Sexual violence in the Congo free state: Archival traces and present reconfigurations

    Western imaginings and colonially scripted images of the Congo as barbaric, savage and the 'heart of darkness' have dominated understandings of events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since its colonial inception (Dunn, 2003). The contemporary global focus on sexual violence in the armed conflict of eastern DRC has only reinforced such framings (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013; Verweijen, 2015). While sexual violence has captured the social imagination long before the Congo, contemporary international discourse has framed sexual violence as "the major horrendous crime of our time" and "an exceptional form of brutality" (Jolie, 2013). Drawing on largely unused archival material obtained at the Royal Museum of Central Africa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium, this article sheds light on how sexual violence prefigured our own times in King Leopold II's Congo Free State (1885-1908). The vivid memories and testimonies of the grotesque and spectacular violence inflicted upon the Congolese outline similar sexual atrocities to those that have taken place in the current conflict in eastern DRC. These memories are, in Mbembe's (2007) words, "traces and fragments" of colonial violence and excessive abuses. Yet today's international security discourses occur in the midst of an almost complete absence of such history and its memories. Ultimately it is argued here that the memories and testimonies as traces from a violent past, reshape historical understandings of colonial violence and open new avenues for rethinking past abuses and their endurance into the present.

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