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Stories from the Archives

The Magic Booklet – by Renaud Juste (VUB)*

This article closes our 2022 "Stories from the archives" series. After several blogposts written by BA students in History of the Université libre de Bruxelles and of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, we give the floor to Renaud Juste, scientific collaborator on the DIGICOLJUST project.

After rummaging for several hours in colonial court-martial records, one file caught my attention. By then, I was used to manipulate archives of a grossly similar shape and thickness, until something distorted the pace of my research. A rigid and rectangular object was wedged between the pages of the file that I held in my hands. When I opened it, I came across a black rectangle delicately wrapped in silk paper. It was a wallet made of stiff black cardboard with a lining of red paper, on which four small pictures were glued.

This object gave me the impression of touching history with my own fingers: I was holding a “piece of evidence”. Historians working on the colonial era yearn to find “fragments” of colonized experiences held in colonial archives[1]. And there I was, handling a material “fragment” crafted by a Congolese soldier. Admittedly, this “fragment” was preserved in a file compiled for the purpose of a colonial trial, archived and classified by a colonial structure, wrapped in silk paper by a colonial public servant, but it nevertheless connected me to a long-forgotten episode of fraud, dashed hopes and alleged witchcraft. What could this object tell us about the tensions and dynamics of military life in 1951 Belgian Congo?

The “magic booklet”, carefully wrapped up in silk paper. All pictures: AGR 2: AA, CG Boma (770), 1951.

The story beyond the cardboard wallet is relatively straightforward. Private François M. stands accused of swindling a boy carpenter named Zuao B. with a so-called carnet de magie – “the” cardboard wallet. According to the investigators, while François M. was already imprisoned in Boma for theft, he made Zuao B. believe that he had the power to create money. He asked Zuao B. for 20 francs, cut out a piece of newspaper in the shape of a bank note and inserted it in his “magic booklet”, out of which he managed to pull another 20 francs. An impressed Zuao B. then gave 100 francs to François M.. The latter declared that he would create more money on the next day. Ultimately, François never returned the 100 francs to Zuao B., and failed to ever produce more cash. After having unsuccessfully asked François M. to get his money back for several days in a row, an angry Zuao B. filed a complaint to the Conseil de Guerre.  

The name used to label François M.’ “scamming tool” is interesting. Indeed, the incriminated object is defined as a carnet de magie when recorded as evidence. However, the plaintiff, the accused, and the investigator alternately used the terms porte carte, porte carte truqué, étui or porte billet. In front of the court, François M. rather spoke of a portefeuille he made in prison because his own wallet was seized when he was arrested. Each party thus used different labels to describe the same object.

In his conclusions, the judge stated that François M. “was given by the named Zuao B. (…), a sum of 120 francs by using fraudulent manoeuvres to persuade him that he held an imaginary power […] to make money.” In addition, the judge “ordered the confiscation of the carnet magique”. However, neither Zuao B. nor François M. insisted on the wallet’s “power” or used the term “magic” during their interrogations. Zuao B. simply declared that it is by putting a piece of paper in the porte-carte that François M. produced another bill. François M. flatly denied the whole affair and declared the so-called carnet to be a simple wallet intended for personal use.

According to the available sources, it seems that the judge and the police commissioner were the ones insisting on the “magical” nature of the notebook, and on François’ “imaginary power to make money”. It is impossible to say with certainty whether Zuao B. believed in the wallet’s “magic”, or if François M. even claimed to have magical powers. The judge nevertheless interpreted the case as a matter of indigenous credulity and “naïve” belief in magic. This story therefore tells us more about how colonial actors brought their own visions of African “otherness” into judicial handlings, without paying much attention to the perspectives and claims of the involved parties.

The “magic booklet” is an uncommon archive, imbued with a strong symbolic charge by François M. Unfortunately, he did not explain how and why he chose to craft it as such, leaving us only able to speculate. The wallet’s lining has two flaps, each adorned with its own set of two images: two Europeans in suits on the top, and three soldiers on the bottom. The quality and size of the photograph does not make it possible to determine the soldiers’ origins, but I assume them to be Congolese. Indeed, their uniforms and berets seem to be those of the Force Publique.

The unfolded “magic booklet”.

What was the relation between the wallet’s display and its alleged power? Photographs from the colonial period were often staged as to reflect unequal, hierarchical relationships. The framing, the composition, the camera angle, the subject of these images are revelatory of the way colonial actors perceived and wished to display the colonial order. The “magic booklet” seems to follow the same rules, by putting Europeans “above” Africans. The wallet’s display appears to reflect how François M. experienced and envisioned colonial power relations.

If we look further at these images, we see that these photos are imbued with colonial aesthetics. Although they are small, we can clearly distinguish the features of two white men in suits photographed in a slightly low angle. The soldiers are photographed from a distance, making it difficult to identify them. The choice of François M. to place these photos on a vertical axis leaves little room for interpretation. He seems to represent the racial hierarchy and colonial domination by positioning each one in the place that colonization envisioned for them. This display makes sense, if one thinks that the wallet supposedly offered prosperity to its owner. From subservience, represented by the soldiers, we rise to power represented by the white men in suits. One cannot say that François M. simply assimilated colonial relations of domination and flatly reproduced them in the wallet’s lining. Rather, he seems to highlight racist oppression by associating positive qualities with the image of the whites above and negative qualities with the image of the soldiers below.

The two photographs on the first flap, and the newspaper clipping.
The two photographs on the second flap.

As I close the “magic booklet” and put away this fragment crafted by Private François M., I feel that I have only scratched the surface of the questions surrounding the materiality of this archive. As an object, the booklet deserves to be investigated further. But this story allowed me to document how colonial actors brought their own visions of African ‘otherness’ into the judicial handlings, especially when it comes to formulating racist fantasies around magic. Finally, the crafting of the “magic booklet” gives an insight into the mentality or representations that a 1950s soldier of the Force publique had of the colonial order.

*Renaud Juste has been working for DIGICOLJUST since February 2022. This blogpost has been edited by Benoît Henriet.


[1] Pandey Gyanendra offers a reflection on these « voices from the edge » and on the debate around them (Pandey Gyanendra ,”Voices from the edge: The struggle to write subaltern histories.” Ethnos 60.3-4 (1995), 223-242) ;  Ann Laura Stoler provides a nuanced take on the content and form of the colonial archive as a device of colonial governance (Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain. Epistemic, anxieties and colonial common sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) ).


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Benoît Henriet (October 6, 2022). The Magic Booklet – by Renaud Juste (VUB)*. DIGICOLJUST. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/nmev


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