Saturday, October 22, 2016

Leopoldville 1907 – British Vice-Consulate Opens

This unusual villa on Ave. de l’Avenir in Ngaliema Commune is the residence of the Director General of Chanic, originally the Chantier Naval Industriel du Congo. The house, which brings to mind the French Quarter in New Orleans or a scene from a Tennessee Williams novel, was acquired for Chanic’s top manager in 1930 shortly after the shipyards was established at the original port of Leopoldville which H.M. Stanley created in 1881 (See Mar. 5, 2011).  The house is a part of my earliest memories of Kinshasa (playing with the neighbors, the wood floors upstairs, the crunch of the gravel driveway) but only recently did I learn that it was originally built as the first British Consulate in Leopoldville.
The residence of the Director General of Chanic
In 1906, the United Kingdom decided to build consular offices in Boma, Leopoldville and Stanleyville (now Kisangani).  As the capital of the then Congo Free State, Boma had a long term diplomatic presence, but now His Majesty’s Government was ready to put down roots. As early as March 1901, Vice-Consul Roger Casement was tasked with finding a site for a consulate at Stanley Pool, upriver from Leopoldville.  In June 1903 Casement spent several weeks in Leopoldville (he was also collecting information on abusive treatment of the Congolese), staying at Dr. Sims’ house (See May 4, 2016).  In fact, a map from this period shows a Consulate site adjacent to the BMS mission in Kinshasa. But, in the final analysis, the site in Leopoldville next to the American Baptist Mission was granted by the Congo Free State government, although the title never transferred.  It is not clear why the decision was made to locate at Leopoldville, but at the time, it was a much more important settlement and the capital of the District of Stanley Pool.
One proposed site for the new Consulate (left of the 2 pink parcels).
In today's Gombe Commune, this is would be the South African Embassy compound
The architect's design for the Leopoldville site (reference to "American Church" is Sims Chapel).
A view from the opposite direction.  The Consulate built in the area labeled "Brousse", American mission at right.
In October 1906, the British Consul requested that the Congo Free State reduce the tariff for shipping the materials to Leopoldville via the Congo Railway from Matadi, but the authorities in Brussels politely declined. In December His Majesty’s Office of Works submitted plans to the Treasury for bungalows costing £4,000 to be built in Leopoldville and Stanleyville. The residence was constructed between 1907-09 according to plans prepared by Robert Neill and Sons of Manchester at a cost of £5,900, including materials shipped from England.  In 1911 the cost of the Consulate was questioned in the House of Commons, to which the respondent explained that Leopoldville was very remote and it was difficult to get adequate labor, in short it was “a very expensive place”.
The architect's design for the Consulate (front elevation).
The upper floor - Consul's residence.
The ground floor - Consulate offices.
The first resident of the Consulate was Jack Proby Armstrong, who served as Vice-Consul in Leopoldville from 1905 to 1911.  This period was the height of the “Red Rubber” campaign in which British and American Protestant missionaries exposed the brutal exploitation of Congolese by the extractive Leopoldian regime.  In September 1909, the Presbyterian African-American missionary, William Sheppard, was summoned before the Court in Leopoldville in a libel suit by the Compagnie du Kasai whose labor practices Sheppard had criticized. Armstrong and the American Consul William Handy, witnessed the trial at which Sheppard was acquitted.  During the trial, Sheppard lodged at Sims’ House at the nearby American Baptist mission.
Side view of the residence today.
During World War I, the Vice-Consul’s steam launch, the “St. George” was sent to Lake Tanganika to join a British flotilla supporting the Belgian campaign against the Germans in East Africa (See Aug. 3, 2014).  After the war Vice-Consulate appears to have gone unfilled for certain periods and in 1923 the building was leased to the colonial government.  In 1930, the building was sold to Chanic, most likely as a Depression economy move, although the following year the Consulate was officially transferred from Boma to Leopoldville, now the capital of the colony. Two parcels were obtained in Kinshasa, one for the Consul’s residence (the actual site of the Embassy and Ambassador’s residence on Ave. Baudouin) and another in the downtown area for a Consular office.
A Twenties-themed whimsical postcard
At some point after Chanic acquired the building it was renovated to its current configuration and appearance.    The wrap-around balconies were enclosed with masonry walls on either side and the front enclosed with French doors and louvered windows matching the original verandah support columns.  A garage, tennis court and swimming pool were added to the compound.
Another view of the northeast side.
The driveway and garage from Ave. de l'Avenir.
A cement elephant, Chanic's logo, in front of the tennis court.
  • Room for Diplomacy. Catalogue of British Embassy and Consulate buildings, 1800-2010.