Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Leopoldville 1920s – Yankee Traders on the Congo

When I lived in Kinshasa in the mid-2000s, this building at the corner of Ave. Ebeya (Cambier) and Equateur (Beernaert) was intriguing.  It was clearly a colonial structure of some significance, but now without signage, its street level fenestration and main entrance plastered over, and with agents and vehicles from the security company DSA parked outside, there was no clue what it might once have been.
The building is across Ave. Equateur from the former covered market (now African Lux).  It predated the market, built in 1925, as described in the post on architects (See Aug. 5, 2011).  A view looking east on Ave. Cambier from the early 20’s provides a view of the building beyond the Office du Travail, which later became City Hall.
L.C. Gillespie & Sons beyond the Office du Travail 
A recent photo cleared up the mystery.  It was the original headquarters of L.C. Gillespie & Sons, a New Jersey based dealer in tropical resins used in the manufacture of varnish and shellac.  Gillespie was already established in Asia -- China, India, Java and New Zealand in particular -- since the 19th Century, but after World War One the company took an interest in the Congo.   It was good timing.  The War in Europe had created new opportunities for American exports to Africa, displacing Germany and other colonial powers to take second place position after Great Britain.   
L.C. Gillespie & Sons, Ave. Cambier (R) and Beernaert (L)

US consular officials saw an opportunity for the establishment of American companies in each port along the coast to carry out bilateral trade; selling American made goods and shipping colonial produce back to the States.  However, there was no direct shipping line from the US to West African ports.  In February 1918, the Gillespie firm chartered the 4-masted schooner “Purnell T. White” on its maiden voyage to Boma, assigning its agent to purchase 5000 pounds of ivory.  The “Purnell T. White” returned in July with a cargo of copal, a gum found in the rainforests of Equateur region and used to produce varnish.  Gillespie subsequently established a trading center for copal at Inganda near Coquilhatville (Mbandaka) while opening shop in Kinshasa as the representative of the Ford Motor Company in Congo.  Later, L.C. Gillespie became the agents in Kinshasa for the Bull Line, a US shipping company that began service from New York to West Africa via the UK in 1920 and carried regular cargos of Gillespie copal back to the US.

As one of the few “Yankee” firms operating in Congo in the 1920s prior to the establishment of the U.S. Consulate in 1929 (See Feb. 3, 2012), Gillespie & Sons were often called upon to serve as defacto commercial representative of U.S. interests.  For example, the Harvard African Expedition to Congo in 1926 acknowledged the “many courtesies and great assistance in Kinshasa” provided by Gillespie’s Director Robert N. Kennedy.  Similarly, the firm could be expected to support the American community in Congo.  When the Congo Protestant Council, whose membership included many American missions, held its Jubilee in Leopoldville in 1928, Gillespie provided vehicles to assist with logistics.  Another early employee was Paul Kirst, who joined the company in Kinshasa in 1922 and remained in the automotive business in Leopoldville after the parent company went bankrupt on the eve of the Depression (See Mar. 5, 2011).  The Congo operation continued for a few years as Ets. Congolais Gillespie.  Kirst left the firm in 1930 to become the local representative of Texaco.

L.C. Gillespie & Sons at the parade during King Albert's visit in1928 (Model T Ford and 2 Fordson tractors)
·      Anet, Henri. 1929. Message of the Congo Jubilee and West Africa Conference, Conseil Protestant du Congo.
·      Boyce, William Dickson. 1925. Illustrated Africa, Rand McNally & Co.
·      Burgess, Robert H. 1970. Sea, sails, and shipwreck: career of the four-masted schooner Purnell T. White, Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Publishers.
·      “The Commercial Outlook in West Africa”, 1921, The American Review of Reviews, pp.102-103.
·      Harvard African Expedition, 1969. The African Republic of Liberia and the Belgian Congo: based on the observations made and material collected during the Harvard African Expedition, 1926-1927, Greenwood Press.