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The visual, the accidental and the actual in the historiography of the fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909

Willem Bekers (UGent) and Robby Fivez (UGent)
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Abstract
Much against the advice of his military counsellors about static fortifications being obsolete in an age and continent of gunboat diplomacy, the Belgian king Leopold II took a resolute stand. Holding on to the doctrine of positional warfare that had turned Belgium into an impregnable fortress in previous decades, he wanted the biggest guns mounted in the biggest fort of central Africa. In 1890 construction took off in Shinkakasa, strategically located within a stone’s throw of the Congo Free State’s capital Boma. Dominating the Congo river’s estuary, the fort was supposed to temper Portuguese and French ambitions towards the central African hinterland. In 1901, during the final stages of its construction, the fort was the scene of a particularly painful incident, when Leopold’s own Force Publique – forcefully recruited from Congo’s villages as cheap labour for the construction site – turned the guns towards the capital. In contrast to scholarly attention devoted to the rebellion in Shinkakasa, the construction phase remains somewhat underexposed. Nevertheless, the case is an interesting exception for the central African context, where construction remained largely dependent on indigenous building materials and knowhow until the 1920s. The building site of Shinkakasa demonstrates how, even in an early colonial context, a one-to-one translation of Belgian building science and technology clashes with local realities. The first (large-scale) application of concrete, the military management of the building site and the introduction of state-of-the-art equipment were all at odds with the scarcity of imported building materials, the reliance on indigenous knowhow, the difficult communication with experts in the Métropole, and the – alleged – incompetency of ‘unskilled’ black labour. In this paper we argue that the colonial building site can hardly be understood as the simple export of fully mastered building technologies ‘from the West to the Rest’. While most construction historians working on Africa have been focusing on the export of (prefabricated) building(s) technologies to the continent, a more recent interest in different actors of the construction process – in particular the Colonial Public Works Departments, private contracting companies and (still incipient) African labour – sparked a true postcolonial turn in the construction history of the non-West. With the archives of the Congo Free State largely destroyed, picturing the building site conditions is a challenging task. Nevertheless, a series of photographs in the archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa gives a surprisingly inclusive image of the realities on the building site. In particular the African labourers take up a central role in these images, all the more striking if juxtaposed to the few written testimonies of the construction site by engineers or high-ranked military personnel. While in these official reports black labourers are always reduced to ‘man-hours of unskilled labour’, several of the photographs offer a more nuanced perspective on construction in a colonial context. The case is formatted as a ‘visual essay’ in which diptychs of photographs are juxtaposed to the few written sources as to trace different tensions present on the building site.
Keywords
Military architecture, Colonial architecture, Construction site photography, Congo Free State, Shinkakasa

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Chicago
Bekers, Willem, and Robby Fivez. 2019. “The Visual, the Accidental and the Actual in the Historiography of the Fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909.” In Water, Doors and Buildings : Studies in the History of Construction, ed. James W. P. Campbell, Nina Baker, Michael Driver, Michael Heaton, Sabine Kuban, Michael Tutton, Christine Wall, and David Yeomans, 392–406. Cambridge: Construction History Society.
APA
Bekers, W., & Fivez, R. (2019). The visual, the accidental and the actual in the historiography of the fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909. In J. W. P. Campbell, N. Baker, M. Driver, M. Heaton, S. Kuban, M. Tutton, C. Wall, et al. (Eds.), Water, doors and buildings : Studies in the history of construction (pp. 392–406). Presented at the 6th Conference of the Construction History Society, Cambridge: Construction History Society.
Vancouver
1.
Bekers W, Fivez R. The visual, the accidental and the actual in the historiography of the fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909. In: Campbell JWP, Baker N, Driver M, Heaton M, Kuban S, Tutton M, et al., editors. Water, doors and buildings : Studies in the history of construction. Cambridge: Construction History Society; 2019. p. 392–406.
MLA
Bekers, Willem, and Robby Fivez. “The Visual, the Accidental and the Actual in the Historiography of the Fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909.” Water, Doors and Buildings : Studies in the History of Construction. Ed. James W. P. Campbell et al. Cambridge: Construction History Society, 2019. 392–406. Print.
@inproceedings{8611982,
  abstract     = {Much against the advice of his military counsellors about static fortifications being obsolete in an age and continent of gunboat diplomacy, the Belgian king Leopold II took a resolute stand. Holding on to the doctrine of positional warfare that had turned Belgium into an impregnable fortress in previous decades, he wanted the biggest guns mounted in the biggest fort of central Africa. In 1890 construction took off in Shinkakasa, strategically located within a stone{\textquoteright}s throw of the Congo Free State{\textquoteright}s capital Boma. Dominating the Congo river{\textquoteright}s estuary, the fort was supposed to temper Portuguese and French ambitions towards the central African hinterland. In 1901, during the final stages of its construction, the fort was the scene of a particularly painful incident, when Leopold{\textquoteright}s own Force Publique -- forcefully recruited from Congo{\textquoteright}s villages as cheap labour for the construction site -- turned the guns towards the capital. 
In contrast to scholarly attention devoted to the rebellion in Shinkakasa, the construction phase remains somewhat underexposed. Nevertheless, the case is an interesting exception for the central African context, where construction remained largely dependent on indigenous building materials and knowhow until the 1920s. The building site of Shinkakasa demonstrates how, even in an early colonial context, a one-to-one translation of Belgian building science and technology clashes with local realities. The first (large-scale) application of concrete, the military management of the building site and the introduction of state-of-the-art equipment were all at odds with the scarcity of imported building materials, the reliance on indigenous knowhow, the difficult communication with experts in the M{\'e}tropole, and the -- alleged -- incompetency of {\textquoteleft}unskilled{\textquoteright} black labour. In this paper we argue that the colonial building site can hardly be understood as the simple export of fully mastered building technologies {\textquoteleft}from the West to the Rest{\textquoteright}. While most construction historians working on Africa have been focusing on the export of (prefabricated) building(s) technologies to the continent, a more recent interest in different actors of the construction process -- in particular the Colonial Public Works Departments, private contracting companies and (still incipient) African labour -- sparked a true postcolonial turn in the construction history of the non-West.
With the archives of the Congo Free State largely destroyed, picturing the building site conditions is a challenging task. Nevertheless, a series of photographs in the archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa gives a surprisingly inclusive image of the realities on the building site. In particular the African labourers take up a central role in these images, all the more striking if juxtaposed to the few written testimonies of the construction site by engineers or high-ranked military personnel. While in these official reports black labourers are always reduced to {\textquoteleft}man-hours of unskilled labour{\textquoteright}, several of the photographs offer a more nuanced perspective on construction in a colonial context. The case is formatted as a {\textquoteleft}visual essay{\textquoteright} in which diptychs of photographs are juxtaposed to the few written sources as to trace different tensions present on the building site.
},
  author       = {Bekers, Willem and Fivez, Robby},
  booktitle    = {Water, doors and buildings : Studies in the history of construction},
  editor       = {Campbell, James W. P. and Baker, Nina and Driver, Michael and Heaton, Michael and Kuban, Sabine and Tutton, Michael and Wall, Christine and Yeomans, David},
  language     = {eng},
  location     = {Cambridge},
  pages        = {392--406},
  publisher    = {Construction History Society},
  title        = {The visual, the accidental and the actual in the historiography of the fort of Shinkakasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1891- 1909},
  year         = {2019},
}