The Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza Memorial is one of my favourite places to visit in Brazzaville. Here you find photos and information about the many expeditions that Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà made on behalf of France to what today is the Republic of Congo. This Italian explorer was a gentle and pacific person, whose interest in exploration later paved the way for the establishment of a French colony on the right banks of the Congo River, in a way he never intended and with consequences he never imagined.
On his second expedition, having arrived by boat in Libreville (in what is Gabon today), Savorgnan de Brazza made his way upstream along the Ogoué river and then overland to the Lefini River and downstream to reach the Congo River and the Malebo Pool. This is where the first French settlement was established, at the site of today’s Brazzaville. Savorgnan de Brazza was named Governor-General of French Congo in 1886 but was dismissed in 1897 as he was seen as being too good to the local population and not bringing in enough revenue to France from the colony.
He later returned to Congo to investigate rumours of repression and brutality carried out against the locals by the colonial powers that succeeded him and by concessionary companies, and found the rumours all to be true. But Savorgnan de Brazza died on his way back to France, only 53 years old, and his damning report on the atrocities that were being committed was essentially covered up by the French government.
I find his story a fascinating but sad one. I can imagine Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza being this young explorer, with a genuine interest, wanting to discover and learn, and believing he was doing good by creating friendships and establishing trade links and routes. He went through tremendous hardship in order to carry out his expeditions*, he developed a remarkable understanding of the region and its people, yet back in France his reputation gradually became tainted as he was seen as the friend of the natives and the Father of Slaves (he personally freed slaves by buying them from their slave owners and then setting them free).
For this gentle person who had always been anti-violence and anti-slavery, who treated the local population with respect, to find that, through his own help, a brutal and exploitative colonial regime had been put in place must have been devastating. If only more people back then would have had Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s sense of humanity, Africa’s destiny may have looked quite different today. At the same time I must ask myself, did he really not see what was coming, or did he simply choose not to acknowledge the fact that France, like all other colonising nations, were in it for themselves and only themselves?
But back to the Memorial. It was built in 2005-6 as a tribute to Savorgnan de Brazza’s work against slavery and the abuse of Africans. It was expensive to build, very expensive. A lot could have been done with the money, things that could have improved the lives of the congolese in very concrete ways. But instead, a memorial was built to honor Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Many have critisiced that decision. But I think it was a good thing. That money was coughed up for that specific purpose, so it’s not as if it would had been available to be allocated to some genuine welfare project for the good of the population had the memorial not been built. And the memorial is an important recognition of a decisive period in the country’s history. And it’s there for everyone’s benefit (unlike a lot of monies spent in countries like these, which benefit only a very select few).
And now I come to why I like this place. The point of the memorial is not to provide an accurate chronological account of history, but more of a feeling for this, in many ways, remarkable man and what he did. The displays don’t contain a whole lot of text, as the emphasis is more on snippets of information illustrated by photos. And I find it is the photos that speak, they really give a feel for what it may have been like, and what this young Italian may have represented and experienced. There’s an air of tranquillity and respect, but also of humbleness – it’s hard to describe, but for me the photos really convey a genuine bond between a pacific explorer and this place called Congo and its people. Other than the photos on display, there are also a couple of excellent books laid out at the memorial with additional photos and narratives from the expeditions, that visitors freely can browse through.
The tombs of Savorgnan de Brazza, his wife and children are one floor down from the main exhibition area. Here there are also further photographs, large murals and old documents that tell the story of the past. This area of the memorial was still open to the public when I was there in May 2017, but the next time I visited, in December 2017, it had been cordoned off for safety reasons due to problems with the marble. During my latest visit, now in January 2019, there was still no access to the lower floor and no sign of any repairs being carried out.
I have visited the memorial a handful of times, both unaccompanied and with a guide. The guide was very knowledgeable, and he had an endless supply of stories, so beware if you take the tour, to get the most of it you need to have a few hours to spare (I think I spent three hours there, definitely worth it – although that was when the lower floor was still open to the public). Unaccompanied you don’t need a lot of time, as the memorial is rather small and it’s up to you how much depth you want to go into when exploring it.
Visiting the Memorial is free, but do take your passport or ID card with you when you go – the guards at the gate often ask for it. And if you take a guided tour, remember to make a reasonable contribution, depending on the time you spend with the guide.
As a final note, I am aware that not everyone shares the opinion that Savorgnan de Brazza was a good person, there are other interpretations too. Personally, I believe that he was well-intentioned, and had he been allowed to continue as Governor-General, who knows how different Congo could be today? I also think that it kind of speaks for itself that Brazzaville is one of only a few African capitals that has kept it’s colonial-time name to this day. But maybe it’s me who is naive here…
I normally try to keep my posts shorter than this, however, the topic is so interesting it was hard to be brief. Thanks for reading all the way through. For those who’d like to know more I can recommend Maria Petringa’s book ‘Brazzà, a life for Africa’ (2006). I read it shortly after I first arrived in Brazzaville and have read it again since, as the story fascinates me.
For shorter and more accessible sources, here are links to a few articles and sites of interest:
The Italian noble who conquered the Congo with compassion – undated Ozy article
For One Colonial Ruler, Honor in His African Home New York Times 30 Nov 2006 (bear in mind that a lot has changed about life in Brazzaville since the article was written, unfortunately not in the right direction)
Pierre de Brazza – Encyclopaedia Britannica entry about Savorgnan de Brazza with links to related articles
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brazza, Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de – wikisource extract from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry
The Politics of Atrocity: The Scandal in the French Congo (1905) – detail on the expedition to French Congo to investigate rumours of atrocities
Mémorial Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza – the official memorial website
* I kept thinking of Savorgnan de Brazza when we hiked in the Mayombe rain forest last week (I know, I know, no comparison, ha ha, I am aware) – how we were wiped out at the end of each day, yet we carried nothing but a little bottle of water each, we had a hearty meal each evening and we slept in comfortable beds every night. While Savorgnan de Brazza was on the move for months on end, having to lug lots of equipment along, camping out in torrential tropical conditions, and suffering all sorts of mosquito and water-borne diseases… I was told that the trek from the Atlantic coast to Brazzaville back then took 25 days if one was to keep moving every single day. Which obviously wasn’t possible, as the expeditions would have had to stop to rest, to recover from disease, to clear paths, etc. So in reality the trek lasted several months at a time and really took its toll both physically and mentally.