1 July 2021

Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King

Text by Lucas Catherine, published online

This new monologue, written by Lucas Catherine, was performed in the historic Castle of Drogenbos, the home of the Calmeyn family for many generations. In three languages, Calmeyn’s soliloquy was read by three different actors and performers. In Dutch by Kurt Vandendriessche, in French by Ophélie Mac, and in English by Martin Swabey.

Maurice Calmeyn, on whom the soliloquy is based, was a rare and open critic of King Leopold’s colonial project in the time, and the book (Au Congo Belge, 1912) he wrote after his travels to Congo in 1907 and 1908, caused much uproar and resulted in social exclusion. The book was suppressed severely and the original copy is still rare to find. This soliloquy aims to capture the essence of this book, to give an idea of the personality of Maurice Calmeyn and the message he tried to convey at the time.


Download the soliloquy (English)
Télécharger le soliloque (French)
Download de soliloquy (Dutch)


Lucas Catherine is a Brussels-based author who publishes on colonisation, the relationship of European civilisation with other world civilizations and Islam. He approaches religions from an atheistic perspective. Among other things he wrote about the colonization of Palestine: The Palestinians, one people too many? And Palestine, the last colony? About the colonization of Congo: Manyiema, the only war that Belgium won, Building with black money and Walking to Congo.


Maurice Calmeyn biography
(written by Lucas Catherine)

Maurice Calmeyn was born in Brussels as a member of the upper-middle class. His mother was an Orban, a family that had become rich through its involvement in industry in Liège and its investments in the Congo, among other places. The Calmeyns were friends of the Solvays, and as large landowners in La Panne they were related to the Bortiers.

Maurice Calmeyn, an agricultural engineer by training, spent half his time as a wealthy bourgeois in Brussels and the other half as a large landowner in La Panne. As a tourist, he went elephant hunting in the Congo. In the description he gives of his first, eight-month trip in 1907, hunting plays a leading role. But already the first critical notes about colonization appear. That first journey started in Cairo and ended in the then Congolese capital of Boma. A year later, he left Boma for a second journey, sailed down the Congo, and then traveled in the northeast along the Uele and Itimbiri rivers. He was the only white person in the party, which also included two Congolese servants, a cook, and a scout. Each time he entered the territory of a different chief, he recruited porters for his 35 crates of food (including quite a few bottles of champagne, the drink of choice of Congo explorers!), his tent, bed, and chuck box, and his two Kodak cameras with accessories. For eight months, he had only occasional encounters with white state officials. It would fundamentally affect him, and from a hunter, he became an accuser of the colonial system. From both his life history and his book, Calmeyn comes across as quite his own man. In his book (Au Congo Belge, 1912), he expressed outspoken criticism of colonial oppression. King Leopold II and his lackeys were blamed, as were the missionaries.

His book was well-reviewed in Britain. In Belgium, things were different; it barely made it into the press. In April, Calmeyn sent his book to King Albert I. He received a polite letter on May 4th promising that it would be read. But, writes Calmeyn in the notebook in which he recorded all the reactions to the book, real reviews failed to materialize and it never got beyond inclusions in bibliographies, because “un mot d’ordre à été donné et suivi” [a directive was issued and followed] to ignore the book. According to him, August Vermeylen was behind this. Vermeylen was an influential Brussels socialist. During the debate on the takeover of the Congo Free State by Belgium, his position was: if Dutch becomes the official language in the Congo alongside French, we are in favour of the takeover, otherwise not. As for the rest, the abuses in the colony did not interest him in the least. Also, he was on friendly terms with King Albert I. Le Journal du Congo, a colonial weekly published in Brussels between 1911 and 1914, launched an attack against Calmeyn and his book with two long articles on May 25th and June 22nd, 1912. They were a response to three long contributions by Calmeyn himself, in Le Mouvement Géographique in late April-early May. Therefore the book had to be ignored, and it was.

He himself was marginalized as a “traitor” in his Brussels milieu and he retreated to La Panne. In 1903, he had had an 85-hectare deciduous forest planted, today known as the Calmeyn Forest (66 hectares). He watched over the ecological intactness of the dunes and posted the names of polluters on a “pillory” in front of his house. In 1910, Calmeyn founded the Institut Pannois, a liberal, non-Catholic school. Even after its recognition by the government, he continued to pay a quarter of the cost out of his own pocket. The school still exists today. Calmeyn also founded two cooperatives, a bakery, and a grocery store. With the profits, he granted scholarships to children of workers and fishermen. He led the Liberal opposition in the municipal elections of that year but lost to the Catholic Party of Mayor Ernest d’Arripe. His critical attitude led Calmeyn from liberalism to communism. Just before his death, Calmeyn became the main financier of the social film Misère au Borinage by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck. He would never get to see the film, as he died on the day of its premiere.

He donated most of his land to the community, and his collection of Fauvist paintings went to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. His monumental tomb in the La Panne cemetery is filled with symbols of Freemasonry and communism.

‘Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King’, performed at Drogenbos Castle by Ophélie Mac (Performed in French)

‘Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King’, performed at Drogenbos Castle by Martin Swabey (Performed in English)

‘Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King’, performed at Drogenbos Castle by Kurt Vandendriessche (Performed in Dutch)

‘Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King’, performed at Drogenbos Castle by Kurt Vandendriessche (Performed in Dutch)

Calmeyn in the Congo: On Elephants, Missionaries, and a Rubber King
Written by Lucas Catherine

I don’t know your name but mine is Calmeyn, Maurice Calmeyn. I was born in Brussels and from my childhood on, I lived on the Boulevard de Waterloo. But never in Calmeyn castle in Drogenbos, where my cousin Georges lived. I often went there, to look at the trees. As a child, I was greatly impressed. I’ve always had a thing for trees.

Later on I went to live in La Panne. My family hails from that land and still has strong roots there.

“Land” is the right word, because we are large landowners. And land is of interest to me because I’m an agricultural engineer by trade. And trees interest me, too. The trees in Drogenbos obviously have something to do with that. 

How we came into possession of that land is debatable. They say we got rich by buying up ecclesiastical land after it had been impropriated by Napoleon. But one needed money to be able to buy. They say that money came from smuggling. The Calmeyns–those from La Panne, not those from Bruges–were smuggling between England and the continent during the blockades in the Napoleonic era. And it certainly helped that we married rich, to the Orbans and the Bortiers. 

The land is actually dune land and when, not so long ago, the dunes were divided up the rest of the family wanted to monetize them as soon as possible by planting fast-growing trees and peddling them. Not just our family, also the Bortiers (with whom we are related) and the Dumonts. So be it. 

But not me. I wanted to experiment, see which tree species and other crops grew best on dune soil. One is an agricultural engineer or one is not, and I object to peddling, which is cheating. And in 1903 I planted the forest which was named after me. It still has 25 species of trees and even more bushes and shrubs. I did all this during the season, when the entire family was staying in our villa in La Panne, including those from Brussels like me.

I object to peddlers and the greatest peddler of them all, the King of Peddlers, is our Leopold II. I don’t just say that, I know what I’m talking about and I’ve had to suffer the consequences. How do I know? Well, when I was young and hadn’t yet married my Frenchwoman, Jeanne Heim… Although, young? All right then, I was 44, but then you’re in your prime. One is as young as one wants to be. So back then, in 1907, I went to the Congo, which at the time still belonged to Leopold II. For seven months, not really as a tourist but back then I had time, and money, too. A year later, I went to the Congo for another seven months because in Brussels I was getting bored. All that blah-blah from the high society and in La Panne it was even worse because there are fewer society people and therefore more of the same: blah-blah…

I’m a sportsman. One of those that back then only existed in England: a gentleman with a sporty hobby, so not a cyclist or a footballer. As a sportsman, I wanted to hunt elephants and that was possible in the Congo.

You will say: such a cruel sport, and I can already see the environmental freaks shifting in their seats: what’s all this and do we really have to listen to it? I can reassure you, I’m no poacher. As a matter of fact, immediately after my second journey, I drew up a “Règlement de la chasse” in La Belgique maritime et coloniale, in order to curtail and control the hunting of elephants, already in 1909! So hold your horses before you condemn me.

Off I went to the Congo. Took the boat in Dunkirk and: Africa, here I come. So, I went hunting elephants in the northeast, along the Aruwimi River and the Uele River.

Sorry but I’d still like to explain how a sportsman hunts elephants. First of all: no females or calves, only adult males. And with hunting, I’m not referring to the way our colonial army hunts over there. A company officer will order to fire volley after volley at an elephant herd. Any real sportsman or hunter will immediately understand that this is pure horror, sheer carnage. And then there are those tourism agencies that organize hunting safaris for rich white people, led by a “white hunter”. These professional hunters will arrange it so that the white tourist can down an elephant without any risk whatsoever. Any elephant: female, calf. Oh, dear!

That’s not a sport, that’s animal cruelty. And then they draft a hunting code which prohibits hunting okapis in the northwest, in an area of 800 square kilometers, when up until now not one okapi has been killed by a hunter. But there is no mention of the elephants. If you want to protect the elephants, prohibit the killing of females and calves!

A sportsman like me will approach a male to within a few meters. And you’re alone, alone with a native who’s carrying your camera. The rest of your crew you leave behind. You get closer to within seven or at least ten meters. I can assure you that the first few times you’re scared to death. You tell yourself: don’t go any closer, you’re taking too much risk. If such a male animal charges, forget about running off, it is a lot faster than you. Make sure to be standing next to a tree; that will be your only salvation.

And what to do with the meat? It’s for the population from which I hired my staff. I have them pay with little copper bars that they use as money, or with mitakos, little iron bars half a yard long. Why? If I give them the meat for free I won’t get anything with my next elephant. But if I have them pay, I get eggs, rice, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, and bananas–quite a change from surviving on canned food and champagne! I always have a small supply of little Pommery bottles in my luggage. Yes, champagne is the only wine that will survive the tropics. And a good cigar to go with it!

It takes quite a bit of gear to make such a seven-month journey through the upper part of the Congo: I had more than 50 trunks and on top of that a small Canadian canoe. I also hired more than 40 porters. They call me Commander Bongo, which means Commander Trunk. Unlike the state, which forces the men to work as porters without pay, I pay them well. 

You will ask me: how about the roads? Well, don’t believe Stanley’s stories; that man exaggerates greatly. Staying in and traveling through a tropical forest is a lot easier than he claims.

And the food? I don’t eat elephant meat myself. The trunk is a delicacy among the colonials but I prefer shooting a waterbuck, which my men will then eat. I like the brains, fried in browned butter with a dash of vinegar. A lot of canned food, far too much, and whatever else I can buy from the locals. Eggs, but no chickens; those are all skin and bone, leathery and not worth the chewing. 

A little Pommery bottle at night in your tent will make you forget Brussels and its society blah-blah. And a good book, too. I always carry books in my luggage, books I can reread. To read by moonlight, without feeling homesick for Brussels, its society with its false problems and conventions: people who all want to think alike, what mediocrity! 

And they all agree about what our monarch is up to over there. They repeat his slogan: “I have taken the Congo upon me in the name of Civilization”.

Nonsense. I know better: our petit roi belge wanted money, lots of money to turn Brussels into Petit Paris, little London or little Berlin, and Ostend into Brussels-by-the-Sea! And to show off in Paris and the French Riviera, and to maintain all his mistresses!

Mind you, I don’t object to having a mistress. I’ve got one myself in La Panne: Netje Slekke, the owner of the Café des Sports, but to maintain a mistress at the expense of the blacks in the Congo! That’s what he calls “civilization”.

Not only is the elephant being exterminated in the name of our monarch and for the sake of ivory, but his lust for rubber is even more pernicious, especially for the people over there.

There are those who see the blacks as animals, or even worse, as objects. They mistreat them for no reason whatsoever. That is why we must condemn in the strongest terms the rubber system designed in Brussels, which results in Free State agents using the most terrible methods to increase rubber production.

I want to add something about a rubber liana plantation I visited. The lianas were planted six years ago. Of most of them not a trace is to be found. With great difficulty, I found two that had not yet withered away. The rubber trees look a little better but everything is overrun by the surrounding vegetation. A rubber plantation like that can only yield a profit if it is being maintained by a qualified person. That is most certainly not the case. Quality is of no concern, only quantity matters. I have never seen a Free State rubber plantation that was truly productive. 

Accompanied by an agricultural inspector I also visited a plantation in Bima that had been established six years ago, with thousands of planted rubber lianas. With difficulty, I found one that had not yet died. The local population can no longer supply rubber, all the lianas in the region between Go and Imbembo have disappeared–harvested till extinction–and so a police action will be undertaken against the population there. Such actions have often led to major uprisings. The Bangalas have set the Anversoise concessions on fire for three years straight. Something similar has happened in the entire state territory with rubber, and also in areas assigned to the big companies, especially Abir and Anversoise. Everywhere, the Force Publique was deployed to exact rubber. 

Because the population is sent en masse into the forest to harvest wild rubber, they no longer have time to provide for their food. Entire communities perish that way. 

I can firmly state that the population now suffers more than in the time of the Arabs. One should not forget that these “Arab conquerors” had set up plantations of diverse food cultures everywhere, which greatly benefited the local population. Now those plantations have vanished and nothing has taken their place. It’s a pity that no impartial history has ever been written of the presence of the Zanzibari Arabs and all they achieved there. 

I feel very safe here myself because my reputation precedes me. They know that I have a keen interest in elephants and that I’m independent and have nothing to do with the Free State.

We will have to work long and hard to heal the wounds inflicted by Leopold II and his business partners. Millions of blacks are scorned by the colonial administration and every day they have to take the fall for the mistakes and the incompetence of the civil servants until inevitably the time comes that they will rise. After my two journeys, I have concluded that the Free State has only ever taken its immediate self-interest at heart, not the future of the Congo. There was systematic plundering by the Free State as well as by commercial companies that wanted to harvest ever more rubber.

This is my criticism as an agricultural engineer but as an atheist, I also want to talk about the missions. 

Did we Belgians not bring “civilization” to the Congo then, especially through our missionaries? In many regards, blacks are more civilized than lots of Belgians. Every day, they wash all over, in the evening with hot water, and they constantly rinse their mouths and brush their teeth with special sticks. They cut their fingernails and toenails and wash their hair every day. And we? In the countryside in Flanders, men and women only wash their faces, the rest is left smelly and if they were to wash more thoroughly, the priest would call them whores. And not only in the countryside, in Brussels likewise. Just fancy finding yourself seated next to someone like that during a theater play. They’re puffing and panting with heat and sweat, and to put it bluntly: they stink. 

To say that we brought them civilization and elevated them morally through the missionaries is pure nonsense. The question is not whether our moral principles are superior to those of the natives but rather whether they start living better lives when they adopt our principles. I can assure you that no contact with missionaries, catholic nor protestant, ever made them morally better.

These missionaries constitute a state within the state, or worse, a state above the state. For instance, they can use the fimbo (whip) by way of punishment in a closed room, while state officials have to do so in public. This is to avoid sadism but it allows the missionaries to indulge their dark urges on those poor blacks. 

They waste their time preaching the gospel to the blacks and trying to have them trade their beautiful chants for terrible church hymns. They are stuck in the Reformation era and spend all their time attacking protestant missionaries or unbelieving Europeans. 

The state should set up its own schools where the Congolese can learn a trade, because the state as well as the companies need local employees who can read, write, and do sums, tradespeople like bricklayers, carpenters, smiths, or mechanics. As to the mission schools, the outcome of those is zero.

The worst thing is that the state still forcibly brings children to mission schools and gives the religious the right to exploit them until age twenty, twenty-five. And if they flee, they send the army after them.

The fables the missionaries tell in a magazine like Le Mouvement des Missions are as fantastic as what they used to say about China: that the poor people over there feed their children to the pigs. And to say that in 1911 the Belgian state provided a huge subsidy budget for the missions, with which they themselves could organize decent education and offer opportunities to the blacks. 

Who has ever had a career thanks to the missionaries? Examples of that are nowhere to be found in Le Mouvement des Missions. What you do read is that with 25 francs you can save a black soul from hell…

Why is the Minister of Colonies unable to provide examples of tradespeople or employees who graduated from the mission schools? The same budget of 1911 contained 1,100,000 francs destined for wages for Congolese in state employment. Comparing the two budgets one has to consider the rather limited number of missionaries, especially given the number of Congolese working for the state! 

I haven’t seen lots of missionaries during my travels but I have seen hundreds of Congolese building houses, building or maintaining roads and bridges, and building boats, thereby guaranteeing transportation on land and water and providing the state with the means for its subsistence. And I’ve seen how meager their wages were. 

And what do the Belgians know about this? Nothing, it is regrettable that the sovereign of the Congo has bribed part of the Belgian and international press. But what’s even worse is that he has relegated certain politicians to the position of mere yes-men who now no longer show any proof of dignity or independence in Parliament. Having said that, I know they will reproach me of being disloyal to the king. I don’t care. Ministers and politicians disregard the national interest and become lackeys to the Crown. Many of them are being rewarded for their servile subservience with titles of nobility or positions in la haute finance, which they could never have obtained otherwise. 

Having finished my two journeys, I’d completely had it with the Congo. I could never have imagined such violent colonization. And then the hypocrisy surrounding it!

So, I gathered some porters to sail down the Congo River with me to Thysville, and in Bumba, I said goodbye to my boy Angoba. As long as I could see him he stood watching me from the river bank. What did he make of my departure for Europe? I would have liked to know what he thought and felt, and why he kept staring after me for so long. 

In Thysville I took the train to Matadi. The trip takes 10 hours but it is beautiful and winds between the mountains, with the occasional rapid of the Congo River. In a way it is comfortable. The carriages have twelve seats and a rear balcony. One is shaken less violently than in our Belgian vicinaux, I’m thinking of the stretch between La Panne and Dunkirk, although the speed is much higher. It’s dangerous because of all those mountains and bridges, but we have faith in the staff. All of them are black: the engineer, the driver, and the brake operator. They have no use for a ticket collector.

In Matadi I took the boat to Boma. From there I went with the Albertville to Teneriffe, a stopover, where I switched to a British cargo ship that also allowed passengers on board in first class and so to Dunkirk, where my mother and other family members from La Panne were waiting for me. 

Writing all of this up and calling Leopold II personally responsible didn’t make me any friends. By orders of the powers that be, I was made a black sheep and everyone in Brussels started ignoring me. 

So I retired to La Panne and took the fate of fishermen and poor people to heart. I was involved in establishing a (lay) school, financing scholarships, establishing a cooperative, and bankrolling some other endeavors, which I call my kind of good works. For example, I subsidized the film Misère au Borinage by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck. Occasionally I would still go to Brussels but not to Drogenbos. Not that I missed the trees over there. On the contrary, I had my own trees in La Panne. Better even, I had my own forest. 

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