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Robert E. Smith
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How many tours de force can one author write? Jan Vansina is pushing the record book. His festschrift at his 65th birthday way back in 1994 had eight pages just listing his publications in one or two lines of small print each, including books that were pathbreaking both in content and methodology: KINGDOMS OF THE SAVANNA, THE TIO KINGDOM OF THE MIDDLE CONGO, THE CHILDREN OF WOOT, and PATHS IN THE RAINFORESTS. Now comes BEING COLONIZED, with its Kuba perspective on Kuba history during the colonial period, based on a long and intimate knowledge of the subject. Vansina was trained in both history and anthropology, and began his career among the Kuba in 1953 for almost two years, and has maintained an interest in and research about them ever since. The book is not littered with footnotes and there is no bibliography, since most of the information is from the Vansina files deposited in the University of Wisconsin library where he taught for many years before retirement. His intended audience, he states, is undergraduate students and the general public, not fellow academics. There are many very helpful maps, and many of the photographs are his own. There are three or four suggestions for further reading after each chapter. Here and there are inserts giving in-depth studies of some topic related to the text, or quotations from a primary source. The book's focus is "on a block of people that formed and still form its central core. That block includes the whole of the Bushong chiefdom in the middle of the kingdom including the royal capital as well as the Kete villages on its southern and eastern fringes." (6)
His first chapter gives an introduction to the creation of the Congo Independent State (CIS), while the second describes the functioning of the traditional Kuba kingship and society, a topic about which he has written a earlier book. He emphasizes the social contract between the king and the people. Also presented are perspectives by the first foreigners to encounter the Kuba people.
In chapter 3 the early years of the Congo Independent State are examined. At first there was a period of free trade before 1902 when competition forced the price of rubber up. But when the Compagnie du Kasai (CK) was set up with a monopoly in 1902, things changed, and the oppression and exploitation so well know now began. The colonial conquest was "bloody and lengthy". In one attack, 400 died. The newly arrived Presbyterian missionary Sheppard, an African American, reported on some of the atrocities. The capital of the kingdom, Nsheng, was conquered. The famed ethnographers Frobenius and Torday visited in 1905 and 1908 respectively. It was in part their high praise of Kuba culture, especially art, that contributed to the support of an audience in Belgium, a support that impacted the "Indirect Rule" analyzed below.
Chapter 4 describes the oppressive rule of the CK. And it was rule, as the administration and exploitation of the region was handed over by the government to the company. Without competition, the price of rubber sold by the Congolese fell, and many atrocities were committed as agents of the CK pressured the people to produce. Sheppard reported some horrific events, and news started getting out to the outside world. Morel developed his movement to fight the system, and gradually an end was brought to the Congo Independent State, and the Congo was taken from King Leopold II and handed over to the Belgian government in 1908, becoming the Belgian Congo. Some improvements in the situation of the Kuba followed.
Chapter 5 is a lengthy analysis of the current debate on (l) how many died during the atrocities of the CIS, and (2) what caused those deaths. One is surprised to learn that Hochschild was not the first, in his KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST, to propose that the population of Congo had been reduced by half since colonial occupation. He was preceded by a report to the government by the Permanent Committee for the Protection of the Natives in 1920.
Chapter 6 is an historical overview the 50 years of rule as Belgian Congo, stating that the most important event was the building of the railroad across Kuba territory between 1923 and 1928. It covers the Great Depression of the 30s, the demands for cash crops and labor, the impact of World War II, and the post-war period "welfare state" with it's Ten Year Plan and also the development of the "paysannat" system that was so greatly resented, and instrumental in the development of rural radicalism. Christian proselytizing proceeded apace, with the Luba and Lulua peoples joining the Catholic and Presbyterian faiths in large numbers, while most Kuba kept to their traditional religion. Independence came in 1960.
Following these chronologically focussed chapters come five thematic ones. Chapter 7 analyzes the way in which the Belgians organized their rule in Kuba territory. "In theory the rulers of Belgian Congo preferred indirect rule, but in practice they found nearly all the larger kingdoms in Congo in ruins, or they destroyed them during their conquest, so that they actually recognized only chiefs over small chiefdoms whom they named and deposed at will. Hence their indirect rule often came very close to direct rule. By its very size, however, the Kuba kingdom was one of the rare exceptions to this situation." (178) Vansina points out the positive policies of the kings, and describes the ways in which the kings were involved in the many interactions between colonized and colonizer. In some cases, the administration supported the king when his subjects rebelled. The power of the king grew relative to his traditional council during this period. The author points out that the colonial budget included nothing for health and education. In any case, the king was at the summit of his reputation at the time of Independence.
Chapter 8 describes village life, which the author indicates is similar to that of most other parts of Congo. During World War I an invidious law was passed in 1917 that persisted throughout the colonial period and after, a law of compulsory cultivation of certain crops, especially palm products, plus cotton from the 30's until 1942. Later after WW II the "paysannat" system was initiated, with hated agronomists coming into the villages to impose a new system of farming. There was the repression of cultural habits, and forced recruitment of men to serve in the colonial army. Vansina felt that the relatively high status of women in Kuba society declined during colonial rule. And Christian marriages were in general avoided by the Kuba since the Catholic rule against divorce was not traditional and not appreciated.
He closes the chapter with these words that speak directly to current debates on the impact of colonial rule in Africa: "The colonial government called the results of all the economic pressure it piled on the villages development rather than exploitation. However, development still meant very little even in terms of rising standards of living. By the end of the colonial rule practically no Kuba village was better off than when that era began. Quite the contrary! Villagers lived in smaller, more rickety houses and ate less diverse, less nutritious foods. The cloth, the tools, and the utensils they bought were nearly always of poorer quality than previous ones and wore out more quickly. They had lost most of their freedom, as they were always at the beck and call of government agents, as well as that of the king. Surely, had they known the word, the villagers would not have called this development but rather the contrary: underdevelopment"(242).
Chapter 9 examines religious movements during this colonial period. Misfortunes happen in societies, including Kuba society. Venereal disease was particularly vicious after the coming of colonial rule. This caused a decline of the birth rate. Traditional explanations attributed the variousd misfortunes to people of bad intent, witches, and there were several religious movements to bring change to bad situations: Tongatonga and Nkwiiy early on, Lakosh in 1924, Miko MiYool in 1950, Nzambi wa Malembe, etc. The administration worked in general against these movements, arresting and exiling leaders, causing the movements to go underground. Contrary to some historians, Vansina states that these were not proto-nationalist movements. He points out that in the new millennium this type of movement has been taken over by Pentecostals.
Chapter 10 portrays the mission effort in Kuba territory. The Presbyterians of the APCM were first. Here though is one of the rare errors in the book: the C of APCM stands for Congo and not Christian (272). Then came the Roman Catholic Scheutists. Both groups were very successful among the neighboring Luba and Lulua people, but had few converts among the Kuba, who maintained a staunch reliance on traditional ways, including religion. There is a fine section showing similarities and differences between traditional Kuba religion and Christianity. Schools were an important aspect of these evangelizing efforts. Presbyterian readers will appreciate the brief mention of pioneers named Coppedge (138) and Washburn (143, 189).
Chap. 11 examines changes in life style among the Kuba, and then the march toward independence. (Another small error on p. 299: Luebo is not on the Sankuru River, but perhaps this is just a punctuation typo.) "Modernity" such as Western style clothing came only slowly among the Kuba, in contrast to neighboring Luba and Lulua. A 1952 breakthrough is described. The economy was booming in the Congo 1950-1957, after which things went badly. The Lulua-Luba war broke out, and a rash of poison ordeals caused to king to step in and force an end, which gave him considerable prestige by the time independence arrived in 1960.
The concluding chapter reflects on the influence of colonialism on ethnic identity, the king's ability to further the interests of his Kuba villagers, and the decline of women's status during the period. In 1985 a Bushong sociologist, Lobo, interviewed Kuba elders, and discovered that they praised the situation during colonial rule, contrasting it to the bad times they were currently living. Vansina states that living standards did indeed fall after independence, a key cause being the degradation of the road system, since the villagers could no longer be coerced into maintaining them. This is related, he points out, to the crucial flaw in the colonial regime--it's reliance on coercion. He also criticizes current analyses of the Congo situation: "the crass ignorance of the cliché that reduces the colonial period to a time of unspeakable atrocities under Leopold II followed by a breakdown into utter chaos at independence, which then somehow leads to and explains the failed state of the country today"(331)
In spite of his age, Vansina continues his youthful liberalism. He points out that the state was in "cahoots" with the Compagnie de Kasai in 1903 (91), "the colonial reaction to the Tongatonga insurrection thus dramatically demonstrated to any Kuba who might have doubted this that ultimately all foreigners from overseas were colonialists and stuck together, whatever their labels as traders, missionaries, state agents, or military officers might be (96), "so much for the supposed [medical] benefits of civilization" (138), calling a Belgian agent a "misogynist" for his attitude toward Kuba gender relationships (238), pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that Catholic schools were "so-called national missions" while Protestant schools were not (288). Concerning style, may I say to readers of previous books by the author that the English of this man from Belgium is less compacted, but truly clear and flowing.
Vansina closes his book with this sentence: "But even if this book just manages to capture the imagination and the interest of most of its readers and thereby raises greater understanding, awareness, and perhaps sympathy for the lives of Congolese then and now, it will not have been written nor read in vain" (331). He also states that "this book introduces its readers to the colonial period from the side of the colonized"(4). That is what makes this such a path-breaking contribution to the history of that period when foreigners from Europe ruled almost all of Africa. And he has succeeded admirably in that goal. Another tour de force from Jan Vansina!