A New Way to See the Old Congo

For the real deal on race relations in the early 20th century colonial Africa, check out Rick VanderKnyff's collection of Congo postcards.

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  • Commemorative Card

    Commemorative Card

    Leopold II, king of Belgium, held Congo Free State as a personal colony from 1885 to 1908, when he was forced to turn over control of the vast central African territory to the Belgian state after an international human rights outcry. Leopold himself never stepped foot in the Congo. History begs us to ask: Is the allegorical woman in this commemorative card extending a helping hand to the allegorical innocents, or is she reaching for the ivory? (Publisher unknown; printed 1905)

    READ Rick VanderKnyff’s piece on A New Way to See Old Congo.

  • Djabbir Village

    Djabbir Village

    Many of the earliest postcards were exotic views of “native” life, or “type” cards showing the Congolese as ethnographic specimens. Many of these images, such as this staged village scene, also appeared in periodicals and colonial publications. Collectively, such images helped to shape the outside world’s perception of the Congo region. For the most part, names of the photographers were not included on the cards. (Publisher: Nels; mailed 1907)

  • Join the Caravan

    Join the Caravan

    Another favorite topic of early postcards is industry – the colonial enterprise of creating a transportation network, raising cities, and shipping natural resources back to Europe. Much of this was achieved through forced labor. The large numbered panels in this view might have been sections of a riverboat. Because of rapids above the mouth of the Congo, steam-driven boats had to be dismantled and carried hundreds of miles by hand, before the construction of a railway in 1898. (Nels; mailed 1905)

  • Spot the African

    Spot the African

    This colonial figure photographed in this extensive kitchen garden is not alone. If you look in the center of the photo, you can see a figure crouching in the shadows, apparently staying out of sight until the photo has been snapped. (Desaix; circa 1915-1925)

  • Front and Center

    Front and Center

    Even when Europeans aren’t front and center, the presence is strongly implied – in this case, by the title of the card, the eyes facing the camera, and the crossed set of boots in one corner of the frame. This card is labeled “Palabre” (palaver); from Random House, a palaver is “a long parley, esp. one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc.”  Yes, Random House still uses “primitive.” (Nels; mailed 1907)

  • Touring Stanleyville

    Touring Stanleyville

    Body language for blacks and whites can occupy opposite ends of the spectrum when they share the frame in these early images. The white “tourists” at the falls near Stanleyville (Kisangani today) play their part to the hilt – lounging and mugging, with trousers rolled up. The two Africans, presumably less accustomed to being photographed, stand at attention. (Nels; 1915-1920)

  • Ivory Crusaders

    Ivory Crusaders

    This early card was mailed in 1900 and the image may have been taken years earlier. The first natural resource to be plundered wholesale from the Congo was ivory. Later, it was the forced collection of wild rubber that finally drew the attention of crusaders (and led to the phrase “Red Rubber,” from the title of E.D. Morel’s 1906 book on the trade). Here, after a purchase, the trader sits with his elaborate pipe; the man on the right pose elegantly (for scale?) with a tusk. (Publisher unknown; mailed 1900)

  • Mode of Transportation

    Mode of Transportation

    One almost has to assume that the title of this government-issued card is meant to be ironic. If this huge, over-laden cart was an example of the “primary means of transport” (in a colony where most freight moved by river transport), nothing would have gotten anywhere. In retrospect, the two tensely circling overseers (one with something that appears to be a whip) make the card much more sinister than comic. (Government postal card, issued 1912)

  • Who's the Boss?

    Who's the Boss?

    In posed group portraits such as this, the European figure often takes the center power position. There is little question of who is giving the orders in this group of farmers. Today’s capital city of Kinshasa was known as Leopoldville during colonial times; Kinshasa (sometimes spelled “Kinchasa” or “Kinchassa”) was a village near the main city. (Publisher unknown; circa 1900-1905)

  • At Camp

    At Camp

    This image echoes the previous arrangement, this time with a white-clad officer at center, flanked by members of the red-fezzed Force Publique. Many early cards were hand-tinted. (Cliché W.K.; circa 1915-1925)

  • Working in the Big House

    Working in the Big House

    Africans were not only laborers; they also served as domestic help, as in this luxurious home. (Desaix; 1910-1920)

  • Fore!


    I have been told that this 1922 card is one of the first picture postcards to depict the game of golf. It would follow, then, that it’s also one of the first (if not the first) to depict a black caddy. (Government postal card; issued 1922)

  • Working Hard, Hardly Working

    Working Hard, Hardly Working

    This is a stereotypical image of the white explorer or official carried in a hammock by black servants. The subject seems – possibly – self-consciously aware of the scene’s ridiculousness. Robert Visser, a German trader in the Congo region for 22 years, was one of the only photographers of the period to identify himself on postcards of his self-published images. (R. Visser; 1900-1905)

  • Burying a Friend

    Burying a Friend

    This time (in an admittedly cheap juxtaposition with the previous image) two Congolese carry the body of a fellow worker to burial. There is no indication of how this individual lost his life, but it is known that thousands of Africans died in the construction of the Matadi-Leopoldville railroad, for instance. In all, millions died during the years of the Congo Free State, falling victim to outright killing as well as disease and starvation following dislocation. (Nels; mailed 1911)

  • A Glimpse of an Exotic World

    A Glimpse of an Exotic World

    When I look at the images today, it is often the whites who seem exotic and alien in this landscape. The men in the right of this photo (members of the White Fathers, a Catholic missionary organization), look particularly otherworldly, especially with the card’s blue tint.  (Publisher unknown; 1915-1925)

  • A School in Demba

    A School in Demba

    Amateur photographers and problems with exposure often account for striking images, as in this shadow-like student before the blackboard and watched by his teacher. Missionary schools did offer at least an early education in the colony. (Nels; 1910-1920)

  • Class Act

    Class Act

    This time, it is the white-clad sister (at the right of the image) who almost fades entirely into the wall. (Nels; circa 1915-1925)

  • Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

    Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

    Nuns, with their white habits and pale skin, provided a real challenge when photographed with blacks to both photographers and mass-printing processes. Often, as in this photo, they are almost ghostly presences. Often in cards, facial and other features were added in by hand. (Nels; 1915-1925)

  • Sister Act

    Sister Act

    Forgive the slight obsession with nun photos. Aesthetically, I like their apartness, even in a crowd. (Nels; 1915-1925)

  • Music of the Kafubu School

    Music of the Kafubu School

    Europeans brought military-style brass bands to the Congo. I’ve wondered if a line can be traced from here to the great horn players in the first flowering of Congolese popular music in the 1940s and especially 1950s. (S.A.M.; circa 1915-1925)

  • Traveling With a Posse

    Traveling With a Posse

    This tremendous pirogue (hewn by hand from a single tree trunk) carries a full band in addition to the rest of the official retinue. Colonial officials often represented huge territories, and the only practical way to get around (before roads were built) was by water. (Nels; mailed 1913)

  • Mission Benedictine du Katanga (Nels; 1910-1920)

    Mission Benedictine du Katanga (Nels; 1910-1920)

    I close with an image that puts the humanity of the subject front and center. Some recommended reading: Christaud Geary’s “In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960” is a comprehensive survey of postcards and other popular images.  “King Leopold’s Ghost” is an excellent popular overview of the Congo’s colonial history, and a great single source of historical material on the Congo Free State is the Norton critical edition of “Heart of Darkness.”