Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

The Italian-born French explorer Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905) is regarded as the founder of French Equatorial Africa. His fame rests on the methods he employed to secure the goodwill of Africans toward France.

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza was born in Rome on Jan. 25, 1852, the scion of an old aristocratic family. Brazza's father was an Italian patriot and a liberal who refused to live under Austrian rule in Udine in northern Italy and settled in Rome, returning to his family estate only after the Friuli region had been ceded to Piedmont in 1859.

France's role as a protector of Italian nationalism explains why young Pierre sought permission to continue his studies at the French naval academy, where he was admitted in 1868. A midshipman by the time of the Franco-Prussian War, he volunteered for service with the French navy. After the end of the war, Brazza made his first trip to the coast of Gabon with the South Atlantic fleet in 1872-1874. It was at that time that Brazza, undaunted by the failure of a previous French expedition to penetrate to the heart of Equatorial Africa, conceived the idea of using the Ogooué River under the belief that it might connect with the Lualaba—the Upper Congo—recently discovered by David Livingstone. Having secured French citizenship and official approval for his petition to be placed on paid leave, Brazza returned to Gabon in 1875 and sailed up the Ogooué, only to discover that it could not possibly connect with the Lualaba. He then traveled overland to the Alima River (a right-bank affluent of the Congo) but was prevented by hostile tribes from reaching the great river itself, the proximity of which he had in any case failed to grasp.

Returning to Libreville in 1878, Brazza learned of Henry Stanley's successful navigation down the Congo and realized in retrospect what he had missed. Though completely outclassed by Stanley in the eyes of public opinion, Brazza was invited to enter the service of King Leopold II of Belgium in an effort to secure possession of the Congo Basin for that monarch. Brazza warned the French government instead and secured their approval for his project to outrace Stanley, now working on Leopold's behalf. On Oct. 3, 1880, having successfully negotiated a treaty with the makoko (king) of the Bateke, Brazza set up a French post at the site of modern Brazzaville, while Stanley, who had ignored Leopold's urging to rush on to the Middle Congo, was methodically blasting a road through the Lower Congo rapids.

King Leopold tried to regain through diplomatic maneuvering what Stanley had lost on the ground, but Brazza, now at the peak of his popularity, mounted a skillful propaganda campaign and secured from a vacillating French government the ratification of the "Makoko Treaty" on Nov. 30, 1882. From 1883 to 1885 Brazza was back in Equatorial Africa, consolidating French claims over the area at the head of a sizable force.

The arbitration of differences between King Leopold and the French delegation at the Berlin Conference was shortly followed by the fall of Jules Ferry's "colonialist" Cabinet. The new administration was less favorable to overseas expansion but Brazza nevertheless managed to get himself appointed general commissioner for French Congo in 1886. In this capacity he personally supervised and coordinated the numerous expeditions whereby France secured control of the area between the Congo River and Lake Chad, thus containing German penetration from Cameroons.

Brazza's opposition to the granting of extensive land rights to private firms increasingly brought him into conflict with private interest groups, and in 1898, under a tenuous pretext, Brazza (then on sick leave in Algeria) was relieved of his position without having been given a chance to defend himself. Belated recognition came in 1902 in the form of an official pension, but not until 1905, when the abuses of the concessionaire system had resulted in a scandal, were his views vindicated.

Brazza's last trip to Africa, in 1905, was an inspection tour of conditions in the Congo. In the face of general hostility and deliberate noncooperation by the colonial civil service, Brazza bitterly described what ruthless private exploitation had done to the area that he had opened up to France 25 years earlier. He left the Congo a sick, heartbroken man and died on the way home at Dakar on Sept. 14, 1905, before he could witness the gradual elimination of the abuses he had denounced.


Further Reading on Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza

Extensive materials on Brazza can be found in Thomas F. Power, Jr., Jules Ferry and the Renaissance of French Imperialism (1944), and Henri Brunschwig, French Colonialism, 1871-1914: Myths and Realities (1960; trans. 1966). For general background see Robert William July, A History of the African People (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Nwoye, Rosaline Eredapa, The public image of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and the establishment of French imperialism in the Congo, 1875-1885, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University, African Studies Group, 1981.