International Fairs, the Post-Colonial Nation, and Archives: Doing Research in Brussels

When I first arrived in Brussels as a student researcher in September 2018, I was excited to finally do extended archival research for my dissertation. My project focused on sovereignty and the intersection of private, colonial, and local actors in southeastern Congo and Central Angola during the early 20th century. The project considered a situation in which interests among people from Congo, Belgium, Angola, Britain, Portugal, America, France and elsewhere all seemed to overlap in one region of Central Africa. Within the archives I expected to find consistent struggles among these actors over issues of economic and political authority during the early 20th century, and while I found some of these conflicts, it became clear that these struggles over authority really came to a head around Congo independence in 1960.

Part of this was due to the fact that many of the available sources come from colonial officials who had an interest in presenting images of tranquility during the early colonial period. Yet, at the same time, independence fundamentally changed the landscape in which all of these actors were operating, as each of these stakeholders faced new uncertainty and turmoil. Local Congolese authorities had new state structures they had to navigate; mining and railway companies faced potential nationalization while continuing to operate in colonial territory in neighboring Angola; and the politicians of the independent Congolese government still had to negotiate and rely on relationships with pre-existing authorities to ensure their own political and economic interests. It was a complicated situation in which the interests of these numerous groups aligned in certain domains while coming into conflict elsewhere.

As I dug through files and folders in the archives, I came across an article from the periodical Congo-Afrique which began to shift how I was thinking about this post-independence period. On the ninth anniversary of Congolese independence, June 30, 1969, the Central African country hosted the first Foire Internationale de Kinshasa (FIKIN). The Fair would feature stands from countries and businesses around the world—including Belgium—presenting an image of global economic cooperation for the relatively nascent nation-state. This kind of international cooperation was in stark contrast to the nationalization of the mining company Union Minière in 1967 and the Zaïrianisation (Authenticité) efforts of the 1970s.

The discussion of the 1969 Kinshasa Fair demonstrated the contradictory, complicated, and conflicted post-colonial relationship that both Congolese and Belgian actors found themselves in. Congolese politicians were willing to cooperate with some Belgian companies, Belgian investors, and other international financiers to promote its economy. However, they understandably continued to have questions about certain legacy colonial actors. For example, the Benguela Railway Company (CFB), an Anglo-Portuguese railway company that had long worked with the Congolese railway company because of key transport connections along the Congo-Angola border, wanted to advertise in the 1969 Fair but knew that they could not be too visible or prominent with their promotional materials since Portugal continued to be an active colonial power throughout Africa. At the same time, however, the parent company and main investor of CFB and of the Belgian mining company Union Minière—Tanganyika Concessions—continued to communicate with the Congolese government, participating in extensive discussions over financing the government’s nationalized mining industry.

This intertwined post-colonial relationship between Belgium and Congo is perhaps not particularly surprising to many. The presence of Congolese influence, Congolese diaspora populations, and, most controversially, Congolese artifacts and wealth, is everywhere in Brussels and Belgium. A trip to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren—one of the many archives where I have worked—offers a window into much of this controversy. Many of the universities retain very close ties with scholars and universities in Congo as well.

However, what has become interesting to me throughout my work in Belgium is not simply the influence of the two countries on one another—that fact likely goes without saying. Rather, what is far more fascinating is how the stakeholders attempted to sort out the remnants of these complicated colonial relationships—often in contradictory and sometimes arbitrary ways. Prior to my Fulbright grant to Belgium, it was easy to latch onto the dominant narratives focused on nationalism and neocolonialism when thinking about the post-colonial relationship between Belgium and Congo. However, throughout my research I have found a relationship that was far more complicated, marked by moments of convergence and divergence.

Just as the 1969 Kinshasa Fair fostered an image of international economic cooperation, nationalization and Zaïrianisation (Authenticité) seemed to create the opposite image only a couple of years before and after. Fittingly, as a program deeply engaged in the question of international exchange, my Fulbright grant to Belgium has reshaped my own dissertation project around these questions of cooperation, conflict, and exchange in the post-colonial period and how the colonial past continues to weigh upon those relationships.

Peter Vale is the recipient of a 2018-2019 Fulbright Research/Study Grant to Belgium. Peter is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State