Friday, February 11, 2011

King Leopold III and Princess Lilian in the Congo

Readers may remember my series on the royal visits to the Belgian Congo, and, in particular, Prince Leopold's study trip to the colony in 1933 with Princess Astrid. Here is a first-hand account, by Jacques Deschepper, a colonial official, of Leopold's much later scientific expedition to the Congo, in 1957, with his second wife Lilian.  (Unfortunately, the article is available only in French, but the images alone are worth seeing.) It is a very human, touching narrative, noting the royal couple's deep concern for the welfare of the indigenous peoples; their special interest in the schools, the medical missions, the hospitals and the leper colonies. The descriptions of the warm welcome Leopold and Lilian received, both from the exuberant Congolese tribesmen and from the Belgian colonists, are also touching. Six years after his abdication, Leopold still enjoyed considerable popularity in the Congo. His dignity and reserve are often described as coldness and arrogance; yet, his companions found him so friendly and approachable that they tended to become over-animated in conversation, stumbling over their words. As for Lilian, if some Belgian colonists harbored suspicions of this much-maligned lady, their reservations seemed to melt away by magic, once they finally had a chance to meet her; the most reticent were won over by her charm, simplicity and kindness. I can see why; she has a particularly beautiful, gentle expression in the photographs.

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