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Being Colonized

The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960

Jan Vansina

Publication Year: 2010

What was it like to be colonized by foreigners? Highlighting a region in central Congo, in the center of sub-Saharan Africa, Being Colonized places Africans at the heart of the story. In a richly textured history that will appeal to general readers and students as well as to scholars, the distinguished historian Jan Vansina offers not just accounts of colonial administrators, missionaries, and traders, but the varied voices of a colonized people. Vansina uncovers the history revealed in local news, customs, gossip, and even dreams, as related by African villagers through archival documents, material culture, and oral interviews.
    Vansina’s case study of the colonial experience is the realm of Kuba, a kingdom in Congo about the size of New Jersey—and two-thirds the size of its colonial master, Belgium. The experience of its inhabitants is the story of colonialism, from its earliest manifestations to its tumultuous end. What happened in Kuba happened to varying degrees throughout Africa and other colonized regions: racism, economic exploitation, indirect rule, Christian conversion, modernization, disease and healing, and transformations in gender relations. The Kuba, like others, took their own active part in history, responding to the changes and calamities that colonization set in motion. Vansina follows the region’s inhabitants from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, when a new elite emerged on the eve of Congo’s dramatic passage to independence.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

A Note on Spelling and Pronunciation

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pp. xi-xiii

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pp. 3-9

The old man stood there in his compound on top of the hill, silent now, lost in dreams and gazing over the landscape. He had just retold us how the colonial soldiers came to capture the town and his freedom. He stood there for a long while, recalling perhaps all that happened to him and those he had known since then until this day in the waning years of the era ...

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1. Congo: Becoming a Colony

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pp. 10-34

Kongo was the name given to an old African kingdom, most of which lies in Angola today. Later this realm, which straddled the lower reaches of the mighty dragon-shaped river coiled in the heart of Africa, bestowed its name, Congo, on that river. And when in the late nineteenth century a completely new political entity, Leopold’s colony, emerged in the basin of that river, it was also called Congo ...

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2. The Colonial Relationship

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pp. 35-57

An absolutely essential foundation for the development of any colony was the creation of a special unequal relationship between people belonging to two different worlds: namely, all the foreigners from overseas, not just state personnel, with their own different and exotic culture, as masters and all the local African populations, with the variety of their cultures, as subjects. Without such a relationship ...

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3. Incidental Conquest

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pp. 58-85

Recently the history of the Congo Independent State returned to the attention of a wider public when a sensational, century-old controversy flared up again. The original controversy had started in the 1890s when indignant missionaries began to report and denounce the atrocities they had witnessed. The scope and the tenor of such accusations grew until the British government ordered its consul Roger Casement to investigate ...

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4. Company Rule and Its Consequences

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pp. 86-126

This was how traders at Luebo learned in 1901 that Leopold II was pressuring the fourteen companies that operated in Kasai to merge into a single new concessionary company in a fifty/fifty partnership with the state. The king succeeded, and the Compagnie du Kasai was established by royal decree on the eve of Christmas 1901 with a monopoly over the trade in rubber, ivory, and other raw materials. ...

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5. Were The Kuba Nearly Wiped Out?

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pp. 127-149

This urgent warning from the Permanent Committee for the Protection of the Natives is the most explosive statement ever made about the early history of Congo. It is so because all history is about people, and what happens to their numbers is of fundamental importance for everything else. ...

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6. Fifty Years of Belgian Rule: An Overview

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pp. 150-177

Once Belgium had taken over Congo and organized its administration in Upper Congo, further developments of the colony often seem to have been so gradual, at least until the last years before independence, that the entire half century is often perceived as a single, rather uneventful era. Indeed, some authors speak of the unfolding of events during those years as a “placid river.” Yet it was not. ...

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7. A Kingdom Preserved

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pp. 178-213

The rulers of colonial Africa have been famously divided over how best to govern their dependencies. What was better, direct rule or indirect rule? Was direct rule better in which the colonial overlord created territorial units and imposed any person of their choice to head them, or was indirect rule better in which the overlord recognized the preexisting territorial groups and strove to rule through the legitimate leaders they found ...

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8. Village Life: 1911-1950s

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pp. 214-243

This chapter deals with the economic and social experiences of villagers in the Bushong and Kete countryside. It therefore complements the previous chapter, which looked at the history of indirect rule from the top down. Moreover, in sharp contrast to indirect rule that dealt with a situation rather exceptional in colonial Congo, the experiences at the grassroots village level were quite similar to those of rural folk elsewhere in rural Congo ...

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9. In Pursuit of Harmony

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pp. 244-270

The great swine flu epidemic in 1918–19 was the last of the great plagues that decimated the Kuba. Yet even after it had passed their population did not flourish. The gravest threat facing them from then on until the very eve of independence was a steadily falling birthrate due to venereal disease. The lack of children soon became striking ...

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10. Visions for a Different Future

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pp. 271-297

Reckoned by the calendar, the colonial period constituted only a small fraction of the whole duration of Kuba history. Yet these years were all important, for it was during this period that some Kuba pioneers began to leave their universe and step into a brave new modern world. ...

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11. Toward a New World

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pp. 298-324

The first Luso-Africans, and later the first people from overseas, revealed to the Kuba a new world across the oceans in which most things seemed to be vastly different from what they were used to. When these exotic foreigners began to settle in their country, the curious local people keenly scrutinized everything they did ...

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Conclusion: The Experience of Being Colonized

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pp. 325-331

This narrative about the history of colonial experiences among the Bushong and Kete is now over. And so it is time to look back at the whole sweep of this book and to ask ourselves a few questions that flow from the choice to write about “being colonized” and about the value of “the experience of the Bushong and Kete” ...


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pp. 333-342

E-ISBN-13: 9780299236434
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299236441

Page Count: 342
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Kuba (African people) -- Congo (Democratic Republic) -- Social conditions -- History.
  • Congo (Democratic Republic) -- Colonization.
  • Congo (Democratic Republic) -- History -- To 1908.
  • Congo (Democratic Republic) -- History -- 1908-1960.
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