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Nathalie Tousignant

The Belgian Colonial Experience and legal Journals (1908-1960): An Overview

Article Open Access


En restituant l’analyse des revues juridiques coloniales dans le renouveau belge des études africaines, Nathalie Tousignant propose un aperçu des principaux titres édités à Bruxelles et à Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) qui construisent et disséminent le droit d’application au Congo. Ces revues sont étroitement liées au milieu colonial qui s’organise autour des grandes sociétés coloniales, du Ministère des Colonies, du Conseil colonial et des cours et tribunaux du Congo belge. Une poignée d’hommes, docteurs en droit, porte le projet de codifier le droit colonial, de diffuser les principales décisions et de créer, par la revue, un esprit de corps. Ce réseau montre l’importance du droit dans la gouvernance du Congo, soulignant le bricolage intellectuel auquel sont confrontés les acteurs de terrain. Enfin, à l’initiative d’Antoine Sohier (1885-1963), la connaissance du droit coutumier par des enquêtes de terrain ouvre de nouvelles perspectives aux membres de l’administration coloniale.

Index de mots-clés : revues juridiques coloniales, revues juridiques, histoire du droit colonial, Congo, Antoine Sohier (1885-1963), Belgique, études des revues


By recontextualizing the analysis of colonial legal journals in the Belgian renewal of African studies, Nathalie Tousignant writes an overview of the leading titles published in Brussels and in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi), which define and disseminate the applicable law in Congo. The journals are tightly connected to colonial milieu, organized through large colonial companies, the Colonies’ department, the Colonial Council, courts and tribunals of the Belgian Congo. A handful of men, doctors in law, worked on the colonial law codification, spread landmark court decisions and, through the journal, created an ‘esprit de corps’. This network enhanced the importance of law in Congo governance stressing the intellectual ‘bricolage’ practitioners are confronted to. Finally, at the initiative of Antoine Sohier (1885-1963), an improved knowledge of customary law, due to fieldwork, opens new perspectives to colonial administration members.

Index by keyword : colonial legal history, colonial legal journals, Belgium, Antoine Sohier (1885-1963), Congo, legal periodicals, periodical studies


1 The revival of colonial studies1 and the development of periodical studies2 pose new questions for the documentation of the Belgian colonial experience in Central Africa from the 1850s to 1960-1962. In addition to Belgian legal periodicals3, the corpus of colonial legal journals provides a comparative perspective on the functioning of legal communities in Belgium and on European imperial culture, which is mirrored and directed by those publications. Mirrors and vectors are useful metaphors to illustrate both of those non-exclusive approaches to journals : journals, as contents in order to document imperial science and knowledge, as well as journals, as historical communities to document their potential role in the development of the legal culture in Belgium (nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

2Although the corpus of Belgian colonial law journals includes most of the features found in similar corpus studied in the Algerian or Belgian cases, it has proven necessary to adapt and sketch other paths. To some extent, the uniqueness of the Belgian experience could explain the variations, but it is not sufficient. For many decades, historiography promoted the exceptionality of Belgian colonialism. Most recent research tends to nuance this preconceived idea4. Thus, based on the literature, the first section sets forth some fundamental features of Belgian imperial power. The second section analyses the law, as a tool of governance in the development of the imperial sciences. The presence of jurists in colonial administrative services in Brussels and in Boma/Léopoldville reveals the edges of the third level of analysis : the actors in action. Finally, a brief overview of the printed colonial documentation helps to define an operational corpus of journals devoted to colonial law.

How unique is the Belgian colonial experience ?

3For the past twenty years, the federalisation of Belgium, as well as the evolution of bilateral relations between Belgium and its former colony and its former UN-mandated territories, can be read as trends that exemplify the necessity for the Belgian national identity to be fuelled by external action and actors. Colonisation sets a specific record in the development of Belgian external action since 1831. Due to its neutrality until the First World War, the State had limited room to manoeuvre. Belgium, through its royal commitments, investments and the recruitment of nationals, participated in the scramble for Africa, which was resolved, to some extent, at the Berlin Conference (1884-1885). During the nineteenth century, some people considered overseas expansion to be a necessity for such a small and highly industrialised country. The tenors of capitalism, along with the monarchy, looked for investments, especially in newly opened markets. This bourgeoisie d’affaires was connected with the political circles that had conducted the new State since 1831. Although it is difficult to identify and circumvent a “colonial party” operating as a lobby at several levels, these colonial interests were more diffused in some pillars of Belgian society5. They did not manage to create a political movement. Consensus could be reached from time to time, which blurred the ideological lines that existed in Belgian society.

4As has been documented by Guy Vanthemsche6, the colonial dimension is vital to a proper understanding of the domestic arbitrage on political, economic and social issues up to 1960. Moreover, the quest for some form of national identity must be connected to imperial values and rhetoric as the African endeavour expanded. As a divided society, Belgium needed the mirror of its ideal and utopic model colony, Belgian Congo. Building such a project strengthened cohesion, belonging and identification among Belgian groups that were present in Africa or in colonial circles in Belgium7. The Belgian national and colonial histories are two faces of the same coin.

5Nevertheless, three different levels characterise the Belgian experience in Central Africa. From 1885-1908, the Congo Free State (CFS) embodies the achievement of Leopold II’s ambitions and investments. A flood of literature at the turn of both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries has documented the violence of the system of exploitation, the doubts regarding the colonial capacities and expertise of the Belgian actors and, last but not least, the very legitimacy of the Belgian presence in the heart of darkness8. From 1908-1960, Belgium took over the CFS with the burden of imposing the moral behaviour of white men and of developing the vast colony, as both world wars had demonstrated how crucial Congolese resources were to the Allies. After 1918, two former German territories were attributed to Belgium as B-Mandates. With a colony and a League of Nations mandate on Ruanda-Urundi, Belgium headed an Empire and was granted international recognition for its African expertise. After 1945, the modernisation of Congo offered reparation and tribute from the metropolis to its colony. The decolonisation stunned Belgian officials. It occurred rapidly and violently in Congo, followed by five years of civil war and the Mobutu dictatorship. Several thousand people were repatriated and forced into professional retraining.

6In the mid-nineteenth century, Belgians, as individuals or as actors in the CFS, and later, in the administration of Belgian Congo, looked at Dutch, French and British methods to compensate for a lack of imperial experience and knowledge. Without the initial aim of building an overseas Belgium, mise en valeur walked hand-in-hand with civilisation. Many officials, archival records and oral testimonies corroborate the uniqueness of Belgian paternalism. However, a close analysis of its legal history suggests more continuity with other Empires than expected.

Law as a tool of governance in the imperial system

7In L’invention des sciences coloniales belges, Marc Poncelet, following previous contributions on the French situation, asserts the necessity for a governing power to create its own information and documentation in order to build concrete, practical and national knowledge. Geography, ethnology, medicine and law mapped the colonial situation, its boundaries, its peoples and its resources9. Lauren Benton, Jane Burbank and Frederic Cooper, from other perspectives, also suggest that these disciplines form the core of any colonial or imperial management10. Because it has been largely demonstrated, this European knowledge of colonial or imperial realities is reliable with respect to some hard facts, but largely, it is invented and imagined11. The development of colonial law relied on some unspoken hypotheses that most contemporary writers do not question. These preconceived ideas include the racial hierarchy that percolated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the necessity of a European presence in Africa, which was stated to be legitimate due to its economic, industrial, political and ideological superiority. Even from the humanitarian point of view formalised by some anti-slavery militants, there was a moral duty for European, and, generally speaking, Western peoples, to stop the slave trade and to liberate Africans from their chains. Christianisation and free labour may signify a step towards progress. Confronted by oral societies, the law from the European metropolis and the codification of local customs became efficient written tools to guarantee and safeguard the order and the rule of the metropolis. The law embodied in treaties, codes and justice, the judiciary or even mere judgements and case law, established the authority of the Europeans. At the same time, it aided in covering the territory and in controlling the local populations. It created a new legal order that was superimposed upon the pre-existing ones.

8By the 1860s, Leopold II12, king of the Belgians, wanted a colony in Asia or in Africa. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Leopold I, who failed to achieve this diplomatic goal on a very competitive European chessboard. If international talks could not secure Leopoldian interests, the exploration of unknown territories in Central Africa opened new avenues. The exploration of the Nile and the Zambezi, and a transcontinental journey from Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo, rekindled tensions between France and Britain. Operating under the authority of the International Association of the Congo (IAC), Leopold II, as a private operator, financed Henry Morton Stanley (1879-1884). The first duty of legal advisors in Leopoldian circles was to build a legal construction to guarantee the international recognition of territories under the control of the IAC, which was formalised by many bilateral treaties signed by Stanley and the local chiefs. Once the IAC territories were recognised by the Berlin Conference, their second duty was to transform the IAC into the Congo Free State and to prepare a founding text, the Charter of the CFS. Their third duty was to invent a judicial colonial pyramid. As with any colonial administration, the CFS (1885-1908), followed by the Ministry for Colonies (established in 1908), hired many jurists in Brussels, in Boma, and then, in Léopoldville. They were in charge of several divisions (e.g. Finances, Internal and Foreign Affairs)13.

Colonial periodicals (nineteenth and twentieth centuries)

9Printed resources were significant vehicles that were used to inform and shape European, and especially Belgian, public opinion, regarding the benefits of overseas colonisation. In this category, general or specialised newspapers and journals, illustrated journals and postcards constituted the core of the media that was mobilised by the colonial administration and its information/propaganda services, Christian missions and economic operators.

10On the one hand, some general periodicals had significant legal sections : Le Mouvement géographique : journal populaire des sciences géographiques, which was founded by the Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (CCCI, established by Albert Thys), edited by Alphonse-Jules Wauters14 and published between 1884 and 1922 ; La Belgique coloniale15, which was created in 1895, and merged, in 1905, with Le Mouvement maritime, a weekly journal published between 1901-1904, to bring a new title to the market, La Belgique maritime et coloniale, 1905-1921 ; Le Congo belge : revue populaire de tout ce qui concerne le Congo was created in 189016 ; La Vérité sur le Congo (1903-1906) was renamed Bulletin de Colonisation Comparée (1906-1914) under the patronage of the Fédération pour la défense des intérêts belges à l’étranger17. Between 1876, the year of the Brussels Geographical Conference, and 1908, the year of Belgium’s take-over, the Leopoldian supporters were sometimes called Congolâtres, a term that is different from Congophiles. They constituted the core of what could have become a colonial party, but they remained at the stage of lobbyists. They invested in these periodicals in order to disseminate information that was compatible with CFS objectives. Periodicals were the easiest way to access knowledge in a society in which most of the population had limited access to education, when they were not completely illiterate. The Belle Époque fostered public interest in scientific and technological progress, in the exploration of the unmapped areas, and in encounters with exotic vegetation and so-called savage peoples. World exhibitions offered unique opportunities to bring home alterity. Pavilions were used to showcase the confidence in progress and science, and they exhibited some natives in human zoos : The fascination was steeped in racialist ideas and stereotypes.

11On the other hand, few colonial law journals were created following Belgium’s takeover of the Congo Free State. Strictly speaking, there was no legal journal before 1908, if a legal journal is described as an initiative launched and managed by jurists for a presumed audience of jurists. The legal journals claimed to be scientific, although they distilled the values of the time, and they participated in the activities of the public sphere.

12With the creation of a specific Minister for Colonies, and in some aspects, due to the transfer of personnel from the CFS office in Brussels, many case law compendia were published : Touchard and Louwers established and organised the Jurisprudence de l’EIC in two volumes (1911)18. The codification of colonial law received a great deal of attention, and many editions were published19. Legal journals were perceived and conceived as a necessary means to disseminate norms, their interpretations and the debates they launched and nourished. In this acceptance, they truly played the role of vector for the legal culture that was established in the colonial administration.

13In the myriad of printed material, two poles are worthy of being distinguished : the metropolitan pole of Brussels and the colonial pole of Elisabethville.

14More than ever before, Brussels became the crossroads of colonial interests and expertise due to the presence of the administration, the Colonial Council and the head offices of the colonial companies. The Revue mensuelle de doctrine et de jurisprudence coloniale (1924-1936) took the footpaths of the Jurisprudence et droit du Congo (1912-1921). Only after 1945 would a new journal be created in Brussels : Le Journal des Tribunaux d’outre-mer (1950-1960).

15Elisabethville (today, Lubumbashi) was founded in 1910 in a very rich mining environment that was dominated by the Union minière du Haut-Katanga. That same year, a second court of appeal was created in Belgian Congo : The choice of Elisabethville was geographically motivated to cover Katanga, and it progressively gained political influence due to the economic and industrial weight of the province. A generation of young magistrates arrived in Elisabethville, a promising colonial society, before the First World War.

16For this contribution, the sample is limited to four journals : the Revue mensuelle de doctrine et de jurisprudence coloniale (RMDJC), the Revue de droit et de jurisprudence du Katanga (RDJK), the Bulletin des juridictions indigènes et de droit coutumier congolais (BJIDCC) and the Bulletin des tribunaux de police congolais (BTPC)20. The selection was made from the complete series available at Belgian libraries : either university libraries or the library of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which inherited a vast and unique collection of books and journals when the Department for Colonies was eliminated. It does not include the Journal des tribunaux d’outre-mer (JTOM) due to the fact that the post-1945 period constitutes a new phase in the development of Congo in which there was a need to reconstruct and modernise the colony after a huge contribution to the war economy. A new generation of colonial staff chose an African career. The movement was substantially more important than before, as it imported metropolitan debates to Congo. This period requires a specific analysis based on the foundations left by pioneer journals.

17At this stage of the research, the journals have been examined as material objects, giving attention to the individuals behind the texts. It must be noted that no archive has been identified at the moment : The archives of the editing boards and the publishing houses have not survived. Fragments have been traced into the personal papers of the main editors and contributors. These men are often identified with their function. Two main tools of reference provided biographical data : the KAOWARSOM biographical database21 and the Magistrates database22. No content analysis has yet been processed due to the lack of digitised and OCR-ised collections or, at least, significant samples. The audience and the impact of these journals are difficult to ascertain. Some indirect elements suggest that the journals were circulated, and that they were read and quoted.

Legal journal in Brussels : “Revue mensuelle de doctrine et de jurisprudence coloniale” (RMDJC)

18Founded in Brussels, the journal Jurisprudence et droit du Congo (JDC) was directed by Albrecht Gohr23 and I. Gilon24. They worked as a team until 1921, after encountering many difficulties in relaunching JDC after the First World War. The journal’s name was changed to Revue mensuelle de doctrine et de jurisprudence coloniale (RMDJC) in 1924. Gohr and Gilon mobilised several contributors and supporters : Charles de Lannoy25, Victor Denyn26, Iwan Grenade27, Michel Halewyck28, Octave Louwers29, Giacomo Nisco30, Pierre Orts31, P.Renkin32, Martin Rutten33, Georges Touchard34 and Fernand Waleffe35. The team was stable : Some members left due to professional promotion or attrition. A secretary, Juliette Vermylen36, was mentioned in 1934. In 1924, when the journal changed its name, a patronage board was created. Louis Franck, the minister of the Colonies, Léon Eeckman, the first president of the Brussels Court of Appeal and Jean Servais, the Procureur général to the same court, provided prestige and legitimacy from the highest authorities in colonial and judicial circles. In 1925, Henri Carton, the newly appointed minister (1924-1926), and Jules Renkin, the former minister in charge (1908-1914), both members of the Catholic party, joined the honorary board.

19The journal stressed the necessity of providing broad access to case law at the same time that the codification of colonial law and case law compendia were published. It published administrative documents and commentaries. Six issues a year translated the dynamism of Brussels colonial circles, especially civil servants from the Department for Colonies and members of the Colonial Board (Conseil colonial). They belonged to Catholic and liberal milieus and formed the 1870s generation.

20The cover of the material object was decorated with the motto and coat of arms of the Belgian Congo (which disappeared in 1924) ; it changed colour : brown (1912), burgundy red (1921) and pink (1928), but the size did not change : 22,8 cm by 14 cm. The text represents a rectangle of 16,8 cm by 10,5 cm of continuous text, except for case law decisions, which were presented in two columns. There were no illustrations, but advertisements appeared in 192437. Three postal addresses located in Brussels were mentioned for any correspondence with the journal38. In 1924, the price of a subscription was thirty francs in Belgium and forty francs for foreign destinations. In 1927, it increased to forty francs and fifty francs, respectively, or ten Belgas39. In 1935, the price of a subscription reached fifty francs (Belgium and Belgian Congo), and there was a joint offer for the years 1932-1935 of 175 francs with a supplement including a detailed analysis of the decree on work contract, and one hundred francs for the 1927 to 1931 issues. Financial difficulties seemed to be a constant preoccupation for the editors, especially Albrecht Gohr. In the 1924 foreword, the board informed its readership that the journal would cease being published due to financial problems. The annual increase of subscription fees, the presence of some advertisements, the change in its material presentation and the decrease in the number of pages may point to the continuous constraints.

21The journal was Albrecht Gohr’s creation, and it remained highly dependent upon his production. He wrote most of the articles and bibliographical notes. When he died in 1936, the journal perished as well. During the first period, 1912-1914, he was able to rely on some of his colleagues and friends. Halewyck, Waleffe and Wouters contributed on specialised topics related to penal and trade law, as they developed in contemporary legislation. They commented on recent decrees. After the First World War, the death of P. Renkin and the departure of I. Gilon marked the relaunching of the journal, with great difficulty, after almost five years of silence. J. Van Damme, a lawyer at the Brussels court of appeal and a former territorial administrator40, became an efficient partner for Gohr and wrote several contributions on commercial issues in the Congolese context, including commentaries on work contracts, taxation and decrees. Starting in 1925, the journal published several reports, preliminary documents and official speeches for the reopening of the Brussels Young Bar Association (Jeune Barreau de Bruxelles). From 1924 to 1936, the binomial kept the journal afloat. After the Second World War, the journal was relaunched under a new title : Belgique coloniale et commerce international. Revue pratique de legislation coloniale et de la réglementation du commerce international. The numeration of the volumes was restarted with a first volume, which was published in 1946. The journal lasted until 1958 (vol. 13). It changed its name again in 1959 (Belgique-Congo et commerce international) for the final time.

22This evolution of RMDJC after 1945, the definitive return of Antoine Sohier to Belgium after living in Elisabethville from 1910 to 1934, his absence from RMDJC and the material opportunity to develop a franchise of the Journal des Tribunaux may explain the creation of a new colonial law journal in Brussels : the Journal des Tribunaux d’outre-mer (JTOM).

Legal journals in Elisabethville : The “Société d’études juridiques du Katanga” and its journals

23Elisabethville benefited from the arrival of a new generation of magistrates under the leadership of Antoine Sohier41. With the creation of the Société d’études juridiques du Katanga (SEJK), Sohier mobilised all of the available resources to edit and write for many journals. Its ancestor, Revue de droit et de jurisprudence du Katanga (RDJK, 1924-1927), celebrated its 60th and 70th anniversaries under the name of Revue juridique du Zaïre (1972-1995)42. In parallel, Sohier and the SEJK also published the Bulletin des juridictions indigènes et du droit coutumier congolais (BJIDCC, 1933-1964) and the Bulletin des tribunaux de police congolais (BTPC, 1953-1958).

24These three journals and several books under the supervision of the SEJK testify about the legacy of these men. The journals are no exception in colonial societies and translate the need for more practical and shared information for practitioners. Moreover, they also constituted vectors to acknowledge customary law as a specific pre-existing legal order and to disseminate the on-going codification of a Congolese customary law. They finally mirrored the values of the Katangese society through the nature of the cases, mainly those addressing personal status, family law (marriage, divorce, filiation) and real property.

25Each journal shares the same patronage and SEJK committees43. The evolution of their membership reflects both the volatility and the stability of colonial careers, more than it would have in a metropolitan situation. Paradoxically, some jurists, who were necessarily older than twenty-one years old and doctors in law, could not resist more than the first conditional two-year term. In order to be permanently appointed, the candidate was required to pass a linguistic test on one of the African languages and to defend an essay on a legal topic that was directly related to Congolese realities. Once confirmed in their functions, they became pillars of high society, especially in an urban context, and climbed the judicial hierarchy. After the Second World War, the patronage committee included more metropolitan notables, as many magistrates who had been active during the interwar period had returned to Belgium. These interactions and journeys between Brussels and the Belgian Congo were a constant feature that is documented by the analysis of the journals. Expertise in colonial matters required contact that was long and sufficiently direct in order to become legitimate, as well as peer recognition. The cohorts of jurists could thus be compared to missionaries and doctors.

26Each journal had its own editorial staff : a core of three to seven people under the supervision of the president of the SEJK, a director of the journal and an editor-in-chief, assisted by several advisers. At the foundation of the RDJKin 1924, Joseph Derriks44, the President of the Elisabethville Court of Appeal, Pierre Jentgen45, who was in charge of the Justice and Education department, and Maurice Verstraete46, are mentioned. In 1934, P. Van Arenbergh47, a substitute for Procureur du Roi led the BJIDCC,while D. Meckaert48, Procureur général at the Elisabethville Court of Appeal, created the BTPCin 1953, with the help of F. De Raeve, the President of the first instance tribunal in Stanleyville (today, Kisangani) and P. Frapier, a substitute for Procureur du Roi of the first instance tribunal in Luluabourg (today, Kananga).

27The scope of the RDJKwas to provide critical comments regarding on-going debates and reports on decisions of case law and SEJKactivities. In the first issue of 1924, most of the authors analysed questions related to labour legislation and aspects of indigenous conditions, such as suicide and authorisations of mutation. They also addressed general topics on child welfare and wireless communications, as well as the management of the needy and beggary or the validity of the marriages of foreigners. The RDJKbecame the Revue juridique du Congo belge (RJCB, from February 1927 to 1960) in order to expand its scope outside of the Province of Katanga and to diversify both its contents and its readership. The SEJK kept the journal and its committees in Elisabethville. Most of the volume is dedicated to case law. However, critical notes, case studies and specific rubrics, such as Jurisprudence belge, Jurisprudence étrangère, answers to readers’ requests, novelty in the published legislation, and nominations or obituaries made up the table of contents of the journal, at an irregular frequency, following current events. It announced the format of the JTOM.

28In the BJIDCC, the objective was to document the situation of local customs through the use of questionnaires in fieldwork accomplished by territorial administrators and district commissioners. This journal was created a few years after the 1926 decree, and it published minutes from the Elisabethville Parquet49. The journal reflected the specificities of the indigenous jurisdictions in the Congolese legal pyramid. As the administrative and judicial administrations shared nearly the same territories, it should not be surprising to note the presence of several administrators among the contributors, along with practitioners at the Elisabethville bench50. Contrary to what happened in other colonial situations, the codification of pre-existing African rules was not undertaken by the Congolese administration. In this sense, the bulletin could be perceived as a tool to collect relevant information on the uses and practices of the people in charge of supervising and controlling these jurisdictions. Two examples illustrate their practice. In the 1933 issue, the BJIDCCpublished a first wave of articles based mainly on surveys conducted around the same questionnaire rooted in the February 11th 1932 minutes of the General Prosecutor (Parquet général)51. In 1935, a new questionnaire was launched to document customary land law52. In addition to these case studies, the bulletin presented external contributions : chapters of books and articles published in other journals or translated from them53.

29Based on the aforementioned commitment to provide more adequate tools to local practitioners, theBTPCpublished compendia for the use of police judges and annotated lists of infractions, especially those not mentioned in the Penal Code. This last journal was suspended on January 1st 1959, due to a lack of material.

30The journals, on their covers, shared the formal lineage of legal journals : Plain in their layout, their covers appeared serious and professional. Nuances of brown established a hierarchy : darker for the first to be published, the RDJK, lighter ones for the BJIDCC, which was first announced as a supplement to the RJCB in 1933, and for the BTPC. They were the same size, slightly larger than the RMDJC :26 cm by 19 cm. The text represented a rectangle of 21 cm by 17 cm of continuous text, except for case law decisions, which appeared in two columns54. Illustrations can be found only in the BJIDCCin the form of maps, drawings and photographs. Domestic advertisements were occasionally present. At first, each redaction had its own postal address, progressively redirected to the society’s secretariat55. Indirectly, the price of a subscription is known. In 1934, a joint subscription to the RJCBand the BJIDCCcost seventy-five francs, while it was thirty-five francs for the BJIDCCalone. In 1943, they increased to one hundred francs and remained thirty-five francs, respectively. In 1954, multiple subscriptions were combined : The cost for the three journals was 305 francs, and it was 172 francs for the two bulletins ; individual journals were more expensive56.


31As a preliminary conclusion, this sample highlights the diversity of realities, as analysed from metropolitan and colonial points of view.

32It provides a fragmented perception of the legal experience in colonial contexts per se, due to the fact that the journals are fully integrated in their societies, most notably, in the Elisabethville case. The journals document on-going questions and debates, provide material to solve problems and participate in an earlier form of a long-life learning process. The journals are the product of the individual human commitments of the first editors and their successors, in a chain in which the readership and the patrons, as well as the contributors, sketched the main articulations of the networks that existed in colonial circles.

33An in-depth analysis of their contents confirms a first impression : The priority of colonial legal journals consisted of producing visible and accessible up-dated knowledge on a series of legal issues related to Belgian Congo activities. The journals became a showcase for those who were active in colonial circles. However, they remained the dominant reading about dominated realities. Their legal approach was framed by the colonial preconceptions of African realities. Although the journals, especially the BJIDCC, leaned towards a better knowledge of customary law in the Katanga Province, the surveys confirm the complexity and volatility of the customs.


1  A new generation of scholars has (re)opened some fields of investigation that had been left untouched by their predecessors. The history of law, institutions and judicial system in colonial contexts, benefits from this trend, from the expertise and extended publications on similar topics in metropolitan situations. In the French-speaking academic environment, Lille 2 CHJ, Montpellier and Brussels CRHiDI constitute the connected triad of the most recent achievements. See B. Piret, C. Braillon, L. Montel and P.-L. Plasman (eds.), Droit et Justice en Afrique coloniale. Traditions, productions et réformes, Bruxelles, Publications de l’Université Saint-Louis, 2014. 214 p. (coll. Travaux et Recherches).

2  S. Latham and R. Scholes, The Rise of Periodical Studies, in PMLA, vol. 121, n° 2 (Mar. 2006), 517-531.

3  S. Vandenbogaerde, Vectoren van het recht. Geschiedenis van de Belgische juridische tijdschriften. Unpublished PhD thesis, Ghent University, Faculty of Law, 2014, 405 p.

4  At the initiative of B. De Roo, Central Africa & Belgium : Current perspectives on the colonial period. Workshop organised at Ghent University, November 7th 2014.

5  A comparison with the French situation might help. An important literature developed during the past decades. See, among others : H. Brunschwig, Le parti colonial français, Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer, vol. 46, n° 162 (1959), 49-83 ; P. Grupp, Le ‘parti colonial’ français pendant la Première Guerre mondiale : Deux tentatives de programme commun, Cahiers d’Etudes africaines, vol. 14, cahier 54 (1974), 377-391 ; Ch.-R. Ageron, France coloniale ou parti colonial ?, Paris, PUF, 1978, 302 p. ; S.M. Persell, The French colonial lobby, 1889-1938. Stanford, Hoover Institution Press, 1983, 574 p. ; M. Lagana, Le Parti colonial français. Eléments d’histoire. Montréal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1990, 200 p. ; J. d’Andurain, Le ‘parti colonial’. Réseaux politiques et milieux d’affaires : les cas d’Eugène Etienne et d’Auguste d’Arenberg, Etudes coloniales, 2006, on-line access http://etudescoloniales.canalblog.com/print/3538945.html; J.-Fr. Klein, Du patronat colonial au patronat impérial. Un changement de paradigme, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 2012/2 (n° 114), 67-81 ; B. Sèbe. Heroic imperialists in Africa. The promotion of British and French colonial heroes, 1870-1939. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013, 352 p.

6  G. Vanthemsche, Belgium and the Congo, 1885-1960, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 289 p. ; M. Stanard, Selling the Congo : a history of European pro-empire propaganda and the making of Belgian imperialism, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 387 p.

7  Few contributions offer an overview of colonial culture and imaginary : J.-L. Vellut (ed.). La mémoire du Congo : le temps colonial. Ghent, Snoeck-Ducaju, 2005, 272 p. ; N. Tousignant. Imaginaires coloniaux dans la Belgique “nouvelle” (1999-2004) : enjeux mémoriels. 32 p. Actes du colloque international Expériences et mémoire : partager en français la diversité du monde. Université de Bucarest, 12-16 septembre 2006, [B. Jewsiewicki ed.], on-line access http://www.celat.ulaval.ca/histoire.memoire/colloques/colloque_bucarest_2006.htm; V. Viaene, D. Van Reybrouck and B. Ceuppens (eds.), Congo in België. Koloniale cultuur in de metropool, Louvain, Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2009, 352 p.

8  The title of a very famous novel by Joseph Conrad published in 1899, which tells the experiences of Charles Marlow, as the captain of an ivory company steamboat navigating on the Congo River. The book relied loosely on Conrad’s personal experience and became an icon of the devastations of Leopoldian, and more broadly, European, activities. Among the various publications on Joseph Conrad : J. Stengers, Sur l’aventure congolaise de Joseph Conrad, in Bulletin des séances, Bruxelles, ARSOM, 1971, 744-761 ; B. Parry, Conrad and Imperialism. Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers, London, Macmillan, 1983, 162 p. ; C. Achebe. An Image of Africa. Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in Hopes and Impediments. Selected Essays, New York, Doubleday/Anchor, 1989, 269-274 ; S. Lindqvist, « Exterminate all the Brutes ». One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, New York, The New Press, 1992, 179 p. ; D.C.R.A. Goonnetilleke, Introduction, in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Toronto, Broadview Press, 1995, 9-47 ; G. Fincham and M. Hooper (ed.), Under Postcolonial Eyes. Joseph Conrad After Empire, Cape Town, UCT Press, 1996, 216 p. ; E. Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999, 219 p.

9  M. Poncelet, L’invention des sciences coloniales belges, Paris, Karthala, 2008, 420 p. This study offers a good range of comparative elements with the French experience : E. Sibeud, Une science impériale pour l’Afrique ? La construction des savoirs africanistes en France 1878-1930, Paris, EHESS, 2002, 357 p. ; P. Singaravelou, Professer l’Empire. Les « sciences coloniales » en France sous la IIIe République, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2011, 412 p.

10  L. Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures : Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2002, 300 p. and A Search for Sovereignty : Law and Geography in European Empires. 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 358 p. ; J. Burbank and F. Cooper, Empires in World History : Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2010, 528 p.

11  B. Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,London, Verso, 1991 (1983), 224 p. ; M. Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Paris, Gallimard, 1969, 294 p. ; E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992 (1983), 324 p. ; E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 191 p. ; V. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa : Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988, 241 p.

12  Recent publications on the Leopoldian vision include J. Vandermissen, Koningen van de wereld : Leopold II en de aardrijkskunde beweging, Louvain, Acco, 2009, 503 p. ; V. Dujardin, V. Rosoux, T. de Wilde d’Estmael, M. Van Den Wijngaert and M. Dumoulin (eds.), Léopold II entre génie et gêne : politique étrangère et colonisation, Bruxelles, Racine, 2009, 409 p.

13  The place of law in the Belgian African experience is well documented in E. Lamy and L. De Clerck (eds.), L’ordre juridique colonial belge en Afrique centrale. Eléments d’histoire, Bruxelles, ARSOM, 2004, 438 p.

14  Alphonse-Jules Wauters (1845-1916) was born in Brussels. The geographer ‘en chambre’, Wauters engaged in many other activities. In this context, his role as the founder and main editor of Mouvement géographique gave him a specific place in the Leopoldian environment. R. Cambier, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. II (1951), 969-972 ; E. Henry, Le Mouvement Géographique, entre géographie et propagande coloniale, Belgeo, on-line access http://belgeo.revues.org/10172; M. Poncelet, op.cit., 47-53.

15  René Vauthier (1864-1921) was born in Brussels. A lawyer at the Brussels Bar, he joined the Belgique coloniale in 1895and eventually became its editor. M.L. Comeliau, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. IV (1955), 906-907 ; K. Rotsaert, ’La Belgique coloniale’ : analyse van een koloniaal tijdschrift toegespitst op de onafhankelijke Kongostaat 1895-1909, Master’s thesis in history, UGent, 2001, 126 p. ; M. Poncelet, op.cit., 84-87.

16  Ibid., 87-93.

17  R. Wiggers, De ‘Fédération pour la Défense des Intérêts belges à l’étranger’ en het Persbureau van de Onafhankelijke Kongostaat, 1903-1908, in Bulletin des Séances, ARSOM, vol. 38, n° 2 (1992), 135-183. The Congo campaign was the background of this new journal. The international campaign opposed the CFS administration, with denunciations of the violence surrounding the rubber exploitation in Congo. A great deal of literature was published at that time, with famous contributors, including Edmund Dene Morel and Mark Twain. For the past three decades, it has been an inescapable topic for any historian working on African history. The analysis of Susanne Gehrmann covers more than the historical debate : Les littératures en marge du débat sur les ‘atrocités congolaises’ : de l’engagement moral à l’horreur pittoresque, in Revue de littérature comparée, 2005, 1, 139-160.

18  G. Touchard and O. Louwers, Jurisprudence de l’Etat indépendant du Congo, Bruxelles, Weissenbruch, 1911, 2 vol. 

19  In 1914, Octave Louwers published the first edition of Codes et lois du Congo belge. Bruxelles, Weissenbruch, 1914. Until 1960 (P. Piron and J. Devos (ed.), Codes et lois du Congo belge, Bruxelles, Larcier, 1960), some seven other editions were printed under Louwers’ supervision. A first bilingual edition was published in 1954 (P. Piron and J. Devos (ed.), Wetboeken en wetten van Belgisch-Kongo, Bruxelles, Larcier, 1954). They were known as the ‘Louwers-Strouven’ codes.

20  I would like to thank Alain Rahier, who went through the printed material beforehand.

21  http://www.kaowarsom.be/en/biographical_collections

22  http://www.bejust.be/tools/prosopography-belgian-magistrates-1795-1960

23  Albrecht Gohr (1871-1936) was born in Liège, where he studied law with professor Galopin. He left the CFS in 1894. His first appointment was at the Boma Public Prosecutor’s department. In 1897, he joined the CFS central administration as director of justice. Due to health problems, he came back to Brussels in 1905. His position in the CFS metropolitan department of justice and his transfer to the Minister for Colonies in 1908 meant stability as a jurist. N. Arnold and O. Louwers, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. III (1952), 372-376 ; Stèle. Albrecht Gohr, in JTOM, 1953, 70.

24  At this point, no biographical information is available on I. Gilon.

25  Charles de Lannoy (1868-1941) was born in Tournai and studied law at the University of Louvain. After a few years in the administration of the minister of Justice, he was appointed at the Law Faculty of the University of Ghent in 1903. He taught the law of peoples, the political economy and the history of colonisation. F.L. Ganshof, Charles de Lannoy (1868-1941), in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 21 (1942), 679-681.

26  Victor Denyn (1867-1924) was born in Mechelen and studied law at the University of Louvain. As a magistrate, he started his career in Turnhout, rather than in Antwerp. In 1904, he was designated as the secretary of the Commission d’enquête in Congo with Edmond Jannsens, Giacomo Nisco and Edmond de Schumacher. In 1908, he was appointed as general director of the first direction in the Minister for Colonies. During the First World War, after the Minister in Brussels was closed down, he followed the Belgian government in exile in Antwerp, and then, in Le Havre. In the fall of 1914, he was sent to London to organise a branch of the Minister for Colonies in close cooperation with the Minister Jules Renkin, who stayed in Le Havre. E. De Jonghe, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. I (1948), 294-301.

27  Iwan Grenade (1873-1932) was born in Verviers and studied law at the University of Liège. He chose a colonial career. In 1899, he was appointed to the territorial court of Matadi, and then, to Kwango. At the end of 1900, he joined Albrecht Gohr at the CFS Boma central administration. He came to Belgium in 1922 as justice of the peace in the Stavelot district. He was appointed to the Colonial Council in 1924. O. Louwers, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. II (1951), 436-439 ; Stèle. Iwan Grenade, in JTOM, 1954 (53), 154.

28  Michel Halewyck de Heusch (1876-1950) was born in Ostende and studied law at the University of Louvain. He was a member of Jules Van den Heuvel’s cabinet from 1900 to 1906. He was in charge of the preliminary reports for the Colonial Charter from the perspective of the Belgian takeover of CFS in 1908. T. Heyse, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VI (1968), 440-447.

29  Octave Louwers (1878-1959) was born in Andenne and studied law at the University of Liège. From 1901 to 1903, he served in Boma with Gohr and Grenade. Due to health problems, he returned to Belgium and taught at the Ecole coloniale de Bruxelles from 1904 to 1923, and he was the secretary of the Colonial Council from 1908 to 1959. In 1916, after his military duties, he was detached to the Minister Jules Renkin in Le Havre, where Pierre Orts and Paul Crokaert were already present. J. Sohier, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VIII (1998), 246-257 ; Silhouette. M. Louwers, in JTOM, 1952 (21), 38.

30 Giacomo Nisco (1860-1942) was born in Firenze, where he studied law and enrolled at the Napoli Bar. He was a magistrate in Boma and was appointed to the 1904 Commission by Leopold II. After a five-year stay in Italy, he traveled back to Elisabethville to create the new Court of Appeal in 1910, which was the second in Belgian Congo. F. Dellicour, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. IV (1955), 660-661 ; Stèle. Le président Nisco, in JTOM, 1950 (6), 78.

31  Pierre Orts (1872-1958) was born in Brussels and studied law at the Free University of Brussels. In 1896, he joined Félicien Cattier and Robert Kirkpatrick to form the advisory legal task force of the king of Siam and was supervised by Gustave Rolin-Jacquemyns. He passed the diplomatic examination in 1905 and served the CFS until 1908. He was then attached to the Minister for foreign affairs. W. Ganshof van der Meersch, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VIIA (1973), 367-380.

32  P. Renkin was killed during WWI. RMDJC, 1921.

33  Martin Rutten (1876-1944) was born in Clermont, a village near Liège, the city where he studied law. He left Belgium in July 1901 in order to fulfill a first term in Lower Congo, as a substitute for the Procureur d’Etat at the first tribunal of instance. He was then appointed in Katanga. In 1923, he became General Governor of Congo. F. Dellicour, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. V (1958), 714-721 ; Stèle. Le procureur général Rutten, in JTOM,1951(10), 127.

34  Georges Touchard (1874-1948) was born in Namur. He studied law at the Free University of Brussels and enrolled at the Brussels Bar. He became the legal adviser for some colonial firms, notably the CCCI. E. Van der Straeten, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. V (1958), 813-815.

35  Fernand Waleffe (1870-1954) was born in Liège, where he studied law under the supervision of Professor Galopin. He was a magistrate in the CFS from 1896 to 1907 at Matadi and Boma. He finally returned to Belgium, where he ended his career at the Cassation Court. During the inter-war years, he was a member of the Cour supérieure du Congo. F. Van der Linden, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VI (1968), 1099-1101 ; Silhouette. M. Fernand Waleffe, Président émérite de la Cour de cassation, in JTOM, 1951 (9), 115.

36 No biographical data is available. She published Les warrants-cédules, Bruxelles, Larcier, 1938. She also co-authored articles with J. Van Damme.

37  In 1924, it promoted books written by the cooperators, the journal Notre colonie, the mutual benefit insurance company Mutuelle congolaise and the printer and publisher of the RMDJC.

38  The first address mentioned is that of the printer and publisher : s.a. M. Weissenbruch, imprimeur du Roi, rue du Poinçon, 49, Brussels. The other two may be the personal addresses of the editor.

39  The Belga was a new currency introduced in 1925. Its value was : 1 Belga equals 5 francs.

40  RMDJC, 1934. His professional activity was provided by the journal. At this point, no cross-analysis is possible, due to a lack of external and independent information.

41  Antoine Sohier (1885-1963) was born in Liège, where he studied law. He arrived in the Province of Katanga to serve as a magistrate in 1910. In Elisabethville, he founded the SEJK and animated the journals. Similar to other disciples of Professor Galopin, he finally returned to Belgium in 1934 to start a career as a metropolitan magistrate. In 1935, he took a stand as the instigator of Congolese customary law, maintaining the same commitment he had undertaken during his colonial career (BJIDCC, 1935). In 1950, he founded JTOM. E. Lamy, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VIII (1998), 392-406.

42  Revue juridique du Congo belge, 1927-1960 ; Revue juridique de l’Afrique centrale, 1961-1964 Revue juridique du Congo : droit écrit et droit coutumier, 1964-1971 ; Revue analytique de jurisprudence zaïroise, 1996 ; Revue analytique de jurisprudence du Congo, 1997-2004.

43  See the table annexed to this contribution, Membership of patronage and SEJK committees. Editorial staffs of RDJK, BJIDCC and BTPC.

44  Joseph Derriks (1873-1935) was born in Roclenge sur Geer, a village in the province of Liège. He studied law at Liège University and started a career as a magistrate in Huy. In 1924, on the advice of Martin Rutten, he left for Katanga to become the president of the Court of Appeal in Elisabethville. A. Sohier, Biographie coloniale belge, vol. III (1952), 208-210.

45  Pierre Jentgen (1884-1959) was born in Luxemburg. He studied law in Paris. From 1923 to 1931, he was attached to the administration of justice in Boma, and then, in Elisabethville, as a judge for the first instance tribunal. Due to health problems, he pursued his career as a civil servant in the Ministry for Colonies. He participated in the foundation of the JTOM. A. Durieux, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VI (1968), 547-550.

46  Maurice Verstraete (1891-1961) was born in Ghent, where he studied law. After the First World War, he started his colonial career in the Province of Equateur (1919-1921). He then traveled back to Belgium and enrolled at the Ghent Bar. He was designated in Antwerp as Substitut du Procureur du Roi. For his second term in Congo, he was in charge of the first instance tribunal in Elisabethville (1922-1925). He was again authorised to practice in Antwerp until he retired in 1945. N. Laude, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VI (1968), 1073-1074.

47  Paul Van Arenbergh (1900-1944) was born in Brussels. As Justice of the Peace in Brussels, he contributed to Edmond Picard’s Pandectes belges. He was active as a magistrate in the Province of Katanga from 1926 to 1944. A. Gille, Biographie belge d’outre-mer, vol. VII-B (1977), 11-14.

48  Désiré Merckaert was born in Brussels. After few years in territorial administration training, he registered at ULB in 1921 to obtain a doctorate in law. He was a Magistrate in Belgian Congo from 1927 to at least 1949, and he ended his career in Elisabethville. Silhouette. M. Désiré Merckaert, procureur général près la Cour d’appel d’Élisabethville, in JTOM,1950 (4), 47.

49  J. Vanderlinden, Regards sur la rencontre d’un ordre colonial et d’ordres précoloniaux. Fragments relatifs au destin des droits originellement africains dans le système juridique colonial belge, in E. LAMY and L. DE CLERCK (eds.), L’ordre juridique colonial belge en Afrique centrale. Eléments d’histoire, Bruxelles, ARSOM, 2004, 359-438.

50  E. Lamy, Le droit judiciaire, in E. LAMY and L. DE CLERCK (eds.), L’ordre juridique colonial belge en Afrique centrale. Eléments d’histoire, Bruxelles, ARSOM, 2004, 197-251.

51  P. Van Arenbergh, Coutumes indigènes. Questionnaire, in BJIDCC, 1933, 23-28.

52  P. Van Arenbergh, Questionnaire, in BJIDCC, 1935, 10-12. A third wave aimed at collecting information on “l’utilisation par les juges et les notables à fonctions judiciaires de bâtons, lances ou autres insignes jouant un rôle dans l’exercice de la justice”, Notes pour nos collaborateurs, in BJIDCC, 1937.

53  R. De Beaucorps, Les Bayanshi du Bas-Kwilu, in BJIDCC, 1933, 86-89 ; 107-110. Abstracts from his book published in Louvain, Ed. de l’Aucam (Association universitaire catholique pour l’Aide aux Missions), 1933. He later published another book, La propriéte chez les Basongo de la Luniungu et de la Gobari. Elisabethville, Editions de la revue juridique du Congo belge, 1943, 10 p. ; G. Coussement, Crimes et superstitions indigènes. La secte du Punga et du Mama Okanga, in BJIDCC, 1935, 64-67 ; Idem, Crimes et superstitions indigènes. Les infanticides obligatoires chez les Kaonde, with annotations of P. Van Arenbergh, in BJIDCC, 1935, p. 135-137. W.F.R. Burton, L’organisation sociale des Baluba, in BJIDCC, 1936, 150-153 (trans. P. Van Arenbergh) ; Idem, Barbarie des coutumes funéraires des Baluba, in BJIDCC, 1936, 266-268 (trans. A. Thienpont) ; Idem, Epreuve judiciaire ou ordalie “Mwavi”, in BJIDCC, 1936, p. 293-300 (trans. A. Thienpont) ; Idem, L’âme Luba. La religion de l’homme noir, in BJIDCC, 1939, 38-55 ; 78-87 ; 117-137 ; 141-151 and 165-184 (trans. B. Colin). It was published as an autonomous leaflet. He later published Luba religion and magic in custom and belief, Tervuren, Royal Museum for Central Africa, 1961, 193 p.

54  The same material presentation and form may suggest that the SEJK dealt with the same publisher/printer in Elisabethville.

55  For the first three issues of the BTPC, the postal addresses were individual ones (PB 600 in Elisabethville ; PB 84 in Stanleyville and c/o Luluabourg tribunal). Beginning with the fourth, all correspondence was to be sent to the SEJK secretariat (BP 510). BTPC, 1953. The evolution was similar for the BJIDCC from 1936 onwards (PB 600, then PB 510 in Elisabethville). Note that postal boxes were in use at that time.

56  BJIDCC, 1934 ; BJIDCC, 1943 ; BTPC, 1954.

Pour citer cet article

Nathalie Tousignant, «The Belgian Colonial Experience and legal Journals (1908-1960): An Overview», C@hiers du CRHIDI [En ligne], Vol. 37 - 2015, URL : http://popups.ulg.ac.be/1370-2262/index.php?id=230.

A propos de : Nathalie Tousignant

Nathalie Tousignant is professor of contemporary history, co-director of CRHIDI and local coordinator of IAP (VII) BeJust 2.0 at Université Saint-Louis –Brussels.

In the framework of many recent projects (e.g. IAP (VII) BeJust 2.0, The impact of WWI on international law in Belgium, Belgafrican Magistrates Social Networks), a project was sketched to provide a more globalizing vision to individual researches: Law in Congo State (1885-1908) and in Belgian Congo (1908-1960). On institutions and people. Rhetoric. Norms. Practices. Due to personal background and teaching experience, mostly focused on international relations of the 20th century, she is aware of the necessity to get a global and a comparative perspective to nurture an in-depth analysis of Belgian experience of justice and law in Central Africa.