Monday, October 19, 2009

King Albert & Queen Elisabeth in the Congo

The last decade of King Albert's reign was filled with a rapid succession of royal trips to the Congo...We have seen how Prince Leopold journeyed through Belgium's African possessions in 1925 and 1933. His parents did likewise in 1928 and 1932. Colonial issues were always close to the King's heart. In 1920, amidst the aftermath of World War I, while Belgian politicians were still focusing on the nation's recovery, Albert took the initiative of launching a Colonial Congress, the first in Belgian history. He emphasized the role the Congo could play in Belgium's economic development, while also inveighing against abuse of the native population. Plans for a royal visit were soon underway, and the first opportune moment came in 1928.

Accompanied by his wife, Queen Elisabeth, Albert arrived in Africa for the second time in his life. He had last seen the Congo as a young prince in 1909, and he would now retrace his steps. He wore a handsome white and gold uniform specially designed for the trip. Ordinarily, Albert was known for his royal indifference to externals ("Look for the worst dressed fellow of the bunch," he once told an official who asked how to recognize him when he was traveling incognito). Yet, the Congolese attached great importance to the outward trappings of rank and authority, so the King had to dress more grandly on his African visits.

According to a contemporary account of the trip:
The itinerary the King and Queen followed enabled them to visit the most interesting regions of our African colony. From Boma to Banana, the Sovereigns made the complete circuit of the Congo. Thanks to (modern transport), they were able, from Léopoldville, to reach Katanga directly, without having to make the long journey by river. From Elisabethville, where they arrived after a rapid journey by air and rail, the King and his entourage were able to retrace the route taken 20 years earlier by Prince Albert. It was a long...journey along the river, from Bukama to Banana, with many varied stops, with short trips by rail whenever the river ceased to be navigable, and a quick flight by air from Colquilhatville to Léopoldville and Boma (Boula Matari ou le Congo Belge, Jacques Crokaert, 1929).
Warmly welcomed throughout the trip, the King and Queen made detours to visit the agricultural enterprises of Mayumba, the diamond mines of Kasai, the rich lands of Rwanda, Urundi, Kivu and Uele. They met with colonial dignitaries, Christian missionaries and native chieftains alike. Crokaert describes the journey in rather complacent and triumphalist terms, eulogizing the genius of Leopold II in acquiring the colony, citing the vast technological progresses in the Congo since Albert's last visit, and stressing the natives' debt of gratitude for the benefits of European civilization. The King, however, told a different story. In a letter, he noted, with his customary caustic irony:
We have already seen many things, and, above all, many people. Very busy program, pathological insistence of public servants, private individuals, and even servants of God on being endlessly complimented on what they do or even do not do...

Boma has not changed in 19 years. The governor-general's house is a dirty box. Matadi: frightful. An insult to the majestic river. Léo-Kin cuts a good figure, could become a magnificent city....

To say the voyage is a pleasure would be a lie...The mentality of the big officials for the most part bad. The little ones are often worth more. Great greed everywhere, malice without bounds, few agreeable people. Some great potential in private enterprises (Léopold III, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wingaert, et. al. 2001.)
Quite critical, like his son! Yet, happier memories of Albert's Congo trips have also come down to us. Le Roi Albert et les Missions (1935) by Joseph Masson, S. J., for instance, provides a wealth of information on the royal couple's close and touching relationship with the Catholic missionaries in Africa. Despite the King's critical comments in his letter, he clearly admired their heroism, as many stories testify (see HERE). Once, for instance, he visited a convent school for young girls, future mothers of Christian homes. He was deeply moved by the experience and quietly told one of the nuns: "Continue, Sister, to devote yourself to this work, for the greater glory of God and for our country." To other missionaries, he confided: "I desire that, at my death, not a single pagan be left in the Congo." His concern for the spiritual welfare of his African subjects was matched by concern for their material prosperity too. He insisted on personally visiting the homes of ordinary people to see, with his own eyes, their living conditions. According to Masson, the indigenous people were very impressed by the kindness and piety of Albert and Elisabeth. Apparently, in religious controversies between Protestant and Catholic Congolese, the latter would even use the King's devout Catholic faith as a clinching argument: "You see the King belongs to our Church, so it must be the true one."

To the end of his life, King Albert was keenly preoccupied with Belgium's distant colony. In 1932, he would return for his third visit, traveling by air through the cotton farms of Uele and the national park bearing his name. As a final touching detail, his last day of work (according to Masson) was devoted to the Congo.


MadMonarchist said...

Thanks for the post. Very interesting information there. Again, nice to see someone who looks at facts in the face, the good and the bad, rather than just looking for what will back up their preconceptions. I like the King encouraging the missionaries and the Catholics using the King as an example to emulate in conversion. Shows the importance of setting a good example (which I constantly need to work on). I like the white uniform too. King Baudouin cut a very dashing figure in his when he went over for the independence ceremonies.

May said...

Yes, he certainly did!

Pilgrim said...

As a belgian I really wonder and admire what work you do here. A great post on our beloved King and Queen. Merci! Propz Pilgrim

May said...

Thank you, Pilgrim, how kind of you.