Congo | Andre Lefebvre

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In 1960, a group of firebrand Congolese managed to outmaneuver the Belgian government into giving them independence, rather than a phased transfer of power it envisioned. Prospects for the country were bleak: in the country of 14 million people, there were only three native Congolese in its 1,400-strong civil service, and two were recent appointments. In 1960, only 136 children completed secondary education and thirty graduated from university. There were no Congolese doctors, no secondary school teachers, nor army officers.

In many ways, the Congo was just a mining camp. It was uranium from Katanga region in the Congo that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country produced nearly 10% of the world’s copper, 60% of its uranium, 70% of its cobalt, and 70% of its industrial diamonds, all of it under auspices of the Union Miniere which reported annual sales of $200 million USD in 1960. The company was loathe to give it all away and urged the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai to secede. 

The war was bloody and would claim over 100,000 lives. The United Nations intervened, but Congo’s new Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba quickly antagonized the UN mission, led by the respected Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Despite his later mythic status as a secular saint of anti-imperialism, Lumumba was far from an agreeable figure. He hated and later purged other moderate politicians. On his only visit to the US, he shocked the officials by demanding a female companion for him — ‘une blanche blonde’ he specified.

Meanwhile, the secessionist war accelerated. Lumumba’s battles against Baluba tribes took on genocide fervour according to the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Among the western casualties was an American journalist named Henry Taylor, his death magnified and scrutinized even more for he was the son of the American ambassador to Switzerland. Taylor was killed in a clash between government troops and Baluba tribesmen — a scene (above) well-documented by Paris Match photographer Andre Lefebvre who was traveling with Taylor at the time. The United States was now slowly being sucked into the conflict, not least by arrival of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into the Congo on Lumumba’s invitation.

The Eisenhower administration supported a palace/army coup in the Congo; Lumumba first sought asylum in an UN compound, and then headed off to Stanleyville, his power base; in a characteristic move, he made frequent stops to give fiery speeches to local villagers along his trip. He was denounced, arrested and handed off to Baluba soldiers. On the night of 17th January 1961, he and two others put on the back of a pick-up truck headed to a remote clearing and — eternity.

Other players from that tumultuous year not long survived. Hammarskjold was next to go — he died in a plane crash en route to mediate the Katanga ceasefire talks. The mining state itself was wound up in late 1962, when the United Nations put an end to its secession in a series of decisive raids. On December 31, 1966, the Congolese government nationalized the Union Miniere, the powerful conglomerate that started it all, seizing over $800 million of the company’s assets.

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Not much is known about Andre Lefebvre (1919 – 1984). His photos from the ambush that killed Taylor were grisly, and showed government troops machine-gunning and bayoneting the Balubas. Lefebvre himself took a bullet to his feet in the crossfire. He retired from Paris Match in 1968.

I have previously covered Congo in other posts, ranging from the atrocities of Leopoldine Congo to its hectic independence day to last photo of Lumumba.

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Congo, Contd.

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A few years ago, I wrote about the human rights crises in Congo throughout the 19th and 20th century. There, I have failed to mention a few details about the photo accompanying the post (reproduced above). The photo showed a man named Nsala Wala with his daughter’s hand and foot. Alice Harris, working as a missionary in the Congo, took the photo in May 1904, after he had come into her mission at Baringa with a small package containing the severed body parts. Both his wife and child had been killed and mutilated.

Cutting off hands was a common practice by the Force Publique, the police authorities of the Belgian Congo, to prevent theft and to terrorize the planters into harvesting more rubber. Deeply shocked to learn this, Alice and her husband John sent the photo back to Britain with a comment, “The photograph is most telling, and as a slide will rouse any audience to an outburst of rage.”

Many at home dismissed the photo as an anomaly, practiced by a few bad apples. The Harrises sent back a few more photos. One showed two anonymous Congolese men — flanked by John Harris and his friend Stannard — holding the severed hands of their friends Bolenge and Lingomo. Another showed a young boy Epondo with his mutilated hand (below, rightmost) . The couple also toured Europe and America on a lecture tour denouncing Congo atrocities. They showed photos showing chicotte (whip made from hippopotamus hide) being used on laborers and and female hostages held in chains by a forest guard.

What followed was the first successful human rights campaign in history. The photos were reproduced in many papers and books, including Nsala’s photo which appeared in a popular pamphlet by Mark Twain. King Leopold who owned the colony tried to discredit the photos by claiming that protestant Harris was ideologically motivated against his Catholic colonialism. In Epondo’s case, the colonial officials claimed that his hand was amputated because of a gangrenous boar bite.  However, the scale of photos spoke for themselves and the public opinion was vehemently against the practices in the Congo. Leopold finally relinquished the colony to the Belgian State in 1908.

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Congo, Then and Now

A father stares at the hands of his five year-old daughter, which were severed as a punishment for having harvested too little caoutchouc/rubber

(This is an unnaturally long post for this blog, but even if you skim, please pay attention to last two paragraphs).

The largest private estate ever ‘owned’ by man in history was perhaps a chunk of Africa as big as Europe acquired by the Belgian King in 1885. Between 1885 and 1908, Leopold II of the Belgians was the de facto owner — not merely an administrator, trustee, company director, colonial overlord or even king, but an owner in his own personal capacity — of over a million square miles of central Africa, in the form of Congo Free State, with its capital at Leopoldville.

Belgium never had interest in joining the so-called Scramble for Africa, but seeing a boom in demand for rubber (which Congo had plenty), Leopold decided to do the job himself. In 1876, he founded the Association Internationale Africaine, a strictly humanitarian organization with the highest ideals (at least in theory) to ‘carry to the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity and protection of the natives’, according the Daily Telegraph in 1884. In reality, however, its mission was, as Leopold himself confided privately, to carve out a slice of the “magnifique gateau africain“.

From the very beginning, Congo had a certain mystique that appealed to outsiders. The popular magazines Le Congo Illustre, Voyages et Traveaux des Belges dans l’Etat Independent du Congo and Etat Independent du Congo provided the alluring pictures of sights and tribes. Absent from them, however, were shameful realities that Leopold’s greed had wrought: exploitation, mass-mutilations, state-sponsored slavery and murder, genocide.

This reality was uncovered, almost by accident, by Edward Dene Morel, a shipping clerk who noticed that outgoing cargoes to Congo were predominantly arms and ammunition. Morel slowly gathered information from hundreds of eyewitnesses to discover the shocking truth. In his tenacious quest, Morel was aided by a group of missionaries who managed to photograph some atrocities. The most famous photo was perhaps the one depicted above, taken by the Rev. John Harris and his wife Alice, who returned from Congo in August 1905 to tour Britain with their shocking photographs, giving lectures condemning Leopold’s rule.

The general public suddenly realized that this truly was Heart of Darkness evoked in the 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad. The Congo Issue was slowly becoming a media war; Leopold bribed newspapers to dismiss atrocities as ‘old wives’ tales’. When two distinguished travelers on a fact-finding mission went to Congo, they were shown so little that both came back with glowing tales. One of them, Viscount William Montmorres, published a gushing book about hardworking officials and cheerful natives. The other, the publisher Mary French Sheldon, fell in love with the captain of her steamboat, and later wrote in the Times, “I have witnessed more atrocities in London streets than…. in the Congo.” Frederick Starr, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, was hired to selectively use photos, and write an apologist text, “The Truth about the Congo” in 1907.

However, Leopold finally lost the media war. In November, Congo was confiscated — or rather bought by millions of pounds — by the Belgium government from their king. The importance of news photographs in influencing public opinion was underlined in Mark Twain’s denunciation, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy“, where the aging king complains that the incorruptible Kodak camera was the only witness he had encountered in his long experience that he could not bribe. Fittingly, the book was illustrated with the Harrises’ photographs.

Even after Leopold and its independence the situation didn’t improve; we use coltan from (now Democratic Republic of) Congo in many things, including in the computer or phone you are currently using to read this article. For this lucrative reason, exploitation of Congo remains an undermentioned story in a world where Kodaks are incorruptible but journalists and photographers can be threatened or bribed away. A sobering note is that this is still happening more than a century after Morel founded the world’s first international human rights campaign and the world’s first NGO over Congo. In the last century, the only thing we have succeeded was in transferring Congo from a private property of Leopold into that of many corporations. Leopold would have been very pleased with the successes the latter are having in information blackout.

This is not a shameless plug but rather a heartfelt proposal: I know some photographers and political pundits read this blog, and I request you to explore more about Congo. For the rest of you, I want you to repost/re-tweet this article. I believe the situation there deserves more attention. I have always wanted to go to Congo myself and report it myself, but at last, time and resources do not allow that. This post, however, is the best I can do.

— this post incorporates some text from The Vertigo Years.

 

Patrice Lumumba

Horst Faas joined the A.P. in 1955 at the age of 22 and began his illustrious photojournalism career by covering the Congo crisis in 1960. There, he bribed Congolese soldiers with Polaroid snapshots to gain access to important events. The practice enabled him to be in the right place to take the last picture of Patrice Lumumba (above).

Patrice Lumumba who helped win Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960 was a passionate nationalist who failed to tame this volatile ‘state without a nation’ containing many different ethnic groups. His fiery and controversial independence day speech culminated with Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! (We are no longer your monkeys!),* but Belgium continued to interfere. It backed a rebellion in the southern province of Katanga, and Lumumba sought Soviet aid to quell the rebellion. Within ten weeks, he was toppled by a military coup backed by the CIA.

He was put under house arrest, while a CIA officer was dispatched with a tube of poison toothpaste. Before his assassin arrived, Lumumba escaped from his house arrest, but rearrested from a plane in Elizabethville. He was beaten and humiliated in front of diplomats and journalists, and was on the truck that would inevitably carry him to his execution when the above picture was taken. It was Lumumba’s last photo. A month later, he was executed — put up against a tree and shot by a firing squad directed, so it seems, by Belgian army officers. His body was buried on the spot, later dug up, and dissolved in acid. The bones were ground up and scattered to the winds to make sure there was nothing left of him. The colonel who deposed Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) would rule the country despotically until 1997 and proved to be an utter embarrassment for the West, with his Mao suits, cult of personality and nepotism.

[* Congo’s independence ceremony was one of the most awkward episodes in modern diplomatic history. Belgian King Baudouin praised developments under colonialism, Belgium philanthropism in the Congo and the “genius” of Leopold II and glossed over atrocities committed during the Congo Free State. Patrice Lumumba’s rebuttal was vicious: “Slavery was imposed on us by force! We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!” The King just sat there, deeply shocked and offended. Although Baudouin wanted to return to Brussels immediately, his ministers persuaded him to stay–a negotiation that delayed the official programme for an hour.]

 

 

 

The Congolese Lese Majeste

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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.