to make an interviewee at ease and extract the good stuff from a wide range of old timers.

So there are two types of Congolese testimony, written and oral.

a) People van Reybrouck spoke to

One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. (p.220)

‘Étienne’ Nkasi (introduced page 6), over a hundred years old, who remembered the name of Stanley as a living presence, who knew Simon Kimbangu when he was a boy, who remembered the building of the first railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and much more. His story weaves in and out of the main narrative so he appears on page 117, witnessing the early development of Kinshasa.

Victor Masundi (introduced page 75), aged 87 and blind, grew up in the Scheutist mission in Boma, and Camille Mananga (page 76) aged 73 recounted his grandfather’s memories of first being taken into a Christian mission.

Colonel Eugène Yoka, a former air force colonel, tells van Reybrouck about his father who had been a soldier who served in World War 1, and that his grandfather, a Bangal tribesman from Équateur province, had been one of the first recruits to the Force Publique (p.77).

Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, two Congolese who volunteered to fight in the Great War to defend the ‘motherland’ Belgium and were promptly captured by the Germans and spent four long years in a prisoner of war camp. Liberated after the war, Farnana lived for a while in Brussels where he eloquently made the case for the Congolese being treated as adults in their own country (pages 138 and 178).

André Kitardi, veteran of the First World War (pp.129 onwards) and again on pages 185 and 199 where he ends up serving in Palestine. Libert Otenga, the Congolese medic who was transported north into Egypt, then the Middle East, to India and ended up serving in Burma (p.188). Louis Ngumbi who fought for the Allies during World War Two (p.185).

Martin Kabuya, 92, whose grandfather took part in the Sudan campaign, who enrolled in the Congo army, describes his rgandfather’s experiences in the Great War (p.135) and his own role as a Morse code operator in the Second War (p.187).

Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, mother of Colonel Yoka, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served for only a few weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pp.135 onwards).

Père Henri de  la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit missionary in his 80s, nephew of the most famous Belgian missionary to the Congo, Raphaël de la Kéthulle who shares memories of his famous uncle who, alongside schools, built soccer stadiums, swimming pools and the huge Stade Roi Baudouin (pages 172 to 175).

Longin Ngwadi, aged 80 when van Reybrouck speaks to him in Kikwit, largest city of Kwilu Province, in the southwestern part of Congo, born in 1928, baptised by Jesuits, who wanted to become a priest but was rejected by the church hierarchy, so drifted to Kinshasa like so many young men in the 1930s and went on to become one of the first black professional footballers (pages 207 to 211).

Sister Apolline, also 80, a mixed race Congolese nun who started her career as a schoolteacher (p.211). Victoria Ndjoli, the first Congolese woman to get a driving licence (p.212).

Jamais Kolonga subject of a famous Congo rumba song, who’d had a long and varied life, who worked on the docks at Kinshasa as a young man, how his grandfather was converted to Catholicism and sent away two of his three wives, how his father was sent to Catholic school, taught to read and write and got a job with the Belgian company Otraco as manager of the housing district for the native workers, inspected their homes, made speeches to visiting directors and dignitaries and, once, even the king! Appointed to the Otraco works council and then the local council he was one of the first Congolese to have even a slight say in the administration (p.222). Jamais was born in 1935. At home he spoke French with his father, Kikongo with his mother, and Lingala with everyone else (p.223). Jamais went to work for Otraco in 1953 (pages 219 to 224).

b) Written texts recording African testimony and voices

Disasi Makuli (introduced page 29) was born in the early 1870s, son of tribalpeople, grew up in the tribal world and, aged ten, first heard rumours of outsiders raiding into their territory, who they nicknamed the Batambatamba, meaning the slave traders (p.41). Disasi was kidnapped by a gang led by the famous slave trader Tippu Tip. Then he is purchased by Stanley and set free, handed over to the case of the Englishman Anthony Swinburne who managed the small early settlement at Leopoldville. When Swinburne died he aged just 30 in 1889, Disasi found a new home with the British Baptist missionary Anthony Grenfell (p.68). In 1902 he set up one of the first black-run missions in Congo, at Yalemba (p.71). He witnessed at first hand atrocities caused by the Red Rubber Terror (p.89) and had many more adventures before dictating his life story to one of his sons before his death in 1941.

In 1895 a young man named Butungu left for England with a Baptist missionary, John Weeks. A year later he returned home with tall tales of sailing ships and salt water and the miracles he’d seen in London and wrote his stories down in Boloki. ‘It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century’ (p.65).

Testimony recorded in official reports about the rubber terror: for example given by Eluo, a man from Esanga, about red rubber atrocities (p.89).

The long and colourful life of Lutunu, born at the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded by Belgian artist Jeanne Maquiet-Tombeau (The Life of the Congolese Chief Lutunu, 1952), given as a slave by chief Makitu to Stanley (p.102).

The memories of Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur province, as recorded by a missionary and describing the imposition of the heavy tax burden on native workers levied from after the Great War (p.128).

Excerpts from the articles of Paul Lomami-Tshibamba (pages 170 and 216). An editorial from one of the colony’s most popular papers, L’Avenir Colonial (p.177).

The memoirs of André Yav, who worked all his life as a ‘boy’ in Elizabethville and wrote his recollections in the 1960s (p.123). He is quoted remembering the big miners strike during the war, which was violently suppressed by the authorities in December 1941 and the long and bitter legacy it left (p.192).

The wonderfully insightful diaries of wartime Congo kept by Vladi Souchard, pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, ‘a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction’, pages 194 to 199.

Chapters

The quickest way to convey the structure of the book is to list its chapters. Each one has a ‘colourful’ title, such as a quote, and then a factual sub-title indicating the period covered. Here are the factual sub-titles and dates covered:

  1. Central Africa draws the attention of the East and West 1870 to 1885
  2. Congo under Leopold II 1885 to 1908
  3. The early years of the colonial regime 1908 to 1921
  4. Growing unrest and mutual suspicion in peacetime 1921 to 1940
  5. The war and the deceptive calm that followed 1940 to 1955
  6. A belated colonisation, a sudden independence 1955 to 1960
  7. [Assassination of Patrice Lumumba 1960]
  8. The turbulent years of the first republic 1960 to 1965
  9. Mobutu gets down to business 1965 to 1975
  10. A marshal’s madness 1975 to 1990
  11. Democratic opposition and military confrontation 1990 to 1997
  12. The Great War of Africa 1997 to 2002
  13. New players in a wasted land 2002 to 2006
  14. Hope and despair in a newborn democracy 2006 to 2010

Between the wars

All the books I’ve read recently were about the Victorian explorers of central Africa and ended around 1910 with the death of King Leopold and his handing over the Congo to the Belgian state to become a proper colony. It’s the period after that which interests me, from the Edwardians to independence and van Reybrouck’s does a wonderful job of explaining that period, both in terms of conventional history, but also with his extensive use of individual biographies, memories, interviews and anecdotes.

The period saw the real entrenchment of colonialism but also the development and changing phases of that colonialism. Much happened but the key strands were:

Incorporation into global capitalist economy

In the 1890s the economy was a barter one. Even King Leopold’s rapacious Force Publique in effect bartered for rubber or paid forced labour exclusively with rations. The period through and after the First World War saw the introduction of money, Congo was incorporated into the global capitalist economy, with the introduction of contracts and wages (pages 127 and 157).

The budding industrialisation of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanisation and proletarianisation, but also to a far-reaching process of monetisation. (p.127)

And once you have money i.e. once you have transitioned a population from barter and traditional forms of exchange, to money, the state can control huge aspects of life, starting with contracts for wages, all kinds of laws about commercial dealings. Previously individuals worked out their own forms of exchange; now the state intervened in everything. Most of all, the state can now introduce and collect taxes. Taxes for what? Why, to pay for the state.

These economic, trade, financial practices had been introduced across Europe over centuries (think of the evolution of money and banking) and so, like the frog in the slowly heating up saucepan, everyone in the West had not only got used to them but regarded them as ‘natural’.

It’s only when you see all these instruments of state and social control being imposed on a completely virgin society that you realise how exploitative and controlling they were.

Industrialisation and proletarianisation

Industralisation and ‘development’ all sound fine until you realise their inevitable concomitant, which is the creation of a proletariat. Again, since many of the workers in the new factories or in the huge mines being created in the east of the country or on the vast new plantations growing coffee, cotton, tobacco and other export crops were only one generation removed from illiterate tribal villagers living on subsistence agriculture, the process was all the more dramatic and defined (p.125).

Between 1908 and 1921…Congo experienced its first wave of industrialisation, thereby prompting the proletarianisation of its inhabitants. (p.125)

You can see why Marxist ideology gained such traction in the developing world or Third World as it came up to independence. In Europe and America capitalism had developed a very large middle and lower middle class which benefited from it, which enjoyed a standard of living to which the more skilled workers aspired. These acted as a kind of social ballast, meaning that the industrial proletariat or working class, whatever you call it, even at their most radicalised, were never in a majority, never had the potential to overthrow the state.

Whereas in most countries coming up to independence, the clear majority of the population was treated as second class citizens and the great majority of them exploited by European employers and screwed for ever higher taxes by a state biased entirely to protecting Europeans and maximising their wealth.

When you add in the race aspect, the notion that whites exploited blacks, so that when the whites were overthrown and blacks were in power, paradise would come – and you have a very heady mix of ideas and ideologies and hopes.

Population explosion

Schools, hospitals, better nutrition, a more varied diet and medical advances such as inoculation against the worst tropical diseases, meant that the 1930s and 40s saw a population explosion (p.164). This took a very particular form, namely the explosive growth of cities. Word spread there were jobs, decent housing, money and all the excitements of modern urban life just a hundred miles from the traditional village where you lived. The village denoted crushing poverty, a corrupt chieftain and wizened elders who married all the young women. Farming was back breaking work and the crops grown were specified by the state according to unknown plans or you might be dragooned into one of the mandatory road building schemes.

So you upped sticks and hitched to the city to take your chances. Between 1920 and 1940 the population of Kinshasa doubled to 50,000. (Remember that Stanley founded it from nothing and named it Léopoldville just 40 years earlier, in 1881.) Elizabethville (named after the wife of King Albert of Belgium), centre of the mining industry in the south-east of the country, double in size between 1923 and 1929, from 16,000 to 23,000. Huge investments in the 1920s in both the mining industry and in transport infrastructure  led to Katanga province becoming one of the world’s major copper ore producers.

In 1919 the big Union Minière de Haut-Katanga corporation based in Katanga employed 8,500 workers; by 1928 it was 17,000. In 1920 there were 123,000 salaried black in the country; in 1929 there were 450,000 (p.127). By 1945, what with the huge demand for metals and foodstuffs generated by the war, the number of payrolled workers had risen to 800,000, possibly as many as 1 million (p.191).

Van Reybrouck uses the decision of Union Minière to allow workers to bring their wives to the workers’ accommodation as a symbolic moment when many black employees stopped being transitory single men on short term contracts and began to become families with careers. Black men acquired the skills required by a modern urban economy, carpenters, masons, woodworkers, as well as white collar roles such as nurses, clerks, warehouse foremen. And bar and music hall owners and the new jazz musicians who played in them. In the late 1930s the first pensions were introduced by some of the corporations. It was during the 30s, 40s and 50s that a Congolese society was created. The Boy Scouts were introduced. Football. Music.

Repression

As the colonial state extended its grasp out across all regions of the country, it faced two kinds of revolt: one the old traditional, rural one from the country and the other a new, urban one, fomented by workers and unions. This explains why ‘almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935 (p.160).

When a young Belgian named Maximilien Balot, visiting a village in Pende country to collect taxes, mishandled the situation, was murdered and his body hacked to pieces, the colonial government sent in soldiers who killed at least 400 natives, probably more (p.163).

Elsewhere, strikes among mine workers or dockers were put down with force, although actual unions weren’t very active. Most were set up by the white employers and so were another symbol of repression rather than vehicles of protest and negotiation. As late as 1955, of about 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls, only 6,160 belonged to a union (p.214).

What is an évolué?

Against this background of industrialisation and modernisation, the rapid growth of urban centres with all the features of urban life i.e. modern jobs, modern accommodation, electricity, telephones and entertainment in the form of clubs and bars and cinemas, it’s no surprise that an educated black bourgeoisie emerged. The Belgian authorities used the French term ‘évolué’ meaning, literally, people who had evolved from their primitive illiterate tribal culture to become well educated, assimilated urbanites, people who dressed, walked and talked like Europeans.

An évolué had benefited from post-primary school education, had a good income, was serious about his work, monogamous (polygamy was one of the great indicators of the tribal mindset), dressed, walked and talked in the European manner. He was proud of owning Western consumer goods like a bicycle or record player (p.215).

Like any other class rising up into one above, they were very conscious of their new status and formed groups, clubs and circles to protect it. They read and they wrote. The first Congolese writers come from this caste such as Paul Lomami-Tshibamba. But they were in the classic piggy-in-the-middle position. After the Second World War they wrote the first tentative essays about greater equality and autonomy for blacks but deep down they wanted to live like whites and be treated like whites. The irony was that, after the war, more white women came and settled in the Congo, a new white middle class came into being, more consumer orientated, with big villas and chauffeur-driven cars and children at private school.

And at exactly the historic moment when a new black middle class and intelligentsia reached out to them, van Reybrouck portrays white bourgeoisie as withdrawing into its gated communities and enforcing a new, more unbreakable colour bar. If a white journalist took a black colleague into a European bar, conversation stopped. Trains were segregated into black and white. If a black man dived into a swimming pool at a European club, the whites got out (p.216).

They had done everything asked of them, but still the évolués were treated as second class citizens. Van Reybrouck quotes a plaintive petition from the évolués of the small town of Lulabourg, who describe themselves as ‘a new social class…which constitutes a new sort of native middle class’ and concludes plaintively: ‘It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will’ (p.217).

The authorities made what, in retrospect seem like pitiful attempts to mollify these pleas. In 1948 they declared the évolués could apply for a ‘certificate of civil merit’. Holders of this grand certificate would no longer be administered corporal punishment and, if charged with an offence, be tried before a European judge. They had access to white wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through white neighbourhoods after 6pm (!).

Unsurprisingly this was met with resentment and so the authorities introduced the carte d’immatriculation in 1952 which gave the évolué exactly the same civil rights as Europeans, most notably the ability to send their children to European schools. However, in order to qualify you had to submit to a humiliating inspection of your home life, which scrutinised every aspect of your home from the sleeping arrangements right down to the state of the cutlery and the kitchen.

Very few évolués volunteered to undergo this humiliation and even fewer passed the stringent criteria with the result that, in 1958, from a population of 14 million, only 1,557 civil merits were handed out and only 217 registration cards (p.219).

All of which explains why so many of the early leaders of the African nationalist parties in the Belgian Congo were members of the frustrated évolué class.

A succession of raw materials

Congo was victim of a kind of ironic curse: the conquering Europeans discovered the country possessed a whole series of raw materials which brought the exploiting whites vast wealth but very little benefit and a lot of forced labour and misery for the native population. Van Reybrouck points out these raw materials formed a kind of relay race: just as one material ran dry or ceased to be needed by Western countries, another took its place (p.119).

Thus ivory was the commodity which attracted traders to Congo in the 1870s and 80s. But just as supplies of ivory were being exhausted in the 1890s, there was a sudden explosion of demand for rubber sparked by the invention of pneumatic tyres for bicycles and cars and Congo turned out to be home to millions of wild rubber vines, which the population was terrorised into milking throughout the 1890s and 1900s.

Then the rubber boom collapsed because so many rubber tree plantations were opening in the Far East. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87% of Congo’s exports, by 1928 just 1% (p.119). But just as the bottom fell out of the rubber market, Congo was discovered to be one of the world’s great sources of precious metals and minerals, chiefly copper, which underwent an explosion of demand during the First World War.

The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun and on the Somme had brass casings made from 75% copper mined in the east Congo region of Katanga. The bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80% copper (p.137). There was steady demand between the wars, and then another huge spike 1939 to 1945.

And then, just when demand for copper dropped following WW2, its extensive supplies of uranium made Congo’s mines out east of permanent interest to the Americans (p.191). And when demand for this fell with the end of the Cold War in 1990, a new demand was opened up with the spread of personal computers and then mobile phones, which require cobalt and other rare metals which are found in the eastern part of the country.

Conclusion

My reading of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the industrial revolution and the age of capital is that the industrial revolution was a kind of catastrophe. Contemporaries marvelled at the power and size of the new machines, especially the new railway engines unleashed on the world in the 1840s, but were puzzled and horrified at how such incredible ingenuity and engineering prowess seemed to make a large part of the population poorer than it had been before, the puzzle Karl Marx set out to solve and which his devotee Hobsbawm echoed 100 years later.

Nobody knew then what we know now about the cyclical nature of capitalist boom and bust, about successive waves of technological, consumer and marketing innovation. After the second industrial revolution provided a cornucopia of new inventions into the 1870s and 80s it was possible to believe that the new sciences of economics and sociology would guide society towards a technological utopia.

What is quite obvious is that nobody at the time understood the forces driving Western societies and the entire world forward with such relentless energy to a series of disasters: from the prolonged depression of the 1870s and 1880s which nobody understood, through to the gathering rivalries of the 1900s which led to the unprecedented cataclysm of the Great War and then to the thirty years of chaos which followed – the instability in Europe, America and Asia crystallised by the collapse of the entire financial system in 1929 followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia which ten stricken years later plunged the world into an even greater cataclysm.

My point is that Stanley and Leopold and the sadists in the Force Publique and then much of the colonial administration and the white Belgian masters certainly made countless mistakes, indulged in lies, extortion, torture and murder, or the relentless humiliation of colonial racism. And I’m not suggesting we ‘forgive’ them or let them off the hook. But at the same time this epic account, for me, brings out how humans in all areas, at all levels of society, don’t really know what’s going on. How could we? We can’t see the future from whose perspective the general trends of things even begin to make some sort of sense.

Who today can really predict the long-term impact of the digital revolution, of COVID-19 or global warming? After all the colour and vibrancy of van Reybrouck’s brilliant account I was left with a profound sense of humanity’s helplessness, a blinkered inability to understand the situation or manage ourselves which the next sections of the book – about the rush to independence, followed by civil war, military coups, corrupt dictatorship, political chaos, catastrophic war and social collapse are not, I suspect, going to do anything to disabuse me of.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.


Africa-related reviews

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Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part two

‘[Dr Livingstone] left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa.’
(Henry Morton Stanley in his obituary of Livingstone published in the Graphic magazine, 1873)

Expeditions covered in the second half of the book

  • Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, 1871 to 1872
  • Livingstone’s final expedition, 1872 to 1873
  • Stanley’s great expedition across Africa from East to West, 1874 to 1879
  • Stanley working for King Leopold II of Belgium, 1879 to 1885
  • The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

This is the third version of the meeting between Welsh workhouse boy-turned-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone which I have read, and arguably the most effective.

This is because, in the preceding chapter (chapter 18) Jeal had given a clear and vivid description of how utterly prostrate Livingstone was, his obsession with tracing the river Lualaba crushed by porters paid by Arab slavers to refuse to accompany him, forced to return to the miserable slaver town of Ujiji on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika where he discovered that all the trading goods and supplies which had been carefully selected, bought and sent to him by Dr John Kirk, British consul in Zanzibar, had been treacherously sold off by the Arab in charge of delivering them, so that all his native porters abandoned him, leaving the man penniless, betrayed, abandoned and completely demoralised by the complete failure of his expedition to the Lualaba, the crushing of all his hopes as an explorer. That is the moment when Henry Morton Stanley walked into his compound, accompanied by hundreds of porters laden with supplies. So the reader understands why the meeting came as such a huge psychological relief to both men.

As to Stanley’s epic trek across Africa which revealed for the first time that the Luabala was a tributary of the Congo, I have covered that in my review of Jeal’s biography of Stanley.

The origins of the Nile and what is an ‘origin’?

On reflection, I think Jeal would have done better to have started this book with a factual description of the actual geography of the Nile, carefully explaining what we now understand of its modern course; because, with this information imprinted on our minds, the reader would be much better placed to understand the importance of all the discoveries and theories bandied about by the explorers whose expeditions he describes over the next 350 pages.

It is only on page 316, in the context of Stanley proving once and for all that the river Luabala did not flow north and east to form a tributary of the Nile, but instead flowed north and west to become the main tributary of the Congo, thus, in effect, confirming Speke’s discovery that the northern outlet of Lake Victoria is the origin of the White Nile – it is only here that Jeal, almost casually, comes clean and explains the entire modern understanding of the multiple sources of the Nile, referencing subsequent expeditions, in 1891, 1898, 1935, and as recently 2006, which have traced its origins further and further into obscure watercourses in Rwanda and Burundi.

And it is only tucked away in the heart of his book, that he raises a central question which is: How do you define the source of a river? Eventually all major rivers splinter into tributaries which themselves divide into contributory creeks and streams and springs and so on. How many do you include? How do you define The Source? Apparently Stanley said that, if you go that far, it was only a small step to attributing the origins of a river to the clouds passing overhead and the rain that falls.

Jeal, like the explorers, is happy to stop at the assertion that Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile.

Some incidents

Stanley on the Congo

Stanley’s work for King Leopold II of Belgium, building a road up the river Congo, establishing way stations, transporting sections of steam ships along it which could be assembled above the Congo’s fearsome rapids, are all placed in the context of establishing the infrastructure for the wicked Congo Free State which Leopold was seeking to establish (described in detail in chapter 28).

De Brazza

Stanley’s work for Leopold is also placed in the context of international rivalry with France embodied by the attempts of French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to claim the north side of the river Congo . This led, among other incidents, to the confrontation at Stanley Pool with Brazza, who had soldiers and tried to claim the south bank of the Congo for France. It was only by the resolute action of the British station chief at Kinshasa, young Anthony Swinburne, that the region, and what would go on to become Congo’s capital, remained in Leopold’s control.

The Congo situation was to be stabilised at the 1885 Conference of Berlin by the formal assignment of the vast region of the Congo to Leopold’s personal fief. Jeal covers all this but, because his focus is the Nile, he is most interested in the fate of central and East Africa.

Muslim versus Christian

Here the deep structural issue was whether the region would fall under Muslim or Christian domination. The Christian British were, in a sense, biased, identifying the cause of civilisation and progress with themselves and their religion. But most of the Brits involved knew the simple fact that Islam represented slavery, because east central Africa was being laid waste by a slave trade carried out entirely by Muslim Arabs, seizing black African slaves to ship them to the Arab Middle East, destroying entire villages, laying waste to areas, shooting slaves who were too weak or ill to trek the thousand miles to the coast.

Samuel Baker founds Equatoria

This is why those concerned for the region didn’t want it to fall under the control of Egypt, because Egyptian control would almost certainly involve the extension of slavery into the region of the Great African Lakes, Buganda, Bunyoro and so on.

Nonetheless, it was the noted explorer Sir Samuel White who penetrated south on the Nile with a host of soldiers and riverboats given by the Khedive of Egypt, and simply declared, without consulting any of the native rulers, the existence of a new southern province of Egypt which he named Equatoria, in May 1871.

This incident, peripheral to the quest for the source of the Nile, would go on to have long-term political ramifications which echo to this day.

Retreat to Fatiko

When Baker attempted to penetrate further south, he was met with fierce resistance from the army of king Kabarega of Banyoro and was forced to stage a fighting retreat to Fatiko, one of those defeats in the face of stronger African foes which were to be presented as a kind of moral victory in the British press (Isandlwana, 1879, Gordon and the Khartoum garrison massacred, 1885).

According to Jeal, it was the publicity surrounding Baker’s military expedition which first really publicised to many politicians and businessmen the geographic and commercial potential of opening up central Africa.

Stanley’s call for missionaries

This is why one of the most important events of the period was Stanley writing a letter, in May 1875, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the region was crying out for Christian missionaries to set up schools, educate the locals, encourage Western style trade, with a view to stamping out slavery and other barbarous practices like human sacrifices, to develop and raise the living standards of Africans. And the numerous missionary societies of Britain responded (p.302).

Almost inevitably, when the missionaries came, they faced the same kind of antagonism and sometimes horrific violence which the explorers had faced or witnessed but, by and large survived, because the latter had guns and were moving through, not settling in, dangerous territories.

Atrocities against missionaries

In January 1885 Mwanga king of Buganda, arrested the missionary Mackay and had three of his young black converts taken from the mission school, their arms hacked off, and then slowly roasted to death on a spit (p.348). In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington who had been sent by the CMS to become the first bishop of East Africa, was arrested by Mwanga and speared to death along with all 50 of his porters (p.349). On 30 June 1886 Mwanga arrested and executed 45 Catholic and Protestant converts, strangling several with his own hands, having the others castrated and burned alive (p.349).

These sorts of atrocities inevitably caused outrage in the newspapers and forced European governments to step in ‘and so something’ to protect our gallant missionaries. Thus the 1890s saw a wave of annexations and mandates, Malawi in 1892, Uganda declared a protectorate on 27 August 1894.

Rivalry with Germany

It must also be noted that, if the British endured a rivalry with a France determined to push east from their West African possessions, beyond Chad, across the desert and into Egyptian and Sudanese territory, and south as far as the Congo, the British also faced rivalry with Germany in East Africa.

Chancellor Bismarck sent envoys to sign deals with local rulers, amassing influence over such a large area that eventually it justified a full-blown diplomatic agreement between the two governments, in 1886, which secured for Germany the southern portion of the region which was to become Tanganyika, and present-day Tanzania.

In response, the British government approved the granting of a royal charter to Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, sowing the seeds of what was to evolve into Uganda and Kenya (pages 362 to 363).

Wikipedia has two maps which vividly contrast territorial ‘ownership’ of Africa in 1880 and 1913, before and after the great ‘scramble for Africa’. Apart from showing the obvious way in which an entire continent was gobbled up by half a dozen European powers, the two things which stand out for me are 1. The extent of French possession, coloured blue. 2. The fact that German East Africa (dark grey) presented an impassible obstacle to imperialists like Cecil Rhodes who wanted to create one unified band of British colonies stretching the length of Africa. How frustrated he must have been!

Political geography of Africa 1880 and 1913. Source: Wikipedia

The Emin Pasha relief expedition 1886 to 1889

I’ve summarised the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in my summary of Jeal’s Stanley biography. Suffice to say that, as in his descriptions of Livingstone’s two last expeditions or Stanley’s trans-Africa trek, arguably the summaries Jeal gives in this book are better than the ones in the Stanley book because they are much shorter, much punchier, and focus on the key events and decisions: I understood the importance of Stanley’s fateful decisions during the Emin Pasha expedition much better from the 10-page summary given in this book (pages 365 to 375) than from the several chapters devoted to it in the Stanley biography which, for me, buried the important things in a sea of details. In particular, the notorious moral collapse of the Rear Column into Kurz-like barbarism is much more vivid when compressed onto just two pages (pages 371 to 372).

Royal Navy anti-slavery

It gets very little publicity but the British government tasked the Royal Navy with maintaining squadrons whose sole purpose was to intercept slave ships and quell the ocean-borne slave trade.

During the nineteenth century, 17,000 members of the Royal Navy died as a result of their service with the West and East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadrons. (p.362)

Part two

Part two of Jeal’s book is titled ‘The Consequences’ and deals with just that, the long term consequences of all this imperial jostling for African territory at the end of the nineteenth century. I’d read almost all the stories Jeal tells of the earlier expeditions in his biography of Stanley or Frank McLynn’s book about African exploration. Part two of Jeal’s book leaves all that Victoriana behind to deal with the dawning era of state-sponsored exploration. It broadens out to be about the general Scramble for Africa during the 1880s and beyond – to my surprise, to a great deal beyond – in some instances (Sudan and Uganda) bringing the story right up to date, with summaries not only of their twentieth century histories, but their post-colonial political histories right up to the year the book was published, 2011.

Sudan

In both countries Jeal says the British made a series of fateful mistakes. In Sudan it was yoking together the utterly different Muslim Arabs of the north with the African animists and Christians of the south. Since the British got on better with the Arabs, who had more Western-friendly economic and social systems, the northerners inherited most of the political, economic and military levers of power and looked down on the black African southerners. Jeal singles out the British commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael (served 1916 to 1933) for refusing to even visit the south for his first seven years in post and then being so shocked by its primitive condition that he perversely refused to encourage investment in it.

All this made it almost inevitable that, once the country was granted independence, many in the south would want their own government. South Sudan tried to secede in 1955, leading to a civil war which continued on and off for over 60 years until South Sudan gained its independence as a nation state in July 2011. (With depressing inevitability a civil war then broke out within south Sudan in 2013 which lasted till last year, 2020.)

In other words, the long term consequence of Britain drawing the borders of the territory as it did, and administering it as it did, was long term instability, war and suffering.

Uganda

The other major British error Jeal lingers on, was not retaining the region of Equatoria, claimed and invented by Baker in 1872 in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, as a distinct country.

Although it contained numerous tribes, the inhabitants of Equatoria had the advantage of being related by language and tradition. Instead the British made the disastrous mistake of dividing Equatoria along a horizontal line through the middle and assigning the northern half to Sudan and the southern half to Uganda, a decision taken by Sir Harry Johnston in 1899. Jeal goes into some detail as to how the inclusion of the Equatorial kingdoms, of Baganda in particular, helped to unbalance the tribal makeup of Uganda from the start.

Jeal gives a brisk summary of Uganda’s history after it gained independence from Britain in 1962, namely: the rise of a typical African dictator or Big Man, Milton Obote; a crisis caused by how to handle the semi-independent nation of Buganda within Uganda: Obote suspends the constitution in a 1966 coup and rules as a dictator until he was overthrown by his military leader Idi Amin, who himself emerged as a murderous tyrant ruling for 8 years until himself overthrown when the army of neighbouring Tanzania along with Ugandan exiles invaded and restored Obote for the next 6 years (1980 to 1986). Currently Uganda is ruled by former general Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew the previous regime in 1986 and has ruled a one-party state ever since.

Summarising the plight of both countries, Jeal says:

Britain should have stayed longer in Sudan and Uganda, should have spent more money there and better prepared these countries for independence. (p.418)

The case for intervention

In his final pages Jeal recapitulates the case for European intervention in the area of central Africa he’s been describing. One of the central motives was to stamp out the slave trade which the big five explorers he focuses on (Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley) witnessed, described and railed against with passion and persistence.

Jeal argues that if the Christian European nations had not intervened in central Africa, the area would not have remained a pristine paradise, as some anti-colonialists claim. It had already been heavily despoiled by the Arab slave trade which was encroaching deeper and deeper into the interior with every year, bringing devastation, mass murder and enslavement.

The whole of central equatorial Africa would have become part of the Muslim world, with slavery an inescapable part of it, unless the colonial powers had come to stay. (p.430)

On this reading the case against the Europeans isn’t that they colonised Africa, as such. Jeal goes out of his way to assert that the British in particular did bring impartial justice, schools, education, railways, roads and economic development which lifted most Africans out of grinding poverty to levels of affluence and literacy inconceivable only a few generations earlier.

No, the case against the European colonialists is that they made terrible decisions about borders and administrative regions, tried to run their colonies on the cheap, ignored native traditions and chieftains and kingdoms in preference for a British style central administration and parliamentary democracy and that, when they handed all this over to African rulers in the 1960s, it quickly became obvious that the countries couldn’t be ruled by Westminster-style politics, but only from the barrel of a gun in the hands of the country’s strongest institution – the army.

The criticism is not that Britain colonised Africa. It’s that the British did it so badly. Upon independence, the continent’s 3,000 ethnic groups ended up divided up into 47 nation states. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy centuries-old beliefs in animism, spirits and personal responsibility, but not long enough to imprint the universal literacy and faith in education which underpins the success of the West. The complete inappropriateness of imposing a Westminster-style parliamentary system onto nations with radically different traditions and definitions of power and authority, led almost all of them to collapse and be replaced by the rule of Big Men backed by the army. In the mid-1990s there were 31 civil wars raging in Africa, resulting either from the terribly drawn boundaries or the deliberate incitements of Big Men (p.434).

Responsibility

It seems to me attributing ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt’ for the dire post-independence fates of many African nations is pointless. Identifying errors and mistaken decisions with a view to avoiding them in future or using the analysis to try and address current problems might be a worthwhile activity. But blaming some white guy for what he said or wrote 150 years ago seems futile. It’s only a form of self-promoting rhetoric and psychological bonding for the righteous who like to make those kind of criticisms. Blaming ‘the white man’ or ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ hardly seems very practical to me.

As Jeal candidly admits, the violent and semi-genocidal actions of the Islamic government in Khartoum dwarf anything the colonial authorities ever did. Similarly, Idi Amin’s regime undertook large-scale repression of sections of Uganda’s population, which may led to as many as 500,000 deaths and the wholescale expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population (30,000 came to the UK, some 10,000 to other western nations).

The idea that what exactly Speke said to Burton in Aden 150 years ago is given more space in the book than the massacres commissioned by the governments of Sudan and Uganda almost amounts to a subtle kind of racism, or at the very least, bias, whereby what one white man said or wrote 150 years ago is considered more important than the death of 100,000 Africans in the recent past.

To put it another way, once your mind is contemplating the murderous post-independence regimes of Sudan or Uganda, being concerned about what exactly Speke said to Burton 150 years ago seems absurd and irrelevant. In a way the brutal realities Jeal describes in the last 30 or 40 pages of his book, make the entire account of the Victorian explorers seem like a fairy tale, like a weightless fiction, like Alice in Wonderland.

Attributing some kind of responsibility to the colonial authorities who took bad decisions from the late 1890s through to the 1950s is probably a more worthwhile activity, but Jeal zips through this final part of the book at top speed. The colonial and post-independence history of two nations like Sudan and Uganda are just too big and complex to be managed in such a short space, and by an author who is much more at home investigating Stanley’s father complex or Baker’s love for his slave wife. In other words, is happier retailing ripping yarns of Victorian derring-do than giving a dryer, cold-blooded analysis of contemporary African politics.

Still, I suppose it’s to Jeal’s credit that he doesn’t just end the book with the fiasco of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1889, as he might have done but makes an attempt to bring it up to date, skimpy though it feels.

Up until the last 40 or so pages Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure is full of extraordinary stories of Victorian heroism and endurance, illness and obsession. It is entirely fitting that this book was turned into a series of BBC Radio 4. It has exactly that Radio 4 feel of comforting, white bourgeois, public school nostalgia. And if you’re in that kind of mood, why not? But the harsh realities described in the final passages make you realise that that world – of dashing Victorian chaps – only really survives between the covers of this kind of Radio 4-friendly history.

Logocentrism

Mind you, this aspect of Jeal’s book, namely the foregrounding of European written accounts over African oral or unrecorded accounts, is a subset of the larger bias embedded in Western practice, which is the privileging of the written word.

Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley are the subject of so many books not only because they are such epitomes for those who like tales of Victorian adventure, but because they wrote so much and so much of it is stored in libraries and archives. This presents potentially endless opportunities for each generation of biographers to rework the sources and present new versions of their lives. It guarantees a steady little cottage industry which keeps their names in the public eye, sort of (among fans of this kind of thing at any rate).

Whereas where are the biographies of the Africans they met, of King Kamrasi of the Bunyoro or King Mutesa of the Baganda, to name a couple of the most notable? What of all the other chieftains and leaders, let alone their hundreds of thousands of subjects?

There is a profound structural inequality not just in the fact that the West or, in this case, Britain, with its public schoolboy taste for foreign adventure encouraged by its public schoolboy publishing and public schoolboy bookselling industries, will carry on writing, publishing and consuming books of imperial derring-do for the foreseeable future and getting them comfortably serialised on Radio 4. But in the way that we in the West foreground writing and written sources, written accounts and written description, journals, diaries, letters and every form of text over other types of record or history (predominantly oral).

In this deep sense, the very way the subject of history is conceived and practiced in the West militates against cultures with alternative methods of recording the past. Consigns them to eternal silence and subordinateness.

The sources of the Nile

My major practical criticism of the book isn’t any of these: you get what you pay for and Jeal delivers an intelligent and pacy account of the five great Victorian explorers of Africa.

But I think even on its own terms, the book would have benefited from a better explanation of the actual sources of the Nile, which are only partly explained in a throwaway few pages around page 316. I had to google the subject to find out what current knowledge on the sources of the Nile is (and to be surprised that, right up to the present day, explorers are still claiming to have found the ‘real’ source, tucked away in the rainforests of Rwanda, so that there is still, surprisingly, scholarly debate on the subject). I think this could have been stated and explained, with maps, much more clearly; and that, on balance, the best place to have put it would have been at the start so the reader had the clearest sense possible of the geography, before commencing the accounts of the explorations.

Chief Cammorro’s view

‘Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they don’t have the strength to be bad.’

The words of Cammorro, chief of the Latuka, as quoted by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who is not necessarily a reliable witness and who, possibly, put into the chief’s mouth his own hard-bitten and cynical views. But in the context of the violent Africa described in this book, very apposite whoever exactly said it.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

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Oceania @ The Royal Academy

How to say Oceania

First the pronunciation. All the curators and scholars on the audio-guide (£2.50 and well worth it) pronounced it: O-SHE-EH-KNEE-ER. They are mostly Oceanians (Auusies and Kiwis) themselves. Whereas Tim Marlow, RA artistic director, pronounces it: O-SHE-ARE-KNEE-ER. Maybe that’s the British pronunciation.

The map

Second, the map. Oceania is immense, covering – at its widest extent, about a third of the earth’s surface. Yet it is almost all water. Apart from the continent of Australia, the big islands of New Guinea and New Zealand, it mainly comprises hundreds of small to tiny islands or atolls, scattered over the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Map of Oceania

Map of Oceania

It was only later that European geographers divided the vast area into Polynesia (Greek for ‘many islands’), Melanesia (meaning ‘islands of black people’) and Micronesia (‘small islands’).

The people

It took a vast period of time for them to be settled. Indigenous Australians migrated from Africa to Asia around 70,000 years ago, and arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago. Papua New Guinea was first colonised 30,000 years ago.

But most of the islands of Oceania were populated a lot later (or more recently), starting maybe around 3,000-3,500 BC on Fiji, 1400 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago, 1000 BC on Tonga, 300-400 AD for Easter Island and Hawaii, New Zealand between 800 and 1200 AD.

So the problem any exhibition of ‘Oceania’ faces is this extraordinary diversity of histories, cultures, languages and religions to be found over this vast extent.

The timeline

It can be simplified as:

  1. Tribal peoples travel across the islands, settling them over a huge time span from 50,000 BC to 400 AD.
  2. European discovery: various Pacific islands were ‘discovered’ from the 16th century onwards by European explorers from Portugal, Spain and Holland (e.g. the Dutchman Abel Tasman who gave his name to Tasmania in 1642). But Anglocentric narratives tend to focus on the four voyages of Captain James Cook, the first of which arrived at Tahiti in 1769 with Cook going on to map the islands of the Pacific more extensively than any man before or since.
  3. Colonisation: during the 19th century one by one the islands fell under the control of European powers, namely Britain and France and Holland, with Germany arriving late in the 19th century and then America seizing various islands at the turn of the 20th century. Everywhere Europeans tried to impose European law, brought missionaries who tried to stamp out tribal customs, sometimes used the people as forced labour, and everywhere brought diseases like smallpox which devastated native populations.
  4. Political awakening: during my lifetime i.e. the last 30 or 40 years, the voices of native peoples in all the islands have been increasingly heard, fighting for political independence, demanding reparations for colonial-era injustices, a great resurgence of cultural and artistic activity by native peoples determined to have their own stories heard, and a great wind of change through western institutions and audiences now made to feel guilty about their colonial legacy, and invited to ask questions about whether we should return all the objects in our museums to their original owners.
  5. Global warming: unfortunately, at the same time as this great artistic and political awakening has taken place, we have learned that humanity is heating up the world, sea-levels will rise and that a lot of Oceania’s sacred places, historic sites and even entire islands are almost certainly going to be submerged and lost.

The peg for the exhibition

250 years ago, in August  1768, the Royal Academy was founded by George III. Four months earlier, Captain James Cook had set off on his epoch-making expedition to the Pacific. This exhibition celebrates this thought-provoking junction of events.

The exhibition itself

I love tribal art, native art, primitive art, whatever the correct terminology is. Some of my favourite art anywhere is the Benin Bronzes now in the British Museum (and other European collections), so I should have loved this exhibition. There are well over a hundred carved canoes, masks, statues, spears and paddles, totems, roof beams, and other ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ objects which emanate tremendous artistic power and integrity.

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I think one of the problems is that I found it, in fact, too immense. Overwhelmed by wall after wall of extraordinary masks and carvings I found the narrative or explanations behind the objects difficult to follow. It is the challenge of ‘Oceania’ as a subject that it is so huge and so diverse. Every single island had its own peoples, with their own myths, legends, traditions and ways. It wasn’t like reading about the ancient Greeks or Egyptians which are reasonably uniform and stable entities – it was like reading about a thousand types of ancient Greek or Egyptians.

The exhibition attempts to create order from this profusion by allotting objects to themed rooms, thus:

1. Introduction

A huge map of Oceania takes up one wall of the central octagonal room, whose other dominating feature is a vast cascading blue curtain, a work of art invoking the enormous Pacific made by the Mata Aho Collective of four Māori women. And on another wall, a video of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands reciting one of her poems in a strong American accent.

2. Voyaging and navigation

This room contains some breath-takingly beautiful carved wooden canoes, paddles, prows, fierce wooden headposts, ornate carvings and painted figureheads. In the background, on the left, you can see a display case which contains several of the ‘stick charts’ which native peoples used as navigational aids.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania, the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Tupai, a native from Tahiti, who I learned about when I read the biography of Captain Cook, was a native who joined Cook’s crew and became extremely useful as an interpreter with tribes on the islands he visited. Tupai made a number of drawings of natives and Europeans and these and a number of other drawings are scattered throughout the show. interesting, but dwarfed by the visual and imaginative impact of the enormous canoes and masks and statues.

3. Expanding horizons

Spears, head dresses, statues, ceremonial clubs and dance shields.

The commentary makes the point that a lot of the artefacts now on display in Western museums were not stolen and looted. Most Oceanic cultures placed importance on gift-giving for cementing alliances, mediating power, exchanging brides and grooms, and so on. Hence a lot of the stuff on show here was given freely by native peoples keen to establish their idea of good relationships with the newcomers by exchanging. And of course, the European ships exchanged or ‘sold’ to the natives all sorts of European goods, from trashy gewgaws, to useful tools and equipment.

4. Place a community

A room about buildings showing how native peoples decorated their buildings with paintings or carvings depicting myths, legends, important ancestors, and how the architecture not only mediated space, but also, in some sense, controlled time. For example as you entered a chamber decorated with carvings of your ancestors, you were literally going back to their time.

This room included one of the highlights, an enormous long, carved, wooden roofbeam from the Solomon Islands which featured some exquisitely carved figures of seagulls, pinned tail up to the side of the wall, as if diving down to catch the wooden fish depicted swimming along beneath them.

Also included were some fairly explicit images of the sexes, a number of men with penis sheathes and the goddess Dikulai carved with her legs wide apart and, apparently, pulling apart her labia.

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

5. Gods and ancestors

This is another room full of enormous carved wooden and stone statues, for example of the two-headed figure of Ti’i from Tahiti, or the immense stone Maori figure of Hava Rapi Nui. There’s a wooden depiction of Lono, the Hawaiian god who was to be Captain Cook’s nemesis.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

6. The spirit of the gift

Examples of the gifts whose exchange was such an important part of the culture of many of the islands: necklaces made of teeth or shells, armshells, half a dozen enormous decorated barkcloths the size of Persian carpets, cloaks made of feathers or flax, and a couple of three-foot-tall, feathered godheads.

7. Performance and memory

Most of these artefacts were not ‘art’ in our sense, objects to be kept hanging on a wall or in sterile conditions in galleries. Most of them were made to be used – to be worn, moved or swung, in an atmosphere of incense and music and celebration, or commemoration or ritual.

Objects like a lifesize costume for a ‘chief mourner’, or the huge display of fans, figures, masks, a dance paddle, a head crest, carved wooden shields, a war club, a ceremonial adze, a crocodile mask. Things that were meant to come alive in the hands of experienced users.

8. Encounter and empire

Here come the horrible Europeans bringing their Christianity, their ‘rule of law’ and their ideas of ‘private property’ which could be bought and sold at a profit, instead of freely exchanged as gifts.

That said, the exhibition emphasises how native peoples used all the new objects and materials which Europeans exchanged with them to produce new hybrid forms of art, incorporating European materials and motifs, precursors, in some ways, to tourist souvenirs.

In the enormous display case which took up one entire wall and housed some 15 stunning carved objects, pride of place went to another long slender carving, this time of a feast trough carved in the shape of a crocodile, from Kalikongu, a village in the West Solomon Islands.

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

9. In pursuit of Venus (infected)

The exhibition completely changes tone as you round the corner and come across the longest continuous video projection I’ve ever seen. Onto the wall of the longest room in the Royal Academy is projected this 21st century live-action animated art work by Lisa Reihana, a 26-metre wide, 32-minute long installation.

To quote from Reihana’s website:

In 1804, Joseph Dufour created Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a sophisticated 20-panel scenic wallpaper whose exotic subject matter referenced popular illustrations of the times and mirrored a widespread fascination with Captain Cook and de la Perouse Pacific voyages. Two hundred years later Lisa Reihana reanimates this popular wallpaper as a panoramic video spanning a width of 26 metres.

While Dufour’s work models Enlightenment beliefs of harmony amidst mankind, Reihana’s version includes encounters between Polynesians and Europeans which acknowledge the nuances and complexities of cultural identities and colonisation. Stereotypes about other cultures and representation that developed during those times and since are challenged, and the gaze of imperialism is returned with a speculative twist that disrupts notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.

If you’re puzzled by the title, it is explained by the fact that Captain Cook’s 1768 voyage to the Pacific was commissioned by the Royal Society to record the transit of Venus, a phenomenon it was hoped would help improve navigation, and which astronomers knew would be better observed from the South Pacific than from Britain.

The subtitle, ‘infected’, rather brutally reminds us of the immense devastation wrought on native populations by the disease-bringing Europeans (whose diseases had earlier ravaged the populations of the Caribbean, north and central America).

Here’s a clip from In pursuit of Venus (infected):

The film presents a panorama of all kinds of social interactions from the colonising period including, inevitably, scenes of brutality and killing.

For me this completely changed the tone of the exhibition. Up till then I had been admiring Oceanic culture from the past: from this point onwards, for the last two rooms, the exhibition transitions to being about contemporary art by contemporary artists from the Oceanic region, a different thing entirely.

A completely different thing because these artists, without exception, being 21st century artists, employ what is now the universal, global language of contemporary art. They may have been born in New Zealand or the Marshall Islands, but they have been educated into the international visual language of contemporary art from New York to Beijing.

Thus a lot of their visual and artistic distinctiveness was lost.

10. Memory

These last two rooms mix a handful of awesome traditional masks or wood carvings with bang up-to-date contemporary works of art.

For example, The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Partington (b.1961 New Zealand) consists of five enormous digital photographs of casts made of the heads of Pacific people. The work is based on the fact that, on the Pacific voyage of French explorer Dumont d’Urville, from 1837 to 1840, the eminent phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, took life casts of natives that the expedition encountered. Centuries later, Pardington heard about this, and dug around in the archives to discover some of the original casts. In the words of the catalogue, she:

reinvests their mana by highlighting their neoclassical dignity and beauty through immaculate lighting and composition.

This is all well and good and interesting. And the photos are stunning.

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

But for me they come from the world of contemporary art, they could be hanging in the Serpentine or Whitechapel or ABP gallery – all of which are worlds away from the anthropological imagination required to imagine yourself into a Maori canoe or a Solomon Island hut filled with wood carvings of the ancestors.

11. Memory and commemoration

The final room contains a couple of ‘tribal’ works, but the balance has now shifted decisively towards very contemporary Oceanic art.

These include Blood Generation (2009), a collaboration between artist Taloi Havini and photographer Stuart Miller. Between 1988 and 1998 there was a brutal civil war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville, triggered by external interests in mining. The young people who grew up during this era are known locally as the ‘blood generation’. The art work consists of a series of brooding, mostly black and white, photos of young people from the blood generation and the mine-scarred landscape they grew up in.

Still from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

Photo from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

One whole wall of this last room is devoted to an enormous painting on canvas, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2007).

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

And a video, Siva in motion, in which video artist Yuki Kihara is dressed in a black Victorian dress, and then slowly performs dance movements traditionally ascribed to the Hindu god Siva. The work is in memory of the 159 victims of the 2009 tsunami, which is why it is in the room devoted to ‘Memory and commemoration’.

I hope you can see why, by the end of these eleven rooms packed with geography, history, new peoples and languages and gods and customs and traditions, I felt that these final, absolutely contemporary art works, though they may well bring an exhibition of Oceanic art right up to date, also threw me.

They had the regrettable effect of overwriting much of the visual impact of the native objects I’d seen earlier in the exhibition. Photography and video are so powerful that they tend to blot out everything else.

I wish I’d stopped at room eight, among the amazing carved head and feathered masks and strange threatening statues, and kept the strange, powerful, haunting lost world of Oceania with me for the rest of the day.

Video

The RA did a live broadcast from the opening of the exhibition, featuring Tim Marlow, RA artistic director and scholars discussing artefacts, and also including a live performance.


Related links

  • Oceania continues at the Royal Academy until 10 December 2018

Related reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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