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Naming Colonialism

History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870–1960

Osumaka Likaka

Publication Year: 2009

What’s in a name? As Osumaka Likaka argues in this illuminating study, the names that Congolese villagers gave to European colonizers reveal much about how Africans experienced and reacted to colonialism. The arrival of explorers, missionaries, administrators, and company agents allowed Africans to observe Westerners’ physical appearances, behavior, and cultural practices at close range—often resulting in subtle yet trenchant critiques. By naming Europeans, Africans turned a universal practice into a local mnemonic system, recording and preserving the village’s understanding of colonialism in the form of pithy verbal expressions that were easy to remember and transmit across localities, regions, and generations.
    Methodologically innovative, Naming Colonialism advances a new approach that shows how a cultural process—the naming of Europeans—can provide a point of entry into economic and social histories. Drawing on archival documents and oral interviews, Likaka encounters and analyzes a welter of coded fragments. The vivid epithets Congolese gave to rubber company agents—“the home burner,” “Leopard,” “Beat, beat,” “The hippopotamus-hide whip”—clearly conveyed the violence that underpinned colonial extractive economies. Other names were subtler, hinting at derogatory meaning by way of riddles, metaphors, or symbols to which the Europeans were oblivious. Africans thus emerge from this study as autonomous actors whose capacity to observe, categorize, and evaluate reverses our usual optic, providing a critical window on Central African colonialism in its local and regional dimensions.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Several institutions provided support at different stages of the research. The Humanities Center at Wayne State University funded research at the Archives Africaines and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels and Tervuren, Belgium. The Career Developments Chairs offered funds that freed me of teaching, allowing me the time for writing. ...

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Introduction: Naming and African Voices

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pp. 3-20

The naming of strangers was a long-established naming convention in Central Africa, which Africans creatively adapted to the colonial situation to identify individual Europeans and groups of Europeans. Despite the singularity of events and diversity of situations that motivated the naming of Europeans, the practice worked broadly the same way ...

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1. The Dynamics of Naming in Precolonial Congo: An Overview

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pp. 21-31

A detailed analysis of precolonial naming traditions of Central Africa and the Congo is a monumental undertaking that falls beyond the preoccupations of this chapter. This is not because such work is impossible to do. Designed to prepare readers to grasp the continuity of precolonial naming conventions in naming Europeans, the chapter is ...

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2. Colonialism and the Village World: Contexts to Naming

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pp. 32-52

The integration of the Congolese village world into the economies of the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo through rubber collection, compulsory cash crop cultivation, and supply of labor was repressive and exploitative, even if one takes the view that a few Congolese villagers benefited from the early ivory boom.1 The local administrations ...

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3. Naming, Colonialism, Making History, and Social Memories

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pp. 53-78

Discourse on colonialism tended to portray colonial encounters as a one-sided process marked solely by military campaigns directed against groups to colonize.1 Although bellicosity was the epicenter of the colonial encounters, as this widespread image suggests, Congolese groups and Europeans were constantly engaged in many interactions. Some ...

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4. Early Naming, Explorations, Trade, and Rubber Collection

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pp. 79-91

The Brussels Conference of 1876, which launched "explorations" to Central Africa, brought Portuguese, Italian, and German explorers to interact with Congolese, whose cultural, economic, and political ideas were different from their own. These explorations only diversified the interactions of Congolese with foreigners because Congolese in Uele ...

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5. Naming and Belgian Colonial Rule

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pp. 92-118

This chapter documents critiques of colonialism by Congolese villagers through naming. It argues that accusations of assaults on the village world, violence, exploitation of women, and intrusion of colonialism into everyday life expressed sufferings, anger, resentments, and protests. Although the chapter pays attention to different categories of names ...

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6. Talking under One's Breath: Praise Names as Strategic Ambiguities

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pp. 119-135

Praise naming was a longstanding tradition in the Congo designed to celebrate events, families, communities, and corporate groups, and to mark achievements of leaders and ordinary individuals. Praise naming was also surreptitiously duplicitous because speakers paired flattering remarks with negative messages to create strategic ambiguity and convey ...

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7. Confronting African Voices: Negotiations and Instrumentalization of Names

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pp. 136-156

Most colonial officials recognized that their local names were voices of village communities and expressed protests, wishes for negotiation, accusations of suffering, and even praise. Based on my own research, this chapter documents various ways colonial officials confronted these voices. The first part of the chapter is a brief discussion of ...

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pp. 157-162

This book pursues two basic objectives, one methodological, the other epistemological or conceptual. Methodologically, I show that the meanings of names given to explorers, missionaries, state officials, and agents of companies conveyed substantial information about colonial rule, local situations, and colonial material conditions created by colonialism. ...

Sample of Names Used in This Work

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pp. 163-170


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pp. 171-196

Works Cited

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pp. 197-212


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pp. 213-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780299233631
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299233648

Page Count: 220
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 550642670
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Naming Colonialism

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Subject Headings

  • Nicknames -- Congo (Brazzaville) -- History.
  • Nicknames -- Congo (Kinshasa) -- History.
  • Kongo language -- Epithets.
  • Congo (Brazzaville) -- Colonization.
  • Congo (Kinshasa) -- Colonization.
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