Adventures in Africa: A very unlikely national hero

Italian explorer Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza stands out among colonialists - a man of integrity still lionised in the land he once ruled. Now his remains are to be reburied in the Congolese city that bears his name

Peter Popham
Monday 11 September 2006 00:00

When Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza was growing up in Italy in the 1850s, there was a map of Africa on the wall of his home with a large white space in the middle, indicating the vast area where no white man - merchant, missionary or cartographer - had ever set foot. Brazza's father had scrawled by the side of the white space, "This would be an interesting place to visit." Brazza was of the same opinion.

"When he was growing up he wasn't interested in learning Latin or Greek, only in geography and history and botany, all things that had to do with the environment," said Idanna Pucci, his great-niece. "He read about a mythical river called the Ogoué that ran through that white, unexplored space. Quite a few people before had attempted to go up the Ogoué, but none had succeeded and some of them never came back. And Brazza was absolutely certain he was going to meet this challenge. It was as far-fetched as someone saying, 'I'm going to cross the Indian Ocean on a windsurfer', but he did it."

In the process Brazza, the seventh son of an Italian nobleman, became a Frenchman, a famous explorer, and finally the governor of this new French possession, now called the Republic of Congo, whose capital today is still called Brazzaville. This handsome Italian with the aquiline nose and the faraway look in his dark eyes also became, incidentally, a pioneering early celebrity, perhaps the first to have his face splashed over advertisements for soap, cheese and chocolate.

But the real reason for remembering Pietro di Brazza today is a different one. It is that, in all the mad scramble to colonise Africa, Brazza stands out as the one figure who tried to do it for the right reasons, and in the right way. For several years he even succeeded.

As a result he continues to be regarded in the Congo as a national hero. Brazzaville is the only city in Africa that still bears the name of a white coloniser. And Brazza's relatives and the family of King Makoko Iloo I, the spiritual chief of the Bateké, have remained in contact ever since. "They call Brazza their white ancestor," said Ms Pucci, who visited the present King, Makoko's descendant, last year. "When we go there, they see us an incarnation of our ancestor and they treat me like a daughter."

Next month comes the crowning recognition, when the last remains of Brazza and his wife and their four children will leave the cemetery in Algiers where Brazza was buried after his sudden death from fever in 1905, and be brought to the city that bears his name, where they will be reinterred in a huge marble mausoleum. Several heads of state are expected to attend. Brazza was born in 1852 in Rome into a wealthy, artistic and enlightened family, son of a young aristocratic mother who had married her much older husband after he returned from half a lifetime tramping around in faraway places. He was also a renowned sculptor whose work is still widely displayed in Rome. When Pietro showed the same restless inclinations as his father, the family gave him every support, and continued to back him at critical moments in his career.

He went to France and joined the French navy because, as his grand-niece explained, the newly created Kingdom of Italy did not have one. "Through some family connections he managed to join the French navy though he remained an Italian citizen, which was unthinkable," she said. On his first ship he sailed to Algeria, where he was appalled to see French troops mowing down Kabyle insurgents. Next he signed up on a ship calledVenus, which brought him to Gabon, on the south-west coast of Africa and already a French colony.

"For the first time he saw this river, the Ogoué, which he had learned about in a café in Paris frequented by adventurers and where he had met a man who had tried to go up it and had failed," Ms Pucci said. "Now he asked permission to go up the river with a few companions, just to scout it, and they agreed, and he managed to get 400 kilometres [250 miles] up it."

Discovering the source of the Ogoué now became his obsession. Next year, 1875, he returned to the river with the intention of unravelling its secrets. By this time he had become a French citizen, and had prevailed on important friends to partly finance the adventure. The rest of the money was his own.

It was a formidable undertaking, partly because of the nature of the river with its huge rapids but also because the tribes that controlled it were already deeply suspicious of the white man's intentions. This time Brazza got 500 miles up the river - only 60 miles short of the source, though he wasn't to know that - but it took seven months. That was because he did it the hard way. His small team consisted of just a doctor, a naturalist and a dozen Senegalese infantrymen. "Brazza found great suspicion and huge hostility," Ms Pucci says. "He was attacked by an entire tribe at one point. Instead of shooting back, Brazza's men shot into the air and then withdrew. There were no casualties: he didn't want to be identified as someone who was armed and had come there to kill.

"It was immensely time-consuming: at one point he had to wait two months to hire porters and rowers for his boat. But waiting so long in one place, he and and his three or four friends treated the local people with respect. He was delayed so long because of suspicion and because people thought they could get something out of him. But if he hired someone he would pay a wage, which was unthinkable at the time. Then he stopped in a place where there was the largest slave market on the Ogoué river, and he said, I want to buy all the slaves. With the idea of setting them free. About 16 of the slaves agreed, and his reputation started to grow."

Brazza ran out of money and returned to Europe to seek more funds. His mother sold a family property, what is now the Banca di Roma on Rome's Via del Corso, to finance a second expedition. By the time he was back in Africa, the man who came to be seen as his dark shadow, Henry Morton Stanley, of Dr Livingstone fame, had received his commission from King Leopold II to secure the Congo for Belgium.

Brazza reached the source of the Ogoué, but something far more important happened on the way back. "He was met on the river by a messenger from King Makoko who wanted to meet him," Ms Pucci says. "So he walked to his village through the hill country of the Bateké people to the Congo river, where Makoko's village, Mimbe, is still located. The king wanted to meet this white man who did not kill, who came with a friendly attitude. Why? Because Stanley had already put his marker on Makoko's territory. So Makoko said to Brazza, I'll give you all my territory if you give me protection.

"Brazza had travelled with the French flag, not because he represented the country but because he believed in liberté, egalité, fraternité. But suddenly from being just an adventurer, Brazza found he was something else." And when he returned on a third expedition, it was with a commission from France and with instructions to secure the territory for France. With King Makoko's agreement he also established the French settlement at Ncuna, on the Congo's Malebo Pool, which became Brazzaville. In 1886, Brazza was named governor general of the French Congo.

Yet he was never corrupted by his new-found power. At a speech in Paris in the year of his appointment he said: "The indigenous people of this area certainly do not lack intelligence and are easy to deal with for whoever knows how to treat them with politeness yet firmness, benevolence without weakness, and limitless patience. If we want to impose our ways of seeing and behaving with arrogance and rigidity, we will inevitably attain a situation of conflict in which only they will suffer tremendously."

On the far side of Malebo Pool, in the Congo, that had become Leopold's private estate, that dire prediction was already coming true. The demand for rubber from the Congo brought about the so-called "rubber terror" in the colony, where those unable to fill their rubber quotas were punished by having their hands cut off, and untold millions died - about half the population by 1908, when the colony came under Belgian state control.

"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees ... in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair," wrote Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness. "They were dying slowly - it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals ... Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest." Brazza hung on in what is now Congo-Brazzaville, keeping the companies at bay, insisting on fair wages and the right of employees to complain, banning press-gangs and flogging, until the pressure from the commercial interests eating up the diamonds, gold and rubber on the far side of the Malebo Pool became unbearable. He was labelled a "free thinker" by a French bishop, derided as a "crank" and an "old woman" by businessmen desperate to get their hands on the other Congo. In 1898, the French government gave way and sacked him. Within a year the colony had been sliced up into 40 concessions. It did not take the French long to wipe out Brazza's humane influence.

"The amount of rubber-bearing land" in French Congo, writes Adam Hochschild in King Leopold's Ghost, "was far less than what Leopold controlled, but the rape was just as brutal. The population loss ... is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, as roughly 50 per cent."

Yet Congo-Brazzaville never did forget the romantic Italian who spent his entire family fortune - the equivalent today of£4m - trying to import the ideals of the French Revolution into the Heart of Darkness. At the exhibition organised by Ms Pucci that opened in Rome yesterday recounting Brazza's life and achievements, it is the voice of the Africans that is the most moving: recording their folk memories of "the man who was a real statesman ... who could have left with a bag of gold" but instead "came and gave us his hand".

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