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DIGICOLJUST 2 – Military Violence and its (Dis)Contents in Colonial Congo: Sharing the Records, Writing the History

This research blog follows the DIGICOLJUST-2 project, a four-year (2023-2026) research and digitizing project supported by the funding program BRAIN-be 2.0 of the Belgian Federal Science Policy (BELSPO), and led by a team of historians and archivists from the State Archives of Belgium (AGR/ARA), the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). The project starts from a poorly-known archival collection of fundamental significance for the history of colonial violence and of African agency under Belgian colonialism: the archives of the trial records of the military tribunals of the Congo Free State (1885-1908) and of the Belgian Congo (1908-1960). At the crossroad of heritage science and scholarly expertise, DIGICOLJUST-2 aims to make these records accessible and to explore new research agendas these unique sources enable. It follows the first phase (2020-2022) of the project DIGICOLJUST (“Colonial Violence, Subaltern Agency and Shared Archival Heritage: A Digital Platform of Colonial Judiciary Sources”), also funded by BELSPO and for which this research blog was initially conceived.

Context

Building on the promising results of the pilot project DIGICOLJUST (2020-2022), the project DIGICOLJUST-2 “Military Violence and its (Dis)Contents in Colonial Congo: Sharing the Records, Writing the History” (2023-2026) aims at renewing the archival, scientific and societal knowledge of the history of military crimes and of their repression in colonial Congo. Based on a combined input of heritage science and scholarly expertise, this project responds to political and historiographic debates on the contested heritage of Belgian colonial archives and on the violent history of Belgian imperialism.

General Objectives

Pursuing the uncovering of a long-considered lost collection of more than 5,400 courts records encompassing 70 years of testimonies of colonial military crimes, DIGICOLJUST-2 will allow for the development of state-of-the-art solutions designed in collaboration with Congolese archivists for further sharing this heritage, and for the production of innovative historical research. It will offer new insights into the deployment and escalation of armed violence in colonial Central Africa (i.e. the “content” of military violence), as well as into the complex relationship of Belgian colonial (military) authorities to impunity and soldierly misconduct (i.e. the “discontent” with this violence embodied in the judicial process).

Records and Research

The trial records of the court martials of the Congo Free State (1885-1908) and of the Belgian Congo (1908-1960) constitute a unique archival heritage. Congolese soldiers and Belgian officers were tried by military courts for violations of military and civilian law. These trial archives are of fundamental significance in three ways. First, they hold countless cases of insubordination, theft, desertion, substance abuse or sexual violence, shedding a crude light on the daily troubles agitating Congolese armed forces. Second, they were active both in peace and war time, therefore providing crucial insights in the different guises of military governance. Third, in cases of unrest, entire regions could be placed under “military regime”. Civilian courts were replaced by military ones, in which appeal procedures were restricted. Martial courts sanctioned Congolese for rebelling against the state, thus offering an exceptional insight in the history of their resistance against colonial rule. The results produced by the initial phase of the DIGICOLJUST project have confirmed the crucial interest of the records of colonial courts-martial. Between 2020 and 2022, the project’s team has been able to map the archival materials, to retrace their history, to conceive a format of online access for the already-completed digitization of the pilot program (1,147 case files/27,650 scanned pages from the military court of Léopoldville, 1891-1956), and to build an effective partnership with the Institut National des Archives du Congo in DRC. DIGICOLJUST-2 will therefore offer a full return on this investment, first by taking up further the disclosure of the entire collection of courts’ files to allow researchers and members of the general public to access those documents easily (for academic, educative, memorial or creative endeavours), and second by developing ground-breaking research on the history of military violence and justice in colonial Congo.

Impact and Expected Results

As part of the larger collection of colonial archives which are in the process of being transfered from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Belgian State Archives, these trials form a heritage shared by Belgium and its former colonies. DIGICOLJUST aims to offer concrete and durable digital tools for a shared access, by inventorizing, digitizing and on-line storage and publication of integral/full range collections so as to allow users of the collection so seize the coherence and sheer extent of the archive. Conceived as a pilot project in the development of best practices and of joint dynamics of preservation and exploitation of the State Archives’ “colonial” collections, DIGICOLJUST-2 will build on the success of the initial phase of DIGICOLJUST by pursuing a complementary series of key objectives: (1)Digitization and online publication of the ca. 4,200 remaining case files; (2)Building an advanced relational database allowing for an improved accessibility to a highly relevant collection for scholars and stakeholders interested not only in colonial armed forces but also in the social history of Belgian colonialism; (3)Developing the praxis of sharing archival/digital heritage between Belgium and Congo in a bilateral dynamic of conservation and research, notably through a collaborative research guide connecting the military court records kept by the AGR with the Force Publique‘s files kept by the INACO; and (4)Researching the history of military violence and justice through thematic case-studies (on military violence in Leopold II’s Congo and its legacies, on gender-based violence, and on what was specifically “colonial” in wartime colonial military justice), also conceived as ground-breaking contributions to the international historiography of colonial policing and armed forces.

Funding

The project is supported by the Belgian Science Policy BELSPO Brain-programme.

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