L’Afrique aux ‹noirs›

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On the eve of Paul Otlet's oeuvre entering the Public Domain, éfélé re-published a 1888 pamphlet, L'Afrique aux noirs. Addressing 'his' king Leopold II, Otlet boldly suggests to 'repatriate' African-Amercian slaves to Africa, assuming that any claims to citizen rights would be impossible to obtain in the USA, even after abolition.

Otlet boldly supports initiatives to 'repatriate' African-Amercian slaves to Africa, assuming that any claims to citizen rights would be impossible to obtain in the USA, even after abolition. The pamphlet reflects the generalised propaganda of the time that the colonisation of Congo was in fact a humanitarian mission: ‘We Europeans, who have colonised African soil, we, especially Belgians, who have taken a direct part in the civilising work of the Congo’. While he was unfortunately not alone in taking such a position, the racism expressed in his writing is troubling:

En mettant directement en contact le blanc raffiné et le noir encore sauvage, n’allons-nous pas nuire plutôt qu’être utiles au récent et glorieux avènement du continent noir ? (By bringing together the refined white and the still wild black directly, are we not going to do harm rather than be useful to the recent and glorious advent of the black continent?)

Otlet sees no harm in understanding this mission ‘worthy of a human and Christian heart, worthy also of the enlightened sovereign’ as a way to make the exploitation of the territory more efficient:

[C]es nègres auront vite fait de couvrir de plantations les riches vallées du Congo et du Kassaï, de relier par des voies ferrées les principales sources de production, de créer des ports nouveaux. Ils auront bientôt mis fin eux-mêmes aux misères de l’esclavage, organisé la défense du territoire, assaini le pays, ouvert une riche région aux entreprises européennes. ([T]hese negroes will quickly have covered the rich valleys of Congo and Kassaï with plantations, linked by railways the main sources of production, and created new ports. They will soon have put an end to the miseries of slavery themselves, organised the defence of the territory, cleaned up the country and opened up a rich region to European companies.)

The crisp electronic re-edition directs attention to the aspect of colonialism and extreme Eurocentrism, often downplayed in the portrayal of Otlet. It colors the universalist imaginary of the later Mundaneum projects and also helps to understand why Otlet remained loyal to ‘his’ king and how he could negate the atrocities taking place in Congo, long after these facts were widely known.

Description updated June 2019

I think that we would do well to treat Belgian immaterial and material colonial heritage in a similar way. The origins of the term “negroes”/”niggers”, “black” and “white” owe as much to the colonial past as the monuments erected for Leopold II and the Congo pioneers. In fact, the same can be said for the seemingly neutral term African as in “African woman”. For, as Ali Mazrui (1986) reminds us, we routinely differentiate between the continent “Africa”, which includes the regions north and south of the Sahara and the cultural and/or “racial” entity “Africa” which we restrict to Sub­Saharan Africa. As such, most of us will immediately equate an African wo/man with a “black” one, irrespective of the ways in which inhabitants from sub­Saharan African identify themselves. However, using too many stumbling stones risks turning a walking or reading route into a hurdle race and distracts from the original purpose. We should not deny, forget or neutralise Belgium’s material and immaterial colonial heritage any more than we should do with its history of anti­Judaism and anti­Semitism. But neither should we destroy or wall it in as it were. Instead, we can [use] little stumble blocks to remind and pay tribute to those who were subject to colonial violence in its various physical, psychological and social aspects.[1]
  1. Bambi Cueppens in: Marc benoemt 's morgens de dingen (Verbindingen/Jonctions 9, 2009) http://www.constantvzw.com/downloads/marc.pdf