The Congolese Lese Majeste, 1960

This was the year that the European powers left their last colonies in western and central Africa. Cameroon and Togo, Mali, Dahomey, Niger and Upper Volta, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mauritania all gained their independence in 1960, and Robert Lebeck was traveling across Africa for three months as a photographer for Hamburg magazine Kristall to document “Afrika im Jahre Null” — Africa in Year Zero as the title of his eventual photo book on the occassion would later read.

The Belgian Congo was by far the largest of these colonies to receive its independence.

“Of all the new states that are being founded, the most exciting experiment is beginning here in the middle of the heart of Africa,” wrote one reporter for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Belgians were astounded by the speed of events taking place there. As recently as 1957, they had been drawing up “Thirty-Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa.”

Soon chaos would reign, but on 30 June 1960 – a warm and sunny Thursday morning when Belgium King Baudouin landed at Léopoldville Airport to preside over the independence ceremonies, everyone was still hoping for a peaceful and orderly process. It would quickly prove that the royal visit would be a disaster. As the king and the would-be president Joseph Kasa-Vubu drove along the boulevard in an open car, on the way into Leopoldville from the airport, down Boulevard Albert with its giant monument to Leopold II — the scourge of Congo — an exuberant nationalist pressed close to the open limousine, grabbed the King’s sword from the backseat, and flourished it above his head before the police could move in and pommel him away.

Lebeck was the only photographer who recorded the scene — the symbol of the decline of the power of the white man and the harbinger of the surreal chaos into which the country would soon descend. Lebeck was not with the other journalists in the front of the car because he had came late, having been enjoying dessert in a nearby Belgian bistro earlier. His magazine, Kristall, named the swordsnatcher as one Joseph Kalonda, although this name was thought to be a common Congolese placeholder, an African ‘John Doe’.

For Baudouin, it would not be the last embarrassment of the day. As he entered the new parliamentary chamber, the Belgians shouted, “Vive le Roi!” while the Congolese Assemblymen replied with, “Vive Kasavubu!” The king regained the control by regally announcing “May God protect the Congo!” and formally proclaiming its independence. However the new Premier Patrice Lumumba gave a speech that was an attack on the departing colonial rulers. “Slavery was imposed on us by force!” he cried, as the king sat shocked and pale. “We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!”

Offended, the king was ready to board his plane and return to Brussels forthwith; only the urging from his ministers persuaded him to change his mind. He left Congo in the evening while it was still technically his domain for independence came officially at midnight.

Leback’s photos first appeared in Paris Match on 9th July 1960: “King’s Sword in a Black Hand,” it read. Two days later, Life magazine published the photo under the title; “King gives up a colony – and his sword,” followed by Kristall and the Italian magazine Epoca. Kristall wrote on the cover: ‘Turmoil in Congo’ and by then, it was clear that the country was falling apart. A mineral-rich province was seceding and taking advantage of the rivalry between Kasavubu and Lumumba, the army would putsch its way to power.

Paris Match, 9th July 1960


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