Throughout history, Europeans have tried to grab their own little portion of Africa. Too many have succeeded through the use of violence, bribery, subjugation and the remorseless wearing of breeches. But Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, who made significant inroads into the Congo during the late 19thcentury, was different.
Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza was nice.
Born Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà in 1852, he was the middle child of thirteen offspring sprung by Count Ascanio Savorgnan di Brazzà and Giacinta Simonetti* of Italy. His family was wealthy, noble, well-connected in Europe and probably had some really nice furniture.
The young Pietro spent his rather comfortable boyhood dreaming of the sea and ships, and the faraway lands he read about in the well-thumbed but incomplete atlases lining the shelves of his library. Long before he was required to choose a vocation, he decided he wanted a naval career.
Pietro wanted for nothing – except an active navy in his local area. In order to satisfy his devotion to the ocean, he looked further afield. Family connections and plenty of coin soon secured him a place at the Ecole Navale** in Brest, France (as opposed to the other Brest, which is slightly smaller).
By the time de Brazza was 20, he’d graduated as an ensign and was on a ship headed for Gabon on a mission to thwart the slave trade (see? Nice.). Shortly after that, he became a French citizen and changed his name from Pietro Paolo Savornan di Brazza to Pierre Paul Francois Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, which by any stretch of the imagination is a ridiculous collection of names. From this point forward, I shall refer to him simply as ‘PPS de Bra’ – partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I like making people think of boobs when they should be reading about history.
Falling a little bit in love with Africa, PPS de Bra decided he wanted to follow the Ogooué River, which traverses Gabon, to its source in the country then known to Europeans as “the shady one in the middle that hasn’t been exploited yet”. He used his considerable charm and exemplary manners to convince the French government that it was an expedition worth coughing up francs for. The French met him halfway (financially, that is) and he financed the remainder from his own deep pockets.
In 1875 he was off like a frog in a sock***, and while his contemporaries might have packed a small army of assistants and a suitably xenophobic arsenal of weaponry, PPS de Bra travelled light. He was accompanied only by a doctor, a naturalist, 12 Senegalese soldiers and two or three indigenous interpreters. The ship’s hold was stacked with fabrics, glass items and tools for bartering with locals. This was not a man intent on quashing resistance with an iron fist. His negotiations were not made with the muzzle of a musket. He desired only to win people over with lengths of muslin, nice-looking vases and a face that could make angels weep.****
Indeed, PPS de Bra’s smooth talking and handsome handsomeness earned him passage deep into unexplored terrain, which in turn impressed the French government, which gave the nod to a second expedition in 1879. The French did not regret this decision. On this trip, PPS bartered and beguiled his way to the Congo River and the domain of the Bateke people. He convinced the Bateke king, Makoko, to sign a treaty allowing his lands to be a French protectorate. PPS and Makoko also established a settlement on the Congo River, which later became Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.
When PPS de Bra returned to Paris in 1882, he was a popular bloke. He gave public lectures and interviews, and even inspired a range of merchandise which included cigarettes, fountain pens and photographs. The less popular Brazza Beard Barbie was discontinued.
In 1886 he was appointed the governor-general of the French Congo. And because he was super-nice, he dedicated the next decade or so to establishing schools, medical services and employment opportunities, and set standards for wages and working conditions for employees of European traders.
That’s when things started turning a little sour. Many European traders didn’t like the idea of “natives” getting a fair cop, and preferred the low cost of slave labour and being complete bastards. King Leopold of Belgium, who was in charge of the neighbouring Belgian Congo and who was still miffed at PPS de Bra for bagsing the other side of the river, didn’t come off well by comparison. His murderous and mercenary ownership of Congolese land looked, frankly, beastly compared to the fairer, kinder French part where hardly anybody got their hands chopped off. Rumours of PPS de Bra’s soft touch and ‘negrophilia’ hit the French press, and the lack of profit returned by the colony saw him dismissed as governor in 1897.
The Congo did not thrive under its subsequent governor, Emile-Gentil. News of his brutality and the misery of his colony forced the French government to investigate, and they sent the 53-year-old de Brazza to do the job. He was appalled at the corruption, torture and slavery he saw, and his investigation was hindered at every turn by his haughty hosts. Nevertheless, a few weeks later he boarded a ship back to France with his damning report tucked safely under his arm.
De Brazza never made it back to France. He died of dysentery on 14 September 1905 in Dakar (although some suspected poisoning by his enemies). He was buried in France with the pomp of a state funeral, only to be exhumed and reinterred in Algiers at the request of his wife. Then in 2006, his remains were again exhumed and taken to Brazzaville, to rest in the new mausoleum built to honour his memory. Even 101 years after his death, he was still travelling.
*Loosely translated, the name ‘Giacinta’ means ‘exhausted by babies’.
**My French isn’t very good. This is either the ‘French Naval Academy’ or ‘Belly Button School’.
***An old Gabonese idiom meaning ‘French person in a boat’.
****Making angels weep is actually quite difficult. They are notoriously immune to nipple-cripples, and they’ve all seen Four Weddings and a Funeral about twenty-five times.