In the Wake of Colonialism

Entrepreneurs in the Congo?

Two case studies on possibilities for making money among Norwegians in the Congo Freestate


On the river
The steamboats "En Avant, "A.I.A" and "Ville de Bruselles" with the captains Martini and Schønberg ca. 1887.

Espen Wæhle
Curator of African Collections


Currently it is largely forgotten that 1500-2000 individuals from the Nordic countries played significant roles in colonization and exploitation of the Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Among them were about 200 Norwegians. Most of the Nordic were military officers, sailors, ship’s engineers and missionaries while a few lawyers and medical doctors also signed up. A number also worked for highly successful concessions companies, mainly on the riverboat fleet and in company stations and outposts.

The so-called “Leopoldian” economic regime was designed to control land, resources, exploitation and transport and was implemented both through the colonial administration, chartered companies and concessions companies. Within a few years after its implementation in the early 1890’ies competition from foreign interests, local Congolese traders as well as Portuguese and Greek bush-traders were effectively stopped. The situation on the ground was in stark contrast to the initial promise of creating a Freestate for all interested parties.

The concept of free trade together with fighting the “Arabic” slave trade and other “barbaric customs” were to go hand in hand with evangelization of the Congo. Initially this created much interest and sympathy for King Leopold’s colonial endeavour. The study will look at to what extent entrepreneurship was possible at all within what seems to have been a tightly controlled colonial system. Two cases will be examined: the trading and collecting of ethnographic objects and the private enterprising along the colonial/concessional rubber collecting economy. Other Nordic trade initiatives will be brought in for comparison.

Schønberg & Martini: trade and the commodization of ethnographic objects
In the same period as the Leopodian regime was implemented an international demand and a market for ethnographic objects was beginning to emerge. Newly formed ethnographic collections and other museums were eager to collect objects from what had until recently been the huge white spot on the maps of Africa. The exploration of the Congo was a major public event towards the end of the 19th century. The travels, travelogues, newspaper and magazine reports of particularly H.M. Stanley and D. Livingstone created an enormous interest for the region – an interest that was followed up in relation to the “philanthropic” Congo Freestate project of King Leopold of Belgium.

Objects stemming from military operations in the Congo were actually, by Royal decree, designated for the Army Museum in Brussels, while other collected items were defined as State property, later to be included in the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren and other Belgian museums. This did not, however, prevent those working in the Congo from amassing large collections. Colonial officers are consistently reporting on the enterprising Congolese as “born traders”.

What was later musealized as ethnographica was among the huge variety of items traded. Objects also entered the private collections after military conquest, pacification, crushing of rebellions and punitive expeditions. Early in the 20th century Congolese objects was also becoming attractive through the emerging interest for “African art” in Central Europe. At least some 38,000 objects are today known in Nordic private and museum collections, internationally there are probably hundreds of thousands. The Congo collection is among the most important at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Oslo, comprising about 11% of the total collection. While many Norwegians contributed to the museum in Oslo as part of a national project (Norway became independent from the union with Sweden in 1905), some tried to make money from the colonial scramble they had been part of.

Nordic sailors made possible the colonization of the Congo. Up to 90% of those manning the ships (pilots, captains, mates, and engineers), harbours and shipyards were from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Among the Nordic sailors two pioneers stand out: the Dane C.V.R. Schønberg & Dane/Norwegian J.A.C. Martini (Martini was born in Norway, his parents being Danish itinerant actors, throughout his career he sometimes claimed to be Norwegian and other times Danish). They signed up for the Congo already in 1886 and manned primitive riverboats on many colonial charting expeditions and first sailings. Their book from the first years was the second book written by Scandinavians on the Congo.

Almost 1000 objects collected by Schønberg & Martini are still in museum collections. Their strategy to sell the large collection was unusual. They started off by arranging commercial and well-publicized Congo exhibitions at “Tivoli” in Christiania (Oslo) and “National” in Copenhagen. They later managed to sell most of the artefacts at a very high price (in Oslo possibly the most expensive collection ever bought by the museum).

Schønberg & Martini’s entrepreneurial management of the scramble for ethnographica from the Congo will be compared with material from other Nordic collectors, their strategies and the potential outlets and markets. Should the Nordic contribution to the colonial scramble for artifacts be regarded as part of the wider colonial material and social relations and commercial interests – or also be studied as part of the development ethnography as a discipline and emerging museums as national institutions?

A fortune in the Domaine de la Couronne concession
As the infamous rubber collection system developed through both state posts and concession companies, staff members were (at least unofficially) encouraged to run their own sideline entrepreneurial operations. The project will examine the Nordic sources on the subject, particularly with a case study from the private concession of King Leopold: Domaine de la Couronne. A newly discovered collection of documents from a Norwegian officer turns out to be one of the very few records existing from an area that came to be internationally known as one of the darkest chapters in colonial history. The collection of documents includes correspondence between colonial officers of various nationalities.

The atrocities in the rubber concessions were made known through documentation and protests presented by missionaries (among them British missionaries and the Swedish Baptist E.V. Sjöblom) as well as a report from the British Consul Roger Casement. The Norwegian officer mentioned wrote a report to the colonial administration, denying the serious charges regarding atrocities and enforced labor linked to the rubber economy. After returning in 1908 to Norway he boasted about having lived as “a gentleman” for five years, without anything else to support him than his earnings from the Congo. So he could afford to be generous: he was rewarded a royal medal for his large donation to the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo. The study will also investigate other economic strategies among the Norwegians in the Congo and their careers after returning home.