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Une ville construite par des « gens d’ailleurs ». Développements urbains à Elisabethville, Congo belge (actuellement Lubumbashi, RDC)

PhD thesis in Urban History, supervised by Johan Lagae (Ghent University), Baz Lecocq (Ghent University), and Jacob Sabakinu Kivilu (Université de Kinshasa), Ghent University, April 2019
Sofie Boonen
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Une ville construite par des « gens d’ailleurs ». Développements urbains à Elisabethville, Congo belge (actuellement Lubumbashi, RDC), PhD thesis in Urban History, supervised by Johan Lagae (Ghent University), Baz Lecocq (Ghent University), and Jacob Sabakinu Kivilu (Université de Kinshasa), Ghent University, April 2019

Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle

Territoires anciens :

Élisabethville, Elisabethstad
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  • 1 “On va construire, et construire beaucoup au Congo ; on y construit déjà, avec fièvre, dans l’extr (...)

1The first discussions about architecture in Belgian Congo underlined the hasty character of the new urban developments in the rich mining province Katanga. The mining city Elisabethville, founded in 1910 to become the colony’s provincial capital and economic center, was strongly criticized for the use of uninteresting imported urban schemes. Yet, apart from the emergence of an urban landscape of dubious quality, it was the absence of Belgian architects and urban planners on the Belgian colonial scene that was regretted the most. The creation and formation of the city was, as noted by one of the authors, a matter of “gens d’ailleurs” (people from elsewhere) who built “devilishly” (“à la diable”).1 At first glance, it seems obvious to speak of “gens d’ailleurs” in a colonial city built on virgin soil. However, the term—used in the press, but also by the Belgian colonial authorities—only targeted certain members of the urban society who, by their presence and (inter)actions, counteracted in some way the development of the city as a Belgian nationalist project.

2The founding in 1910 of Elisabethville, today’s Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can largely be understood as a geopolitical act of the Belgian government to secure its claims on a Central African territory full of mineral resources. In particular, the choice of its location near the Congolese-Rhodesian border on the railroad from the south was a clear attempt to hinder “the threat” of British influence from Southern Africa. However, the railroad, being the only connection to the outside world until the late 1920s, was an important vector for the influx of goods, people, ideas, and practices, all of which were crucial for the city’s early development. Consequently, during the first years of its existence, Elisabethville had stronger ties with cities such as Bulawayo and Salisbury (Southern Rhodesia) as well as Cape Town (South Africa) and Beira (Mozambique) than with Boma or Leopoldville, the successive capitals of the Belgian Congo. The young and promising mining town immediately attracted considerable migration flows, which led to an extremely heterogeneous white population. The African population was also very heterogeneous, due to the recruitment policies of the large companies. Workers initially came from Rhodesia and South Africa; from the 1920s onward, they also arrived from various regions in the Belgian Congo, Rwanda, and even Senegal. Contemporary observers described Elisabethville as a “cosmopolitan city” on the basis of the diversity of its population and its development at the crossroads of various cultural, linguistic and economic spheres of influence.

3It is not surprising that the authors of Tekhné, one of the leading architectural journals of the time, decried the important role played by “white” non-Belgian migrants in the city’s construction. In their eyes, Elisabethville should have been developed by Belgian architects and urban planners. Until the end of the 1920s, Italians and Greeks dominated the construction industry and, as the urban memory recounts, building materials and expertise were largely imported from Southern Africa. These migrants, mostly adventurers, created an environment often described in contemporary Belgian sources as a “Far West.” Moreover, several buildings in Elisabethville’s urban landscape bear witness to the heterogeneity of the urban communities. The construction histories of these buildings, imprints of the cosmopolitan nature of the city, also reveal urban social tensions and stratification. They structured the relationships within and between white and black communities.

  • 2 Term used by Andrew Arsan in his book on the Lebanese diaspora in colonial West Africa: Andrew Ars (...)

4The majority of these “gens d’ailleurs” were active in commerce. Portuguese, Greek, and Jewish traders were known to have more direct contact with the African population than the Belgian colonial agents. As a result, in the eyes of the Belgian colonial establishment, they ranked as “second-class whites.” The African community saw them as being in a different, more intermediate position than the Belgian colonists. The intermediate group of “gens de couleur” (another term assigned by Belgian colonial authorities) also contained “Hindous,” migrants from British India (current India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), and “Arabes.” While Belgian observers often regarded the cosmopolitan nature of urban society as a threat to its colonial project, the authorities were fully aware that these “interlopers of empire”2 were crucial players in the urban economy.

5In this dissertation, we demonstrate how the authorities developed strategies to control these migratory flows. Meanwhile, these migrants managed to acquire some leeway within the Belgian colonial city. They blurred the spatial and social limits between the black and white communities, the basis of the colonial order. Examining the case of “gens d’ailleurs” in Elisabethville underpins the broader ambitions of this doctoral thesis. First of all, their presence obliges us to broaden our point of view and pay close attention to the plurality of actors involved in the processes of production of colonial urban space. For the case of Elisabethville, this means looking beyond the classic mining town narrative established by the Union minière du Haut-Katanga, the main mining company in the region. Our approach starts with a meticulous study of the actors—institutional and individual, official or not—in the discussions on town planning and the decision-making processes in order to gain a better understanding of the production of the colonial urban space, from conception to attribution and appropriation. Our analysis reveals the intentions and ideologies underlying the (spatial) interventions of “official” actors, as well as the strategies that were implemented to ensure the colonial order and the realization of a nationalist project. At the same time, it measures the degree to which non-official actors managed to gain leeway, to mark their presence in the urban landscape and to transcend the binary pattern of the colonial city. By doing so, we rewrite the classic narrative of Elisabethville as “the capital of copper,” unravel the colonial urban landscape, and present it as a complex territory: heterogeneous, negotiated, constructed, appropriated, and used by a large number of actors. We thereby offer a reading of the city that is deeper than the binary “colonizer/colonized” scheme.

  • 3 This doctoral thesis is in line with research that was developed under the impetus of professor Jo (...)
  • 4 Anthony. D. King, “Colonial Architecture Re-visited: Some Issues for Further Debate,” in Kennett B (...)

6Our research participates in African urban history, a field that has been thriving since the 1990s. It developed parallel to a growing interest in the contemporary city. For a long time, research on colonial cities and architecture consisted of stylistic and formal analyses. However, influenced by postcolonial studies, the urban forms and built environments in former colonies have increasingly been analyzed as physical expressions of the processes characteristic of colonial society: cultural exchange, control, and domination. With this paradigm shift, the built environment is considered not as an isolated object, but as an object that allows us to gain a better understanding of the how, who, what, and why regarding processes behind the development of the colonial urban landscape.3 The urban form and the built environment are the physical translation of the complex convergence of ideologies and intentions, political, social and economic conditions. Like Anthony D. King, author of Colonial Urban Development (1976), we believe that “how people build affects how people think.” The built environment is a framework for analysis, providing us with a more detailed picture of the actors involved in the formation of the colonial city, and a broader view of the context.4

  • 5 Carl Nightingale, Segregation. A Global History of Divided Cities, Chicago; London: University of (...)
  • 6 Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 200 (...)

7This dissertation contributes to a new tendency in historiography emphasizing the “messy” way the segregated colonial city grew. According to historian Carl Nightingale, this “messiness” is intrinsic to the production process of the segregated urban space.5 He argues that the segregation of cities not only required powerful institutional connections to implement and assure it, but also contained its own paradoxes, systematically resulting in a disorderly process of segregated urban space production. Stephen Legg’s in-depth analysis of colonial Delhi shows how a radical re-reading and re-application of Foucault’s theories and concepts can be used to analyze the production and shaping of colonial urban spaces. We find a similar approach in the works of Garth Andrew Meyers or Prashant Kidambi.6 Our doctoral thesis fits perfectly with these studies. Without aiming to propose another theoretical re-reading of Foucault’s concept, we use the perspective of “gouvernementalité” as a support for a detailed empirical analysis of the decision-making process, the arguments used by the various “official” actors, and the setting up of and the execution of systematic measures aimed at affirming the colonial order. By doing so, we reverse the idea of a binary distribution and unilateral control in planning, constructing, and implementing the colonial city. Based on discussions held during the construction and planning of Elisabethville, we will argue that the colonial tripartite in the Belgian Congo (state, missions, and companies), generally considered homogeneous and stable, was in fact diffuse and unstable. Tensions and divergent opinions within and between the pillars of the tripartite were reflected in urban planning, which, although directed from the Métropole and the colonial capital, was generally strongly adapted at the local level during its onsite implementation. In our dissertation, we chose to pay special attention to the local administrative committees responsible for urban development. These committees fit the definition of actors between general and local governments perfectly. They were simultaneously engaged in dialogue with planning departments of the colonial hierarchy’s higher levels and in direct contact with the inhabitants, surrounding regions, and spheres of influence. This approach also allowed us to question the degree of “agency” of “non-official” actors in the production of colonial urban space.

8We have also focused on the voices of intercolonial experts and expertise networks in the production of colonial space. While the genesis of urban colonial landscapes was, for a long time, regarded as an import product of architectural and urban planning practices from the motherland, we consider those landscapes the result of various social processes within colonial urban society. The transfer of architectural and urban ideas, models, and practices certainly did not result from a direct import from the Métropole to the colony, but rather followed a complex system of transnational flows linked to networks of professional expertise or in possession of their origins among more complex migration schedules. The production of (post)colonial architecture and urbanism is placed in the context of globalization; as we demonstrate with our case study on Elisabethville, it is necessary that the distribution of plans, models, and urban concepts be considered in light of these transnational influences in order to obtain a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the entire process of creating colonial urban space—from the design and execution to the appropriation, use, and contestation.

9With this dissertation, we certainly did not intend to retrace an exhaustive history of colonial Elisabethville; rather, we aim to offer a new reading framework, based on an in-depth empirical analysis of a large number of different (archival) sources. As such, we deliberately chose a thematic structure that reflects our intention to study the production of Elisabethville’s urban space, from its creation and conception to its attribution and appropriation, and this in the light of the decision-making processes of the various actors and stakeholders—institutional and individual, “official” and other. We gave top priority to the three institutions indispensable for implementing and controlling a segregated city (according to Nightingale, these are the government, the experts and the real estate market) as well as the different “categories” of colonial urban society. Particular attention is given to the (trans)national influences that were characteristic for Elisabethville. They transformed it into a rather “atypical” Belgian colonial city. The principles of “governmentality” and “agency” underlie the predominantly binary structure of our dissertation. The information found in the official documents guided the selection of the case studies.

10Our dissertation consists of four parts. The first part, Diriger, discusses the institutional agents of colonial government and reconstructs the convoluted decision-making processes at the inception of Elisabethville’s urban space. Chapter I|1 presents the evolution of the image of the Belgian colonial tripartite—the State, the religious missions, and the businesses—as a homogeneous bloc of absolute power. By contrast, Chapter I|2 shows the heterogeneous nature of the “colonizer,” on various levels. Investigating the establishment, organization and development of a local government handling urban affairs, we emphasize relationships and tensions within and between the pillars of the tripartite, and between colonial administrators in Africa and those in Europe, between settlers, missionaries, investors, and businessmen. Special attention is paid to the specificity of Katanga and to the mining town of Elisabethville. Both were strongly influenced by British political models from Southern Africa and faced significant non-Belgian migration flows.

11The other three parts of the dissertation—Organiser (to organise), Attribuer (to allocate), and Contrôler (to control)—are structured along two lines reflecting an analysis of the perspectives of “governmentality” and “agency.” Each part firstly studies the specialization of the colonial administration, the ideologies, intentions and (spatial) strategies developed by the “official actors” to control the development of the built environment and colonial society. We also look at practices elsewhere in the Belgian Congo and across other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa to gain a broader view of the context in which these decisions were made, and to compare Elisabethville to cities in other regions. Specific city neighborhoods are explored: the “zone neutre,” the “ville blanche” (European district), and the “cité indigène” (African district). Authorities set up a great variety of strategies to deal with the various parts of colonial urban society. Using case studies, we then demonstrate that the actual implementation of policy deviated from the underlying ideologies considerably, as a result of tensions within the official apparatus and the agency of other actors.

12In the second part, Organiser, we question the binary configuration of Elisabethville, which was certainly the city in Congo whose form reflected the principle of racial segregation most neatly. Chapter II|1 stresses the importance of national, international, and intercolonial networks of expertise (production) in the colonial decision-making process and implementation of the colonial order. Apart from the discipline of these experts—whether it were the engineers of the 1910s, the doctors from the 1920s onwards or the planners of the post-war period—both technical expertise and ideological conviction fueled debates about racial segregation in urban planning. In Chapter II|2 we demonstrate how the implementation of the so-called “neutral zone” constituted a messy and incomplete process, despite the strong consensus of the “colonizers” on the principle of racial segregation. We analyze three infrastructural projects carried out or planned in this non-aedificandi zone to demonstrate how the implementation of urban segregation was impeded by such factors as divergent views within the colonial administration; by the confrontation of the local administration with economic, social and cultural reality; and by the presence of intermediary actors in colonial society (for example, the medical assistants). As a result, the local administrators were forced to negotiate between the decisions made in the capital cities of Boma, Leopoldville, and Brussels, and local actors. Discussions surrounding these projects are an eloquent illustration of the colonial authorities’ systematic effort to establish complex strategies to maintain a distance between Whites and Blacks.

13After these two parts about the implementation of the colonial order in space and urban society, we proceed to the body of our doctoral dissertation, part three, Attribuer, which illustrates the interaction between white residents and colonial authorities in the appropriation of urban space. The land market, which, as Nightingale argued convincingly, besides the government and the networks of expertise, constituted the third driving force in the city’s spatial development, guides our narrative. It is also in this part that the non-Belgian white migrants, the “gens d’ailleurs” enter the scene. In Chapter III|1, we examine which strategies were introduced by the authorities to face the large number of non-Belgian white migrants trying to reach the city following its connection to the Southern African rail network. While migration legislation and procedures, the so-called “paper regimes,” were a first instrument for socio-economic selection of migrants, the market was a major instrument of spatial control in the city. Chapters III|2 and III|3, however, demonstrate how, in the first decades of the city’s existence, the “second-rate whites” who were crucial in the emerging mining town’s economy, managed to create room for maneuver in the appropriation of land and how their presence blurred racial boundaries. These intermediary groups played a vital role in the construction of the urban landscape and marked their presence on the land market as well as through remarkable buildings that, until today, witnessed Elisabethville being largely built by “gens d’ailleurs.”

14In the fourth part, Contrôler (to control), we begin by analyzing the strategies developed by the colonial administration to use space as an instrument to control the African population living in the “cité indigène” and the community of African domestic workers living in the city’s European quarter. In Chapter IV|2, we analyze these strategies on a smaller scale, focusing on three specific cases. Each covers a dimension of daily life in the city (living, leisure, and work). We study the influences of Africans themselves, other national and international actors on the built environment, and the use of urban space for these three aspects. In addition to studying the community of African house servants, who worked and often lived in the European quarter of the city, we focus on the “cité indigène” named for Albert I, built in the 1920s, when racial segregation was strongly reinforced in the urban layout.

  • 7 Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Art of Governance,” Archival Science, no. 2, 2002. UR (...)

15At the end of each section, we added Des sources qui parlent (speaking sources) to illustrate the richness of the (archival) sources. Based on a selection of sources, we indicate how we approached them as documents which, in the words of Ann Stoler, “allow us to think.” They ask to be read “along the archival grain.”7

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1 “On va construire, et construire beaucoup au Congo ; on y construit déjà, avec fièvre, dans l’extrême-sud au Katanga […] Le développement des villes congolaises va s’effectuer en ce moment, du moins en ce qui concerne le Katanga, à la manière des agglomérations sud-africaines, australiennes et californiennes : très rapidement et très… horriblement !” (“There will be construction in the Congo, and a lot of it; it is already proceeding at a feverish pace in Katanga, in the southern tip. […] Congolese cities are in the process of developing, and as concerns Katanga at least, it resembles that of new cities in South Africa, Australia, and California: “quick and dirty” is the word for it.) A. De Hertogh, “Page Coloniale. Pour commencer…,” Tekhné, vol. 1, n°1, 1911, p. 10-11.

2 Term used by Andrew Arsan in his book on the Lebanese diaspora in colonial West Africa: Andrew Arsan, Interlopers of Empire. The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (London: Hurst & Co, 2014).

3 This doctoral thesis is in line with research that was developed under the impetus of professor Johan Lagae at Ghent University for over a decade now on the spatialization and visualization of several cities in the Belgian Congo. Colonial and postcolonial architecture and built environment, transnational expertise networks on post-war architecture and urbanism, and colonial built heritage and urban history in Central Africa are among the department’s centers of interest.

4 Anthony. D. King, “Colonial Architecture Re-visited: Some Issues for Further Debate,” in Kennett Ballhatchet and David Taylor (eds.), City and Culture. 3. Changing South Asia: City and Culture: papers presented to the Seventh European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, held in London from 7 to 11 July 1981, at the Centre of South Asian Studies, London: Asia Research Service; University of London, 1984, p. 9.

5 Carl Nightingale, Segregation. A Global History of Divided Cities, Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012 (Historical studies of urban America).

6 Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007 (RGS-IBG Book serie); Garth Andrew Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa, New York, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003; Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis. Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007 (Historical urban studies).

7 Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Art of Governance,” Archival Science, no. 2, 2002. URL: Accessed 24 July 2019.

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Sofie Boonen, « Une ville construite par des « gens d’ailleurs ». Développements urbains à Elisabethville, Congo belge (actuellement Lubumbashi, RDC) »ABE Journal [En ligne], 14-15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 28 juillet 2019, consulté le 26 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Sofie Boonen

PhD in Urban History, architect-engineer, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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