Review of Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-Empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism by Matthew G. Stanard University of Nebraska Press

Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-Empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism. Matthew G. Stanard. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780803237773

This essay is a part of our new series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal

In 1998, Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, brought to the public’s attention the forced labor imposed by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908 that led to the mass murder of approximately 10 million Congolese. How could a crime the scale of which rivals the Holocaust have been forgotten, Hochschild asked? Matthew G. Stanard, Associate Professor at Berry College, provides one explanation for this “great forgetting.” Drawing from extensive archival research in Belgium he argues that state-directed propaganda supported by the business community, missionaries, and colonial veterans, rewrote the history of Leopold’s legacy in order to sell the colonial mission at home and abroad.

As Stanard describes in chapter one, Leopold portrayed himself as a humanitarian colonizer who had brought the light of Western civilization to an otherwise dark continent filled with backwards people. Upon Leopold’s relinquishing control of the Congo to the Belgian state in 1908, Belgium appropriated Leopold’s image and superimposed it upon the current colonial mission. The remaining chapters chronicle this process, examining how the state justified the continuance of colonial rule by using this imagery in different forms of propaganda—expositions (chapter two), museums (chapter three), education (chapter four), memorials (chapter five), and films (chapter six).

Each of these chapters generally adheres to the same structure. Stanard notes the variety, volume, and popularity of each type of propaganda being examined, indicating the propaganda’s scale and reach, if not the measure of its effectiveness. Drawing on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, and to a lesser extent, gender analysis, he also provides a cultural analysis of the propaganda. For example, Stanard often notes how Belgian imperial propaganda depicted the Congolese as primitive savages in need of paternal care. Lastly, Stanard discusses how the state regulated and coordinated (usually through the Ministry of Colonies) the production of pro-empire propaganda.

Thus, the body of the work begins with chapter two, which explores the colonial expositions at world’s fairs hosted by Belgium, the smaller more numerous local colonial exhibits, and the quinzaines coloniales (“colonial fortnights,” which sought to develop business interests in the Congo by taking Belgians on a two-week trip there). Readers will likely find most interesting Stanard’s description of the Congo exhibit at the 1958 World’s Fair, the “Congorama,” which he refers to as the “apotheosis” of Belgian imperial propaganda. A portion of the exhibit included putting Congolese on display in a primitive village, a practice initiated at the 1897 World’s Fair Congo exhibit. Stanard is keen to note that while Belgian perceptions of the Congolese changed little between those two fairs, depictions of Leopold did. In 1897 Leopold had been relatively unpopular, but by 1958 he was presented as a hero, his bust standing at the entrance of the exhibit, its caption reading: “I undertook the work of the Congo in the interest of civilization.”

In chapter three Stanard reveals how museums made permanent the temporary messages delivered at expositions. Most notable is Stanard’s examination of the Musée du Congo Belge in Tervuren, the largest, oldest, and most visited colonial museum in the country. By examining the administrative records of the museum, Stanard is able to conclude that its mission was to dress up imperial propaganda in nationalistic and scientific terms. For example, the memorial rooms excluded almost all foreigners, including the Welsh-American Henry Morton Stanley who explored the Congo for Leopold, and displays of natural history were designed to exhibit Belgian scientific superiority, imposing a Eurocentric order on specimens through their dissection and classification (a more subtle way to demean and dominate the Congolese than the explicit pseudo-scientific racism that could also be found in the museum).

Stanard introduces the process of how the state delivered imperial propaganda to school-age children through the use of museums, but instilling an imperial spirit by means of education is the aim of chapter four. By examining textbooks, curriculum, and most interestingly, the state-directed program called the Commission Coloniale Scolaire, which brought colonial veterans into the classroom, Stanard argues that children were made to feel proud of empire because of the ostensibly exceptional nature of Belgium’s altruistic and reluctant rule of the Congo.

In chapter five Stanard examines colonial monuments and memorials. He argues that they have helped to create an imperialist tradition in the country by depicting images of Belgian heroism and the civilizing mission. He does a good job deriving his analysis from the monuments themselves, like that of the famous Colonial Monument (1921) by Thomas Vin?otte which illustrates King Leopold and his soldiers combating the Arab slave trade and bringing civilization to the African continent. Lending credence to the book’s thesis, Stanard also notes that Leopold is the most commonly portrayed Belgian hero in the memorials. Just as interesting in this chapter is his discussion of the memorials as sites of remembrance and storytelling, particularly during the inaugurations and reunions held there by colonial veterans and others seeking to keep the devotion to empire alive.

Stanard’s examination of the moving images of film in chapter six nicely juxtaposes his examination of the still images of monuments and memorials examined in chapter five. As Stanard discusses, there were hundreds of movies dealing with the Congo. Most of them can be divided into one of three categories: 1) films produced by missionaries to educate the Congolese; 2) films produced by the state and sometimes private interests in order to persuade Belgian audiences that the Congolese were grateful for Belgian colonialism; 3) films produced by the state to persuade Western allies that Belgian imperialism was both benign and necessary.

Stanard wisely avoids trying to measure how effective this propaganda was at generating public support for empire, a difficult task to achieve for contemporaries, much less historians. He does, however, compellingly argue that the ordinary Belgians who visited museums, attended inaugurations at memorials, watched pro-empire films, and otherwise consumed such propaganda comprised an important fourth pillar along with the state, church, and capital that supported the imperial mission. This important observation challenges the long-standing consensus that Belgians were reluctant imperialists. It also supports his argument that empire served to unite the nation. Similar to Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992), Stanard argues that the colonial mission served to unite the people in the metropole. Since the creation of its modern state in the early-nineteenth century, Belgium has been divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. As Stanard emphasizes, the nationalization of pro-empire propaganda helped unify the nation by making empire something that could be celebrated by all citizens, not as Flemish or Walloons, but as Belgicains.

There is little to quibble with in this book. Readers may desire more consistent translation of French phrases, particularly of the film titles in chapter six. Also, after arguing throughout the book that Belgians were pro-empire, Stanard curiously concludes by noting that few opposed independence of the colony in 1960. It would have ended more convincingly if he had drawn attention to the fact that while many Belgians wanted to avoid a conflict such as the then ongoing Algerian War, they nonetheless contested the Congo’s independence by supporting the secession of the Katanga province.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book is a must-read for those interested in Belgium, the Congo, and imperial culture. Following in the footsteps of William H. Schneider’s An Empire for the Masses: The French Popular Image of Africa, 1870-1900 (1982) and John M. MacKenzie’s Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (1988), Stanard met his primary objective of providing a history of imperial propaganda for Belgium, and offering comparative analysis with other Western empires when relevant. In doing so he reveals the contradictions and paradoxes of the civilizing mission—mainly that the colonized remain permanently backward and in need of Western rule. He has additionally set a standard for those examining imperial culture of the so-called lesser imperial powers (e.g. Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal).

Instructors teaching an advanced undergraduate course or graduate seminar on imperial culture should consider assigning this book. It would be particularly useful in a research seminar on this topic, since each chapter adequately serves as a model for a student writing a term paper or article. I would also urge those teaching twentieth-century world history to consider incorporating portions of Stanard’s narrative into their lectures. Three major tragedies have occurred in the Congo that align more or less with the beginning, middle, and end of the twentieth-century—Leopold’s mass murder of ten million Congolese; the secession of Katanga shortly after independence that led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko; and the decay and overthrow of the Mobutu regime that has contributed to five million deaths in eastern Congo since 1998 in what some scholars have called Africa’s World War. It is our job as teacher-scholars to explain how these tragedies are part of world history lest we contribute to another “great forgetting.”

Reviewed by William Mountz, University of Missouri

Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]