Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros23Belgian memories, African objects...

Belgian memories, African objects : Colonial re-collections at the Musée africain in Namur

Karel Arnaut
p. 29-48

Notes de la rédaction

Cette intervention ainsi que les deux suivantes ont donné lieu à une discussion commune de la part de Michèle Coquet.

Texte intégral

Ich bin die Herrin Zeit, Ich mische alles,
Freude und Grauen, Gut und Böse,
Verwirrung und geraden Weg
(L. Bondy and M.-L. Bischofberger 1999 : 26).

Museums, time and anthropology1

  • 1 This is a working paper, earlier versions of which were presented in London (MEG Conference ‘Glimps (...)

1In their call for papers, the organisers of this workshop formulated the following question: ‘Comment la future présentation donnera-t-elle au visiteur les moyens de comprendre sa propre inscription dans le temps?’ This specific question can be interpreted as an invitation to the participants to reflect on how the future Musée des arts et civilisations in Paris could deal with what Fabian (1983) called intersubjective time, in this case the shaping of time shared in a confrontation between visitors on the one hand and objects represented and the museum on the other. This reformulation allows me to broaden the initial question in three directions.

2To start, we must consider the inscription of peoples, their objects, history and culture equally in the museum representation. Now, more than ever, any representation in a metropolitan museum of the envergure envisaged at the Quai Branly is likely to raise issues of appropriation and homogenisation. The time-frames used may strengthen or weaken the temporal matrix in which the metropolis represents the history of global progress and local diversity. One way of activating visitors to reflect about their inscription in time could be achieved by presenting how the peoples that are represented understand their own time. This means paying attention to whether and how the history that is being represented has been taken away from them and located in other spaces such as ‘the globe’ or ‘Europe’ and, indeed, in its museums.

3This reformulation raises at least one methodological and one political issue. First, in order to start the task of presenting local temporalities and constructions of history, the museum has to question, through anthropology, the ways people understand their historical subjectivity in a wider world. There may be a certain predisposition by museum anthropologists to stress local cosmologies that are relatively closed off from global change, or at least to present these two as somehow mutually exclusive. The challenge seems to lie in locating local and global cultural practices which are articulated jointly, and bringing these to the museum. A museum as a site where self-representation is combined with various forms of cultural tourism may prove to be of particular interest.

4Second, focussing on the présentation, the way in which and the medium by which temporal inscription is addressed, somehow steers clear of taking on board the kind of institute the national, metropolitan museum is, how it is perceived as representing the dominant culture and tends to marginalize the people it set out to represent. The nationalist and modernist overtones of the project of the Quai Branly as it is presented (Féau, 2000) will inevitably provoke questions about its state-driven nature and about its attempts to bring together (‘collect’), categorise (‘discipline’) and represent (‘signify’) ‘others’ and the ‘otherness’ both within and without its national borders. Museum anthropologist need therefore to try to understand the museum’s inscription in (national) time or the way a nation inscribes people and objects in its time through the use of museums.

5I will address these questions in one form or another while looking at the case of an ‘auto-museum’: a museum built by people to represent themselves. I think basically that is what all museums do, only some may be more successful in hiding their partiality (predilections) and partialness (incompleteness) behind their alleged comprehensiveness, scientific neutrality or ideology of being democratic and open to criticism. The museum that I will be looking at, the Musée africain of Namur, has no such pretensions: it concedes its partiality, its amateur and non-scientific character, and it heavily attacks points of view which it does not share. It does not hide its aspiration to propagate its views to the visitors.

6In this paper I will not go into theoretical matters but merely situate this work at the crossing of critical museum studies (Bennett, 1995) and discourse-oriented ethnography (Fabian, 1983, 1996). This attempt to deal with Belgian colonials’ self-representation has benefited greatly from the work of Marie Dembour (2000) who advocates a transparent and reflexive way of dealing with former colonials; my struggle with objects and texts that seem entangled in the parallel albeit unequal appropriation of ‘Africa,’ and, in my case, of ‘Belgium,’ was helped by studying the work of Nicholas Thomas (1991).

Ethnography and the ‘other’ museum

  • 2 The terms ‘subaltern’ and ‘subalternity’ have a very specific history going back to Gramsci and des (...)

7The Musée africain of Namur (hereafter MAN) is a local museum set up and run by former colonials most of whom are members of the Cercle royal namurois des anciens d’Afrique (hereafter CRNAA). The Museum is situated near the city centre of Namur and presents African material culture and colonial history while some special attention is given to colonials from the Namur region. In general terms, it is a niche of museum practice and historical imagination, a site of quite literally ‘post-colonial’ self-representation. The museum and the special interest group that organises it consider themselves as subaltern.2 They speak self-consciously of their subordination and deem that theirs is a counter-discourse that goes against the grain of official ‘majority’ historiography (see e.g. Dembour, 2000: 69, 72, 77, 82...). My research at the MAN is an attempt at writing an ethnography about the way this local group of former colonials articulate their nationalist, colonialist nostalgia in a contemporary world. This they do not only by running the Museum and holding CRNAA meetings, but also by organising memorial ceremonies and by publishing quite intensively, such as the quarterly CRNAA newsletter (the Bulletin) and other historiographic work.

Re-collecting at Namur

8Much of the ways in which objects are handled, obtained, selected, stored, and displayed at the MAN can be covered by the term re-collection in three possible meanings. Firstly, the verb ‘to recollect’ means ‘to recall’ in the sense of the simultaneous processes of remembering and collecting. This typifies the museum in that most of the objects in the collections are personal mementoes donated by former colonials. Mr Eugene, one of the people actively involved in the upkeep of the museum, explained to me that former colonials sometimes bring objects to the museum because, when they move into a flat, they have no space to keep them and their children are not interested in them. The reason for the latters’ indifference, according to the donors in Mr Eugene’s story is that ‘they [their children] did not know Africa as we knew it.’ The objects, clearly, are seen as invested with memories that are perceived as personal knowledge and experience which is shared by a ‘we.’ Seen within the context of transferring objects to the museum, this implies that their value as mementoes of a lived Africa is somehow preserved by transferring them to the museum that represents the ‘we.’

9Secondly, re-collecting from the point of view of the museum refers to its recycling of existing collections, either private or public. There are instances of people who have no longer enough space to keep their personal objects, but there are other examples. For instance, the museum was recently given a collection of African objects (mainly masks and ‘colon’ statues) by the communal museum of Arlon that had no space for it. This argument, according to Mr Eugene, is also used by the next-of-kin of deceased former colonials. In all these instances, MAN practices a kind of second-hand ‘collecting.’ Yet one should remark how ‘shortage of space’ is a neutral, apathetic motivation for divesting oneself of the objects; this may cover a whole lot of causes. It could be that the former colonials move from houses into flats because they get older or poorer. In the case of children or relatives, or of other public or private collections, space shortage may be an elegant way of justifying one’s lack of interest or low esteem for the objects. This was never stated in such a straightforward way in my presence but hinted at by acknowledging that the objects the museum receives are of limited economic value and sort of left-overs from the objects that enjoy the attention of the general public or that are considered economically valuable. This indicates that the people in charge of the museum are acutely aware of their re-collecting practices. The museum sees itself as restoring or conserving some of the original value to the objects by re-embedding them in a context of respectful remembrance and understands its role as resisting—with considerable resilience—against a widely observed process of forgetting colonials and colonial history.

10Thirdly, re-collecting at Namur refers to the repeated attempts to rebuild a collection. The Museum has been entirely destroyed twice (building and objects) during the First and Second World Wars and recreated from scratch. At these occasions not even the name was retained. The Musée colonial of 1912 re-emerged as the Musée national d’art africain in 1934 and as the Musée colonial scolaire de Jambes in 1951. In 1985, after having changed locations no less than six times and changed names five times, the Musée africain de Namur found its present accommodation in what remained of the vacant Leopold army camp of Namur, that is to say the guardroom and a handful of adjacent prison cells (anonymous s.d.). Only in the course of the last few years the discontinuous history of the museum, summarised above, has been retraced. Besides, this process of reconstruction is still going on—the brochure which tells the historique of the museum is constantly being re-edited. ‘Re-collection’ in the sense of rebuilding the colonial museum at Namur is an explicit part of the museum’s heroic history, just as the first two meanings of the word ‘re-collection.’

  • 3 All names of informants are pseudonyms.

11In an interview, I asked Mr Eugene3 how he appreciated the fact that the collection held mainly personal objects donated to the museum which therefore could be seen as ‘a depot of colonial souvenirs, of memories of a lived Africa.’ Rather unexpectedly, his answer did not pick up the ‘memory’ sense of my question but commented on the fact that ‘depot,’ ‘souvenir,’ and ‘personal’ made ‘his’ collection into an incomplete and inconsistent whole. He answered that one could only aspire to, but never attain, comprehensiveness. However, he added, considering the fact that the collection of objects and books in the library grew rapidly, that sometime in the future it could become of interest to researchers who are looking for more or less representative collections of objects. In conclusion, and entirely in contradiction to my question about the ‘presence of the past’ in the museum, he said: ‘One has to look at the future,’ and ‘One must always try to make progress.’

  • 4 Huberland (1998: 3) finds that ‘au lendemain des Indépendances’ the ‘rôle joué par les expatriés’ i (...)

12From the above observations, we get a glimpse at how the people of the museum and the CRNAA perceive themselves. First and foremost they consider themselves as members of the disappearing species of colonial agents. As ‘veterans’—or even ‘ancestors’ as they sometimes call themselves—they form a peer group of self-conscious gente perdita: they know that colonialism has become a dirty word and consider themselves caught between their unrelenting enthusiasm for the Belgian colonial project they worked in, and a Belgium that has basically changed its mind.4

13The MAN and CRNAA people can be seen counteracting this trend towards disappearance and marginalization in several ways. Since the independence of Belgian Congo in 1960, they have opted for a wider definition of themselves, namely ‘anciens d’Afrique,’ opening the doors of their association for other ‘out of Africa’ military and civil servicemen, such as the ‘coopérants’—civil servants working for the Ministry of Development Aid—peace mission soldiers and NGO personnel. Also, a number of Africans feature on the membership list of the CRNAA. Even if this broadening of the membership does not provide a safeguard of the existence of the ‘anciens d’Afrique,’ the museum itself may. The museum, its ‘historique’ of success and defeats and its present vitality, is inscribed in a long-term project for remembering the Belgian colonies, for maintaining a ‘lieu de mémoire’ of colonial activity in Africa. Mr Eugene pointed out how the museum envisages a more secure, scientific future for its collection. In the likely case that the objects lose their value as mementoes, they are seen as gathering a possible new interest: an archival/scientific one. This may serve as an alternative to (or a first step towards?) the formal official recognition of the museum as a cultural/pedagogic institution.

The Museum in national space and time

  • 5 Culture and education are matters that fall under the authority of the regional governments.

14MAN is located in the guardroom of the otherwise largely demolished Leopold army camp. The site and the museum are still property of the national government (the Ministry of Defence). That in itself is exceptional in a country that has been federalising itself for the last thirty years, involved in a process of transferring property and ministerial responsibility from the federal government to the two regional governments—Namur is the political capital of the Walloon region. Mr Joseph from the museum explained that, taking into account the ongoing regionalization in Belgium, the fact that the museum is located on ‘national territory’ is a threat to its future existence. This should be understood, I think, with reference to the fact that the museum is considered to be of local if not regional significance, and, as a cultural institution should be taken to fall under the authority of the local and regional rather than the federal administration. Under the present conditions of ongoing regionalization, it would not be surprising for the federal government to cease its support for MAN.5 As it sees itself, the ‘national connection’ of the museum exceeds the fact that the federal ministry of defence is its landlord. One other important aspect is that the museum entertains good connections with people from the military and the state police (both still under federal authority). More important, however, is the museum’s explicit royalist and belgicist allegiance. Being on this ‘Belgian island’ in the heart of Walloon country is, in spite of Mr Joseph’s disclaimer, a foothold for a museum that since its creation has shown great devotion to Leopold II and to the Belgian royal family. It is interesting to see how this loyalty is inscribed in the history of the museum.

15Over the last few years the museum has attempted to obtain the status of royal institute. One of the conditions for this is that the museum must prove a continuous existence for a period of at least fifty years. In the context of drafting their application, the people at the museum began to put together the ‘historique’ of the museum, connecting the different projects to build a colonial museum at Namur over the last eighty years. As it happened, the application was turned down: the claimed continuity was not accepted. This, however, has not prevented the organisers from publishing their ‘chronique’ as the official history of the museum. As I explained before the ‘historique’ can be understood as an illustration of the perseverance of the present organisers to row against the tide of forgetting and neglecting colonial history—embodied by the disappearance and marginalization of the namurois colonials—but there are at least two other aspects to it.

16First, the asserted continuity forges links between the present organisers and the so-called ‘pionniers,’ the first generations of explorers and personnel of Leopold II’s Congo Free State. Several rooms in the museum are named after these pionniers. One of these people, to which I will come back later, is Josué Henry de la Lindi, a military man from Namur who started his successful career under Leopold II and was later knighted by Leopold III. In 1999 Josué’s grandson André was elected director of the museum. In the Henry family, many threads that the museum is trying to weave between more than a hundred years of shared history of Namur and Africa converge. Through links of kinship and friendship, through professional ties, and through regional proximity among ‘les Namurois,’ the present museum people link up with the ‘pionniers,’ the heroes and devotees of Leopold’s Africa project.

17Second, the history of the museum is a chronicle of small and big disasters (among which the two occasions when it was completely destroyed); from it emerges a picture of a museum that is constantly under threat of annihilation by allies and enemies alike. This is what Mr Joseph could have been talking about when he regarded the museum’s federal connection as a possible threat to its existence—like the bombing of the museum by the British during the second World War, the museum could now be eliminated by its ‘friends,’ or worse still, by its natural allies. To see friends acting as enemies may speak of a certain apprehension, a kind of attitude which may also be found in the way the museum rewrites colonial history.

Museum history

18When overlooking the auto-historiography of this colonial museum one cannot miss interesting parallels with the colonial history and the museum and people connected to it are trying to tell.

19In order to illustrate this, I use the story of the aforementioned Josué Henry de la Lindi as it is told in the museum display and in speeches and publications by former colonials of Namur. Our main sources here are a kind of biography of Henry written by Maurice Huberland (1998) and the speeches that accompanied the opening of the newly furbished Room Henry de la Lindi at the museum in May 1999.

20Henry is remembered for two sorts of activities. He won important battles against the two main enemies of the time, the so-called Arab slave traders and the Batetela rebels. It is also believed that he discovered gold at Kilo in 1895 and thus laid the basis for the exploitation of the Kilo-Moto gold mines that began under Leopold II. Among Henry’s notable victories are mentioned: (i) the capture of Stokes, ‘a British arms dealer who said he was German;’ (ii) the capture of one of the latter’s important clients, the slave-trader Kibonge, ‘killer of Emin Pacha’ who was ‘betrayed by his own soldiers;’ (iii) Henry’s success in quashing the last off-shoot of the so-called Batetela rebellion during the battle near the river Lindi in 1897. These battles are considered decisive moments in the pacification of the Congo Free State: they broke the ‘Arab’ power and restored authority in the Congo.

21However, Henry is felt to have not been properly recognised for his major achievements—speaking of Henry and another pionnier, Mr Herneupont said ‘l’histoire ne rappelle guère leur courage et leurs actions’ (1999: 23). Huberland (1998) from his side gives much attention to explaining the reasons for this lack of recognition. The fact that Henry was not officially acknowledged for his discovery of gold at Kilo is said to be the work of Leopold’s Secretary of State Liebrechts who during his lifetime tried everything in his power to conceal the identity of the true dis­coverer. The same person is also held responsible for provoking misunderstandings between Henry and Leopold II concerning a mission to the Nile that followed shortly after his victory at the river Lindi. The imbroglio that followed from this made Henry retire from service in Africa for thirteen years. His ‘come-back’ in 1913 ended with a dispute between Henry and his commanding officer, Tombeur. In 1916 Henry returned to Belgium where he joined the army and ‘assisted in the liberation of Flanders’ (Herneupont, 1999: 23). Huberland’s biography draws the conclusion that the recognition Henry received came with difficulty and only late in his life: in 1938 Henry was knighted by Leopold III and allowed to add an aristocratic extension, ‘de la Lindi,’ to his family name, in remembrance of his 1897 victory; and only in 1952, five years before his death, a Belgian court granted Henry the honour of having discovered gold at Kilo (ibid.: 181).

22It is clear from the above story, first of all, that although Henry did not receive any recognition from Leopold II, the latter is at no point held responsible. At the end of Huberland’s book Liebrechts and Tombeur are listed in the chapter ‘enmities.’ They are seen as opposing Henry’s work which consisted in helping forward in a substantial way Leopold’s project of ‘pacification’ (i.e. battles and captures) and exploitation (i.e. gold). At all times Leopold II rises high above the rivalry that reigned among the highest ranks of the Congo Free State administration. This scheme of things is also found back in the way the museum tells its own history: (i) the reverence for Leopold II, the dedication to his ‘œuvre humanitaire’ (as I heard it once called) but, broadly speaking, the relative lack of recognition (cf. denial of royal status), and (ii) a systematic apprehension about the bad intentions of colleagues and friends-in-arms. These parallelisms are important, I think, because they form the kind of mechanisms that are put to work to articulate subalternity both of the museum and of the colonials for which it was built.

23In order to grasp this we need to look more carefully at how this ‘systematic apprehension’ or paranoia is developed in the colonial historiography produced in and around the museum. In the above story of Henry I have cited the kind of details through which the namurois historians comment on the treacherous nature of the people Henry was dealing with, ranging from Stokes who feigned to be a German, to Kibonge who was betrayed by his own soldiers, and to the so-called Batetela rebels who are also characterised as ‘mutineers,’ ‘insurgent soldiers’ who ‘threatened the very existence of the new Congolese state’ who paid them (Huberland, 1998: 23). At other instances the same dangers of deception and constant menace are also located in the natural environment (animals, forest, unpredictable weather conditions, unknown territory). From this arises a picture of a pionnier as a solitary figure who ultimately could only rely on his own intelligence and courage and that of a handful of real friends.

  • 6 The idea of a colonial paranoia is taken from Richards (1993) who situates roughly in the ‘age of e (...)

24Moreover, this image of the pioneer is sometimes generalised to the colonials of later years. When I visited the Henry Room at the museum, Mr Guillaume stressed the fact that during military campaigns and expeditions, the Belgians were very few in comparison to the amount of black troops and carriers and of course in comparison to the masses of inimical natives. He then put to me the rhetorical question: ‘How then could the Belgians have committed the amount of crimes which certain books talk about?’ Underlying this question is a generalised image of the colonisers as pionniers, a minority, threatened by people, animals and natural phenomena that are unpredictable and deceitful. Moreover, I would argue, to the extent that Leopold II as a power figure is left out of Henry’s biography, that power (either in the form of gunpowder, money, troops, and the penetration of the Congo through indirect rule) is dissociated from the colonisers. It is indeed not so that these instruments of power are not mentioned, but it is not on these sort of things that pionniers or coloniaux could rely. What are mentioned as their essential qualities are, apart from their dedication to Leopold’s project, intelligence and cunning (the positive side of ‘paranoia’), and individual strength (the flip-side of being perceived as operating in relative isolation).6

25Mr Guillaume’s rhetorical question further connects this image of the Belgian colonial to the present-day context in which this image is contested by ‘certain books.’ This I will look into presently. It offers the occasion to grasp more effectively the kind of subalternity of the colonials which I have hinted at several times.

Subalternity of the doubt

26In 1998 Adam Hochschild published his ‘King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa.’ The same year the book was translated into Dutch and French, sold very well, and received much attention in the popular media. Claude Gautier, president of the CRNAA, launched an attack against the book in the editorial column of the fall issue of the Bulletin du CRNAA of 1998, and in the same issue José Clément composed a collection of quotes which were intended to contradict Hochschild’s claims.

27To start with Gautier’s editorial note (1998: 3), he spends only one paragraph accusing Hochschild of spreading lies, and proceeds in four other paragraphs attacking (i) the ‘écrits diffamatoires [of] nombreux compatriotes’ who provided the historical data which Hochschild reprocessed, and (ii) the press ‘qui se dit belge’ who take delight in broadcasting old and new lies. The middle paragraph expresses sadness over the fact that ‘l’œuvre admirable réalisée durant trois quarts de siècle’ is thrown into disrepute and considers it a blow to the royal family who during four reigns has shown great interest in ‘this country’ (the Congo).

28As far as the lay-out is concerned, the column takes the form of a letter. It opens with the—somewhat ornate—name of the addressee, ‘Pauvre Léopold II,’ and addresses the ‘grand Souverain’ directly in the following way: ‘Toi qui pensais, après une vie bien remplie, pouvoir enfin jouir du repos éternel, tu t’es bien trompé.’ The letter ends with a paragraph in which the current negative image of the ‘colonial belge’ is being deplored, and closes with an invocation: ‘Dieu, que c’est triste... et pitoyable’ (ibid.).

29Above all, this example provides a condensed image of how the anciens d’Afrique of Namur position themselves in relation to two other poles: (i) Belgium, Leopold II, the royal family and their colonial project, and (ii) the pseudo-Belgian attackers of Leopold II, the anti-royalists, and anti-colonialists. The ‘letter’ format, the direct addressing of the king, and the invocation of God, can be understood as aspects of directly connecting with the state and the royalty, but at the same time, conceding to one’s subordinate position as an admirer, an honest but no longer respected colonial worker, and a simple believer.

30I should illustrate this point in more detail, but let it suffice for the moment to contend that the former colonials are clearly seen as seeking alliances outside the realm of civil and political society, contaminated as these are by what Huberland (1998: 3) called ‘les médias avec l’aide de certains théoriciens de nos grandes écoles et des milieux progressistes.’ Who remains as reliable partners are the Belgian royals (symbols of what remains of a degenerated Belgium), and occasionally God. It does not need much arguing that Leopold II exemplifies the royal interest in Congo. How this is done and what this implies for the self-positioning of the former colonials becomes clearer from the introduction of Clement’s article in the same issue of the Bulletin:

Les chiennes de l’enfer sont à nouveau déchaînées contre le grand Souverain qui avait fait de la Belgique une nation universellement enviée et respectée et contre les artisans de ses desseins grandioses. Leurs successeurs conservent aujourd’hui la fierté d’avoir contribué à la réalisation du vaste projet qui unissait les Congolais et les Belges avant 1960.

31Two continuities are being forged here: the first links the present-day colonials (successors) to the colonial workers of the past and to the ‘great architect’ who laid out the long-term plans. Secondly the ‘à nouveau’ establishes a connection between the attacks on Leopold II—one remembers Morel and Cassement as the main activists of the anti-Leopold II propaganda—and Hochschild’s book. The first continuity articulates well with the connections we saw established in other discourses presented above. What becomes more clear than before in this example is the absence of power. Leopold is the artist, and the colonials of the past were the workers who helped realising the project. Like in the case of the pionnier and the pionnier-like colonial, there is no trace of physical power other than personal energy, no trace of commercial interest and no power other than moral authority in furthering a just cause. This is the way in which biographies like the one of Josué Henry de la Lindi can be presented as that of a ‘small fish,’ marginalized by some superiors and forgotten by history. This and other biographies of ‘small fishes’ emphasise the greatness and the quality of their work, and this is perceived to stand in an inverse relationship to the importance contemporary society and majority historiography attributes to them. To quote from a letter I received from the author of the Henry biography, who had also written a biography of Joseph Rhodius (Huberland 1999), an industrialist from Namur who set up many companies in Belgian Congo: ‘des types comme cela il y en a eu beaucoup au Congo, malheureusement on n’en parle pas.’ This articulates clearly the predilection for the numerous, silent and silenced workers (‘artisans’) of the colonial endeavour. This makes the ‘petit Belge’ an ambivalent creature, not in last because ‘il avait vu grand’ or at least—in the words of Pétillon who said about Pierre Ryckmans: ‘il aimait les petits moyens pour faire des grandes choses’ (in Halen, 1993: 30). This ambivalence of the ‘petit Belge’ is best understood with reference to ‘the absence of power’: as a ‘Belge’ he or she is part of the grand design of nations and history in which he as a ‘petit’ does what he has to do, realising unpretentiously the big plans. Power, in other words, resides in History itself and not in the people, even powerful and numerous; history is seen as self-empowered. From this absence of power arises a rather helpless colonial subject that must sustain relentless attacks from its many enemies. The self-effacing practice of the ‘petit Belge’ goes as far as effacing him altogether from history.

  • 7 In his review of Huberland’s book, André Henry de la Lindi (1999a: 16) deplores the fact that the a (...)

32These ‘enemies’ are presented as a counter-image of the ‘pionnier-like’ colonial: they have personal or commercial interests to defend (cf. Stokes), serve unjust causes (cf. slave-traders), and have the power to change the course of history that the colonial explicitly disclaims (cf. Batetela rebels). Similarly, in Gautier’s speech, Hochschild is said to be ‘en mal de copie et de notoriété’.7 Clément (1998: 12–13) cites several authors who stress the fact that Morel and Cassement were German spies and thus should be considered as traitors. Finally, in Huberland’s introduction, the Belgian colonials are pictured as capable of ‘amener progressivement’ the Congolese towards ‘notre propre culture occidentale,’ while the leftist media and scholars ‘s’efforcent d’imposer [...] des systèmes pseudo-démocratiques’ in the new African states (Huberland, 1998: 3). Perhaps more importantly than these characterisations of the enemies is the fact that they can be found among the very group of people of which it is implied that one could expect agreement or solidarity. In the story of Josué Henry de la Lindi these enemies from within were Secretary of State Liebrechts and General Tombeur. In colonial history one finds them in the form of disloyal ‘auxiliaires’ (collaborators) or disobedient troops. In colonial historiography, we have seen how Gautier (1998: 3) was particularly saddened by the collaboration of fellow countrymen (‘compatriotes,’ ‘qui se dit belge’) in vilifying the work of Belgian colonialism. As it happens this group of people who likes ‘to scoff at our colonial past’ is perceived as large and it comprises ‘les Universités, les bibliothèques, les milieux intellectuels, les historiens, et les cercles politiques’ (Henry de la Lindi, 1999a: 17). Finally, it is remarkable how, against the ‘subversive’ or otherwise ‘irreverent’ ideas of this majority group no direct arguments are formulated. As in the collage of excerpts which Clément presents to counter Hochschild, one leaves it to ‘eminent specialists’ to throw doubt (‘mise en doute’) on the malicious fantasies that some authors present as facts (Henry de la Lindi, 1999b: 15). In the auto-historiography I spoke of, there is evidence of a certain paranoia that comes with the perception and the constant expectation of inimical moves in one’s own social and natural environment. Taking into consideration the fact that the colonials of Namur link their self-representation to an assumed minority position, and that counteracting is more a matter of discrediting the ‘immoral majority’ than fighting back with facts and figures, I prefer to rephrase this paranoia as a subalternity of doubt, a fundamental condition of distrusting majority opinion in civil and political society.

Time and subalternity

33Throughout the above analysis of colonialist discourse in and around the MAN, it has become clear that the discursive strat­egy of ‘the absence of power’ is deployed against a certain conception of history which could be qualified as ‘idealist.’ Libotte (1999b: 38), for instance, states this very openly when he concludes his reconstruction of the history of European colonialism saying: ‘La colonisation [...] est [...] une des émanations de l’esprit et du génie de l’Europe. [...] la colonisation fait partie de notre “authenticité” européenne à tous, coloniaux ou non.’ In this scheme of things the subject renounces a substantial part of its agency and relegates itself to the role of a ‘historic worker.’

34The above scheme does not stipulate which course history takes. When analysing ‘the subalternity of doubt’ we have come across a whole number of instances in which parallels are drawn between the early colonial period and the present, be­tween the predicament of the ‘pionniers’ and that of the ‘anciens d’Afrique.’ In between lies a period of regular colonisation, or in Clément’s words, the ‘vaste projet qui unissait les Congolais et les Belges.’ In the self-narratives one finds a three-fold subdivision into periods, in the three ‘generations’ of colonials, ‘pionnier,’ ‘coloniaux,’ and ‘anciens d’Afrique’ which roughly correspond to the Congo Free State, the Belgian Congo and independent Zaire/Congo. Connecting this again with ‘the subalternity of doubt’ the epoch of the Congo Free State and the present epoch are characterised by fierce critique from the ‘immoral majority,’ first directed at Leopold II and later at the former colonials. Between these two epochs lies a period of alleged national consensus about the desirability of the colonial undertaking. I concede that it would need a lot more evidence to establish that the former colonials perceive a certain cyclical movement in the history of the Congo; nonetheless there are strong indications that the present situation is somehow com­pared to what Leopold and his pioneers were facing when pacifying Central Africa. Although I’m not sure about how the Mobutu era was and is appreciated, the Kabila period is seen as characterised by (i) political instability and territorial disinte­gration, (ii) wide-ranging insecurity of simple peasants in the face of bandits, warlords, rebellious troops and unscrupulous merchants, and, maybe more importantly, (iii) the obvious dilapidation of ‘les grandes choses’ realised by the Belgians: education, health care, and infrastructure (roads, railways) being among the most important (Huberland, 1998: 28–49, 88–103; Libotte, 1999a, 1999b).

35A certain contradiction may be detected between a first conception of time which dehumanises history and reduces human agency, and a second conception which constructs a cyclical movement and may serve as a model for possible postcolonial action—re-pacification?—or deployment of massive resources in order to regenerate the exploitation of this po­tentially rich country, as Henry (1999b) seems to imply.

36Further research could solve this contradiction by looking more carefully into the context in which one of these conceptions of time and history is used and for what purposes. I have been mainly interested in how the former colonials construct their own subalternity in contemporary society. In this respect I have come across a third time frame which is particularly interesting because it tries to accommodate the sixty years of history of colonisation as shared time. The former colonials of Namur perceive themselves, their values and their activities as residual, as remnants of a lost world, in a ‘federalised’ Belgium. The contemporary world which they imagine and which they want to stand up for involves a postcolonial relationship ‘metropolis/ colony.’ This is a bi-national zone that consists of ‘Belgium’ and ‘Belgium’s Africa’ that share the parallel predicament of falling apart—‘Belgium’ through regionalization, and ‘Belgium’s Africa’ through violence and mismanagement. Both are subject to moral decay. In consonance with ‘the absence of power,’ the present position of the former colonials is described as one of resistance against the perceived loss of ‘valeurs [...] qui s’appelaient: la Patrie, le Devoir, l’Abnégation’ (Huberland, 1998: 4).

37The perception of this simultaneous ‘progression’ of Belgium and Belgium’s Africa can best be understood when looking at how the museum (particularly the larger and older part of it, the right wing) is organised. The right wing consists of (i) a central corridor, the ‘espace Ryckmans,’ whose death in 1960 signified the end through independence, and the figure of Leopold II, who symbolizes the beginning, (ii) the rooms to the left which tell mainly about the history of the conquest (‘les pionniers’) and early missionary activity at the time of the Congo Free State, and (iii) the two rooms to the right displaying the two sides of ‘culture’: ‘the uncultivated’—traditional culture and religion illustrated with ‘ethnographica’—and ‘the cultivated’—showing specimens of ‘natural history,’ mainly with displays of ‘useful’ products such as cotton, coffee, tea, different kinds of wood, etc., not in their wild form but as domesticated natural products (dried, burned, smoked, or cut).

38With the help of some sort of structuralist analysis—a Leachean ‘Sistine Chapel’—one could easily reveal an implicit chronology and left-right contrast. What is more relevant may be the fact that the themes or the subject matter of the ‘period rooms,’ the rooms, themes, and epochs are held together by a coherent way of displaying objects in a homely way. To give one example, in almost every room there is a mantelpiece which is used as such, namely by putting photographs and small statues on it, by putting chairs and benches around it, and by putting a small table with a table cloth and an ashtray in front of it. Asked about this, people at the museum readily agree that these displays are meant to evoke living rooms (‘rather primitive, like we had in the Congo’).

39There is little space here to go into this matter, but my general point is that the themes and the chronology do not so much represent the period of regular colonisation (of the Belgian Congo) but represent the programme of activities associated with the Congo Free State: pacification, liberation (from slave trade and pagan beliefs) and the ‘mise en valeur’ of people and natural resources. Colonisation is not represented as such but presented through its living-room settings, not by the objects themselves (from ‘fetishes’ to gold coins and pamphlets) but by the way they are arranged on the mantelpieces and other furniture such as tables, cupboards, shelves, and even a birdcage.

  • 8 These terms try to capture some of the main images evoked in the course of a detailed description o (...)

40Now we are in a position to fully recognise the importance of the re-collecting that takes place at the MAN. What is straight­forwardly represented as (objectified) history is not so much colonialism but what counts as its model: the time of the pionniers, of the great designer and the great design, of the ideals of pacification and liberation, of ‘setting free’ the human and natural resources for future exploitation. In the living-room, ‘the Africa as we knew it’ is presented (cf. Mr Eugene), the place to which the colonial worker returned in a life filled with hardship and unpredictable routine.8 This hard life in the tropics, one could conjecture, may have been compensated by the mirage of fame at home, or at least of the honour of having assisted in the realisation of a Belgian plan in Africa, but once the plan was called off and the fame was replaced by blame, what remained was an African way of life in Belgium. Amidst enmity and suspicion, the vision of a grand plan and the life of a simple worker, subalternity emerges in a particularly mundane form.

Concluding remarks on other temporalities

41Chatterjee (1993) has turned the term subalternity into a research programme which is present but has yet not received the proper emphasis in my research at Namur. Considering the entanglement of the two domains of the ‘elite’ and the ‘subaltern’ in colonial Indian history, Chatterjee contends that

the task is to trace in their mutually conditioned historicities the specific forms that have appeared, on the one hand, in the domain defined by the hegemonic project of nationalist modernity, and on the other, in the numerous fragmented resistances to that normalizing project (Chatterjee, 1993: 13).

42From the introduction it is clear how I see the ‘hegemonic project of nationalist modernity’ embodied in the future museum at the Quai Branly, and how the above (preliminary) ethnography tries to capture the discourse of the former colonials of Namur as local resistance to that ‘normalizing project.’ In this I have highlighted the conceptions and experiences of history in the Belgium-Africa ‘space-time’ of the former colonials—as the background against which re-collecting takes place.

43It may seem provocative to attribute the same subalternity to colonisers as was done to the colonised. I use the term subaltern, however, more as a heuristic device in order to start discovering how, what looks like a middle-class, not-too-bad-off group of people with rather mainstream, if slightly conservative, ideas about politics and society, construct themselves as a subordinate, marginalised minority. The transfer of ‘subalternity’ to the realm of the coloniser is not meant to be politically upsetting but methodologically correct in that I attempt to deal with colonised and coloniser in the same analytic field.

44This I think is also the goal John Kelly (1999: 264)—with reference to Fabian’s coevalness and Asad’s ‘asymmetrically structured political terrain’—set for anthropology when he asked to seek the temporality within the political confrontations already in place. What are the terms of trade in temporal consociality? Is common occupation of space-time always a matter of sharing?

45This challenge seems particularly vast for anthropologists of the museum of the Quai Branly who are now attempting to put the world under one roof.

Haut de page


s.d. Musée africain de Namur, ‘historique’ and visitor’s guide (s.l.).

Bennett, Tony
1995 The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London, Routledge).

Bondy, Luc and Marie-Louise Bischofberger
1999 Wintermärchen, Libretto of opera by Philippe Boesmans (Brussels, De Munt).

Chatterjee, Partha
1993 The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

Clément, José
1998 Le coin du lecteur, Bulletin du CRNAA, 16 (4): 11–12.

Dembour, Marie-Bénédicte
2000 Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection (Oxford, Berghahn).

Fabian, Johannes
1983 Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York, Columbia University Press).
1996 Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Féau, Étienne
2000 L’art africain au musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie: collections et perspectives pour le musée du quai Branly, Cahiers détudes africaines, XXXIX (3–4), 155–6: 923–38.

Gautier, Claude
1998 Éditorial, Bulletin du CRNAA, 16 (4): 3.

Halen, Pierre
1993 Le petit Belge avait vu grand: une littérature coloniale (Bruxelles, Éditions Labor).

Henry de la Lindi, André
1999a Review of ‘Congo d’avant-hier et d’aujourd’hui’ by Maurice Huberland, Bulletin du CRNAA, 17 (2): 16–17.
1999b Allocution prononcée par le Président du Musée, le Chevalier André Henry de la Lindi, Bulletin du CRNAA, 17 (3): 14–15.

Herneupont, Marcel
1999 Allocution prononcée par le conservateur M. Marcel Herneupont, Bulletin du CRNAA, 17 (3): 20–23.

Hochschild, Adam
1998 De geest van Koning Leopold II en de plundering van de Congo (Amsterdam, Meulenhoff).

Huberland, Maurice
1998 Congo d’avant-hier & d’aujourd’hui: d’après les archives du Général Chevalier Josué Henry de la Lindi auprès du Musée de l’Afrique centrale de Tervuren. Complété d’une analyse de l’évolution des événements qui se sont succédé au Congo-Zaïre puis en nouvelle République démocratique du Congo jusque fin 1998 (s.l.).
1999 Un Namurois d’exception au Congo: Joseph Rhodius, Manuscript, 8 p.

Kelly, John
1999 Time and the global: against homogeneous, empty communities in contemporary social theory, in P. Geschiere and B. Meyer (eds.), Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure (Oxford, Blackwell): 239–72.

Landry, Donna and Gerald Maclean (eds.)
1996 The Spivak Reader (London, Routledge).

Libotte, O. G.
1999a Colonisation et colonialisme, Bulletin du CRNAA, 17 (4): 28–31.
1999b La colonisation européenne, Bulletin du CRNAA, 17 (4): 32–38.

Richards, Thomas
1993 The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and Fantasy of Empire (London, Verso).

Thomas, Nicholas
1991 Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Haut de page


1 This is a working paper, earlier versions of which were presented in London (MEG Conference ‘Glimpses of Africa,’ 25–5–1999), in Ghent (Conference ‘Belgium’s Africa: reassessing the Belgian legacy in and on Africa,’ 21 to 23–10–1999), and in Paris (Workshop ‘Temporalité et muséographie,’ 27–11–1999).

2 The terms ‘subaltern’ and ‘subalternity’ have a very specific history going back to Gramsci and designating nonelite or subordinate groups. In the hands of the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group, the concept becomes more richer and more ambiguous in that it is amplied to a ‘floating buffer zone of elite-subalternity’ (Landry and Maclean, 1996: 203–4).

3 All names of informants are pseudonyms.

4 Huberland (1998: 3) finds that ‘au lendemain des Indépendances’ the ‘rôle joué par les expatriés’ is negatively assessed on the basis of the false generalisation that ‘la Métropole n’avait jamais eu d’autres objectifs que le pillage du Congo.’

5 Culture and education are matters that fall under the authority of the regional governments.

6 The idea of a colonial paranoia is taken from Richards (1993) who situates roughly in the ‘age of empire’ around the turn of the last century, the emergence of what he calls an ‘epistemological paranoia’ most clearly expressed in the new genre of the invasion novel. He characterised this paranoia as a ‘thouroughgoing conflation of knowledge and fear’ whereby the perception of the phenomenal world is ‘in a permanent state of red alert’ over the contingency plans of the enemy; an enemy who may not even be named or outlined in substance and shape (Richards, 1993: 114).

7 In his review of Huberland’s book, André Henry de la Lindi (1999a: 16) deplores the fact that the author was unable to find an editor; the latter arguing that with books on Congo no money can be made, ‘à l’exception d’auteurs subversifs.’ Here Henry makes an interesting connection between economic interest and morally unjust intellectuals.

8 These terms try to capture some of the main images evoked in the course of a detailed description of work and life in the colony given by Mr Eugene (interview 20–5–1999) which stressed three points: (i) the enormous range of activities of the ‘agent territorial’, (ii) his regular tours and absence from home, and (iii) a combination of everyday, petty hardship and routine interrupted by occasional calamity, not too frequent special missions, and irregular gatherings with colleagues. This is obviously the men’s side of the story. The centrality of the ‘living room’ in colonial representation at the museum adds an interesting gender aspect to this overal image because ‘home’ was the place where the female companion (wife and/or the ‘ménagère’) awaited the return of the territorial agent.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Karel Arnaut, « Belgian memories, African objects : Colonial re-collections at the Musée africain in Namur »Ateliers A & Ateliers LESC, 23 | 2001, 29-48.

Référence électronique

Karel Arnaut, « Belgian memories, African objects : Colonial re-collections at the Musée africain in Namur »Ateliers A & Ateliers LESC [En ligne], 23 | 2001, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2015, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Karel Arnaut

Université de Gand

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search