Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza
Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza photographed by Paul Nadar.

Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà, best known as Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza (Castel Gandolfo (Rome), January 26, 1852 - Dakar September 14, 1905), was a Franco-Italian explorer, born in Italy and later naturalized Frenchman. With the backing of the Société de Géographie de Paris, he opened up for France entry along the right bank of the Congo that eventually led to French colonies in Central Africa. His easy manner and great physical charm, as well as his pacific approach among Africans, were his trademarks. Under French colonial rule Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, was named after him and the name was retained by the post-colonial rulers.


Early years

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, by Félix Nadar.
Drawing of de Brazza (23 February 1895).

Born in Rome on 26 January 1852, Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà was the seventh son of Count Ascanio Savorgnan di Brazzà, a nobleman of Udine with many French connections and his wife Giacinta Simonetti. Pietro was interested in exploration from an early age and won entry to the French naval school at Brest. He graduated as an ensign and sailed on the French ship Algeria.

Exploration in Africa

His next ship was the Venus, which stopped at Gabon regularly and in 1874 Brazza made two trips, up the Gabon River and Ogoue River (Ogowe River). He then proposed to the government that he explore the Ogoue to its source. With the help of friends in high places, including Jules Ferry and Leon Gambetta, he secured partial funding, the rest coming out of his own pocket. He also became a naturalized French citizen at this time, adopting the French spelling of his name.

In this expedition, which lasted from 1875–1878, 'armed' only with cotton textiles and tools to use for barter, and accompanied by Noel Ballay, a doctor, naturalist Alfred Marche, a sailor, thirteen Senegalese laptots and four local interpreters, Brazza charmed and talked his way deep inland.

The French authorized a second mission, 1879-1882. By following the Ogoue River upstream and proceeding overland to the Lefini River and then downstream, Brazza succeeded in reaching the Congo River in 1880 without encroaching on Portuguese claims. Stanley at Viva, He then proposed to King Makoko of the Batekes that he place his kingdom under the protection of the French flag. Makoko, interested in trade possibilities and in gaining an edge over his rivals, signed the treaty. Makoko also arranged for the establishment of a French settlement at Mfoa on the Congo's Malebo Pool, a place later known as Brazzaville; after Brazza's departure, the outpost was manned by two laptots under the command of Senegalese Sergeant Malamine Camara, whose resourcefulness had impressed Brazza during their several months trekking inland from the coast. During this trip he encountered Stanley near Vivi. Brazza did not reveal that he just signed up Makoko and it took Stanley some months before he realised that he (and his sponsor King Léopold) had been beaten in the 'race'.

In 1883,[1] Brazza was named governor-general of the French Congo. Journalists' reports of the decent wages and humane conditions there contrasted with the personal regime of Belgian King Léopold on the opposite bank in the Congo Free State. This, combined with the poor profitability of the new colony, made Brazza some important enemies and a mounting smear campaign in the French press led to his dismissal in 1897.[1]

By 1905, stories were reaching Paris of injustice, forced labour and brutality by the Congo's new governor, Emile Gentil, in conjunction with the new concession companies imposed by the French Colonial Office and condoned by Auguoard, Catholic Bishop of the Congo. Brazza was sent to investigate, and produced a damming report in spite of many obstructions placed in his path. When his deputy Félicien Challaye brought the embarrassing report in front of the National Assembly it was suppressed and those oppressive conditions remained in the French Congo for decades.

Death and memorials

The tour of the Congo took a hard physical toll of Brazza, and on his return journey to Dakar he died of dysentery and fever. There were rumours that he had been poisoned. His body was repatriated to France and he was given a state funeral at Sainte-Clothilde Church in Paris prior to interment at the cemetery of Père Lachaise. His widow, Thérèse, dissatisfied with the politicians' subsequent behaviour, had his body exhumed and reinterred in the African continent at Algiers.[2] The epitaph for his burial site in Algiers reads: "une mémoire pure de sang humain" ("a memory untainted by human blood").

Brazzaville Mausoleum

The Brazza mausoleum at Brazzaville

In February 2005 the Presidents of Congo, of Gabon and of France, gathered at a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a memorial to Pierre de Brazza, a mausoleum of Italian marble.[3]

On 30 September 2006, de Brazza's remains were exhumed from Algiers[4] along with those of his wife and four children.[5] They were reinterred in Brazzaville on 3 October, in the new marble mausoleum which had been prepared for them and had cost some 10 million dollars. The ceremony was attended by three African presidents and a French foreign minister, who paid tribute to his humanitarian work against slavery and the abuse of African workers.

Mausoleum controversy

The decision to honor de Brazza as a founding father of the Republic of the Congo has elicited protests among many Congolese, questioning the best use of the money and why a colonizer should be revered as a national hero instead of the Congolese who fought against colonization. Historian Théophile Obenga stated that in honoring de Brazza, the government disregarded salient information, including an account of de Brazza's rape of a Congolese woman passed down by oral tradition.[6].



  1. ^ a b Histoire militaire des colonies, pays de protectorate et pays sous mandat. 7. "Histoire militaire de l'Afrique Équatoriale française". 1931. Accessed 9 October 2011. (French)
  2. ^ Brazza’s death ministère de la culture et de la communication de France
  3. ^ "quite a gallery of rogues - none of the protagonists at this grotesque ceremony cared much about the people of Africa - two years later both the [African] Presidents were being investigated for having embezzled millions of euros of public funds and used illicit payments from the French oil company Elf to acquire lavish properties on the Cote d'Azur and channel money into the pockets of French politicians." 'Julian Jackson', BBC Radio Three, The Other Empire, episode 2/5, first broadcast 13 September 2011
  4. ^ Africa explorer's remains exhumed, BBC News, 30 September 2006.
  5. ^ African nation builds £1.4m marble mausoleum for colonial master, The Guardian, 4 October 2006
  6. ^ Florence Bernault, "Colonial Bones: The 2006 burial of Savorgnan de Brazza in the Congo", African Affairs Vol 109 Issue 436 pages 367-390, http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/109/436/367.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=TalHYOsg7SzHRJc Accessed January 12, 2011

External links

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