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|Colonial Schoolbooks > Studies: Race and Racism in Schoolbooks
Race and Racism in Schoolbooks of the Belgian Congo / by Honoré Vinck
A first version of this text in French has been published in Revue Africaine de Théologie (Kinshasa) 1998, n°43, pages 104-115. The quoted texts can be found there in the original African language. For technical reasons it was impossible to reproduce them here.
The textbooks of the Belgian Congo are still a virgin ground for the historical and
educational research. A whole series of texts of very diverse origin being written between
1920 and 1955 (and used well beyond) bring back the origin of the races to the biblical
account of three sons of Noah. The standard text is as follows: "The names of the children of
Noah were: Sem, Ham and Japheth. Sem is the father of the Jews, the Arabs and people with whom
they are related. Ham is the father of the Blacks and those wich resemble to them; and Japheth
is the father of the White and of those with whom they are related". Nowhere in the booklets
is found even one formal denial of the basic aptitude towards progress and the intellectual
abilities of the Blacks. But the superiority de facto of the White on the Blacks and of some
particular groups of Black people is strongly underlined. The textbooks adapt without
criticisms the local racial prejudices, mainly towards the Pygmies. The colonist has the
vocation: "to teach the Blacks the intelligence of the White".
Glancing trough certain schoolbooks of the Belgian Congo, one can't some times believe his
eyes. The local culture is presented under the darkest colours and the Western intervention
like a luminous liberation. It is true that this kind of literature must be interpreted in its
historical context and it is essential to compare with the textbooks used in the
"mother-fatherland". In addition it is clear that this literature is not uniform in its
ideological presentation of the colonial practices and one finds also attitudes critical with
regard to the generally accepted ideas. This proves a certain awareness of the aberrations of
the colonial practice and shows that not all is to be allotted to "the spirit of the times".
E.J. Rubben in its Leçons pratiques du Lingala (1928), brings back the origin of the races
to the creation and it reduces the differences to physical features: "All the men on earth
descend from Adam and Eve, our first ancestors; but they all are not the same: the skin and
the shape of their face and their head differ much. One divides the men of this world into
four kinds, in particular: Blacks, Yellows and Reds. The White live in 'Europe" (page 148.)
The texts mentioning the division of the races are taken from Bible and the readers are
certainly modelled on the European booklets and as such probably do not contain anything
specific. At times they form part of a lesson that also contains the curse by Noah of its
grandson Canaan, who does not play a direct role in the tripartite division of the world. And
what is remarkable to notice? In several of our texts there is substitution of the name of
Canaan by that of Ham. According to these booklets, Noah would have cursed Ham, intending to
make him the slave of his brothers. If some lines further one reads that the cursed Ham is the
father of the black race, the conclusion comes automatically that without the curse of the
Blacks being explicitly professed. In a booklet published by the Marist Brothers in 1929 we
can read: "When Noah awoke, he learned the event from his children, he blesses Shem and
Japheth, and he cursed Ham: Ham is bad, he will be the slave of his brothers" (Buku ya Nzambe,
Maristes, 1929, p.19) And the booklet of Father Gilliard rephrases: "Ham you are bad. You will
be the slave of your brothers; Shem and Japheth be praised; Ham will be your slave" (Mbo inki
Nzambe…, Brugge 1921, lesson 9)
The myth of the curse of Ham, related to the theory of the origin of the human races according to the descendance of three sons of Noah, gave origin to the theory of the almost divine curse of the black race. According to studies of P. Charles, this theory which has its origin at the Middle Ages was still quite alive with the l9th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. As for the schoolbooks, I found one which professed openly and abundantly this myth. In 1911, the Sisters of Precious Blood published in Bamanya (Mbandaka, RDC) a booklet of songs for schoolchildren (Njembo ea Nkundo). The author of the texts, simple translations or new creations, is Sister Arnoldine Falter (1871-1919, in the Congo between 1899-1911). Three songs mention the curse of the Blacks explicitly and are entirely dedicated to the theme.
A second text Nkongo Salangana (Congo delight) sings the liberation of the Congolese of the Arab slavery. The true reason of this slavery is:
The instrument of the divine liberating intervention is:
Léopold II to which is made allusion here, acts by the interposition of the Belgians:
A third song (n°43) inculcates to the small children that they belong indeed to a cursed race:
The feeling to be a human being, in fact of the same stock and necessarily miserable, is strongly illustrated by the texts of the most varied booklets. We quote only some examples of them. A second booklet of hymns (Njembo y'Eklesia) e.g., published in Bamanya by the same Sisters, made the children start singing (song 52):
The small lesson on the history of Congo in the Reader of Mgr Egide De Boeck (l908, but used at least until 1945) is clear on the subject: As you were the slaves of the daemon, God had pity of you (...) one practised satanic virtues" . (Mambi ma botangi, Makanza 1932, p.151)
A lesson in the booklet (Toyekoli lingala) published by the Brothers of St Gabriel in 1937 cannot be more eloquent "In the middle of the forest the savages held the wheel and the wizards (baloki = also ' devils') were delighted" (lesson 5, p. 18). These expressions were not limited to the catholic missions. In a handbook of the Congo Balolo Mission of 1930 one can read: "The inhabitants of these regions were very ferocious at that time, and the White found them posing satanic acts". (Bonkanda wa Nsango, p.153)
What can have been the cause of such pessimistic sights? Europeans, especially missionaries, confronted for the first time with the indigenous society, had tried to understand the reason and the origin of what they regarded as human decay. An explanation of it was the effect of the curse of God. Another explanation lays in the fact that they were not baptized and thus still under the influence of the original sin, which is equivalent to the reign of the devil. (Only the Christian baptism could wipe away the original sin). G Hulstaert's Reader of 1935 explains it clearly: "The Son of God was made man (...) to redeem us from the slavery of the devil. All the human beings are under his influence (...) since Adam and Eve" (Buku ea Mbaanda, p.4) The other booklets do not speak about the universality of the effects of the sin of Adam and as all the Occident was already baptized, the application was valuable for the only Blacks. All the expressions of this kind ("the devil is their god" etc...) should be interpreted in this sense. A teacher of the area where Hulstaert worked, was himself impregnated of this idea. Publicly in a short speech in 1950 he declared: "The people of before lived in darkness and were decimated by diseases and cannibalism"(La Gazette de l' Equateur, 1 juin 1953, p.5). Epithets like "savages, superstitious, jealous, ignoramus, lazy"(Buku na botangi mpe boteyi, Niangara 1951, p. 11) applied by our booklets to the Blacks were only the characteristics of the "reign of the devil"
But there is hope according to the book of songs already quoted (Njembo ya Eklesia, 1911, p.14)
Racial theories and ethnocentrism are two sides of a same picture. Most of the schoolbooks profess at some times a radical white ethnocentrism. But in addition, here and there we meet also the appropriation by the white author of a certain ethnocentrism from the local black society, expressed by stereotypes current in the area where the booklet were used.
To the point and without other restriction, Rubben wrote in his Leçons pratique de lingala: "White people live in Europe; they dispersed throughout the world, in Asia, in Africa and America. They exceed all the others in intelligence" (page 148). In practice that means according to the booklet of Mgr E De Boeck: "You see durable material houses, large boats bringing products of Europe. You see Blacks wearing beautiful clothes like the White; the Blacks read and write like the White; and some speak even the language of the White"
Stanley was regarded as the prototype of the White Man. He is a mythical being: "He was venerated, and with astonishment one reflected on the significance of the white colour of his skin. He was named the man coming out of the water" (Mambi ma tanga, Mpomu 1920, p. 103 et 104)
The Protestant Missionary J.E. Carpenter in his booklet: Banto Ba Monde, (Peoples of the earth) from 1928, teaches us that "The Arabs in north and the Europeans in the south of Africa exceed the other Africans in knowledge" And: "a first reason is that their areas are not hot and for this reason they work hard for food and clothing. Another reason is that in Europe and Asia, one could read and write since hundreds of years, and that they put their knowledge together. The Africans do not know writing. (p.30-31) "To which extend this attitude of superiority was anchored in the spirit of the teachers is well illustrated by a text of 1927 published in a missionary periodical: "A Black crosses the courtyard of our mission. One has only to look at him to be convinced that his race differs radically from ours. At least in his outside and his aspect, the difference is striking: his gleaming black skin, his crisp head and his sinking face, his broad flattened nose, his large back, his big black eyes, timid and uncertain, with encased eyeballs of a white brightness, his largely split mouth and his thick sensual and prominent lips (...) He is a type of lower people, which had never found in themselves the energy to rise "(H. Vermeiren, Annales de N.Dame du S. Coeur, Borgerhout, 38(1927)6)
In an anonymous article which purpose is to warn Protestant missionaries against racism,
the author confesses: "We hesitate to delegate responsibility and authority to the African
because we feel he's mentally and emotionally inferior" and the author evokes then the myth of
Ham: "Something further is said about the 'curse of Ham', and we feel justified in domineering
the African. A theological discussion one the ' curse of Ham' is quite without the scope of
this article. Suffice it to say that, if the African is under such a curse, then God will see
to its execution" (Congo Mission News, Léopoldville, January 1953 p. 12)
The excellent Protestant booklet Banto Ba Monde of the Carpenters was certainly written for general use in all Central Africa. One finds a long talk there on Uganda with the ultimate judgement: "All Africans do not resemble each other in the level of knowledge; some exceed the others. Baganda did not destroy their intelligence by idleness. Baganda are people which exceed the other people of Central Africa in intelligence" (p.31 and 39). A lesson in Buku ea mbaanda of 1935 (Hulstaert), presents the people of the Congo and more in detail the subgroups of Mongo people. But the neighbours, the ngombe, their traditional enemies, are described there in utmost pejorative terms. "The ngombe as such have their own manners. They are different from Mongo. They are malicious and quarrelsome. The evil in which they excel is sorcery" (lesson 74). Rubben still teaches us in his Leçons Pratiques de Lingala, that "Bangala are more intelligent than Bakongo" (p. 135). The author lived in Tumba and Kinshasa, area of the Bakongo where the Bangala had been perceived like the first helpers of the Whites which build Léopoldville, being workers of the State and first recruits of the Police force.
Several booklets add a few words on the Pygmies. Hulstaert always respectfull towards the habits and traditions of the Blacks qualifies them as follows: "They have singular manners. They do not seek to develop their intelligence and their well-being".(Buku ea mbaanda, lesson 125) Carpenter who knows them under the denomination of Bafoto characterizes them by these words: "They exceed everyone in stealing" and "The Pygmies reject water and are dirty (...). They exceed all the people of Central Africa in the refusal of developing their own knowledge" ( Banto ba Monde, p.38 and 39). The author of a booklet of 1927 from the Marist Brothers noticed that they have "a round head and a large belly" and "that they do not fear to steal" It is thus not astonishing that the other tribes fear them "because they wound their enemies without warning with arrows and then hide in the forest" (Buku na botanga lingala, Buku III, p.34). Here were gathered in the schoolbooks all the arguments advanced by Bantu to scorn and maltreat the Pygmies.
The majority of the schoolbooks took over the racial prejudices of their time. De Coppet
concluded thus his article "Races" in the Encyclopedia Universalis: "At the end of the l9th
century, cultivated Europe is conscious that mankind is divided in higher and lower races."
And we have an other witness in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14 éd. from 1911:" The Negro is
intellectually inferior to the Caucasian" [nog verifieren ]
Did this education have a determining influence on the fatalism and on the escape of reality in charismatic religious sects so trendy in the Congo of today? The answer is difficult and. To be valid, one will need more systematic investigations in the field.
- ALLIER, R., Un énigme troublant. La race nègre et la malédiction de Cham, dans Les
Cahiers Missionnaires 16 (1930).
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