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‘No longer émigrés?’ Political Mobilisation and Identity among Europeans in the Belgian Congo during

By Guy Bud

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.

My research looks at the effects of the Second World War on the identities and politics of the European populations of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi. In so doing, it aims to fill two specific gaps in our historical understanding of the period. First, Belgium’s colonial territories have long been neglected in the broader discussion of the Second World War in Africa which has tended to focus on the colonies of Vichy France and, to a lesser extent, Britain. Second, it highlights the effects of war on white colonial settler populations outside Europe which have also been widely ignored in the literature.

Pierre Ryckmans, Governor-general of the Belgian Congo, attends the ceremony inaugurating the statue of King Albert I in Leopoldville, 1938. (Source: Wikimedia)

Though the Congo was never a true ‘settler colony’, almost 30,000 Europeans were living in Belgian Africa at the time of the German invasion of Belgium on 10 May 1940. These Europeans—known universally as colonials (coloniaux)—were a particularly transient population composed of civil servants, specialist workers, and missionaries. A small minority, perhaps less than 3,000 people in total, could be regarded as genuine settlers (colons) like those in Kenya or Southern Rhodesia. Few envisaged remaining in the colony permanently and all, even settlers, were denied any formal participation in the administration of the colony. The war, however, represents an exceptional period in the history of the colony because it was one of the few occasions in which the coloniaux were able to assert themselves as a political group, partially escaping from the control of the metropolis.

The Congo rallied to the Allied side in May 1940, despite the German occupation of Belgium. Indeed, the colony was practically self-governing between July and October 1940 when a functional Belgian government in exile was created in London. The Congo was soon pulled towards the Union of South Africa. The Union had gained de facto independence in 1931 and was both the largest power in southern and central Africa and the white settler society par excellence. Spurred by a wartime economic boom, by 1940 it was experiencing a period of unprecedented optimism. This drove its Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, to revive his long-held vision of colonial ‘Pan-Africanism’ which saw South Africa raised to a position of regional hegemon through the forging of closer ties with the British, Portuguese, and Belgian colonies south of the equator. While South Africa’s initial attraction may have been economic—as a potential export market and source of manufactured imports to replace the metropolis—the connection also had a distinctly human dimension. Individual coloniaux soon adopted the Cape as a holiday destination because of its temperate climate. By 1941, hundreds of Belgian coloniaux were travelling to and from South Africa each month.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts standing in front of his personal transport aircraft, an ex-South African Airways Lockheed Lodestar, which he used to tour the North African front. (Source: © IWM (TR 5))

In the Congo, there were undoubtedly some coloniaux who welcomed the opportunities created by closer ties with the Union. For some, especially those on the political left, embracing South Africa meant breaking the colony from its political and cultural dependence on the metropolis. Its chief advocate was Jean Decoster, a prominent settler from Elisabethville who was the owner of the daily newspaper L’Echo du Katanga. Through his newspaper, Decoster loudly extolled the virtues of closer ties to the Union. Decoster himself also travelled in the Union during this period, making personal contacts with South African businesses, socialist organisations, and newspapers.

Such enthusiasm was by no means universal. Decoster’s political opponents, especially those affiliated to the rival L’Essor du Congo newspaper, launched a succession of vitriolic attacks on Decoster and Pan-Africanism during 1941. While these attacks partly reflected the political divisions within the Congo’s white community, they also represented a legacy of long-held fears about South African annexationism that dated back to the 1900s. For nationalists and Catholics on the political right, the ties between Congo and South Africa represented an existential danger to Belgian sovereignty in Africa.

Though the threats and opportunities of Pan-Africanism were always largely rhetorical, contacts with the Union also had a more immediate political legacy in the Congo. Personal exposure to South African society gave coloniaux a vision of a new kind of society which might be imitated in the Congo. At the heart of this was the idea of a new social and political order in which white settlers would have significant power over their colonial administration. This enthusiasm was shared even by those who had criticised Decoster most vigorously, with the editor of L’Essor du Congo even producing an entire book on the subject in 1945.

The significance of these discussions should be seen in a wider context of a wartime ‘settler moment’ in colonial Africa which had profound effects in Belgian Africa. The wartime period saw the consolidation of a single Belgian Congolese identity for the first time, surpassing the previous patchwork of regional and occupational loyalties. In part, this was also a product of the discussions about South Africa which focused the coloniaux’s attention on their dual identities as white settlers and Belgians. This trend, remarked upon by contemporaries, was hugely significant for wartime political discussions involving the coloniaux. With the colonial administration’s grip over its white population temporarily weakened by the war, a new sense of shared interest allowed the coloniaux to exert their influence for the first time, imaging a variety of futures which were not to come about.

Guy Bud has just completed a master of philosophy degree in modern European history at the University of Oxford. His dissertation, supervised by Professor Martin Conway, is entitled ‘Belgian Africa at War: Europeans in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, 1940–1945’. He is also an associate researcher at the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society in Anderlecht, Belgium.

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