It is evening, and I write from the waiting room near Gate 4 of Amsterdam Schipol International Airport. In a few moments I will embark on my flight to Milan, Italy. This morning I visited the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague. There, I met face-to-face with Fred Van Den Hoek, Alfons Vermeulen’s great-grandson.
Alfons Vermeulen (1877-1965) is the creator of the collection I chose as my focus for the Saudade project. He was a Dutch trader who travelled and lived in what was then the Belgian Congo for about 20 years. There he worked for NAVH, a Dutch import/export company that was leasing Congolese land from Belgium, then the ruling power. Vermeleun worked as the manager of several farms, fields and forests producing materials for resale in Europe.
Vermeulen was one of the first Europeans to move to Africa for business. In addition to his work, while he was there he wrote two novels (both published during his lifetime) and a memoir (which Fred, his great-grandson, intends to publish); these writings are important because they have value as historical documents. Many of the episodes included in the books shed light on life for Europeans living at that time in the Belgian Congo.
Several episodes narrated in the books are consistent with recorded events in the Belgian Congo at the time. What I am interested in is the thesis that the two novels are actually a crypto-autobiography of the author himself. Jan Vansina (1929-2017, Belgian historian and anthropologist) puts forward this very argument in his short essay History in Novels and Memoirs: Alfons Vermeulen on Rural Congo (1899-1904). The two novels are De Pioniersdagen van Chicongo (Pioneer Days of Chicongo) and De Ingang der Hel (The Entrance to Hell). In his essay, Vansina describes the plot of the first tale: a Dutch trader is sent to the city of Brazzaville in the Congo. There he receives land and workers, including a woman who is put at his disposal. He falls in love with this concubine. A few years later she becomes pregnant with his child, and the story ends tragically when both she and the child die during childbirth.
A fascinating detail about Alfons Vermeleun’s story is that he was knighted by Albert I, King of Belgium in 1929, for his service as a pioneer living and working in Congo during the early 20th century. When recounting this story, Fred joked that Vermeulen was a knight “of the Order of the Banana”, a common jab at the time in Holland towards those thus honoured by the Belgian king.
In this story, which is told on different levels and radiates many facets, the nature of Vermeulen’s character appears hidden like the face of a knight behind his visor. On the one hand, he is regarded with honour and respect by the ruling Belgian authorities. On the other, he expresses a feeling of deep involvement with the African culture in which he lives, a culture seen by most Europeans at the time as devoid of history and meaning.
In fact, in De Pioniersdagen van Chicongo, the protagonist’s story arc brings him to rethink some of his beliefs, and in more practical terms, to learn the local dialect, Congolese.
My meeting with Fred proved to be invaluable for so many reasons; for example, I learned from him that the word “Chicongo”, which is present in the title of the first book, is nothing more than the literary pseudonym of Vermeulen, as well as the name by which the Congolese living in Brazzaville called the Dutch.
Fred also revealed to me the significance of some of the images in the archive. One in particular which made an impression on me portrays a naked Congolese woman. Fred told me this:
She is none other than Mula Kedi, the wife of my great-grandfather. She is the concubine with whom Chicongo fell in love and married, the same woman who in reality lived with his great-grandfather and who died during childbirth.
Fred generously recounted to me many other details of Vermeulen’s life, the time in which he lived, and the family relationships he built in Africa and in Europe. Therefore, at the conclusion of our interview, I told him of my wish to illustrate a love story based on these events, where the protagonists are a masked rider (wearing a typical Congolese mask) and a female figure composed of raw materials exported to Europe by NAVH. The two characters will clearly represent Chicongo and Mula Kedi.
I will design a performance piece, drawing directly from the photos, the maps, and the autobiographical notes of Vermeulen, which are stored in the collection donated to Expatriate Archive Center. Into these I will also weave dialogues from the De Pioniersdagen van Chicongo novel. The piece will be presented live by two performers during the finissage of the Saudade project. The assistance provided by Fred will aid me greatly in this labour of love.