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A friend of Belgium in London

23 november 2018


Dr Anne Samson is an independent historian specialised in the First World War in Africa. She grew up in South Africa where she obtained her BA Degree and relocated to London in 1996 where she completed her MA in Twentieth Century History and her PhD.

In 2014, Anne started a publishing company working in partnership with authorsTSL Publications. Alongside this, she undertakes research in both the UK and South Africa and promotes the role and significance of Africa in World War 1. She runs the Great War in Africa Association.

Dr Anne SamsonHow does a South African become a friend of Belgium in London? Simply, studying World War 1 in Africa. Working on my thesis, started 20 years ago, it was clear Belgium would be playing a part, at least on the political front concerning the Katanga region of the Congo. However, it soon became apparent working with the British sources that Belgium either didn’t feature or was painted in a somewhat unfavourable light. Why this was had to be unravelled given Belgium’s concern over South African intentions in Africa. A reading of the Belgian Official History of East Africa, surprisingly, ignored Britain in turn. There was clearly a larger agenda at play.

It was only when I got to dealing with the peace discussions that it became clear: power politics was at play. Britain and Jan Smuts of South Africa wanted all the German East African territory and the only way to get this was to deny Belgian involvement in the campaign. Similarly, Belgium to prove its claim for German territory to assist with broader European aims, needed to reduce the impact of Britain in its account.

Armed with this knowledge, and knowing how little South Africa featured in British accounts of East Africa, I started to keep an eye open for Belgian involvement. Fortuitously, at the first Great War in Africa conference which I organised, Jan van der Fraenen from the Royal Artillery Museum offered to give a talk on what the museum held on the African campaigns. Discussion revealed the papers I always understood to be in Russia had been returned. Two years later, 2014, I was able to work with these as part of a project on the Lake Tanganyika Expedition where Belgium’s role had been much greater than expected, supporting the correspondence in the UK Foreign Office collection. The Lake Tanganyika expedition would not have achieved what it did had it not been for Belgian support, let alone pushing Britain to gain control of the lake. In the process, Belgium was able to ease the pressure on British forces by focusing on the eastern shore line of the lake.

Another chance connection was Koen Adams during his time as Ambassador to Tanzania in 2014. He was co-host of a talk I gave on Tanzania and World War One held at the British Residence. Koen’s work on the Belgian graves at Tabora was a welcome insight into the state of remembrance of the war in Africa and one of the first ‘home’ countries to really engage with this aspect of its colonial past. Relations were further developed through Koen introducing me to Lieutenant-Colonel, General Staff, Doctor Kris Quanten of the Royal Military Academy, who has also contributed a paper at a Great War in Africa conference. Alongside these diplomatic connections, links have also been made with younger academics in Belgium with Congolese links, especially Zana Etambala and Erica Ngongo.

Some might see this as name dropping – it is, but only to acknowledge the few who are trying to recollect a past many others aren’t even aware happened. It is only through working together that we’ll be able to create an understanding of what really happened over 100 years ago. Hopefully my role with the Great War in Africa Association, my interest in minority voices of all kinds and my affinity with Flemish through my Afrikaans heritage allows me to do justice to Belgium’s neglected role in World War One Africa. Particularly, I look forward to a time when we have enough information in the public domain to explore relationships between Belgian and South African/British officers and liaisons. To date we can only draw some conclusions around those involved in Lake Tanganyika, but I’m intrigued to find out more about Armand Huyghé and his relationship with Smuts and the role played by Ewart Grogan (a Frontiersman and settler) as well as what happened between Charles Tombeur and CP Crewe in their race to Tabora.

In the current political climate of anti-colonialism and the perception of Belgium in Congo, courtesy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the fact that the territory had undergone a change in ruler in 1909 and that the Belgian Government was struggling to get things sorted when war broke out goes completely unrecognised, a situation not helped at all by the later peace talks and the mandate system. No doubt, on all sides, mistakes were made, but I can’t help feeling that Belgium was disadvantaged by its starting position and has struggled to catch up ever since. Recognising these complexities can only allow for greater understanding and relationship building.

Source: Anne Samson, Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign 1914-1918: The Union comes of age (IB Tauris, 2006) [also available as a free download from the British Library Thesis collection – ethos]