The Congolese Lese Majeste


It was the year that the European powers bestowed independence on their last colonies, and Robert Lebeck was traveling in Africa for three months as a photographer for Hamburg magazine Kristall.

From the moment that the Belgium King Baudouin landed at Léopoldville Airport on 30th June 1960 to usher the transformation of Belgium Congo into an independent Republic, it was clear that the royal visit was a public relations disaster. As the king and the would-be president Joseph Kasa-Vubu drove along the boulevard in an open car, on the way into Leopoldville from the airport, an exuberant nationalist pressed close to his open limousine, grabbed the King’s sword from beside him, and flourished it above his head before the police could move in and pommel him away.

Lebeck was the only photographer who recorded the scene–the symbol of the decline of the power of the white man and the harbinger of the surreal chaos into which the country would soon descend. Lebeck was not with the other journalists in the front of the car because he had came late, having been enjoying dessert in a good Belgian restaurant earlier. His magazine, Kristall, defined the swordsnatcher as Joseph Kalonda, although this name was thought to be a common Congolese placeholder, an African ‘John Doe’.

For Baudouin, it was not the last embarrassment of the day; as he entered the new parliamentary chamber, the Belgians shouted, “Vive le Roi!” while the Congolese Assemblymen replied with, “Vive Kasavubu!” The king regained the control by regally announcing “May God protect the Congo!” and formally proclaiming its independence. However the new Premier Patrice Lumumba gave a speech that was a vicious attack on the departing Belgian rulers. “Slavery was imposed on us by force!” he cried, as the King sat shocked and pale. “We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!” Deeply offended, the king was ready to board his plane and return to Brussels forthwith; only the urging from his ministers persuaded him to change his mind. He left Congo in the evening while it was still technically his domain, for independence came officially at midnight.

7 thoughts on “The Congolese Lese Majeste

  1. […] It was one of the most famous photos Robert Lebeck who take for the German magazine Stern, where he worked for 20 years. Lebeck was traveling in Africa for three months as a photographer for Hamburg magazine Kristall in 1960, the year that the European powers bestowed independence on their last colonies, and Lebeck was there to made his signature photojournal “Afrika im Jahre Null” (”Africa in Year Zero”) which included a photograph of a African boy stealing the steel scabbard of Belgian King Baudouin, Lebeck’s most famous picture. […]

  2. Saying this as a Belgian, I think it might be interesting to know a bit more about the colonization of Congo, and why

    It was originally (Belgian) King Leopold II who became the personal owner of Congo Free State. Not as a king, not as a representative of Belgium, but just as himself. He exploited the country and its (estimated 30 million) inhabitants for personal gain, by enslaving pretty much the entire population and forcing them into manual labour for the exploitation of mainly rubber and copper.

    It was him who imposed this horrible regime, and who was the architect of the atrocious crimes committed against the locals, for which the colonization period of Congo is still very much remembered today, despite the fact it was technically not a colony during that period.

    Once the awful conditions became known to the public in Europe, pressure mounted and eventually led to Belgium taking over from Leopold II in 1908, changing it into a colony rather than a privately run state. Under Belgian government the conditions for the natives improved substantially.

    Now, I’m not saying our government did all the right things during their rule over Congo (and I still feel ashamed we were part of that whole colonization period), but while keeping the timeframe in mind and the massive colonization by other western countries, I don’t think we did anything out of the ordinary back then. Leopold II left the country in a complete mess, and it was just too hard to recover from that (made even more difficult by the economic crisis that hit them hard in the 30’s).

    King Boudewijn (or Baudouin in French) was very young (20) when he ascended the throne, and whilst it was him who was king when Congo became independent, it was pretty unfair he got all the stick despite having only been king for 9 years and having had nothing to do with the developments in Congo over the past decades. He was widely respected throughout his reign and by far one of the most highly regarded kings our country has ever had, though I can also understand the emotions of the Congolese when finally being declared independent.

    I hope I didn’t bore you too much with that 😉

    I’m a fan of your blog btw, I check it almost daily (when I first came across it a couple of weeks ago I even went as far as to read every post you ever published, which kept me up quite a bit longer than expected), and it was interesting you published this picture I had never seen before. I take a big interest in recent history, both national and international, and regularly learn interesting new things through your collection of photographs, so thanks for that!

  3. My father served in the U.S. embassy in Zaire, he met the dictator. He came back to the U.S. very disillusioned w/our policies there. What happened under Leopold II was nothing short of genocide, and there were concentration camps (an American invention btw).

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