Their first meeting was a cordial affair. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (an Italian representing the French Third Republic) met Henry Morton Stanley (a Welsh-born American exploring on behalf of Belgium’s King Leopold II) at Stanley’s well-appointed camp in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo in 1880. Despite the language barrier, the two shared a sumptuous meal, and then, puffing on a cigarette, Brazza told the pipe-smoking Stanley how impressed he’d been by the older man’s successful navigation of the Congo River.
It took until the next morning, when Brazza mentioned an agreement he’d made with the local chief to establish a French station on the northern shore of the Malebo Pool, for Stanley “come to terms with the fact that his continental guest was more than just an admiring visitor,” notes Brazza’s biographer Maria Petringa.
The Pool, a lakelike widening of the lower Congo River, is a vitally strategic point that marks the beginning of a 1,000-mile navigable section of the great waterway, and Stanley — who had first visited the area years earlier — vowed to get a piece of the action. Each explorer established settlements for their European sponsors on opposite banks of the river. Today, with just 4 miles separating them, Brazzaville and Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) are the world’s closest capital cities.
Unique among mainland African capitals, Brazzaville still honors its European founder. But then Brazza was a breed apart from most Europeans of his era.
Born in Rome in 1852, the 10th of 13 children in a distinguished Italian family, Pietro was a “daredevil child” who was forever dreaming of adventure. Skeptical of the Risorgimento, or unification movement taking place in Italy at the time, his family sent their teenage son to the French naval academy. By the time he was 21, Pietro had become a French citizen and officially changed his name to Pierre.
In 1875, the 23-year-old leveraged his considerable charm to persuade the French government to sponsor an expedition up the Ogooué River (in present-day Gabon), which he hoped would be the gateway to the African interior. His was a “new kind of colonial mission,” according to Petringa, carrying “a minimum of arms,” “several tons” of gifts and a large stash of fireworks intended to thrill the local tribes. Over the next three years, Brazza and his small team proved to the French government that his methods could work, even if the Ogooué, as Brazza noted in a letter dated July 1877, was not in fact “a path to penetrate into the hinterland.”
Brazza, the so-called “Father of the Slaves,” ambled through Africa, “ready to spend weeks or months befriending the tribes he met.”
Brazza’s voyage up the Ogooué coincided almost exactly with Stanley’s expedition from Zanzibar in the East to Boma in the West — a 7,000-mile journey he completed in the same time it took Brazza to cover just 900 miles. Stanley, whom Africans nicknamed Bula Mutari, or “breaker of rocks,” operated his expeditions with military precision. By contrast, Brazza, the so-called “Father of the Slaves,” ambled through Africa, “ready to spend weeks or months befriending the tribes he met,” writes Richard West in Brazza of the Congo. “Had Stanley employed the same method … he might not have reached the Congo Mouth by the 20th century,” West remarks. Although the men’s differing personalities may have “colored the history of the Congo region,” he continues, “they did not shape its destiny.” That honor fell to the powers back home in Europe — above all, to a conniving King Leopold.
Shortly after establishing the settlement at Malebo Pool and meeting Stanley for the first time, Brazza returned to Paris to find a “government in doubt about colonial policy,” says Petringa. To stimulate public interest in his cause, Brazza embarked on an aggressive, and enormously successful, public relations crusade. Before long, Parisians were smoking cigarettes and washing with soap bearing his name.
In 1886 Brazza was appointed general commissioner of the newly established French Congo, and the aristocratic populist spent the next decade practicing what he had preached for so long. He established schools, clinics and vocational training programs, notes Petringa, and required that all Europeans pay their African employees a fair wage. Meanwhile, across the river in Leopoldville, the Belgians were subjecting the natives to conditions that “inspired ‘the horror’ of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” writes Petringa.
Unbeknownst to Brazza, a prolonged smear campaign was erupting in the French press (masterminded by none other than King Leopold), one that labeled the charismatic explorer a “negrophile” who was “too good” to Africans. He was relieved of his post in 1898 by a French government eager to extract greater revenues from their colony. Exhausted and frustrated, but also very much in love with his new wife, Thérèse Pineton de Chambrun, Brazza retired to Algiers and started a family. It would be a happy period, but one they would not enjoy for long.
Conditions in French Congo deteriorated until they resembled those across the river. In 1905, after receiving word that a tribesman had been executed via a stick of dynamite in the rectum, Brazza agreed to return to the region to lead an official investigation. He and Thérèse were appalled by what they found, but Brazza was never able to file his report. He fell ill on the way home (Thérèse suspected poisoning) and died in Dakar.
Bizarrely, it would not be Brazza’s final visit to the Congo. In 2006, the Congolese government paid to exhume the bodies of Pierre, Thérèse and their four children from an Algiers cemetery and transport them to a gleaming, multimillion-dollar mausoleum in Brazzaville, part of a larger memorial to the explorer, complete with a museum and a sculpture garden. While the Congolese people remain divided on Brazza’s legacy, many consider the towering memorial a giant waste of money.
It’s hard to imagine that Brazza would disagree.
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