1892: Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne, Congo Free State hostages

Add comment December 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1892,* Belgian colonial agents Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne were executed by the rebelling native king who had taken them hostage.

The gentlemen were a lieutenant (Lippens) and sergeant (De Bruyne) of the Force Publique colonial deployment in Belgian Congo.

Their misfortune was proximity when in 1892, rivalry over control of the eastern Congo ivory trade brought the European power into war with its erstwhile Zanzibar “Arab”** allies. (The Arabs were slave-traders, affording a classic humanitarian intervention pretext … which obviously is pretty rich coming from Belgium.)

The Congo-Arab War — which in practice was fought on both sides mostly by black Congolese troops — saw in its opening months the defection of one of the Arabs’ best commanders, Gongo Lutete,† a manumitted former slave who had risen to leadership of the Batetela and Bakussu tribes. In revenge when he switched sides to join the Europeans, the Arab leader Sefu bin Hamid seized Lippens, Belgium’s representative Resident at Kasongo, and De Bruyne, Lippens’s aide — demanding the return of his disloyal general and a settlement of hostilities as the price for these European envoys’ lives.

In fact, it was De Bruyne himself who had the honor of delivering the demand. Escorted by his captors to the eastern bank of the Lomami River on November 15, the emaciated De Bruyne shouted across to Belgian officers on the western side the terms of his captivity. The Belgians, who had the river covered by gunners, urged their countryman to leap into the water and swim for it; De Bruyne declined to abandon his comrade. “By this act of self-abnegation he was to go down in the Belgian folklore as a national hero.” (European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath)

His flight would have meant certain death for Lippens; instead, both paid the forfeit together after the Belgian commander Francis Dhanis repelled Sefu bin Hamid’s attack and smashed across the Lomani. According to the account of the war by Sidney Langford Hinde, one of many British officers employed by the Force Publique,

News also reached us here of the murder of Lippens and Debruyne, two officers representing the Free State Government, resident at Sefu’s court in Kasongo. We found out later that, after the defeat of Sefu on the Lomami (which resulted in the death of his cousin and several other noted chiefs), an advance party of the retreating Arabs arrived at Kasongo, and, by way of individual revenge, murdered the two Residents. It is probable, since we have no actual proof to the contrary, that this was done without Sefu’s orders. Twelve of these people, armed with knives hidden in their clothing, made some trivial pretext for visiting Lippens at the Residency, who, however, refused to come out and interview them. They then said that news of a big battle had come to them from Sefu; on hearing which Lippens came out, and, while talking in the verandah, was promptly and silently stabbed. Some of the murderers entering the adjoining room, found Debruyne writing, and killed him before he had learned the fate of his chief. When Sefu returned to Kasongo, a day or two afterwards, he gave orders that the pieces of Debruyne’s body should be collected and buried with Lippens, whose body, with the exception of the hands (which had been sent to Sefu and Mohara of Nyangwe as tokens), was otherwise unmutilated. The strong innate respect for a chief had protected Lippens’ body, while that of his subordinate had been hacked to pieces.

A curious fatality followed these twelve murderers. The chief of the band, Kabwarri by name, was killed by us in the battle of the 26th of February with Lippens’ Martini express in his hand. Of the others — all of whom were the sons of chiefs, and some of them important men on their own account — four died of smallpox, one was killed at Nyangwe, one in the storming of Kasongo, and the remaining six we took prisoners at Kasongo. During the trial they one day, though in a chained gang, succeeded in overpowering the sentry, and thus escaped. One was drowned in crossing a river; three more were killed, either fighting or by accident, within a month or two of their escape; and the two remaining we retook and hanged; — which brings to me a curious point. Of the many men I have seen hanged nearly all died by strangulation, and not by having the neck broken. As compared with shooting, hanging seems to me the less painful death; the wretched being becomes insensible in a very few seconds, whereas a man shot will often require a coup de grace, no matter how carefully the firing party is placed.


Monument to De Bruyne and Lippens in Blankenberge. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

* December 1 is the commonly attributed date for the hostages’ butchery but it can’t be documented with certainty.

** As we’ve noted elsewhere, the term “Arabs” as used for eastern Congo by European sources in this period denotes Muslim bantus. We’re following the prevailing term here, whatever its imprecision.

† As a reward for his services, Gongo Lutete was spuriously accused of treason by a Belgian officer in September 1893 and speedily executed without any form of superior approval.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Congo (Kinshasa),History,Hostages,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1895: Charles Stokes, in the heart of darkness

3 comments January 15th, 2009 Headsman

On January 15, 1895, a Belgian colonial official in the Congo Free State hanged Charles Stokes for trading illicitly.

A British subject who’d abandoned his humdrum Liverpool desk job to become an missionary in Africa, Stokes eventually became a merchant in the mysterious continent noted for his favorable relationships with the locals. (He had two African wives.)

In 1895, operating out of German East Africa,* his caravan was detained trading into the Congo Free StateKing Leopold’s hellish personal reserve — with “Arab” slavers who colonial authorities considered rebels. That “rebel Arab slavers” bit formed the charge against him, but trading outside the royal monopoly was probably at least as egregious in Belgian eyes.

An 1895 Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad sums up the scenario.

It was alleged that [Stokes] had large quantities of arms, ammunition, and ivory, and that he had bought the ivory at a low price from Kibonge, the assassin of Emin Pasha. Captain Lothaire, an official, an official of the Congo State, with a strong force, was then advancing from Stanley Falls to attack this Arab chief Kibonge, in revolt against the Congo State.** On Lothaire’s arrival at Kilunga, Kibonge was already a prisoner in the hands of his own native subordinates, who refused to join him in fighting the State. Stokes applied to Lothaire for protection of his ivory and goods, which he desired to carry towards the East Coast. Lothaire claimed that letters were found among Kibonge’s effects which went to prove that Stokes had sold large quantities of arms and ammunition to this chief, to be used in war against the Congo State. Mr. Stokes was arrested by Captain Lothaire’s orders, brought before a court-martial composed of two non-commissioned officers and Lothaire, and sentenced to be hanged. The execution took place the following morning.

Though not surprising that the summary hanging of a European would provoke an international incident, one would hardly call it equitable given the unnumbered, unmourned multitudes of Africans whose lives were wrung dry and discarded for Belgium’s treasury. Still, the “Stokes Affair” made the headlines in both England and Germany, and for activist types struggling to gain any kind of traction for their tales of colonial horrors, it was something to work with.

Leopold paid off both countries. The trial of Lohaire for naughtily conducting the execution ended in an acquittal. Belgium set up a blue-ribbon commission of missionaries solemnly vowing to investigate abuses, which was never heard from again.

(Look for Charles Stokes’ appearance in this tale of the Belgian Congo’s woe, beginning at about 1:01:25.)

If the Stokes incident didn’t catch fire itself, it became a stick in the accumulating dry tinder that Sir Roger Casement set a spark to in the early 20th century.

And maybe a bit more than that, too.

The horror! The horror!

Stokes’s singular story is often thought to inform (pdf) Joseph Conrad’s great literary critique of colonialism, Heart of Darkness.

The Stokes hanging would be only one data point among many for those who had ears to listen to the horrors emerging from the Congo, to be sure. Still, Molly Mahood and Ian Watt have included Stokes — the gone-native ivory trader — as one of several possible inspirations for the novel and especially the Kurtz character. Lothaire himself probably offered fodder for the petty, tyrannous impunity of colonial officers who the narrator encounters on his way to meet Kurtz.

I gathered in snatches that this was some man supposed to be in Kurtz’s district, and of whom the manager did not approve. ‘We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,’ he said. ‘Certainly,’ grunted the other; ‘get him hanged! Why not? Anything — anything can be done in this country.’

* Present-day Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.

** Lothaire had spent the early part of the decade wresting Belgian commercial dominance in the eastern Congo from the incumbent Arabo-Swahili elites. (The link is French.) “Arabs” in the context of the Belgian Free State meant these Moslem bantus, not (by and large) ethnic Arabs as we would think of them today.

Neither were “Arab slavers” a distinct enemy class for the Free State; those prepared to play ball with white authorities raided native settlements to obtain slaves for rubber plantations and other Belgian-authorized ventures.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Death Penalty,England,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Power,Wrongful Executions

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