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Colonial period in Congo has interesting links with Nordic region

Joint exhibition of Nordic museums coming to Helsinki summer 2005

Nordic congo Mission
Objects belonging to Finnish fashion designer and art collector Saga Roos, who lived in the Congo in the 1930s, are included in the exhibition. Also included are African masks brought to Europe by Christian missionaries.
Photo:
KALLE KOPONEN / HS
By Kalle Koponen found at Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 12.1.2005
     
      It is getting to be common knowledge that the colonial period in the Belgian Congo was one of the most brutal. The rampant exploitation of natural resources and the killing of the native population reached record proportions of shamefulness.
      Less well known is that more than 1,000 people from the Nordic region - mercenaries, sailors, missionaries, and their spouses - were also in the Congo, taking part in one way or another in one of the darkest chapters of the history of the continent.
     
An exhibition, compiled as a joint project of the ethnographic museums of the Nordic countries, tells the little-known story through texts, pictures, and objects. The collection, which is now on display in Stockholm, will move on to Helsinki in the early summer.


      "Public collections in the Nordic Countries have a total of 40,000 objects from the Congo", says Michael Barret, acting curator of Stockholm's Ethnographic Museum. The exhibition includes weapons, sculptured masks, religious figures, and above all, stories.


      The father of the Kongospår, or "Congo's Tracks" exhibition is Espen Waehle, who heads the ethnographic department of the Danish National Museum. Waehle has been pondering the idea for a long time, and has written the texts for the exhibition. The exhibition came about when the idea for it won last year's prize of the Nordic Council of Ministers for the best itinerant exhibition.
     
Belgium's King Leopold II was given the Congo as his private, personal colony, when the European powers divided Africa amongst themselves at the Berlin Congress in 1848. Leopold let loose private companies and fortune hunters, and levied taxes on them. When the native population rebelled, Leopold's private mercenary army, the Force Publique, took punitive action.


      About 1,500 people from the Nordic Countries are known to have been in the Congo.
     
There are not as many objects of Finnish origin. Sweden and Denmark had much closer contacts with the Congo.


      "For instance, Swedish missionary work focused largely on the Congo, at a time when the Finns were in Namibia. There were not enough sailors in Belgium to run the river boats. Quite a few Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish captains, machinists, and ship's pilots went there in the 1880s", Barret says.


      Later soldiers also came to take part in the pacification of the Congo. Battles between Congolese tribes and colonial forces were brutal. Because of a lack of bullets, people were punished for transgressions, such as failing to meet rubber collection quotas, by having a hand amputated.
     
The exhibition will not be identical in each of the cities. In each Nordic capital there are to be objects that depict the story of the Congolese exploits in that specific country.


      In Stockholm there is fairly little Finnish material on display. One of the rare exceptions is the story of Saga Roos from Turku. The young girl, who had worked in her mother's fashion store, married Klas Roos, a sea captain working for the Belgian King, and lived for a number of years in the Congo. Roos wrote a book about her trip: Bröllopsresa I Belgiska Congo ("Honeymoon in the Belgian Congo").
     

 

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