History October 24, 2018 at 09:00 am

The resilient Congolese tribe that rebelled three times against the Belgians in the 1890s

Nduta Waweru October 24, 2018 at 09:00 am

October 24, 2018 at 09:00 am | History

Soldiers of the Force Publique, pictured at Boma in 1899. Photo: Wiki CC

When King Leopold II of Belgium gained recognition as the leader of the Congo Free State (modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo), many of his officials in the country did not anticipate a revolt from communities in the region, especially the Batetela, who had supported them in the Congo-Arab War of 1892-1894.

In 1893, the Belgians killed the leader of the Batetela called Gongo Lutete for allegedly committing treason. Lutete was the chief who fought for Zanzibar against the Belgians in 1892. However, due to a fall out between him and the Zanzibar slave trader Tippu Tip over lack of payment, Lutete switched sides and supported the Belgians.

He fought for Free State until he was accused of betraying the country and was charged in front of a kangaroo court and executed without any presentation of evidence.

It was this act by the Belgians that brought the rebellion to their doorstep in 1895.  The Batetela officials in the Force Publique (now the Congolese National Army), who had been brought on board by Lutete, staged a mutiny at Luluabourg (modern-day Kananga).  The soldiers were also fighting against mistreatment and flogging by white officers, as well as the withholding of their wages.

They killed a number of Belgian officers and attacked a number of stations. The skills they learnt from the white officials made them quite dangerous but not enough to defeat the Belgians who attacked them at Gandu. They were killed in hundreds and injured, and those who survived fled.

Two years later, the Batetela carried out another rebellion during an expedition to Upper Nile under Francis Dhanis, a Belgian official. They were heading to annex the Fashoda, a region in the present-day South Sudan.

This group of army officers were armed and quite experienced. Tired of mistreatment by the white people, the Batelela turned against their white officers and killed many of them. Some of the complaints the mutineers had included reduced rations and excessive marching.

The mutiny collapsed the expedition, meaning that Congo lost out on the imperial territorial fight for the region against the British and the Germans.

In 1900, the Batetela staged their last mutiny.  They took over the Shinkakasa Fort, also known as the Boma Fort, on the Congo river. The fort was built to block the entry of Portuguese from Angola. It is still not known why the army mutinied, but it has been said that they opened fire on a moored ship from Antwerp as a way to improve their social standing rather than fight the colonial administration.

All these three rebellions are said to have failed because of its lack of vision and a leader. Even so, the last rebellion was able to hold off the Belgians until 1908 despite being defeated constantly.

Force Publique soldiers at Boma.

To avoid these mutinies in the future, the Belgians restructured the army to ensure no one ethnic community holds a majority in any unit.

It would take 67 years for the Batetela to be purged from the Congolese army by Mobutu Sese Seko, who accused the army officials of planning to overthrow his government.

These rebellions are considered some of Congo’s most important anti-colonialist revolts that paved way for other forms of protest against the Belgians to agitate for independence.

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