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
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").