Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Leopoldville 1928 - The Royals Visit

Ninety years ago, at the end of June 1928, King Albert and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium visited Leopoldville.  The city was selected to replace Boma as the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, but the formal move would not take place until October of the following year when Governor Tilkens officially took residence in the city.  The activities of the royal visit provide a snapshot in time of the city and foreshadowed some of its future development.
Kinshasa port, commercial district and cite in the 1920s
The royal couple arrived by train from Kisantu on June 27. They had flown from Boma to Thysville (Mbanza Ngungu) to avoid a Yellow Fever epidemic at the railhead in Matadi. From there, they continued by rail to visit the Botanical Gardens at Kisantu and then on to Leopoldville. At that time, the railway line ran down what is now Blvd. du 30 Juin and the Gare was located where the Regina Hotel stood, opposite Place Braconnier (Jan. 23,2011).  Kolonga Molei, journalist and first editor of the news magazine “Zaire” in 1971, recalled at three years old, sitting on his father’s shoulders watching all the white people in their white uniforms and suits and sun helmets, and the tallest of them (Albert) on whom everyone was focused.

Every aspect of the visit was choreographed with great ceremony to impress upon the Congolese the link that bound them to the metropole.  They might have a traditional chief, but Albert was their King.

The King and Queen alighting from the train in Leopoldville

Another view of the train station in 1925 when Prince Leopold III visited
The building on the right above facing the Place Braconnier was the Banco de Angola

The King and Queen’s visit was extensively documented by photographer Casimir Zagourski, a Polish exile who set up shop in Leopoldville in 1924 (July 12, 2014). Dozens of his images were reproduced as postcards. However, after a commemorative album was published without his permission, in compensation, the Colonial Ministry commissioned 500 photographs showcasing the accomplishments of the colonial mission – ports, railway lines, hospitals, mission stations, and plantations. There was also an African photographer during the royals’ visit.  He shows up in the Zagourski images, so it is not clear if he was an independent or one of Zagourski’s team.
A souvenir packet of Zagourski's photos
The Royal party at the Provincial Governor's Residence. African photographer on right.
Albert leaving the Texaf textile mill. African photographer on right documenting the event.
Zagourski photo of the crowd along the parade route
June 29, Albert visited the installations at Texaf and ceremonially switched on the machines in the new “salle des batteurs” which transformed Congolese cotton into thread (July 3, 2011). The Texaf Director, Joseph Rhodius, assured that notwithstanding the doubts of some, Congolese workers could produce quality output if well supported.  He promised to present the Queen the first bobbin of thread and first piece of fabric, expected to be produced by December. Texaf was the first major industry in the city, going beyond its primary role as a transportation nexus and administrative center.  In 1928, as well, the colony ceded the port installations at Leopoldville to a private company, the Chantier Naval et Industriel du Congo (Chanic), which Albert also visited.
Leaving the Texaf building.
Texaf in 2016 - The textile mill has closed and the extensive plant is now repurposed as office space.
The King visits a barge under construction at Chanic

On Saturday, June 30, the Royal couple met with the movers and shakers of the city, beginning with the Comité Urbain, an advisory body chaired by the Commissaire de District. Responding to Commissaire Wauters’ address, the King expressed his approval of initiatives to drain the wetlands on the periphery of the city and the recent provision of piped water.  They next met with the Chamber of Commerce, many of whose members sat on the Comité Urbain. Here, the King admonished them not only to serve their constituents, but to make recommendations to Government which would contribute to the overall development of the Colony. Albert also presided over the inauguration of the new Chamber offices launched by Prince Leopold during his visit in 1925. Finally, a reception was held in their honor at the Cercle de Leopoldville, known informally as the “Cercle des Nobles” for its exclusive character.
Stopping in front of the District Building on Ave Cambier. The Marche Coupole in the background
Leaving the Chamber of Commerce
At the Cercle de Leopoldville
Today the Cercle building is occupied by the Traffic Police.  The back of the original building faces Blvd. 30 Juin.
Sunday morning, a brief Te Deum mass was held at Ste. Anne prior to departing for the new administrative district of Kalinato inaugurate the monument to Leopold II, Albert’s father. The site on Kalina Point formed the base of the fan of streets where the Governor General’s residence was to be built (Sept. 12, 2011).  Although an architectural competition was held for the Residence in 1928, it was never built due to Depression era budget cuts (Jan. 17, 2012). The equestrian statue of Leopold was an exact copy of the Thomas Vincotte statue erected in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels in 1926,  a gift of the late sculptor’s family. Colonel Paul Ermens, the Commandant of the Force Publique and President of the monument Committee, gave a laudatory address enumerating Leopold’s vision and strategic actions to make Belgium a great world power. Commissaire Wauters in his turn assured the sovereigns that the entire population of Leopoldville, white and black, was grateful for the attention paid to their city.
Albert and Elisabeth leaving Ste. Anne.
The monument to Leopold II, looking south from Kalina Point.
Albert (foreground) and Leopold on the grounds of the National Museum, Ngaliema.
A monument to Laurent Kabila and his mausoleum now occupy the original site of the Leopold II monument.
King Albert also visited the Christian Brothers Professional School at Kintambo in Leopoldville Ouest. Meanwhile, the Queen visited the European hospital on Mont Leopold (Ngaliema) (Nov. 26, 2012) and finding it to be too narrow and uncomfortable, urged that a new high-quality facility be built to serve the growing European population.  A site was identified on a hill in Kalina and construction started on Clinique Reine Elisabeth (Clinique Ngaliema) that same year. As a result of her trip, the Fonds de la Reine Astrid pour l’assistance medicale aux indigenes (FOREAMI) was created in 1930. The King established the Institut National pour l’etude agronomique au Congo Belge (INEAC) in 1933.  Both of these royal priorities were commemorated in the Albert Monument erected in 1939.
The King at the Christian Brothers school in Kintambo.
A portion of the Albert monument depicting the work of FOREAMI at the National Museum.
Finally, on Monday July 2, the Royal visitors drove to Ndolo airport for a flight to Luebo in Kasai Province aboard Sabena’s tri-motor Handley Page “Princesse Marie José” (Apr. 27, 2013). From there, they would take the new railway line to Katanga.  After visiting the copper belt cities, they boarded a river boat at Bukama and followed the arc of the Congo River by steamer and rail north and westward to Kongolo, Kindu, Stanleyville (Kisangani) and Coquilhatville (Mbandaka) before returning to Leopoldville by air on August 12. The King and Queen stayed only briefly before continuing on to Matadi and returning to Belgium.
At Ndolo Airport

Leopoldville was a growing city of 40,000 people, of which some 37,500 were Congolese.  In addition to the recent construction of the administrative district of Kalina, piped water was supplied and Texaf planning to build a hydro-electric plant on the Inkisi River at Sanga to supply its expanding textile mill.  That and the Chanic naval yards were the basis of a growing industrial base which would attract more Congolese to the city. The old narrow-gauge railway from Matadi was in the final phase of reconstruction and the capital was connected to Belgium by air and served as a hub for a rapidly growing internal air netork. Old Leopoldville (Kintambo) remained the capital of Congo-Kasai Province, but Kalina was the administrative capital of the entire colony and adjacent Kinshasa rapidly growing into a complimentary commercial hub. All these factors, and an increasing white population would lead in the coming years to the relocation of some African neighborhoods south of Kinshasa and the creation of a neutral zone to separate the two communities (July 31, 2011).

  • Brossel, C. 1934. Le Roi Albert, chef de la colonie, Librairie Falk Fils.
  • Congo - Revue Générale de la Colonie Belge, 1928, Vol.2.
  • Fall, N’Goné, 2001. Photographies Kinshasa, Revue Noire.

No comments:

Post a Comment