By Eva Schalbroeck
I do not come across many images in my research on the Commission for the Protection of the Native Population, a colonial advice organ in the Congo. I have been through endless reports without encountering a single one and finding some is genuinely a real treat. My favourite image completely took me by surprise. In the margin of a letter to lawyer Andre Van Iseghem, written in 1904, doctor Gustave Dryepondt, a tropical medicine specialist, had drawn a man with a prominent nose and a long beard. His “doodle” could really only be King Leopold II, the Belgian king who privately owned the Congo. Renowned for his brutally exploitative regime, Leopold was denounced in an international humanitarian campaign, which lead to Belgium’s annexation of the Congo. Caricatures of him were readily used in the press by his adversaries. Finding a similar image in correspondence by the hand of a pioneer of the Leopoldian imperial enterprise shows how the “imperial founding father” captured colonials’ imagination. Or perhaps, Dryepondt just found him the ideal object for his artistic inclinations.
Image: Archives André Van Iseghem, HA.01.0036, 136. Author’s own image, with kind permission of Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, Tervuren.