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Pierre Savorgnon de Brazza

Pierre Savorgnon de Brazza, a French empire builder whose last name would be later used to name the capital “Brazzaville”, competed with agents of Belgian King Leopold's International Congo Association (later Zaire) for control of the Congo River basin. Count Pierre Paul Pranqois Camile Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905), French explorer, administrator and founder of French Congo, was born on board ship in the harbor of Rio de janeiro on the 26th of January 1852. He was of Italian parentage, the family name being de Brazza Savorgnani. De Brazza was anxious to obtain for France some part of the Congo.

As a French naval officer, he refused to work for the International African Society and instead helped the French in their conquest of the northern Congo River. Having been naturalized as a Frenchman, de Brazza in 1875 obtained permission to undertake his African scheme. Traveling from the Atlantic Ocean coast which is present-day Gabon via the rivers Ogooué and Lefini, with the naval doctor Noel Ballay, he arrived in 1880 in the Kingdom of the Téké. In September 1880, he signed a treaty with King Makoko establishing French control over the region.

Penetrating beyond the basin of that river, he discovered the Alima and Likonn, but did not descend either stream. Thence turning northwards the travellers eventually regained the coast at the end of November 1878, having left Paris in August 1875. On arrival in Paris, de Brazza learned of the navigation of the Congo by H.M.Stanley, and recognized that the rivers he had discovered were afliuents of that stream.

De Brazza was anxious to obtain for France some part of the Congo. The French ministry, however, determined to utilize his energies in another quarter of Africa. Their attention had been drawn to the Niger through the formation of the United African Company by Sir George Goldie (then Mr Goldie Taubman) in July 1879, Goldie’s object being to secure Nigeria for Great Britain. A new expedition was fitted out, and de Brazza left Paris at the end of 1879 with orders to go to the Niger, make treaties, and plant French flags. When on the point of sailing from Lisbon he received a telegram cancelling these instructions and altering his destination to the Congo. This was a decision of great moment.

Had the Nigerian policy of France been maintained, the International African Association (afterwards the Congo Free State) would have had a clear field on the Congo, while the young British Company would have been crushed out by French opposition; so that the two great basins of the Niger and the Congo would have had a vastly different history.

Early in 1880 he rapidly ascending the Ogowé and founded the station of Franceville on the upper waters of that river. He then pushed on to the Congo at Stanley Pool, where Brazzaville was subsequently founded. After a gruelling six months' journey from the Gabon coast, Savorgnan de Brazza approached Mbe, the capital of the Tio ruler, Iloo, in August 1880. In his record of the day, Brazza relates how his guides suggested that he and his men change their clothes, 'for the Makoko is a very great chief'. To be taken seriously as the representative of an equally powerful ruler, the European must dress appropriately. Brazza quickly donned the dress coat of his naval uniform while his men "took off their rags and put on their sailors' uniform".

At the royal court, Makoko Iloo appeared in the regalia of a Tio ruler. As Brazza described him: "He wore a large copper collar, as did his principal wife. Four pages carried a folded red cloth on their shoulders. A young man, chief of the pages, wore a uniform acquired through trade which he wore with the buttons at the back. The ruler wore a large cloth [pagne], rings around his ankles and arms, and an intricately embroidered hat fastened to his head by an iron pin with two very long feathers attached."

With Makoko, chief of the Bateke tribe, de Bram concluded treaties in September and October 1880, placing the country under French protection. With these treaties in his possession Brazza proceeded down the Congo, and at Isangila on the 7th of November met Stanley, who was working his way up stream concluding treaties with the chiefs on behalf of the International African Association. De Brazza spent the next eighteen months exploring the hinterland of the Gabun, and returned to France in June 1882. The ratification by the French chambers in the following November of the treaties with Mskoko (described by Stanley as worthless pieces of paper) committed France to the action of her agent.

Furnished with funds by the French government, de Brazza returned in r883 to the Congo to open up the new colony, of which he was named commissioner-general in 1886. This post he held until January 1898, when he was recalled. During his period of ofhce the work of exploration was systematically carried out by numerous expeditions which he organized. The incessant demands on the resources of the infant colony for these and other expeditions to the far interior greatly retarded its progress.

De Brazza's administration was severely criticized; but that its comparative failure was largely due to inadequate support from the home authorities was recognized in the grant to him in 1902 of a pension by the chambers. Both as explorer and administrator his dealings with the natives were marked by consideration, kindness and patience, and he earned the title of "Father of the Slaves".

His efforts to connect the upper Congo with the Atlantic by a railway through French territory showed that he understood the chief economic needs of the colony. After seven years of retirement in France de Brazza accepted, in February 1905, a mission to investigate charges of cruelty to natives brought against officials of the Congo colony. Having concluded his inquiry he sailed for France, but died at Dakar, Senegal, on the 4th of September 1905. His body was taken to Paris for burial, but in 1908 was reinterred at Algiers.

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