Jan Vansina on the Belgian Historiography of Africa:
Around the Agenda of a Bombing Raid

Jean-Luc Vellut
Professeur Émérite
Université catholique de Louvain
Collège Erasme
B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgique)

A Reply to

'History Facing the Present: An Interview with Jan Vansina'

1 November 2001

Karel Arnaut and Hein Vanhee
Ghent University

[Editor's Note: H-AFRICA's online publication of 'History Facing the Present: An Interview with Jan Vansina'
is located at http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~africa/africaforum/VansinaInterview.htm

The last issue of a Belgian newsletter, the Bulletin des Africanistes, carried an interview of Jan Vansina. Casting a critical eye on Belgian scholarship on the history of Central Africa, Vansina's comments at times reads like an indictment. Preceding this interview, and at the invitation of the Bulletin editors, a warm presentation of this respected historian was signed by the author of the present letter. When requesting this summary of Vansina's scholarship and personality, the editors, facetiously perhaps, had kept me unaware of their intention to publish their conversation with this US-based historian in the same issue of the Bulletin. This legerdemain made me feel used as the unwitting endorser of a text with which I could only agree in part. More recently, as yet a further step, Vansina's interview has been translated from the original Dutch into English and placed on the web site of H-Afr. I am sending the following comments to that same address, with a copy to the editors of the Bulletin des Africanistes.

How not to fully endorse the idea of frank and critical debate among scholars sharing the same fields? in the small world of Belgian scholarship, criticism may be too often muffled and Vansina's outburst has the merit of letting in a draft of fresh air. A fine line separates, however, constructive debate from obiter dicta which, sometimes genially, but sometimes bitingly, mix insight with more peremptory statements. The general tone is that of Gallic exuberance, as shown by the use of vivid anecdotes, slightly "improved" at times, and which are used as metaphors. They are part of a genre in which Vansina excels.

Behind the jolly appearance, there is a method and an agenda. If we are to follow the leads suggested by the interviewers and interviewee, the field of African history as it exists in Belgium is controlled by authors who can be organized in a triad of different schools. A first category is that of "positivist historians" whom the authors see as represented by Stengers. They see this prolific and well-respected historian as a force hostile to an ethical view of history. Biography is presented here as another much practiced genre: this puzzling classification may refer to works such as the apologetic biography of governor general Pierre Ryckmans by Jacques Vanderlinden. Finally, a third section of the field is presented as kept under the control of a host of informal, semi-professional amateur historians. We are led to believe that his last layer was the only one to break the culture of silence allegedly maintained by professional historians over the dark chapters of Congolese history. The argument is that established historians have refused to take notice of a system of mass murders as carried over by the Free State, let alone to pass judgement on an infamous episode of modern history. By contrast, the interview rallies to the thesis that brutalization should be seen as an iconic allegory for the forced entry of the Congo into modern history.

This is a loaded agenda and some points raised by it might usefully be clarified. I will spend no time on the three-fold division suggested by the interviewers and blandly taken over by Vansina. Its arbitrariness does not make it very useful. I will rather concentrate on more fundamental issues. First, positivist history is taken as representative of Belgian historiography and it is accused of having connived to organize silence around the most brutal aspects of the colonial nexus. As a corollary, "positivist history" is tagged as impervious to an ethical approach to the past, and it is taken for granted that an ethical dimension should determine our understanding of the colonial past.

In my view these arguments are unequally convincing. The argument that naive positivist visions of knowledge hold sway over much of historical production in Belgium will not be disputed here. In the Congo field, in particular, non-professional historians candidly interpret history as a collection of facts or events culled at the best of times from primary "sources" accepted as reflections of Reality and of Truth. In the prolific world of self- taught colonial historians, a superb ignorance of the contribution of social sciences to an analysis of context coexists with bibliographical neglect and indifference to methodology, and generally to the requirements of a disciplined approach to an evaluation of the past. Pace Vansina, the works of Jules Marchal are a case in point. This tireless author of a dozen books exposing the misdeeds of colonial rule in the Congo has enumerated crimes after crimes but never proposed an explanation. This is Grueulgeschichte (atrocities history) in full glory.

However, the same ingenuousness cannot be applied to professional historians. Behind the mask of literal respect for original sources, most mentors of Belgian historiography have quietly shared some metahistorical views of the past. Implicitly at least, their narratives are organized and illustrate their conviction that history proceeds according to an order, if not a progress.

The minority position occupied by a radical strand in Belgian historiography is another point raised by Vansina's intervention. Can it be ascertained that mainstream historians in Belgium have balked at radical interpretations which put violence and conflict as the main foci for an understanding of the past? I will not risk an answer though my feeling would be that there exists a widespread skepticism vis-à-vis the uses and abuses of propaganda. In fact, it could be argued that the post-1920 reticence from discussing atrocities in leopoldian Congo has been fed by the traumatizing experience of unequally reliable accusations of mass executions, mutilations, etc., which had been launched on all sides during World War I.

Whatever the general situation of historiography in this country, the fact is that, to a person, the Belgian historians who took part in the reactivation of Africanist historiography in the 1960's kept violence at the periphery of their narratives. This was true for L. Jadin, who founded the first chair of African history in Belgium, a position incidentally which would have ideally fitted Vansina. On Jadin the man and on his legacy at Louvain the interview keeps a resounding silence. J. Stengers also made similar reservations when it came to violence. He found in Leopold II the modern transcription of a wide roaming Machiavellian prince, a "great man" in fact, insofar as without him no modern Congo would have taken shape. This is history where readers are left to derive moral conclusions, if any.

This reserved attitude was also true of Vansina himself. Until recently, through his rich and varied works, he kept violence on a backstage in relation to his narratives,. Not that the material for the willful destruction of human life and dignity was lacking. The savanna kingdoms, the slave trade in which they took part, the multiple alliances of "indigenous" powers with early colonial conquerors, a variety of social evils (sorcery, for example), all could have supplied abundant material for reflections on the moral economy of anticolonial Central Africa.

Generalized as it has been, this mood of reticence may be queried as denial, but so too is the argument that violence should be put center stage. After all, the rationality of these a priori choices is not self-evident. How was the colonial period understood by actors of the time? In to-day's melancholic versions of colonial history, what is the share of the romantic fascination of the West for bleeding Africa,? and what of to-day's inclinations for destruction, ruins and debris? Whatever the answers to these questions, can we follow Vansina when he puts the Belgian scholarly community in the dock and accuses it of organizing amnesia?

The accusation has a familiar ring for historians, and not only in this country. Some years ago, a French publication asked whether amnesia for French crimes was specific to France.(1) In the case of the Congo, the accusation has become a cliché. Contrary to Stalin and Hitler (sic) with whom he is now compared, Leopold II is accused by some of the more resolute activists of anticolonialism of having covered his tracks by destroying his archives. The abundant publication of sources in his own days and the massive publications of the last years hardly bear out these pronouncements. However, in the intermediary period, from the 1920's to the end of the 1950's, Belgian history has indeed been in denial in regard to the Congo. A case in point would be that of J. Willequet, a respected historian and archivist who, after careful study, still treated the "Congolese question" as a fabrication by German-influenced lobbies.

Vansina is thus right to pinpoint a wish to ignore and to forget, but I suspect his targeting is a bit hazy. While there was a policy of silence enforced by archivists, while school textbooks transformed colonial history into an exercise in patriotic fervor, to present the generality of professional historians of his days as accomplices in a cover-up operation is to take a step too far. After all,. Stengers co-edited Morel's history of the humanitarian campaign against the Free State. He was also instrumental in publishing at the Académie des Sciences coloniales of Brussels Ruth Slade's critical study of the English-speaking missions in the Free State. L. Jadin edited documents on the slave trade and he pioneered the still ongoing discussion of the predications and execution of Beatrice Kimpa Vita, an exercise in unconventional Kongo history. In the 1980's, the African chair at Louvain-la-Neuve published a French translation of the Casement report as well as Jespersen's memoirs, one of the most explicit documents on the local working of the rubber system in the Congo. Vansina himself has now courageously introduced precolonial violence as a component of his narratives, most recently by exposing the violence of Rwanda's monarchy in the nineteenth century as a key factor that led to the tragedies of the postcolonial era.

By contrast, and more convincingly perhaps that this trashing of colleagues, the policies long carried out by Belgian state archivists might have been legitimate targets for indictment. It is significant that J. Marchal, though member in disgrace of the Foreign Affairs department, nevertheless gained years-long access to sources which had been kept off limits to less well introduced scholars. It is also fascinating to read that Vansina advised the talented interpreter of Marchal's rather pedestrian production, Adam Hochschild, to concentrate on Marchal's work and to keep clear of historians such as Stengers and Vellut.(2) I will have the charity to believe that, at the time, this counsel may have been advanced for the sake of expediency. But to-day, the thaw in archival practice in Belgium might have been hailed as a major step forwards. Yet, instead Vansina harshly blames the History Section of the Africa museum in Tervuren for having given priority in the last years to its archival resources. This department receives thus short change for its effort to inventory its archives, including its massive iconographic material, and for its liberal and reception of scholars - including those trained at North American universities.

The next task of Nervure historians will be to rethink the historical aspects of the permanent exhibitions. This is recognized as an important challenge for the years ahead. No doubt, the African Museum at Tervuren is also becoming a battlefield. At stake is the control of a revisionist policy with regard to public exhibition. The publication of this interview is not fortuitous. It will please the advocates of a stricter anticolonial line in our assessment of the modern history of the Congo. The irruption of the holocaust paradigm is significant here, especially now that the history of the Free State is presented as l'holocauste oublié, in the words of the French subtitle to Hochschild's book. There is of course a double bind here. First, racial persecutions are taken as the central allegory for 20th century history. And secondly, colonial history is treated as an accessory to those tragedies. Renewing with Hannah Arendt's fleeting essay on colonial imperialism, the Congo becomes a proto-Nazi experiment. In this literature, as a rule Joseph Conrad is shamelessly recycled to serve as an incriminating witness.

Vansina is too subtle a scholar to join this chorus, but he clearly wants to collect some benefits from a position of fellow traveller in exile. The decision is entirely his and I respect it, from a distance. Furthermore, it is in tune with a dominant mood in "Africanist" debate. We are once again entering a melancholy cycle as we are reminded that historiographers know their Schumpeterian cycles: nostalgia and eulogy are succeeded (or preceded) by "black books", and so the process unfolds. Now the mood is to renew with the abolitionist tradition, to denounce the evil, to bring the liberating word and to paternally put the African in the debt of the liberal West.

Another position is to see the African-European connection through the centuries is a complex story where the West is at once a source of enslavement but also be a source of enfranchisement, but always in interaction with African forces. The time has come perhaps for a mutual assessment of the complex history of the colonial era, to abandon the fascination for a "uniqueness" of the Leopoldian model, and to put African and European actors, benefactors and perpetrators, squarely on one scene where they acted and interacted, side by side.

A last element should enter the picture. The production of historical knowledge in Belgium takes place in a postmodern and postcolonial context. Contrary to the United States, a country which the interview takes somewhat unrealistically as a standard for comparison, Belgian Africanist research has been nurtured by lasting interaction with Central Africa, either in the universities of the Congo or Burundi and Rwanda, or through the life lines maintained by African minorities on Belgian soil. It is in that climate of transnational encounters that exciting new perspectives on the culture of colonization are opened by an new generation of scholars, active in the fields of colonial art, letters, architecture: in Belgium, the works of Sabine Cornelis, Pierre Halen, Johan Lagae are perhaps the best contribution of the new historiography to the old. In all cases, personal connections with the African world, in the Congo and in the diaspora, make them actors on the postcolonial scene.

However, there are also straws in the wind that research will have to confront new challenges due to a strident radical critique of historical narratives written in the tradition of enlightened scholarship. The long shadow cast by the dark sides of the African past and present are increasingly incorporated in a culture of the debris. The aim is to dispose of the liberal discourse on Africa, to break into smithereens the colonial-anticolonial nexus and indeed any trace of a coherent ethical image of the colonial past. In the past years, several events have concurred to put this radical approach to the fore: Ludo De Witte's reconstruction of the murder of Lumumba, the ensuing gruesome revelations of accessories to Lumumba's elimination the parliamentary committee on that issue, a "popular painting" exhibitions at Antwerp and Vienna, the present Mwana Kitoko cyclus at Venice, and indeed various intrusions of contemporary African culture on the European scene. There were elements of this avant-garde spirit in the Exit Congo exhibition recently held at Tervuren. Now we are reaching a new stage, more radical, that of Ex Shit Congo that sets out to explode the place of the Congo in Belgian imagination.(3)

This is the critical juncture at which Vansina's interview has been thrown in the arena. It is quite possible that, along with this author who wrote the introduction to the Bulletin des Africanistes, Vansina himself was a second unwitting participant in the debate. You want postmodernity? you have it.


1. "Oublier nos crimes. L'amnésie nationale: une spécificité française?", Éditions Autrement, avril 1994.

2. One owes the information to J. Marchal himself: Toudi, Graty (Belgium), 42-43, p. 6. Special issue: "Les faces cachées de la Dynastie belge". This nationalist Walloon periodical reflects republican opinion.

3. Ex Shit Congo has its website (!). At the time of Vansina's visit to Belgium, a radical avant garde Antwerp publication was exploring various dimensions of this new rapport with Africa past and present: cf. AS (Andere Sinema), special Africana issue, 159, Aug.-Sept. 2001.

First Online Edition: 31 January 2002
Last Revised: 13 February 2002

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