Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brazza In Congo

Photo ©James Estrin/The New York Times-All Rights Reserved.

The New York Times just featured a review of the exhibits "Brazza in Congo" and “Brazza: A Symbol for Humanity” that are being held in Manhattan. These are the kind of exhibits that capture my imagination, particularly since one of my favorite historical figures is Sir Richard Burton, the British scholar and explorer.

The exhibits revolve around Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà, (1852-1905), who was a Franco-Italian explorer. With the backing of the Société de Géographique de Paris, he opened up for France entry along the right bank of the Congo, eventually leading to the French colonization of Central Africa. His easy manner and great physical charm, as well as his pacific approach among Africans, were his trademarks. Under French colonial rule, Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, was named in his honor.

I'm truly conflicted by men like Burton and Brazza. Were they heroic explorers or crass exploiters? They certainly were precursors to the colonization of Africa, and to the ensuing imperialism in this continent. As the New York Times article remarks:
Imperialism is widely seen as the original sin of the modern West, whose ramifications can still be felt in the aftershocks of warfare and corruption that continue to plague so much of the African continent.
Despite my abhorrence of colonialism, I prefer to think of Burton as a genius, as the quintessential explorer, as a talented writer, as a brave soldier, as an orientalist and ethnologist, and as a remarkable linguist with an extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures who was reputed to have spoken 29 European, Asian, and African languages. Perhaps Brazza was of the same caliber? I'll find out.

Addendum: My verdict? Seemingly a well-intentioned man with lofty and commendable ideals...but he was not Richard Burton's caliber.

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