NOT TO BE MISSED
"La faute au soleil! Eve en Afrique", a novel by Madeleine MIGEON
Bruxelles: Les éditions de l'expansion belge, 1931. (266p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Almost a century ago, Belgian journalist Madeleine Migeon spent about a year in Africa, sending regular chronicles to her home country. La faute au soleil! gives an account of her sojourn in the colonies, but says very little about Africa beyond trivial details. Rather it exposes unwittingly the colonial psyche and its clichés. Madeleine Migeon's impatient pleas for a return to the ideals of King Leopold II, her apology for the ruthless methods of "heroic pioneers" (p.165) and her prejudice towards the Black African population testify to the bias and poor level of information provided to a gullible readership in Brussels, and in the rest of Europe at the time.
There were indeed many intrepid and curious women travellers of yester-years who criss-crossed the African continent without a chaperon and challenged colonial conventions and orthodoxies. Madeleine Migeon is not one of them. But even so, the beginning of her travelogue encourages readers to imagine otherwise: "As soon as I embarked, she says, the rumour spread: a woman is going to the colony to study the life of her sisters. How is she going to manage such an arduous and laborious undertaking". (p.2) It is only much later that one learns that this daring enquiry about the women of the colony is nothing more than a junket that allowed the narrator to accompany her husband to the Congo.
It is true that Madeleine Migeon undertook some travelling on her own, but it was far from what one would consider adventurous trekking in the wild with "no or very little luggage". (p.133) She was welcomed into the "modest" abode of Governors, officials and colonists, and travelled in style as illustrated by this short extract: "Bukamara-Elisabethville ... twenty hours in very comfortable conditions. The railway Bas-Congo-E'ville-Sakania is one of the best in Africa. On the advice of the Colonel Lallemand and his lovely wife who were my travelling companions I went to the Albert-Elisabeth Club and asked the chairman for accommodation; it was thus full of optimism that I arrived in Elisabethville with my party. The latter comprised my boy André, tagging along with his wife, and a little moké he hired out of his own wages to carry his personal belongings." (p.160).
Her arrival in Dar-es-Salaam also gives a hint of her comfortable and shielded travelling pattern: "I arrived there in the middle of the night, and our Consul, to whom I had asked to be kind enough to book a room for me, failed to come to the station something I did not ask him to do but also forgot to tell me in which hotel my accommodation had been booked. I thus landed, for the best, in a very comfortable boarding home hosting families". (p.214) She said nothing more about Dar-es-Salaam except that she continued her journey, enjoying the splendid hospitality of English people who invited her to "many receptions" (p.215) along the way.
Madeleine Migeon's interest did not extend beyond the white colonists settled in the faraway outposts of Europe and her papers reflect this limited view of Africa. Some people she praises for their achievements and hospitality, others she exposes, denouncing women's bickering, men's lack of manners, Judges' incompetence and civil servants' corruption: but everyone she judges according to the ideals of white supremacy and Belgians' moral duty to expand Leopold II's legacy. To her, humanitarian ideals, race equality and Bolshevik propaganda were the curses of the day, evils that threatened a smooth development of the colony, thus she said, the time had come "to act resolutely and to put an end to all this nonsense". (p.201) Madeleine Migeon's travel across the colonies was not geared to forming a better understanding of the place but rather finding ammunition supporting her ideological bias.
Hence her scornful comments on the judicial authorities giving reason to Black complainers against their White masters and the "silliest idea produced by a human brain" (p.122) that consisted of "applying the Napoleonic code to the Blacks" (p.122). In her view, that folly led to intolerable abuses, such as a White lady being fined for making false accusations against her Black clerk who, she thought, was stealing money from the post's till; (p.122) or "Mrs B. fined two thousand francs for slapping her boy on account of his impertinence"; (p.125) or even M. Van de...'s three days imprisonment for refusing point-blank to pay a fine of a thousand francs because he had failed to provide his boy with a travel pass (p.126). All these examples are considered by the narrator as indisputable proofs that the Justice system is in disarray.
In keeping with her racist bigotry, her portrayal of the Black race reiterates all the clichés propagated by colonial ideology: Blacks are backward, no-good lay-abouts and guided by their basic instincts; they are childish, unreliable, quarrelsome, thieves, and it is not the long arm of the law that is needed to keep them on the straight and narrow, but the strong hand of colonists. As for Black women, the narrator is "strongly opposed to the idea of educating them" and she summarises her thoughts on the subject, citing the "words of wisdom" of a local Bishop, arguing that: " the more clothes an African women wears, the less virtuous she is" (p.178). To Madeleine Migeon, Black people only understand the language of force and it is a major mistake on the part of the Belgian legislator "to educate and to free them from the "chains" (hum!) of slavery" (p.200).
The negationism that complements her well-entrenched racism is not only designed to deny the shameful track record of Belgium in the Congo one that massacred, maimed and put millions of men and women in chains but it is also an attempt to distort the facts and to argue that "the Blacks were the first to benefit from progress" (p.93), while the Whites had been disadvantaged by the leniency of out of touch humanitarian elites. One example among the many to be found in a string of gross misrepresentations, reads as follows: "Everything is brand new in Stan, including the comfortable jail for the Blacks, the magnificent schools for the Blacks, bright and cheerful, the maternity hospital for Black women, the camp of the Black soldiers which is a jewel and...
Sorry, a woman reader may well interject, but what has been done for the Whites?
My dear, in Congo, the trend is definitely Black. But as fashion is subject to change, let's hope that the turn of the Whites will come.
In the meantime, I'll continue my enumeration, with the hospital for... the Blacks, which is equipped with the best science has to offer..." (pp.91-92).
One can only wonder how early twentieth century readership could be fooled by such unbelievable humbug; but they were. And we are still suffering the influence of this disinformation and propaganda, orchestrated long ago in the name of national pride, economic imperatives and pseudo scientific racism. Much of the current mistrust between Europe and Africa has its roots in these ill-founded views aired in past centuries and perpetuated in different guises ever since. Reading Madeleine Migeon helps understand better why the Belgians chose to put the effigy of Leopod II on a commemorative coin minted in 2007, while a big statue of the King, erected in Kinshasa in 2005, was taken down within hours of its erection. The present can only be understood in relation to idiosyncratic perceptions of the past.
This travelogue is also important in showing the power of the press in framing history. The media and their modes of delivery have been transformed over the years, but human nature has not changed and people behind the news are still the same: many are still tinkering with the truth and eagerly submitting to the demands of powerful lobbies, the seductive attraction of junkets and the populist expectation of their readers. That begs the questions: "What is new under the sun and are we better served by today's media than Madeleine Migeon's readers a century ago?"
The answer seems pretty obvious, but there is also another question far more challenging: Could it be possible that Madeleine Migeon really believed the nonsense she was telling her readers? Could it be true, as an old African proverb says, that "The eyes of a stranger are wide open, but can only see what s/he knows"? And if it was the case, what do we really learn from people laying a claim to truth because "they have seen it with their own eyes"?
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities