The Rulers of Belgian Africa, 1884-1914

The Rulers of Belgian Africa, 1884-1914

by Lewis H. Gann


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In this comprehensive picture of Belgian colonialism in the Congo, Lewis Gann and Peter Duignan trace the formation of the colonial state that became Zaire, considering it in the light of colonial experience in other African territories. Whereas most studies have focused on the conquest and subjugation of the African population, this study probes the colonial apparatus itself, investigating the attitudes and behavior of the civil servants and soldiers who built the empire.

Originally published in 1979.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691631813
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1779
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Rulers of Belgian Africa 1884â"1914

By L. H. Gann, Peter Duignan


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05277-9



When Leopold II acceded to the throne of Belgium in 1865 as the second king since Belgian independence in 1831, he became sovereign of what still seemed a somewhat precarious state. His little kingdom barely exceeded five million inhabitants. It was flanked by two powerful neighbors, Prussia and France. Its continued neutrality, though guaranteed by treaties, appeared far from secure. To make matters worse, Belgium was divided by language and class: the ethnic cleavage ran between French-speaking Walloons and Gallicized Flemings on the one hand and Flemish people on the other.

The Flemish-speaking parts of the country — East and West Flanders, part of Brabant, Antwerp, and Limbourg — depended mainly on agriculture. The natural fertility of the Flemish provinces, other than Limbourg, often left much to be desired; unremitting toil and great agricultural skill were required to provide Belgium with its crops of barley, oats, beetroot, and potatoes. By and large, the Flemish portions suffered the greatest poverty; conditions in the countryside at times resembled those of Ireland, and the Flemings made up a large proportion of the country's unskilled workers. The southern provinces (often referred to as Wallonia) — Namur, Liège, Hainaut, and Luxembourg — were French-speaking. Discoveries of extensive coal deposits during the nineteenth century gave Wallonia a commanding lead in the country's industrialization. The Walloons comprised within their ranks a large portion of Belgium's middle and upper middle classes, and they supplied most of the senior civil servants and army officers, and a large segment of the skilled workers and miners.

Modern Belgium was shaped by the French Revolution. Two decades of French occupation (lasting until 1814) profoundly modified the old local and seignorial loyalties that had characterized the ancient regime in the Austrian Netherlands and the bishopric of Liège. The new rulers spoke French, looked to Paris, and believed in the supremacy of the secular state. Their culture overlaid the older Catholic, Flemish, and localist traditions without destroying them. Between 1815 and 1830 Belgium formed part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1830 it broke away from this union, and its French-speaking bourgeoisie set up an independent kingdom shaped in their own image. French was the language of the court, of polite conversation, of big business, scholarship, and government. Most French speakers were ignorant of Flemish. They usually had little notion of the brilliant literary revival that enriched Flemish during the 1800s, and they despised the language as a patois fit only for carters and housemaids. The French-speaking component was strengthened by ambitious Flemings anxious to make their way into the higher ranks of the army and administration by adopting the French tongue, thereby confirming French in its predominance.

Belgium's linguistic division had religious as well as social overtones. The Flemings were mostly Catholics; the Walloons, especially those in the larger towns, counted many anticlericals among their number. The vast majority of Flemings looked for guidance to the Church, the most powerful institution in the Flemish countryside, a great cultural as well as a religious, organization, and an important avenue for mobility and status for peasant sons from Flanders. Most French-speaking Walloons, on the other hand, would not learn Flemish, and Church influence among the French-speaking bourgeoisie was paralleled by a massive Masonic network in Wallonia.

The ethnic division between Flemings and Walloons was, admittedly, not nearly as severe in the late nineteenth century as it was to become in the middle of the twentieth. The main cleavage ran between Catholics and Liberals. Belgium, nevertheless, remained a divided country.

Social Structure and Economy

The highest place in Belgian society was occupied by the nobility and the haute bourgeoisie. The nobility consisted primarily of French speakers who used Flemish only to converse with their servants and tenants. The more recently created Belgian noblemen, unlike their confrères in France and Germany, were not distinguished from the rest of the population by the particule, by a von or de; they did not necessarily hold titles, but took their position from descent and social acceptance by their peers. As in Britain, the aristocracy of Belgium was open to new blood by marriage, by promotion to high civil or military office, and by financial success. Freethinking merchants and atheist professors had no wish to mingle with the aristocracy, but many a rich banker or manufacturer — especially if he were a Catholic — sought acceptance by the aristocracy, elevation to the baronage, and eventual listing in High Life in Belgium, the indispensable register of social success.

Although in economic as in political terms the Belgian aristocracy was not comparable to the British, the Belgian nobility was far from negligible. The aristocracy had a stake in the land. In Flanders especially, men of distinguished birth owned considerable estates, which they usually leased to tenant farmers. During the nineteenth century they began to invest the proceeds from their agricultural enterprises in industry, and names of noble lineage increasingly appeared on the boards of banks and great companies. Aristocrats held many commissions in the cavalry and the dragoon regiments of the army; the nobility were also well represented in the magistracy. They did not dominate the armed forces or the administration as a whole, however, and the bulk of Belgian land was held by small proprietors, not by noblemen. The social power of the nobility thus was incomparably weaker in Belgium than it was, say, in Mecklenburg or West Prussia.

By far the most powerful social group in nineteenth-century Belgium was the middle class, especially the French-speaking segment that had led the revolution against Holland in 1830 and had played the main part in creating modern Belgium. The rise of the bourgeoisie was impeded neither by historical tradition nor by an all-powerful aristocracy. Moreover, these men used Belgium's advantages of an excellent communications system, a productive agriculture, and great coal reserves. Industrial skills were widespread, labor was cheap, and technical education was excellent. In 1861 free trade triumphed as a principle of political economy, and Belgian wealth advanced dramatically.

The class of businessmen who built the new economy consisted largely of "new men," hard-fisted entrepreneurs accustomed to dealing harshly with established workmen and more harshly still with migrant laborers; unlike their British confreres, they were ready to use the military against strikers. It was they who built the new Belgium, the Belgium of steel mills and coal mines, a country hard and bracing — utterly different from the old Pays Bas, with its economy based on textiles and consumer goods, its transport system centered on canals, and its cities beautiful but staid like Ghent. The new industrial pioneers rarely derived from the ranks of the landed aristocracy or the traditional urban patriciate; they were apt to come from humble homes where men made few demands on life. The new captains of industry held a reputation for frugality and single-minded dedication to their enterprises; they allowed themselves few luxuries other than an occasional party given in honor of their relatives or an occasional trip to Ostende or Paris.

The typical manufacturer was a self-made man, American style, who had come up from humble circumstances. He might make his way to success by going directly into business or by working through institutions of higher learning. Belgium had an excellent system of industrial training, and at the universities of Louvain and Brussels able students were granted free instruction. The "new man" might begin the climb to the top in the army, also a ladder for upward mobility. There were, of course, exceptions. The great capitalists included men like Maurice Despret, whose father was a director of the Société générate. Young Maurice was well connected, but the commercial ethos of his class did not permit him to join his father's establishment; he had to look for a job in another bank before working his way up to the presidency of the Banque de Bruxelles.

More typical are the life stories of such industrial pioneers as Baron Evence Coppée (1851-1925), a mining engineer who became a coal magnate; Jean Jadot (1862-1932), a railway engineer and later one of Belgium's great financiers; Baron Edouard Empain (1852-1929), the son of a village schoolmaster, a draftsman in his early career, and subsequently a major railway entrepreneur and adviser to Leopold II; Adrien Hallet (1867-1925), an agronomist, later a plantation lord; and Ernest Solvay (1838-1922), a bookkeeper who founded a great fortune on the manufacture of soda. For these people life was hard — so hard that some of them began their careers by joining the army before going into business. Magnates with a military background included Emile Francqui (1863-1935), the son of a poverty-stricken attorney, and Albert Thys (1849-1915), a great railway builder who began his career at the age of seventeen by enlisting in the armed forces.

In 1912 Belgium was the world's most highly populated country, with 252 people per square kilometer, compared with 144 in Great Britain, 120 in Germany, and 73 in France. Thus Belgian agriculture, sustained by growing internal markets and by the excellent system of internal communication, was one of the most productive in Europe. Belgian farmers, who made up only 23 percent of the population and were mostly medium- and small-scale producers, enabled their countrymen to eat reasonably well by dint of the tillers' hard work and a highly intensive system of cultivation. They were famed for the production of potatoes, beetroot, and vegetables, for the excellence of their dairy products and beef, and for their extensive use of fertilizers and agricultural machinery. (In 1914 their crops covered 17,363,174 hectares; 521,495 hectares were forest land, and only 190,444 were uncultivated or fallow. The rest of Belgium consisted of built-up areas, marshland, mining reserves, and so forth.)

The condition of the rural population varied enormously. The French-speaking farmers in regions such as Luxembourg province were usually better educated than their Flemish-speaking counterparts; many Walloons went into the administration, in which French speakers held a dominant stake. The Flemish peasantry included a great number of small landholders or men with no landholdings at all, who subsisted on potatoes and other cheap food. They formed a pool of ill-remunerated labor in both the cities and the countryside. Flemish laborers, organized in gangs under their own gang bosses, traveled as far afield as France and western Germany to harvest crops and to perform other forms of heavy manual labor. Politically conservative, they were strongly influenced by the Church, while their educated sons commonly opted for the French-speaking milieu of Brussels or took up the cause of socialism.

The Belgian working class also lived under widely varied conditions, and generalizations are hard to make. The three decades preceding World War I saw a considerable rise in wages. Between 1880 and 1913, for example, the wages of miners rose from 920 to 1,580 francs, and the average income per person increased from 510 to 850 francs between 1895 and 1913. The cost of living was low; yet, overall, the Belgian working class was one of the most impoverished in Western Europe. In 1903 an unskilled worker in the Ardennes, an ill-favored region, earned no more than a franc a day, compared with the five francs earned by a miner. The laboring poor in Belgium were also among the least educated in Western Europe; in 1882, 42.25 percent of the population was unable to read and write, and by 1910 the illiteracy rate still stood at 37.63 percent. Luxembourg had the best system of education, followed by Namur, Liège, and Brabant, with the Flemish provinces far behind. Free and obligatory primary education was not introduced until 1914 — more than forty years after the British Elementary Education Act of 1870. The Belgian working class also lagged in a political sense: whereas most male workers in Great Britain were enfranchised between 1867 and 1884, it was 1919 before Belgium adopted universal male suffrage on the principle "one man — one vote." (Universal suffrage had been established in 1893, but it was tempered by a system of plural voting that gave more than one vote to electors fulfilling certain conditions regarding income, education, and family. Reform of the system was extended in 1899 by the grant of proportional representation. In 1919 manhood suffrage was accepted "pure and simple," the voting age was lowered to twenty-one, and certain categories of women were given the vote.)

Belgian economic achievement, however, was extraordinary. By the end of the nineteenth century the kingdom had become one of the most advanced countries in the world. Belgium built the first railway network on the European continent. Railway construction in turn stimulated such industries as coal mining, iron working, and engineering. Belgian prosperity rested on steam power; between 1846 and 1900 the consumption of steam power rose from 40,000 to 430,000 horsepower. An elaborate banking system and one of the world's most efficient transport networks firmly bolstered the nation's economy, and until the end of World War I Belgian industry benefited from low labor costs. Belgian wages rose slightly during the 1860s, but declined during the severe depression that struck at European prosperity between 1873 and 1896; wages returned to the level of the 1860s only in 1898, beginning a period of general economic recovery that continued until World War I.

Belgian foreign trade, which had nearly trebled between 1860 and 1880, stagnated during the depression (see Table 1). Once the economy recovered, however, Belgium emerged as a major commercial and industrial power. By the end of the century it had developed great metallurgical industries, and was an important producer of iron, steel, textiles, chemicals, and machinery, especially steam engines, cable cars, railroad material, and the like. The Belgian transport system was more closely meshed than any other in the world. The population of the little kingdom had risen from 5 million in 1865 to 7.5 million by 1909. National wealth had grown at a still faster rate during the same period — from an estimated 11 billion gold francs to 51 billion. Belgium had become one of the most highly urbanized countries in Europe, was one of the world's great trading nations, and was exporting some one-third of its total production — a higher proportion even than that of Great Britain. Most of this commerce centered on Western Europe. In 1895, for instance, Belgian exports to the main Western European countries amounted to more than 1,100 million francs out of total exports valued at just under 1,400 million. Belgian industrialists had also begun to make their mark on many other parts of the world — Russia, the United States, and the Argentine — as builders of railways, cable cars, and ironworks.

These industries owed an enormous debt to family firms begun by small entrepreneurs. During the latter part of the century, however, family firms in Belgium (as elsewhere) increasingly gave way to powerful corporations. One of the pioneers in this process was Baron Empain, Leopold's principal business adviser. He played an important part in developing the general investment company, that is, a single trust endowed with holdings in many different companies, each of which, in turn, might use the parent trust as a savings bank and as a source of expert advice. Empain also specialized in the concession business and in the provision of public services. He controlled an international cable-car and railway empire, his most famous achievement being the Paris Metro. His railways operated as far afield as Russia, Spain, and China; his tramcars rattled up and down the streets of cities as near as Boulogne and as distant as Cairo and Astrakhan. An enterprise typical of such great financial powers was Sofina (Société financière de transports et d'entreprises industrielles), founded in 1898, one of the world's largest companies in the field of financing and managing hydroelectrical and transport undertakings. Sofina, in turn, controlled numerous subsidiaries abroad, such as Gesfürtel (Gesellschaft für elektrische Unternehmungen) in Germany.


Excerpted from The Rulers of Belgian Africa 1884â"1914 by L. H. Gann, Peter Duignan. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. v
  • Figures, pg. vii
  • Tables, pg. ix
  • PREFACE, pg. xi
  • Abbreviations, pg. xv
  • FIVE. THE REPRISE, pg. 141
  • SEVEN. CONCLUSION, pg. 214
  • NOTES, pg. 223
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 237
  • INDEX, pg. 255

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