Together with PhD student Anse De Weerdt, we visit the Antwerp university library’s Special Collections. Anse is affiliated with the UAntwerp and ULB. For the B-magic project, she aims to find out how colonial magic lantern images found their way into scientific, political and religious circles in Belgium from the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century.

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The power of the magic lantern

It is Monday morning and we find ourselves at the university library’s vast heritage collection. We are looking for beautiful items from the archives of the Koninklijk Aardrijkskundig Genootschap van Antwerpen (KAGA, Royal Geographical Society of Antwerp). This society was mainly active between the 1880s and 1980s and organized numerous lectures by explorers, geographers and other scientists during this period.

Anne Verlinde, staff member at the Special Collections, had already been browsing through the collection and laid out some colourful maps, carefully wrapped glass plates, and a richly decorated guest book.

The protagonist of Anse’s research, Charles Lemaire, was a member of the KAGA and adept at giving colonial lantern presentations. Anse is examining how they contributed to public perceptions of the Congo Free State (in Leopold II’s private ownership from 1885-1908; and a state-owned colony from 1908-60, currently Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Lantern lectures – projections of images on glass slides for a live audience – were the pre-eminent mass medium at the time. Images of faraway exotic countries, which were out of reach for many Belgians, proved particularly popular. This partly explains the former success of colonial lectures.

Hidden agenda

Charles Lemaire began his exploit in Congo Free State as a district commissioner and expedition leader, but was soon asked to provide lectures on the new colony as well. Not only in Belgium, but throughout Europe.

Anse: ‘During such presentations, mostly photos were used, taken with the brand new Kodak camera. At that time, the camera still had an aura of objectivity, hence the importance of these “authentic” images. You should know that Charles Lemaire was very close to Leopold II. Not surprisingly, these lectures often had a hidden agenda of promoting the colonial operation. Leopold II needed the money and support of a strong economic class for his project to succeed. And that target group was coincidentally part of organizations like the KAGA.’

Anse zooms in on one specific case, namely the lecture Lemaire gave at an Esperanto conference in Geneva in 1906.

‘From that lecture, I have recovered both the photographs and a written-out text, which is rare. From that text we can see that Congo Free State was primarily presented as a model colony: as if there were no violence and mistreatment, the best colony to ever exist! Obviously, that was not the case at all, but Lemaire’s vision was criticized at the time as well.’

Duelling images

Indeed, it also happened that lantern lectures responded to – or rather criticized – each other. For instance, Congo Reform Association was one such major critic of Leopold II’s colonial policy. They organized lectures projecting photographs by missionary Alice Seeley Harris, the now legendary images of Congolese people with mutilated limbs.

‘The organization’s main aim was to address the inhumane exploitation of the population under Leopold II’s economic rule. Strangely enough, similar images were also used by Lemaire to show what atrocities the Congolese people themselves were capable of. By attaching a completely different story to identical images, Lemaire tried to convince the public that it was especially necessary for them, as colonizers, to act against such atrocities.’

'Access for you and two ladies'

Anse flips through the pages of KAGA’s richly illustrated guest book. ‘So those meetings were certainly important for the dissemination of knowledge about the colony, but we should not forget that they were also important networking events. Such evenings usually started off with drinks and ended that way as well. It was fairly exclusive, though. Membership of the KAGA was costly and you even had to pay additionally for each lecture you wanted to attend.’

‘You then received an invitation that you had to present at the entrance. As I examined these invitations, I frequently came across the phrase, “This is an admission ticket for you and two ladies.” That does divulge something about the nature of the event: it took place in a very patriarchal world and belonged within a leisurely atmosphere.’

Decline and revival

In 1908, the curtain falls on Congo Free State and Leopold must cede his colony to the Belgian state. This also marks the end of Lemaire’s career. He is now relegated from esteemed expert to scapegoat and is forced to resign from his positions.

He later makes an unlikely comeback as head of the Colonial University (the building is now part of UAntwerp in Wilrijk) in 1923. He even taught two courses there: cartography and deontology. However, he did not enjoy this second wind for long; as he died in 1926.

For Anse, the KAGA archive and Lemaire’s case is the first chapter of her doctoral research. After this, about three more case studies will follow.

And after that? ‘That is still completely open. I have a very broad interest and also a keen sense of adventure. It’s still a distant dream, but if the opportunity to complete a postdoctorate abroad would present itself in the near future, I will certainly consider it!’

Want to know more?

Anse De Weerdt’s research is funded by Le Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique – FNRS in the framework of the Excellence of Science project B-magic (EOS-contract 30802346).