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Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza
A photograph of Brazza taken by Paul Nadar about 1882.Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

A romantic figure, once the toast of Paris, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, whom French schoolbooks call "the greatest French explorer of his time," is now relatively unknown even in Europe.

Count Pietro di Brazza Savorgnani grew up in Rome, where he spent his boyhood reading adventure novels and poring over atlases, using his imagination to fill in the spaces marked "unknown territory" on maps of Africa. He set his heart on a career in the navy, but Risorgimento Italy did not have a well-established fleet. With the help of a family friend, Pietro entered the French naval academy in 1870; at 21 he adopted French citizenship and officially changed his name.

Brazza's first sight of central Africa came in 1872, as his ship neared present-day Gabon on an antislavery mission. Trading posts had been established along the coast, but the interior remained a mystery to Europeans. The following year, his plan to explore equatorial Africa with an eye toward commerce and colonization found favor with the French government. He began preparing a new kind of colonial mission, with a minimum of arms and several tons of cloth, glassware, and tools to be used for barter and as gifts for the tribal chieftains, explaining that he intended to use violence only as a last resort. His entire staff consisted of two Europeans (a doctor and a naturalist), 12 Senegalese infantrymen, and two native interpreters. Between 1875 and 1878 this first mission covered 900 miles of inland territory, discovering several rivers and many plant and animal species unknown in Europe, all with the aid of the native tribes. Brazza's natural charm and unhurried manner always seemed to enable him to establish friendly relations.

Incredulous at his methods and impressed with his geographical findings, the French government authorized a second mission (1879-82). Reaching the Congo River in 1880, Brazza presented to King Makoko of the Batekes the advantages of placing his extensive domain under the French flag. Makoko, seeking to expand river trade and to gain protection from attacks by rival tribes, signed a treaty. A French settlement, later called Brazzaville, was established at Malebo Pool on the Congo.

Returning to Paris, Brazza found the government in doubt about colonial policy. To stimulate interest in his explorations, he made the rounds of Parisian society and gave immensely popular public lectures. Reports of his travels were published in illustrated magazines. Merchants began selling Brazza cigarettes, Brazza fountain pens, and romantic pictures of the explorer. The resulting enthusiasm yielded support for subsequent missions.

In 1886 he was named governor general of the French Congo, and spent the next dozen years establishing schools, clinics, and job-training programs. He required that all European traders pay their African employees a fair wage. The integrity of his administration earned him the rank of commander in the French Legion of Honor. Meanwhile, across the river in the Belgian Congo, Africans worked in slavery under conditions that inspired "the horror" of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The contrast between the two colonies was reported by European journalists and Brazza acquired a powerful enemy, King Leopold of Belgium, who considered the Belgian Congo his private estate and did not take kindly to the shameful comparison. A smear campaign launched in the French press played on currents of xenophobia raised by the Dreyfus affair. Brazza, who had added an area three times the size of France to the French empire in Africa, was labeled a negrophile and a foreigner. In 1898 he read of his dismissal in a newspaper.

Soon conditions in the French Congo resembled those across the river. In 1905 the conviction of two officers for particularly brutal tortures shocked the public, and the French government convinced Brazza to lead an investigation. His wife, Thérèse, sensing danger, insisted on accompanying him. He was received coldly in the city that bore his name, and was appalled at the corruption he discovered. In the more isolated settlements, local commanders tried to disguise the slaves' terrible living conditions. One colonial officer organized a festive tribal dance for the investigators. Brazza, realizing that the dancers were telling him that there was a slave camp nearby, interrupted the performance and asked to be taken to the camp. His stunned host was forced to comply.

Various ailments had aged Brazza prematurely, but as the mission progressed, Thérèse noticed her husband's health worsening. On the way back to France, he was hastily brought ashore at Dakar, where he died. He was given a full state funeral in Paris, but the French Assembly voted to suppress the Brazza Report as potentially embarrassing. Thérèse quietly maintained until the end of her life that her husband had been poisoned.

The African continent that Brazza so loved has kept his memory alive. Brazzaville is one of the few African cities to retain its colonial name, out of respect for "the peaceful conqueror," a fitting tribute to an idealist who always remained faithful to his quest for knowledge and to his dream of a better world.

Maria Petringa '80 is a freelance writer in Paris. She lived in Brazzaville, Congo, from 1982 to 1984.