"L’Afrique belge", land of historical explorations

Re-examining colonial history, in particular, that of the Belgian Congo, certainly isn’t a walk in the park – far from it. There is indeed a significant risk of falling into the traps of oversimplification and categorising everything into good or bad. Things are not as simple as some journalistic lampoons would make us believe... Beware of clichés and anachronisms! Thankfully, we are reminded of this in a recent publication: “L’Afrique belge aux XIXè et XXè siècles – Nouvelles recherches et perspectives en histoire coloniale” (Belgian Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries – New research and perspectives in colonial history), published by P.I.E. Peter Lang(1). A collective work involving the participation of Catherine Lanneau, Charlotte Braillon, Dantès Singiza et Jan Vandersmissen, historians and law historians from the University of Liège.

COVER Afrique XIX XX“In the past fifteen years”, Catherine Lanneau, historian and  lecturer at the University of Liège, and secretary for the FRS-FNRS contact group “Belgique et mondes contemporains” (Belgium and contemporary worlds), immediately points out, “there has been significant renewed interest in colonial studies in Belgium”. With the emergence of a new generation of researchers – who haven’t been directly confronted with colonisation -, new avenues of research have opened up. The diversity of the subjects dealt with has increased. And researchers are looking to share their experiences far more than in the past. Hence, historical research today necessitates a close network for those devoted to it, allowing them to share views, methods, sources, research tools, etc.

While we may lament the fact that this revival is still unknown to the general public – including in the educational and cultural domain in general -, we should however note that in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the “Belgium and contemporary worlds” contact group has done a great deal over the past few years to boost research, in close collaboration with the FRS-FNRS “History and History of Art” doctoral school and other research centres. Since 2010, this contact group has been organising very successful study days and seminars on Africa, and Central Africa in particular.

“About thirty Belgian and foreign researchers, both beginners and experienced, usually attend these study days”, Catherine Lanneau explains. “They regularly contribute to a theme linked to the study of Africa. Their exchanges are particularly fruitful and involve a far more comparative historiographical and less linear viewpoint than in the past”. For instance, there is the field of the history of mentalities and colonial culture, which involves tackling subjects as diverse as colonial propaganda, ceremonies and festivities, mixed cultural approaches regarding heritage and colonial legacy, the diaspora (African in Belgium, European in Central Africa), etc.

The work in question – L’Afrique belge aux XIXè et XXè siècles – comprises a collection of the papers presented at two of these study days, one organised in May 2011 at the Université Catholique de Louvain (“La Belgique et l’Afrique. Aggiornamento historiographique”), the other in February 2012 at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (“Nouvelles études congolaises”).

As the historians Michel Dumoulin and Pierre Tilly write in the preface, “the publication of this volume marks the end of the first stage and the link to the next one. It is important that the effort is maintained beyond this initial work and that greater emphasis is placed on contacts with foreign researchers, especially Dutch-speaking researchers”. In this respect, Catherine Lanneau points out that contrary to foreign researchers, Flemish researchers “don’t exist” in the eyes of the FNRS, and therefore can’t claim any expenses for their participation in the said study days. The same is also true for French-speaking researchers vis-à-vis the FWO, the Flemish equivalent of the FNRS. “An administrative anomaly as a result of the institutional organisation of Belgium”, regrets the historian from Liège.

(1) Van Schuylenbergh P., Lanneau C., PLasman P-L. (Dir), L'Afrique belge aux XIXe et XXe siècles. Nouvelles recherches et perspectives en histoire coloniale, Coll. Outre-mers, P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2014.

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