Birmingham in the Congo: Birmingham research showcased at history festival in Brazzaville

The third edition of the international history festival “Images & History” (Images & Histoire), which took place between 6 and 15 May in the capital of the Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville, included a keynote lecture by Dr Berny Sèbe, Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies.

Photograph of Dr Berny Sèbe giving a le

Drawing upon the findings of his book Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939) (Manchester University Press: hardback 2013 and paperback 2015), Dr Sèbe analysed the role of the mass media in the making of heroic reputations of colonial figures in Britain and France, at the time of ‘New Imperialism’. The African public showed interest in the subject, was keen to understand how imperial heroes contributed to the shaping of popular perceptions of Africa in Europe. During the Q&A session, the repercussions in the present day of old clichés were also widely discussed. 

The keynote lecture was part of a programme looking at ‘exploration and explorers in Africa’, which included contributions from international scholars such as Dr Jean-Pierre Bat, head of the Africa fonds at the French National Archives and Dr Vincent Hiribarren, a historian of Africa at King’s College London, as well as African historians, such as Etanislas Ngodi, a historian of Central Africa at Marien Ngouabi University in Brazzaville. Organised by Christophe Figuéréo for the French Cultural Institute in Brazzaville and the Lycée Saint-Exupéry, in partnership with the local newspaper group Dépêches de Brazzaville and the Savorgnan de Brazza mausoleum, the festival offers a unique opportunity to discuss historical questions with a public eager to engage with their country’s complex past.

In addition to his keynote lecture, Dr Sèbe, as a guest of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services, was also involved in several related events, such as a roundtable at the leading local bookshop Les Manguiers, presentations to pupils at the Lycée Saint-Exupéry and the provision of a guided visit of the memorial to Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, which contextualized his life and celebration in the contemporary Republic of the Congo.

The Republic of the Congo has been one of the few post-colonial African countries to celebrate in the last decade an imperial hero as a national founding figure, going as far as erecting a marble mausoleum to host the remains of the Italian-born French explorer and founder of the French colony of the Congo, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Dr Sèbe’s visit to Brazzaville offered a unique opportunity to share his research results with a local audience specifically interested in such issues, whilst also developing links with relevant local institutions, such as the Savorgnan de Brazza memorial (image below c. Berny Sèbe).

Whilst Dr Sèbe’s research results for this project had been shared on many occasions in the UK, Europe, the USA, China and North Africa, this was the first time they were presented in Central Africa. Their being presented on the occasion of a major regional history festival demonstrated their long-lasting and global relevance.

Savorgnan de Brazza Memorial (c. Berny Sèbe)