Paul Panda Farnana.

Paul Panda Farnana graduates in 1907 from the State Institute for Horticulture in Vilvoorde. He is seen here with his fellow students (nine men and one woman) in the town park in Vilvoorde | Vilvoorde, Horteco

Power & Resistance
1890 - 1930
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Paul Panda Farnana

Congo, Conquered and Colonised

Paul Panda Farnana was the first Congolese intellectual to openly criticise colonialism. Taken into her home by a Belgian woman at an early age, he was able to study in Belgium. He fought against Germany in the First World War and was a prisoner of war. After the war he became a human rights activist.

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Farnana was the son of a Congolese chief. He found his way to Belgium as the servant of a trader and grew up in the latter’s sister’s house. In 1909, after studying at the Atheneum in Elsene, the State Institute for Horticulture in Vilvoorde, and pursuing advanced studies in Paris and Mons, he returned to Congo. There he worked as an agricultural engineer for the colonial authorities and saw how racism, exploitation and violence characterised colonialism.

After the First World War Farnana founded the Union Congolaise (1919) He took part in the Colonial Congress in the Belgian Senate (1920) and in the second Pan-African Congress in Brussels (1921). He pleaded on behalf of the Congolese for equal rights, higher wages and better access to education. In vain. In 1929 he returned to his home village of Nzemba, where he died a year later.

Red Rubber.

Wikimedia Commons

Leopold’s violent regime was sharply criticised in the British press. Cartoon by Edward Lumley Sambourne, published in 1906 in the satirical magazine Punch.


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Congo, Conquered and Colonised

From the end of the 1870s on the Belgian King Leopold II, who had had colonial ambitions for quite some time, sent expeditions to Central Africa. Greedy for financial profit, he conquered an extensive area in the Congo basin. He created a private colony there with active support from the Belgian government, business world and church. In 1885 the great powers came to agreements on their sphere of influence in Africa and recognised Leopold II as sovereign of the Congo Free State.

For Leopold II and his co-workers Congo was an investment that had to pay off. The rising demand for rubber from the 1890s on made Congo a rich source of income. In order to maximise this the Congolese were forced to harvest rubber. That went hand in hand with large-scale atrocities, which were subject to much international criticism. The violent regime of Leopold II, together with an epidemic of sleeping sickness, led to a marked drop in population. In 1908 the Belgian state took over power and Congo became a Belgian colony.

In the Belgian Congo there were at most a few tens of thousands of Belgian officials, managing directors and missionaries active. In order to govern, exploit and convert the colony they appealed to large groups of Congolese subordinates: clerks, nursing assistants, catechists, soldiers… Congolese who like Paul Panda Farnana were given a senior post, were an exception.

After the Belgian takeover of 1908 colonisation continued to mean in the first instance for the Congolese occupation and subjection: forced taxes and forced labour in the copper mines, in road building or in the plantations. Repression made them toe the line. The profits went to a small group of Belgian entrepreneurs. Antwerp and Brussels were drivers of the colonial trade.

Focal points

Koloniaal ambtenaar.

Tervuren, AfricaMuseum HP.2004.3.12; photo H. Goldstein, 1948/rights SOFAM Belgium

Colonial official on inspection tour, being carried by Congolese (1948).



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The Self-Declared Civilising Mission

To begin with the colonisation could not count on much enthusiasm with the Belgian population. Hence the state, church and business world propagated the idea in the media, at school, through exhibitions and via monuments, of a civilising mission: it was the duty of Belgium to bring ‘civilisation’ to the population groups in Congo.

In places where Belgian missionaries (the vast majority of them Flemings) founded schools, children were taught the Catholic religion and a Western way of thinking and living. Indulging their own traditions and religious practices was discouraged or forbidden. In April 1921 Simon Kimbangu founded his own prophetic movement in Lower Congo – and was immediately sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1951. Kimbangu’s followers were deported en masse to punishment camps in inhospitable areas of Congo.

The premise of the civilising mission was that the European way of life was superior to the African. But the idea of the civilising mission did not accord with reality. For example, the violent method of colonisation was far from ‘civilised’. Until the 1940s colonial policy focused on the exploitation of natural resources. After the Second World War ‘civilisation’ was replaced by ‘development’. Infrastructure, education and healthcare were given more attention, but society remained strictly segregated. Racism remained the foundation of colonialism.

The Congolese population did not simply adopt the Belgian way of living and thinking. Paul Panda Farnana gave a personal touch to the colonial civilising discourse, for example by arguing that the civilising mission could only truly succeed if Congolese assumed political responsibility.

Lumumba speech.

Belga Image, 2418

After his election victory of May 1960 Patrice Lumumba becomes prime minister of Congo. At the independence ceremony of 30 June 1960, in a speech not previously announced and in the presence of King Boudewijn, he launches a scathing attack on Belgian colonisation.

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Lumumba and the End of Colonialism

Paul Panda Farnana gave a voice to the opposition in Belgium, but was far from the only one to oppose colonialism. In Congo there were armed revolts in the countryside and strikes in the towns, but much more often the resistance was on a smaller scale. For example, Congolese avoided taxes en masse and carried out compulsory work badly.

At the end of the 1950s the protest acquired a political face. In the towns a new class had developed, the évolués (educated ones). That was a racist statute created by the Belgian coloniser for so-called ‘developed’ Congolese. That elite group had been through secondary education and worked for the government or colonial companies. Lovanium, the first Congolese university, was not founded until 1954. However, the évolués were frustrated by their second-rate position. Thus the first political parties emerged such as Abakoassociation of Congolese people in Lower Congo. of Joseph Kasa-Vubu and the Mouvement National Congolais of Patrice Lumumba. They demanded independence.

The Belgian government tried to keep control of Congo, despite the global decolonisation movement and the growing resistance in the colony itself. But in January 1959 there were scores of casualties as a result of violent rioting in Leopoldville (today Kinshasa) Afterwards there were disturbances in other towns. The Belgian coloniser was losing his grip on Congolese society. On 30 June 1960 Congo became independent, with Kasa-Vubu as president and Lumumba as prime minister,

Immediately after independence the rich mining provinces of Kasai and Katanga broke away from the rest of Congo with Belgian help. During the ensuing Congo crisis Lumumba was deposed and murdered. In 2001 the Belgian government admitted ‘a moral responsibility’ for the murder of Lumumba and offered its excuses, which were repeated in 2022 on the occasion of the repatriation of Lumumba’s remains.


Isidore Bakanja (1887-1909) was one of the many victims of colonial violence. He died in July 1909 in Isongu (Equatorial Province) from the wounds inflicted by the lashes which a colonial agent had ordered to be administered. In May 1980 Pope John Paul II beatified him in Kisangani. Today he is venerated in many places in Congo.

Paul Panda Farnana ons volk ontwaakt.
Repro KADOC-KU Leuven, Ons Volk Ontwaakt, 6 January 1912

Paul Panda Farnana spoke on 13 December 1911 in Leuven to a hundred or so members of the pro-Flemish student society Amicitia. In his speech he took issue with the prejudices concerning the ‘civilisation’ of the Congolese.

Paul Panda krijgsgevangschap.
Tervuren, AfricaMuseum, H. 1966.1.145, unidentified photographer, 1916. All rights reserved

1916 Paul Panda Farnana (sitting, second from right) in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Farnana was one of the 32 Congolese who fought in Belgium as volunteers during the First World War. He was taken prisoner in Namur in 1914.

Tervuren, AfricaMuseum, HP.2011.62.12-54, photo G.F. de Witte CC-BY 4.0

A colonial official looks on as a Congolese is punished with the chicotte (1925). With this notorious whip the Belgian regime forced the Congolese to toe the line.

Zusters van Liefde.
Tervuren, AfricaMuseum, HP.2011.62.12-54, photo G.F. de Witte, 1931 CC-BY 4.0

The colonial administration, companies and church were proud of the hospitals they built in Congo. In reality access to healthcare was limited.

Tervuren, AfricaMuseum, HP.2004.3.58, photo H. Philips (Inforcongo, s.d., Philips)

Colonial propaganda photo of an ‘evolved’ family, about 1950.

Lumumba februari 1960.
C.N. Thompson, Camera Press London

On 21 January 1960 Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) is transferred to a prison in Katanga. He was sentenced by a colonial court to six months’ imprisonment, charged with incitement to violence. Under pressure from the Congolese participants in the Round Table Conference in Brussels he is released a few days later and is able to join them. The conference votes in favour of the complete and unconditional independence of the Belgian Congo on 30 June 1960.

De Deken.
Gazet van Antwerpen, JHS

Monument for missionary-explorer Constant De Deken (1852-1896) in Wilrijk, 1904, daubed with red paint in 2020. Colonial monuments which glorify the Belgian civilising mission in Congo are hotly disputed today.

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