Colonial ethics: "The school of Coquilhatville" (1937-1960) / By Honoré Vinck
Note: biographies and bibliographies of most of the figures mentioned in this text can be
found in the section 'Bio-bibliographies of people'.
The city of Mbandaka (up till 1969, 'Coquilhatville') is located on the intersection of the
geographical equator and the Congo river. During Belgian colonization, Coq, which was first
named 'Equateurville' to receive the name 'Coquilhatville' in 1891, stayed more or less out of
reach of the major axes of colonial development within the Belgian Congo. Nevertheless,
between 1937 and 1960, it was the source of a host of publications, expressing avant-guard
ideas on the detrimental social implications of colonization. Among these publications were
magazines published by Catholic missionaries, some of which were destined to the Europeans
(such as La Page Chrétienne, Pax and Aequatoria) while others were to be read by the Congolese
(Le Coq Chante, Efomesako, Etsiko, Lokole Lokiso). Both attracted a number of collaborators of
various backgrounds. Aequatoria, a scholarly publication, had an important national and
international audience, the others were of local disclosure. But all were controlled in the
same sense by the same people: Edmond Boelaert and Gustaaf Hulstaert. The local publications
served the popularisation of the ideas of these 'leaders', with the very active collaboration
of an important number of Congolese, while Aequatoria acted in a way as the 'colonial
conscience' of certain colonizers. The philosophical and political choice of all was clear:
civilization and evangelisation had to be based on a rigorous respect of the local people,
their languages and their cultures. This 'indigenist' stance can be called, with the benefit
of hindsight after more than half a century, the "School of Coquilhatville".
The ultimate person 'responsible' of the whole enterprise was Msgr E. Van Goethem. He was
himself an eminent "indigenist" in his thinking but he opposed the expression of "School of
Coquilhatville", and found it conceited.
CRITICAL TO COLONIAL POLITICS
It wasn't self-evident for clergymen to take on a political position critical of the
authorities. There was the resistance on behalf of the "Superiors". The bishop hesitated and
opposed the idea of Boelaert to use Aequatoria as a war song.
In 1945, the Apostolic Delegate in the Belgian Congo, Giovanni Dellepiane, suspended
Aequatoria for its so-called propaganda for "the turpitudes of the heathenism". But some years
later Boelaert began to denounce "the turpitudes of the colonization". In the meantime a big
number of colonial political topics passed in the columns of Aequatoria: fundamental rights,
depopulation, school education, linguistical politics, polygamy, dowry, civilization.
Between 1951 and 1959 Hulstaert published yearly excerpts of the program-speeches-of the
Governor General of the Belgian Congo, which included some very critical remarks. Towards
independence (1960), Hulstaert felt that he was going to lose his right to speak and he wrote
to Boelaert in Belgium "We must be very prudent and avoid political topics" (28-5-59).
1. THE PROTAGONISTS
A large number of people, of various horizons, all honestly committed to a moralization of
the colonization, expressed themselves in Aequatoria. The first to present themselves beside
the missionaries were magistrates, then some administrators, finally a colonist, and with the
approach of the independence, some "évolués".
"THE LINGUISTS AND THE ARTISTS"
"In Coquilhatville, there are only the artists and linguists". By this joke assigned to Mgr
Van Goethem (EB to GH, 7-9-1937), the constellation of a concentration of remarkable men was
characterized, by their unit of vision, by their engagement and by the wealth of their
It is Boelaert who "invented" Aequatoria. By his capacity for sharp analysis, he had better
seen the implications of some colonial problems than the bishop and the superior did.
Hulstaert was attracted by its impetus: decline in the birth rate, the indigenous land rights,
were questions first advanced and then better studied by Boelaert than by Hulstaert. Both were
convinced that the linguistic question, Lomongo against French and Lingala, is the core
problem of their vocation as "civilisers". The linguistic and literary research will remain
their first preoccupation.
Hulstaert "discovered" Paul Ngoi (1924-1997) in the Junior seminary of Bokuma in 1934. They
only separated in the 1970s. Paul Ngoi was Hulstaert's most important informant in Mongo
linguistics and oral literature. Innumerable notes by Hulstaerts, on which he based his based
his Lomongo Dictionary and the Grammar, testify to this. Paul Ngoi answered Hulstaert's idea
of the "truly modern African" (évolué): respect for his own language, and love for his culture
and history... and being a convinced Christian. Hulstaert's idea of an évolué was quite
opposite to the mainstream, colonial idea of an évolué, which had an African who had
completely assimilated Western culture in mind. Augustin Elenga (1920-1986) worked during many
years on Hulstaert's side. He was his informer-secretary.
Hulstaert greatly encouraged Albert De Rop in his African studies (1950-56). He knew him from
Bokuma as a colleague and until 1946 as his Religious Superior.
One can count Father Joris Van Avermaet among Hulstaert's best friends, whom he consulted in
all business concerning Aequatoria. Van Avermaet left the colony precociously (in 1947) and
would then be Hulstaert's contact in the Belgian African Linguistics Commission (Tervuren).
Frans Maes followed him of little. He was the promise. He had studied pedagogy at the
University of Leuven and started immediately to work: educational investigations in the
schools, redaction of new style schoolbooks, learned publications on problems of an African
pedagogy. Gust Wauters on his side, prepared a survey on the Pygmy of the Mongo region, fruit
of his engagements for this marginalized group. He published some large excerpts.
The artists were; Alfons Walschap, Paul Jans and Jules De Knop for music, Jos Moeyens, Jos
Yernaux, Petrus Vertenten, Raymond Carlé and Edward Van Goethem for drawing and painting, the
same Walschap and Vertenten, for literature, Sister Auxilia and Brother Herman for the
production of oratories and spectacles of dances in Bamanya.
"THOSE THAT ARE INTERESTED IN THE COLONIAL STUDIES"
Hulstaert contacted the authors of articles or books for an exchange of ideas or to
polemize. He was thus in the epicentre of a current of critical ideas on the colony.
By an epistolary exchange between January 1944 and the beginning of 1945, Hulstaert
accompanied Placied Tempels in the writing of his Bantu Philosophy. He began in unison with
him to finish nearly in total dissension. But by intellectual honesty, he accepted to publish
in Aequatoria the introductory chapter of the Bantu Philosophy.
Basiel Tanghe, the "indigéniste" bishop of Molegbe, big sympathizer of Hulstaert, is one of
pioneers of the study of the peoples of the Ubangi, but he also introduced Lingala in his
Secondary School. His confreres, Vedaste Maes and Rodolf Mortier, produced meticulous research
on the same group and published in Aequatoria.
Jozef Van Wing, the eminent Jesuit of the "Etudes Bakongo", never published in Aequatoria, but
remained for Hulstaert the man to consult. Vaast Van Bulck, presented himself as very
committed to the Aequatoria ideals, and was to a certain moment member of the editorial board
John Carrington, of the Baptist Missionary Society, maintained a long epistolary exchange with
Hulstaert and John Davidson, Protestant pastor at the Ngombe, published also several articles
Leo Bittremieux, Scheutiste, representing a Kikongo and a flamingantism pure, was a sister
soul. They enter into the same fight and meet the same difficulties. A remarkable epistolary
exchange awaits editing and publication. Raf Van Caenegehem, the youth friend of Hulstaert,
was a fruitful publicist on the Baluba, committed collaborator of Aequatoria. Tormented as he
was by his "colonialist environment", he has to leave it. Jules De Boeck, superior of the
Missionaries of Scheut in Inongo during the forties, was ready to accept Lomongo as language
of the teaching and the church in the region of the Ekonda, Bolia, Basengele, Ntomba, but the
bishop of Léopoldville, Mgr Six, prevents it. Other Scheutists publish in Aequatoria and
discuss with Hulstaert, for or against his theories, among them: Percy De Witte (Kesakata) and
Hugo Rombauts (Lokonda) of which we kept the long and instructive correspondences. Later, the
professional missionary-linguist, Leo Stappers entered into the same way.
When in 1951 Albert Maus (ex-Scheutiste and correspondent of Hulstaert for a long time) was
elected president of the Federation of the Colonists of Congo and Ruanda-Burundi, Hulstaert
wrote to him: "Not every body is the president of an important association as yours that has a
lot to say. To speak honestly, I fear for the harmonious future of Congo. I believe that your
desire to remain devoted to the Blacks is sincere, but I don't believe in the possibility to
avoid the racial conflicts with the constitution of a class of colonists" (Letter of
At the Ndengese, there is Alfons Goemaere who shows an efficient sympathy for the ideas and
(linguistic) propositions of Hulstaert.
The neighbouring diocese of Basankusu, under the responsibility of the Missionaries of Mill
Hill, sheltered a good part of Mongo next to Ngombe and Bongando. Some missionaries (e.a;
Hartering, Rood, Heyboer and Harry Van Thiel) were very sympathetic to the views and the
practices of Hulstaert and collaborated to Aequatoria and to Le Coq Chante.
Magistrates, Administrators, colonists
Hulstaert considered Emile Possoz as co-founder of Aequatoria. They wrote some texts under
the pseudonym ND. [Nous Deux, Us two]. Emile Possoz was the curious "Substitut du Procureur du
Roi" in Irumu, Coquilhatville, Elisabethville and finally in Inongo. He made the first
translation of Tempels' Bantu Philosophy, and wrote the Foreword. With Hulstaert he discussed
some parallelisms between Roman Law and traditional African Law, what will result in the
concept of basis of "paternat", later the key idea of Possoz's "Elements de droit coutumier
In regular relations with Mr. Antoine Sohier, former Attorney General in Elisabethville,
Hulstaert endeavours to promote the African concepts and the customary practices as the best
guarantee of the stability of the society. To Antoine Sohier (and others), in the meantime
member of the Colonial Council in Brussels (1951), Hulstaert didn't stop denouncing the abuses
of all kinds committed by the colonial administration.
Antoine Rubbens, the author of "Dettes de Guerre" started his career in Coquilhatville and was
in steady relations with Hulstaert, later followed by a brief period of correspondence.
Magistrate Philippe De Rode, in Coquilhatville during the years 50, was a better friend and
more close to his ideas. The publications on the Bongando of Maurice De Ryck, a former
Administrator in Bomdombe and later Governor in Coquilhatville, are always among the most
important on this population. With Boelaert, he gets to the composition of a history of the
With Boelaert and also in link with Mr. Lodewijckx, colonist in Bolingo in Equateur Province,
Hulstaert leads a campaign to save the Mongo people of the menacing decline of the birth rate.
Aequatoria was a magazine of "Colonial Sciences" as Hulstaert defines it himself. He
watched over its academic character. Research was done by Europeans about the Congolese. Few
magazines would have accepted to publish studies of an "indigenous" author at that time.
Aequatoria published more than ten of them: P. Ekonyo, Club wa likili [the charm likili],
2(1939) 66-67; Bayaka J., 8(1945)103-110, Mongo politeness (to see as LCC May 1943,38-39);
Nzenze H., Note on the Pagabetes, 13(1950)135; Bolese F., Historic text on the Lusankanis,
23(1960)100; Mr. Isekolongo, historic note on the Nsambas, 23(1960)57; F. Bokoka, A tale
mongo, 25(1962)101; A. Bengala, The noble of the Boolis, 25(1962)105. Ngoi P., publish two
texts there: Widowhood at the Nkundos (1941) and: Style oral(1945).
In 1945, Alexis Kagame made his first steps in the scholarly publication in Aequatoria.
Epistolary relations between Hulstaert and Kagame culminated in a lively discussion on the
qualities and the superiority of the black or white cultures.
Congolese were more active in the local publications. The editors (Hulstaert, Boelaert and a
few other colleagues, and from 1955 Paul Ngoi), were careful to preserve the "indigénistes"
principles. We meet the names of Dominique Iloo, Boniface Bakutu, Ferdinand Ilumbe, Etienne
Bokaa, Marc Bolumbu, and many others.
Three names deserve a special mention in this context. The name of Louis Bamala will remain
linked to the Nsong'a Lianja epic. It is his version which has been published by Tervuren (in
an edition of Boelaert). Pierre Mune was the first African to be proclaimed Award-winning of
the Concours of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences with his survey on "Le Petit Ekonda", a
Mongo village among Mbandaka-Boende. Nicolas Bowanga, the first Mongo Catholic priest,
published regularly in the local magazines and was one of the most precious informants of
2. THE ANTAGONISTS
Giovanni Dellepiane, the Delegate Apostolique, was in the eyes of Hulstaert the "Great
Satan". This Excellence had the best intentions and wanted to protect the new christians
against the "turpitudes of the heathenism", wrapped according to him in the Bantu language and
culture. The sure means to reach this goal was the "latinisation" (complete assimilation) of
the local culture. In this task, he was assisted with goodwill by the bishop of
Elisabethville, Mgr Felix de Hemptinne. These two high dignitaries caused many problems to
Aequatoria and to its editor-in-chief.
Egide De Boeck, Scheutist bishop of Lisala, the father of the school Lingala, made life
difficult for Aequatoria (In his Reader of 1920 he incites the children "to speak the language
of the Whites"). Louis de Boeck, was the first missionary in the Belgian Colony, with a grade
in linguistics. In the furrow of his famous uncle, he made himself the fervid propagandist of
Lingala and refuted in his publications (and actions) the arguments of Hulstaert.
Not all Africans appreciated the options of Aequatoria. Jean-François Iyeki wanted French in
the schools and required an accelerated access to the "superior culture of the Whites", and he
didn't know how to keep his contempt for his mother's language. Jean-Robert Bofuky, was the
faithful servant of the security chief of the Colony (Colonel Van de Walle) and expressed his
poetic emotions in the language of the latter. There were certainly a lot of other Africans,
such as évolués writing in the Leopoldville magazine for Africans 'La Voix du Congolais', who
preferred assimilation to French.
3. THE DISAPPOINTMENT
When the colonial world collapsed in 1960 and when Africans took their destiny in their own
hands, Hulstaert understood that what he had dedicated his life to, didn't interest anybody.
It was the big disappointment that he will never surmount and that explains some very bitter
ulterior expressions. He confines himself henceforth in merely academic research. End of 1959
he wrote to A.S. Ghenda, an Atetela/Ana Mongo: "You have enough cultural assets in various
domains to be proud of, to be thankful to your forebears, (...) you have a vast field for
hundreds of researchers. But is time that you get there because many get lost, deteriorate and
especially the interest of the natives quits.... It will be very difficult for you to maintain
these values in the new Congo." (Letter of the 25-10-1959).
When in 1963 the Democratic Republic of Congo imposes French officially as the sole language
of the teaching, his disillusion seems to be consumed and he writes to his old fellow
traveller, Mr Possoz: "All want to reject customary laws. They started now to frenchify the
whole life: every indigenous language must be banned of the lowest classes of the schools. All
must be as at the Whites. The "chefferie" is suppressed. They name it now: "Commune" and
"Arrondissement". The land is confiscated to the owners left without investigation and without
indemnification. The law doesn't exist anymore, only the colonial codex. The whole of Africa
speaks of bantu mentality, African logic etc..., but these are only words and nothing else".
(Letter of the 27-5-1963)
GH = Gustaaf Hulstaert
EB = Edmond Boelaert
AA = Annales Aequatoria
H. Vinck, 1987, Le Centre Æquatoria de Bamanya, 50 ans de recherches africanistes,
Zaïre-Afrique, n° 212, 79-102
H. Vinck, 1987, Le cinquantième anniversaire du Centre Æquatoria, AA 8, 431-441
G. Hulstaert, 1988, L'ethnie mongo, Nouvelles rationalités africaines, 3,397-403
G. Hulstaert, 1991, Mission et langue, Annales Aequatoria (AA) 12, 527-533
H. Vinck, 1993, Æquatoria, une identité, AA 14, 7-11
H. Vinck, 1996, Influence des missionnaires sur la prise de conscience ethnique et politique
Mongo, Revue Africaine des Sciences de la Mission, 4,131-147
H. Vinck, 1997, Æquatoria 1937-1997. 60 ans d'acharnement, AA, 18,7
Charles Lonkama et H. Vinck, Tradition et modernité mongo: Bio-bibliographie de Paul Ngoi, AA
H. Vinck, 1998, Biographie Belge d'Outre-Mer. Volume VIII Bruxelles, [Notices biographiques
de]: Albert De Rop ; c. 371-373; Harry Van Thiel, c. 411-413; John Carrington, c. 39-41; Jean
François Iyeki, c. 191-192; Charles Lodewijckx, c. 243-245; Gustaaf Hulstaert, c. 182-186
H. Vinck, Dimensions et inspiration de l'œuvre de Gustaaf Hulstaert, Revue Africaine des
Sciences de la Mission, n.12, juin 2000, p.208-236
H. Vinck, 2001, Les tableaux des missionnaires-peintres coloniaux: Petrus Vertenten, Jos
Yernaux, Raymond Carlé, Edward Van Goethem, AA 22, 435-436