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A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo

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A Dance of Assassins presents the competing histories of how Congolese Chief Lusinga and Belgian Lieutenant Storms engaged in a deadly clash while striving to establish hegemony along the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in the 1880s. While Lusinga participated in the east African slave trade, Storms’ secret mandate was to meet Henry Stanley’s eastward march and trace "a white line across the Dark Continent" to legitimize King Leopold’s audacious claim to the Congo. Confrontation was inevitable, and Lusinga lost his head. His skull became the subject of a sinister evolutionary treatise, while his ancestral figure is now considered a treasure of the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Allen F. Roberts reveals the theatricality of early colonial encounter and how it continues to influence Congolese and Belgian understandings of history today.

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1 · Invitation to a Beheading

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The colonizer constructs himself as he constructs the colony.
The relationship is intimate, an open secret
that cannot be part of official knowledge
.

—GAYATRI SPIVAK, A CRITIQUE OF POSTCOLONIAL REASON

In the mid-1970s, people living in the large village of Lubanda in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), readily recalled the name and a few of the exploits of Bwana Boma, despite his having lived there for a mere two years nearly a century before. Bwana Boma is the local sobriquet for Émile Pierre Joseph Storms (1846–1918), Belgian leader of the fourth caravan of the International African Association from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika that arrived deep in the heart of Africa in late September 1882 (fig. 1.1). The name Bwana Boma means “Mister Fortress,” and it was chosen during Storms’s days at Lubanda because of the formidable stronghold Storms constructed there in 1883.1 Storms was an assertive young man who sought to leave his mark on European conquest of the Congo. With acuity and irony, a Belgian journalist noticed Storms’s unmitigated ambition and heralded him as “Émile the First, Emperor of Tanganyika.”2

 

2 · A Conflict of Memories

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One cannot do good history, not even contemporary history, without regard for ideas, actions, and ontologies that are not and never were our own.

MARSHALL SAHLINS, HOW “NATIVES” THINK

Storms’s account of Lusinga’s demise will be left here in order to turn to Tabwa narration of the same events. Such alternative histories can move our understanding of fraught political relations beyond nineteenth-century European “idiom[s] of doubt” that would deny agency to soon-to-be-colonized Africans. To the degree possible all these years later, we need to consider what Tabwa thought and think of these same events via tropes and historiologies of their own making. “Concept[s] of agency as embedded in narrative possibility” can result, as Premesh Lalu notes of somewhat similar circumstances in nineteenth-century southern Africa. Indeed, an approach sensitive to metaphors and esoteric references embedded in narratives “may yield a story unimagined and unanticipated by the perpetrators” of proto-colonial violence like Bwana Boma.1

 

3 · Histories Made by Bodies

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We must be prepared to experience the figure, severed and whole, in its severing and its dance: to inhabit it, rigid and fleeting, violent and happy, blood and spirit, horror and promise.

—JULIA KRISTEVA, THE SEVERED HEAD

Because of the strength of Lusinga’s forces, Storms felt obliged to wait until his troops could be bolstered by those of Paul Reichard before attacking the chief’s mountain fastness in early December 1884. He then added men from local chiefs who were loyal to him so that he could deploy over a hundred warriors for the expedition. Kizumina offered a different description of Bwana Boma’s force, saying that only eight “soldiers” (askari in Swahili, presumably wangwana and rugaruga) bearing carbines were joined by twenty men mustered by Sultani Mpala, including Kizumina’s own older brother. Kizumina emphasized wiles rather than numbers, and, as we shall see, arcana and spiritual agency seem to have been very much on the old man’s mind when he stressed the men’s singing, and—especially—the dance that accompanied the foray, as important technologies of warfare.

 

4 · Tropical Gothic

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The only thing going on was a war, and no one seemed to notice but Yossarian. . . . And when Yossarian tried to remind people, they drew away from him and thought he was crazy.

—JOSEPH HELLER, CATCH 22

Early in Storms’s days at Lubanda, IAA Secretary General Strauch made it clear that he was discontent with the amount of information the lieutenant was forwarding to him and asked for more. Storms responded that he spent his days otherwise, with the implication that he had little time for such idle niceties as correspondence. From five thirty in the morning until two in the afternoon, he oversaw the construction of his boma every day, and at four he set off hunting in the hilly woods west of Lubanda. “For me, continuous work is the best remedy to ward off fever,” he explained—a nonchalant remark, perhaps, but telling nonetheless.1

A shocking number of Storms’s European peers visiting central Africa suffered mightily and many perished, and often gruesomely, from malaria, smallpox, cholera, dysentery, parasites, and other dire diseases, to say nothing of sunstroke, infected wounds, broken and unset limbs, and mental instability. Explorers felt assailed, as Stanley put it, by “Fatal Africa! One after another, travelers drop away . . . the torrid heat, the miasma exhaled from the soil, the noisome vapours enveloping every path, the giant cane-grass suffocating the wayfarer, the rabid fury of the native . . . the unspeakable misery of the life within the wild continent.” Who could hope to cope with such unspeakable rigors?2 Underlying all of these dreadful possibilities was a further sense of “fever (often capitalized in the sources), [that,] far from being regarded as just a medical condition and a reaction of the immune system to multiple causes, became essentialized as the ecstatic counterstate to ascetic hygiene.” Indeed, as Johannes Fabian asserts, “Fever was an ideology” implying “the ‘sacrifice’ every traveler must bring to the black continent” and “a myth needed to make sense of the mortal dangers of exploration, a metaphor giving meaning to what would otherwise have remained as brutal facts.” Fever was also something of “a bad love affair” that required its own “poetics,” and such passions contributed to the sense of central Africa as personifying—more literally than one may now assume—everything fearfully primordial. Such menaces might be met with “ascetic hygiene,” as Fabian suggests, but I would add that more basically at issue was an aesthetic hygiene, to be performed in any such ecstasis.3

 

5 · Storms the Headhunter

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“I do not intend to complain,” said Cincinnatus, “but wish to ask you, is there in the so-called order of so-called things of which your so-called world consists even one thing that might be considered an assurance that you will keep a promise?”

—VLADIMIR NABOKOV, INVITATION TO A BEHEADING

Among points that deserve further attention is Lusinga’s decapitation by Bwana Boma’s men. There is nothing mysterious about the taking of heads in such days of violence, and clearly Storms was not the only one to be doing so, for at least some Tabwa, Yeke, and others demonstrated similar obliviousness to restraint. Perhaps the beheading of Lusinga seemed appropriate to the lieutenant because of the history of European capital penalties, for along with other “spectacles of punishment” through which the body of the accused became a theater of truth and revenge, late nineteenth-century Belgium knew the guillotine. Once called “patriotic shortening” in France to mask “the delirium of death” in farce, the guillotine still haunts the various nations that have deployed it.1 As an aside, in the 1890s as the violent profit taking of the Congo Free State increasingly required justification through a “civilizing” mission, a standard image was a man being beheaded with a sword and his head then whipped away by a rope tied to a bent sapling—as though such a horrifically “primitive” act had nothing in common with the guillotine of the metropole. Any recognition of the sort would be deemed ludicrous, for it would run counter to the essential sense of “the ‘savage’ slot . . . that helped constitute the West as we know it.”2

 

6 · The Rise of a Colonial Macabre

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I saw him immediately as headless, as becomes him; but what
to do with this cumbersome and doubting head?

—ANDRÉ MASSON, ON ACEPHALUS

We have not yet finished with Lusinga’s head. Émile Storms’s reasons for taking it may seem as obvious to readers nowadays as they may have been to the lieutenant and those in Europe to whom he explained his efforts through his various reports and letters: Bwana Boma was simply trying to put an end to a “sanguinary potentate” and so establish peace and order for the good of all. Why not take Lusinga’s head? In so doing, Storms could match brutality with brutality and hope to establish his authority among people whom he found to be bloodthirsty, while participating in the “scientific” mission of the IAA as urged by the secretary general himself.1 After his return to Brussels, Bwana Boma would submit Lusinga’s skull to the scrutiny of metropolitan physical anthropologists, and that would be that. There was more at stake than such obvious ends, however, and furthermore, surely unbeknownst to the lieutenant, the taking of Lusinga’s head touched upon far more esoteric levels of reckoning for at least some Tabwa of his time.

 

7 · Art Évo on the Chaussée d’Ixelles

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Africa doesn’t exist. I know. I’ve been there.

—AFTER MICHEL-ROLPH TROUILLOT, SILENCING THE PAST

Storms took Lusinga with him to Europe in another way. When his men brought him the chief’s head, they also brought Bwana Boma a most remarkable wooden figure embodying Swift-of-Foot’s dynastic title and matrilineage.1 Storms carried this and other trophies back to Belgium with him, and a series of photographs taken in 1929 show the figure in the drawing room of his maison de maître (row house) at 146 Chaussée d’Ixelles in Brussels (fig. 7.1). There it stands among geometrically arrayed weapons and carefully composed displays of souvenirs from Lubanda and the other African locales visited by the lieutenant.

The discussion to follow is based upon the assumption that the salon and another room, also photographed in 1929, were still arranged as Storms knew them before his death in 1918. No documentation proves or disproves this assertion, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was common for mourning rooms to be preserved as they had been enjoyed by deceased loved ones in “an implied narrative of melancholy.”2 Indeed, a velvet rope can be seen to transect the salon in one of the pictures, as though setting portions of the room off-limits to visitors and underscoring the likelihood that the Widow Storms kept the room as her husband had last known it. That the couple had no children reinforces the possibility that the rooms were left as shared by the couple in their later years. Furthermore, one of the photos shows a desk in the corner of the drawing room. Papers are carefully arranged to one side of a blotter, and a lamp has a shade with an image of African women bearing loads on their heads. One can imagine that it was while seated here that Bwana Boma lost himself in reverie and letters, surrounded by vestiges of his brief moment of glory in the Congo.

 

8 · Lusinga’s Lasting Laughs

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“A thing itself is a person or pertains to a person” [and] this intimate conjunction of person and things . . . establishes . . . an “irrevocable link” between their donors and recipients, a link with an onerous burden which can even make a gift “dangerous to accept.”

—BRAD WEISS, “FORGETTING YOUR DEAD,” CITING MARCEL MAUSSS THE GIFT

The continuing “life” of the “Lusinga” figure as it stood on Storms’s mantelpiece raises “what if” questions: if the sculpture had remained in Lusinga’s hands—supposing, of course, that the “sanguinary potentate” had managed to hold on to his head—what might it have represented to and, more significantly, done for the chief and his people? Asking now does reverse the ordinary order of things, since locally defined efficacies and purposes obviously preceded Bwana Boma’s seizure of the figure; but if he was aware of these at all, Storms understood such capacities and practices through his own culture and as a function of his own political agenda. Here we shall engage another archaeology of knowledge based upon archival materials and exegeses from Tabwa of the 1970s. Among people then living in and around Lubanda, overt use of sculpture had long been curtailed because of intense pressure from Catholic missionaries. Material manifestations of spirit and agency remained important nonetheless, however clandestine the praxis was compared to overt ways that sculpture was used in the days of Swift-of-Foot and Bwana Boma.

 

9 · Composing Decomposition

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Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful remembering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.

—HOMI BHABHA, THE LOCATION OF CULTURE

What funeral practices might have been undertaken had Lusinga met a natural—or at least a local—demise? While I would assert that Lusinga explicitly engaged in “culture-building” as he sought to validate his emerging authority through the commissioning of statuary and other visible and performative means, he was not doing so from whole cloth. Instead, he was adopting and adapting eastern Luba practices that were sufficiently resonant with Tabwa political culture as to be accepted locally. Such creative work included burial of chiefs.1

The archaeological record suggests how elaborate funeral rites could be for earlier peoples of the region, but archival materials concerning such matters as precolonial burial of chiefs are meager indeed, and Storms left the barest of notes that are not specific to any given chief, community, or moment in time.2 Most Tabwa with whom I worked in the 1970s knew very little of such procedures, and it is likely that a combination of secrecy, the inventive but discontinued maneuvers of ambitious individuals like Lusinga and Kansabala, and nearly a century of colonial intervention—especially by Catholic missionaries based at Mpala-Lubanda and Moba-Kirungu—mean that few details have been retained if they were ever widely known or generally practiced. Nothing resembling a “genealogy of performance” has been maintained or can be retrieved, then, and we have no glimpse of the inevitable “anxiety-inducing instability” of any given performance event when arguments about who does what and how are played out according to the particularities of local-level politics. As Victor Turner asserted, “There is no ‘authorized version’ of a given ritual” like a chief’s interment, and indeed, because of inexorably shifting social dynamics, “no performance . . . ever precisely resembles another.”3 Nor do available data permit an understanding of local variation in symbolism and broader purpose from one burial, village, chiefdom, clan, or ethnic difference to the next, to say nothing of the development of procedures across time. Surely there was variation, as one would expect among communities so loosely related to each other—if at all—as were Tabwa of the late nineteenth century. The archaeology of performance to be offered here will be a deductive quest, then, as stimulated by a most intriguing entry in the White Fathers’ Mpala Mission diary concerning the death and burial of Sultani Kansabala, Lusinga’s “mother’s brother.”

 

10 · Defiances of the Dead

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Speaking for the first time of things never seen, . . . this language
carefully hides that it says only what has already been spoken
.

—MICHEL FOUCAULT, DEATH AND THE LABYRINTH

Storms’s African souvenirs remained in his widow’s possession until the early 1930s. As Boris Wastiau comments, by then they had become “family relics, metonyms of the deceased, . . . thereby implying new ‘rituals’ of remembrance and devotion”—to Henriette Dessaint Storms and her family and friends, that is, rather than to the people who had made or used the objects and from whom the lieutenant had seized them. The ongoing “social lives” of the things seem to have left any such possibilities far behind. The general’s collections were donated to the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo in response to the efforts of Frans Cornet, head of the RMCB’s Moral, Political, and Historical Sciences Section, which was dedicated to memorializing Belgian accomplishments in the Congo. As Maarten Couttenier reports, the section was founded in 1910 to counter international criticism of atrocities of the Congo Free State. A “glowing” revisionist image featuring “the colony’s ‘intellectual and moral development’ towards ‘progress’ ” would downplay or simply ignore “negative aspects such as . . . forced labor, mutilations, rapes and murders that occurred during the economic exploitation of ‘red rubber’ and the violent military occupation.”1

 

Appendix A · Some Background on Our Protagonists

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LUSINGA LWA NG’OMBE (ca.1840–1884) and his mother’s brother Kansabala Kisuyu hailed from Buluba (Urua or Uguha in early European accounts), the generic name for lands northwest of Lubanda inhabited by eastern Luba and Luba-influenced people. Pierre Colle’s important ethnography of 1913, Les Baluba, concerns just such communities that were peripheral to Luba polities along the lakes of the Upemba Depression and the banks of the Lualaba River, as a major tributary of the mighty Congo. Indeed, the foremost figure of Colle’s account, Chief Kyombo, was of the same clan as Lusinga, and as Colle explains, Kyombo actively sought Luba material and performance arts in emulation of his powerful neighbors.1 Lusinga took similar measures, and his praise name, “Ng’ombe,” makes esoteric reference to Luba kings, tributary gifts, burial places, and ancestral spirits. At greater geographical and intellectual distance, the name resonates with social relations and cultural principles personified by Ryangombe, the hero of societies of the Great Lakes region of east-central DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda.2 Such references are consistent with the thesis of the present book, that Lusinga lwa Ng’ombe was a most ambitious actor in times of radical social change.

 

Appendix B · A Note on Illustrations

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Illustrations chosen for this book have been selected from the very few that portray the persons, events, relationships, objects, and places that are its subjects. Not a single depiction of Lusinga has been discovered other than the sculpture embodying his matrilineage that was seized by Storms’s men and is now to be found at the Tervuren museum, as discussed at length in chapter 9. The only sense we have of what the man may have looked like is derived from the two or three descriptive adjectives in visitors’ accounts, and these were far from precise—or charitable. Portraits of particular central Africans are nearly nonexistent in explorers’ texts or popular magazines of the time, in part because of the long poses still necessary and other practical aspects of the day’s photographic technologies, but also because political purposes of illustration were first and foremost to contribute to proto-colonial ideology by depicting “natives” in very particular ways. That these pictures are cultural constructions of their day may seem self-evident, yet the paucity of scholarly attention to visual materials of the sort prompts this appendix.13

 

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