'Les Indes africaines' versus 'Le Congo minotaure'. Climate, acclimatization, hygiene and the contested idealization of the imperial project of Leopold II in Congo, 1876-1908

Start - End 
2017 - 2020 (ongoing)
Department of History
Research Focus 



This joint research project deals with the negotiation of colonial hygiene by “expert” actors in (transnational) networks with a focus on the Belgian context between the first Leopoldian expeditions in Central Africa in the late 1870s and the takeover of the Congo by the Belgian State in 1908.

Colonial hygiene was a contested field of knowledge and practices wherein actors from different professional backgrounds aimed at improving public health in the colonies as a part of the exertion of colonial rule, including both medical and social measures. These actors discussed a wide range of issues in local, national, and transnational networks. This field, with its discussions, contributed to the enablement, legitimization, and reinforcement of colonial rule in various ways and domains.

Here we focus on the involvement of actors in both the Belgian metropole and the Congo Free State in networks on colonial hygiene. We hypothesize that the Belgian actors were involved in (transnational) networks to get personal recognition as experts in the field, to broaden their own knowledge and to further the knowledge within the field, but also to promote Leopold's reputation as good colonial ruler. Colonial hygiene was an ambiguous component of that rule and of the “civilizing mission”.

We particularly focus on debates that connect climate, acclimatization, and hygiene with the contested idealization of the imperial project of Leopold II in Congo between 1876 and 1908. Hence, we analyze the often conflicting views on and representations of the relationship between climate and health. On one side of the spectrum we find the notion of “Les Indes africaines”, an expression that refers to a Western ideal image of the vast interior of Central Africa, in particular the area irrigated by the Middle Congo and its tributaries. It invites us to examine in detail the construction and handling of a set of Leopoldian ideals and ambitions. On the other hand, we come across the notion of “Le Congo minotaure”: the strong image of the climate as a monster in a labyrinth of death, expressing criticism of Leopold's rule but also incarnating both existential fears of Westerns and distrust of the capacities of the hygienists in a colonial context.






Lisa van Diem

Maastricht University