Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kinshasa 1989 – The Mad Baron’s Castle Demolished

Things learned while looking for other things…

While researching Ndolo Airport, I came across a reminiscence by Denis Le Jeune in “Memoires du Congo” (http// about the house where his family lived on the Grande Corniche above the Kinsuka rapids.  In my post on World War Two (See: May 23, 2011), I featured the house as well as the curious incident of Baron Allard’s attempted coup.  I did not realize they were part of the same story.

Charles LeJeune, an insurance broker in Antwerp, underwrote the first insured maritime shipment to Congo in 1886 – 42 cases of beer shipped from Bremen to the then capital of Boma.  In 1929, Charles’ son, Alick, toured Congo extensively and subsequently created the Société d’Assurances Congolaise in Leopoldville.

By WWII the firm was doing sufficiently well that Alick was able to invest in a prime property on the Grande Corniche, the promontory of Mont Leopold that offered sweeping views of Stanley Pool, the Kinsuka rapids and Brazzaville and AEF across the river.  Several others, including Ch. Vleeschouwers of the Fish and Game service and Baron Antoine Allard acquired plots in there 1942.

View of the Kinsuka rapids from the Grande Corniche

Allard, an artist and estranged from his banking family in Belgium, had come to Congo at the beginning of the war.  He first sought to join the Belgian Congo Force Publique, then the Free French to support the allied cause. Governor General Ryckmans sought instead to involve Allard in less active support of the troops and Allard was induced to use his artistic talent to support the war effort.

On June 11, 1942, Ryckmans was informed by the Sureté, the colonial intelligence service, of a plot against himself and the government planned for the weekend of June 20.  The Sureté launched an investigation and three days later, while attending a Fancy Fair for the war effort at Sacre Coeur Church (See. Jan. 17, 2012), Ryckmans was informed of the details of the plot, which included use of the new mechanized brigade equipped by the Americans and led by Emile Janssens (whose later intransigence as commander of the Force Publique at Independence in 1960 led to the army mutiny which plunged Congo into chaos).  The plot was Royalist in sentiment and intended to maintain Colonial Minister de Vleeschauwer over Ryckmans.

Many of the named co-conspirators were probably not aware they were part of Allard’s plot. Allard was detained, and after a brief stay in the mental ward of Clinique Reine Elisabeth (See.Jan. 17, 2012), was released to house arrest in his aerie on the Corniche (the ladder was pulled away after his meals were passed up). Ryckmans apparently did not consider him a serious threat because in August Allard was credited with the decoration of the Welcome Center for Belgian and Allied Military personnel and in November, he obtained a building permit for the tower that would provide him panoramic views of the river for his art.  Allard eventually left the colony and went on to found Oxfam Belgium.

After the war, Charles and Alick obtained the Allard property and began to develop the single tower into a rambling homestead that would eventually accommodate three families.  To help ensure electricity, he financed an electrical line to the Hôpital du Rive below his house (See Nov. 26, 2012) Lejeune hired Muta and his sons Maurice and Celestin Mayola from French Congo to carve all the woodwork in the house – doors, windows, stairs, balustrades and rafter tails.  The Mayolas worked for seven years at the house carving the woodwork with the most elementary tools.   A visitor in 1952 compared their work with Romanesque sculpture:

They draw the designs for their relief straight on to the wood with astonishing speed, and their flair for composition is really remarkable; human, animal, floral and more rarely geometrical motifs are combined with extraordinary felicity. The evident spontaneity of their inspiration makes the resemblance between their work and that of European medieval craftsmen all the more remarkable.”

Denis first visited Congo in 1950 on holiday from his studies in Belgium.  After Independence he took over the family insurance business.  The creation of a national insurance company, SONAS, by Mobutu in 1966 was a setback, but Assurances Le Jeune was able to find a niche to continue its work.

The Le Jeune complex in the mid 1950s
A view of the rapids from the swimming pool
The house was on the edge of Camp Tshatshi, where Mobutu lived, and in 1973 the Le Jeunes were given 48 hours to vacate the house for security reasons.  The tower remained vacant until 1989, when in advance of an international conference, Mobutu ordered the tower demolished – it spoiled the view from the Presidential Gardens on Mont Ngaliema. 
 A view of the rapids from Camp Tshatshi
After Mobutu was ousted in 1997, Denis returned to Kinshasa and visited the site, finding only a few ruins overgrown with vegetation.
Faint circular outline in center of image is the approximate location of Le Jeune home

  •         “Le Courrier d’Afrique”, Leopoldville, 1942
  •         Johnson, Marion, 1952.Congolese and Romanesque Sculpture, A Comparison”, The Studio.
  •         LeJeune, Denis, 2012, “La Tour du Baron Allard à Kinsuka”, Memoires du Congo, Août 2012, pp.10-11.
  •        VanderLinden, Jacques, 1994. Pierre Ryckmans 1891-1959: Coloniser dans l'honneur, DeBoeck Superieur.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, nice blog, these pictures are great. I was wondering if you have any content on the French Congo? If you do is there any way you could share them with me? Thanks