Monday, January 31, 2011

Free Belgian Forces

In the great World War 2, as before the Great War, Belgium tried to remain neutral but was attacked by Germany anyway. For 18 days the Belgian armed forces struggled against the invaders until they were totally surrounded and facing certain death. On May 28, 1940 SM King Leopold III signed the document of surrender to the Germans to save what was left of his army. However, the fight did not end there.
Some soldiers were able to escape to England and they were joined by other Belgians from around the world to join the Free Belgian forces fighting alongside the Allies under the direction of the government-in-exile. They participated in the war in Europe, Africa, Asia, on the sea and in the air. One brigade of commandoes was dropped into France in 1944 and fought in the Allied invasion and eventually the liberation of Belgium. Belgian special forces fought in Madagascar, Italy, Germany, Norway and Yugoslavia. One group fought with the Americans in the "Ardennes Offensive". A casualty-clearing unit served with the British in taking Burma back from the Japanese. Two Belgian corvettes and a group of minesweepers fought with the Royal Navy in the battle of the Atlantic. A Belgian squadron was formed to fight with the RAF and flew with them throughout the war, shooting down 51 Nazi planes and it was the Belgians who led the air raid on the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen.
There was also, untouched by the war in Europe and the occupation of Belgium, the formidable colonial army of the Force Publique in the Belgian Congo. They had a fierce reputation amongst the militaries of Africa and they were quickly mobilized to join the Allied war effort to stop the Axis forces from taking over Africa and the near East.
The Force Publique played a crucial part in the campaign against the Italians in East Africa. Through 1940 and 1941 the Allies, including the Force Publique and Commonwealth troops of the British Empire, fought fierce Italian defenses by the Duke of Aosta. The Force Publique finally cut off the Italians and helped bring the war in East Africa to an end. After that time units of the Force Publique served in support duties in Egypt and Palestine.
In all, about 100,000 men served in the Free Belgian forces after the formal surrender of their army until the end of the war with the surrender of the Japanese.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Royal Mediator Resigns

Now it seems we have to start all over again -again. After an hour of frustrated negotiations with the Flemish representatives on Wednesday the royal mediator Johan Vande Lanotte decided again he had to resign and since this last effort has proven a failure SM King Albert II decided he had no choice but to accept that resignation. The Palace Royal said, "The King accepted and will start consultations tomorrow" to see who can try to begin the process fresh. For three months Vande Lanotte has been trying to bring the two factions together without success, enduring some hardships in his own life while trying to carry on his duties given to him by the King to find an agreement but nothing is able to be accomplished. He told the press afterward that he is not optimistic of prospects for success going forward saying, "There is no real perspective of progress" and that "It was not possible to bring the seven parties around the negotiating table."

Despite the patriotic outrage displayed by tens of thousands of Belgians on Sunday, obviously the party leaders are not really understanding the message. They continue to cling to their narrow, self-serving vision and to recognize the facts that they do not wish to see; that the Belgians love their country, believe in their country and want their leaders to stop bickering and form a government to take care of their laws and obligations. Most parties say they are against new elections and if the frustrating media polls can be believed the public sentiment in terms of party support has not changed a great deal so really they think new elections would be pointless but they also seem to show that appointing a new royal mediator by the King would be pointless because they are being too stubborn to make any sort of agreement! What is the King to do?

Caroline Gennez of the Flemish socialists criticized the hard-line approach of the nationalists in the negotiations, saying that by refusing to compromise they sent a message to the thousands of demonstrators in Brussels on Sunday that they do not hear them or do not care what they have to say. She criticized the Francophone parties as well but also admitted that it was pointless for the Flemish nationalists to attend negotiations with demands they knew no one would ever accept. However, N-VA leaders placed the blame totally on the Francophone parties and their recurrent "non" to Flemish demands. Walons socialist leader Elio Di Rupo has also been criticized for holding too much aloof from the negotiations and not being more involved.

How can we be saved from this frustrating deadlock?
The King advises, he is not listened to.
The People demand, they are ignored.
Everyone needs to wake up to the source of the real problem and drop their electoral support of these parties and leaders, embrace only those that are for national unity and, I think, to really stop this nonsense, go back to the old national organization without dividing everyone up.

This is making me more religious -I went looking for my beads today to pray for the King and the country to come out of this mess.

Vive le Roi! Leve de Koning!

Our Belgian Queen of Italy

Monday, January 24, 2011

Belgians Send a Message

On Sunday more than 34,000 people attended a demonstration in Brussels to demand that politicians get off their butts and give us a government. Shame! on you politicians, stop behaving like children! This non-political rally was organized by five youths who were disgusted that Belgium has been so long without a government, in fact approaching the record set by war-torn Iraq! This is ridiculous and there is no excuse. As a non-political rally, the organizers asked people not to carry Belgian flags or signs with political slogans or messages -not everyone obeyed that. Black-yellow-red dotted the crowd which was much bigger than expected. From the Facebook and Twitter campaign over 20,000 expressed support so they thought 10,000 to show up for the demonstration but 34,000 came from both language communities, all ages and social backgrounds to support this message: enough is enough! Their slogan was, "Shame. No government, great country". I could get behind that. Also, for a non-political demonstration, which organizers went at lengths to be clear was not aimed at the Flemish nationalist party, some could not resist making their feelings clear abour Bart De Wever.

Speeches heard were mostly just calling for the government to be responsible and stop playing this game of cards with the future of the people, even the life of the country. It was a greater success than anyone expected and it is good encouragement to see so many and diverse people coming around to support government accountability and, I think, the unity of Belgium. I don't think that message can be ignored, political or not, these tens of thousands of people showed up to demonstrate that they love their country and want to preserve it. Some politicians seemed to get the message, others have tried somewhat to downplay the significance. Alexander De Croo of the Flemish liberal party said this was a clear expression of the will for Belgium to continue and that the end of the country is not about to happen. The N-VA yet said that while they share the concerns of the people, they also believe the people want a good government, not just any government and that the recent elections were a strong message other words they interperet this to please them in their goals. The Christian Democrats also said that this should not be taken as an excuse to act hastily.

The people, I think, might like a little haste or at least a little sign of urgency on the part of the elected leaders. After 225 days I doubt anyone is including moving too fast among the things they are most worried about. People at the demonstration said much the same sort of things. They are having to face challenges and make tough decisions in their lives, but the politicians have an all-or-nothing attitude and that they are putting their own interests ahead of the good and welfare of the people and the country. I cannot see there being any argument for that, that is clearly obvious and is also clearly obvious I think where the problem lies. No one wants new elections right now, and I would not say that, I would want new elections if there could be new parties and new leaders (or maybe if the people would vote for some of the smaller unity parties) that could clear out the whole tired mess of these same old names and slogans, clear away the accumulated rubbish and really do the job of governing the country. But, I go on there I will only upset myself and today is a good day, Sunday was a great day of sending a clear signal to the government and shows the people care about politics and the future of Belgium! Vive Belgique Unie! Vive l'roi!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Little Albert II

Loss of 10% for Royals

The grants the Belgian royal family earns from the government in the past year fell by 10 percent. This is the first time ever the royals received a cut in their dotations.

The reduction is just not for King Albert II and Queen Paola. All three of their children – Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid and Prince Laurent – were effected by the cut.

Even dowager Queen Fabiola saw the cut, down to €1.4 million. Philippe will get €920,000 while his sister will now earn €320,000. Prince Laurent shall get €306,000.

The cost of Belgium’s royal family is €30 million, or 3 percent per citizen.

Source: Het Laatste Nieuws,

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The National Front

Since I have in the past months blogged on the Flemish nationalist party I thought it would be only fair to also make mention of the Francophone party most known as the “radical right” example; the National Front. This may offend some people but who really reads this anyway? I cannot have that much of a negative image of the National Front based on what I know. If you please, I must add that I am not very well informed politically because I have been so long out of the country since becoming of age for political concern really. I know the National Front has the reputation of being racists and that the have had leaders get into trouble for that (incorrect speech) but I read through their manifesto (Belgian National Front) and I do not see much that I really have a problem with. Racism is, of course, not good but racism is not the desire to preserve your own people. Every race can and should be doing that. Other countries objected to Europeans colonizing their homeland but the people of Europe cannot do the same?

Already I am not liking how I sound and I realize that is not how people are supposed to talk or think. Really, I just cannot see that trying to preserve your own country for your own people as something hateful. I do not understand that and I do think there should be immigration limits considering the problems we have had in years recent of terrorism and crime. This has been the issue most controversial but the National Front has also many other points to their program. The support the institution of marriage (but still help for single parents) and they oppose abortion. They support lowering taxes, simplifying the tax system and promote ‘popular capitalism’ to encourage a business-friendly environment to bring jobs back to Belgium which has lost almost all the industries we used to have. They are more European-minded than I would find ideal but there is no parties that really are not aside from the radical Flemish nationalists. The National Front is, however, opposed to globalism and trade that works against Belgian workers and products.

Obviously, as mentioned, the National Front is largely a Francophone party (and obviously inspired by the National Front in France made famous by the controversial Jean-Marie La Pen) but the FN is specifically Belgian nationalist and also advocates increased education in languages so that French is taught in Flanders and Dutch is taught in Wallonia and German also not forgotten in that region. That is another reason why I cannot see the FN as negatively as the extreme Flemish nationalists because the FN strongly supports national unity and the Belgian identity rather than the idea of putting regional identity first. It seems to me that is important, particularly now, and I cannot have any problem with that specific position. That also does not mean the FN goes about this the correct way and that they could be more eloquent in explaining their positions. Also, I will say again, I am mostly removed from the political scene, I have never voted for the FN and I would have to see much more to decide if I ever would in the future. I only am going by what they say about themselves and what they are favoring and opposed to. This same standard is how I have looked at the other controversial parties of the past and today.

Most things in the FN program, as I read it, I have to say I would agree with or not be opposed to. That is most and not everything. I am uncomfortable with too much reliance on European Union, and I am uncomfortable with their talk of greater military integration in alliance with others. I prefer Belgium to remain apart and free to act independently as our own interests require. They do not specifically address much the monarchie by what I have seen, and that is very important to me, I assume they are supportive but only because they are taking their inspiration from a French political party makes me think this is something I would have to have well established what their position is before I would think of supporting them. As it is, although mostly unpopular, there seems to be more people with the hesitant support in theory but reservations about the FN since they usually poll more support than they have yet to gain at election time, having only a very few members elected to office even when larger percentages state support for FN positions.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Léopold : entre génie et gêne

This post on a new look at King Leopold II was, I thought, quite interesting. Covering his interest in colonialism, his relations with the Church and his image at home and in the Congo:

En 2007, les Editions Racine avaient publié une biographie objective et intéressante de Léopold II par Matthieu Longue. Deux ans plus tard, ils complètent ce livre par un ouvrage collectif co-écrit par une quinzaine d'historiens du nord et du sud du pays (Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, Michel Dumoulin, Francis Balace, etc.) et par Gustaaf Janssens, le responsable des archives du palais royal. Après avoir rappelé les grands événements de sa vie privée et publique, les auteurs se sont principalement intéressés à sa politique étrangère et coloniale.

Tout commence lors de ses voyages en tant que prince héritier. Léopold a évidemment vu de grands monuments, tels les pyramides de Gizeh ou le Taj Mahal, mais il concevait tous ses voyages comme des confrontations avec des modes d'administration, des opportunités commerciales et financières, des individus et des structures qui remplissaient une fonction de direction dans le monde politique et économique de l'époque. De retour en Belgique, il lit de nombreux livres et revues sur la géographie et le colonialisme.

On n'en parle pas souvent mais cinq ans après son accession au trône, Léopold II est confronté à la guerre franco-prusienne de 1870 qui met en péril notre indépendance. Sur le plan diplomatique, le Roi et ses ambassadeurs rappellent la neutralité de la Belgique à ses puissants voisins et tente d'obtenir des garanties qu'elle ne sera pas envahie. Parallèlement, il fait voter l'augmentation du budget de la Défense par le Parlement, et envoie des soldats tout au long de nos frontières. Malgré que la bataille de Sedan se passe à quelques kilomètres de chez nous, la Belgique n'entrera pas en guerre et aura réussi à préserver son indépendance et sa neutralité. De même, en 1904, Léopold II n'accepte pas les propositions d'alliance antifrançaise de l'empereur Guillaume II.

Un intéressant chapitre sur la religion montre que Léopold II tenait à de bonnes relations avec le Vatican pour des raisons plus politiques que religieuses. Il ne réagit pas à la prise de Rome par l'Italie. Ses relations sont très bonnes avec le pape Léon XIII qui est le chef d'Etat à qui il écrit le plus souvent après la reine Victoria, et qui suit ses conseils lors des nominations des évêques belges. A la demande du Roi, il réprimande le prêtre Daens mais refuse de trop se mêler de ce problème devenu politique. Le pape Léon XIII est le plus fidèle allié de l'oeuvre congolaise de Léopold II et encourage l'installation de missionnaires catholiques. Mais suite aux accusations sur le régime colonial, le Vatican prend définitivement ses distances avec le souverain belge à partir de 1905.

Les auteurs évoquent ensuite avec beaucoup d'objectivité les critiques internationales contre le régime colonial de Léopold II au Congo, et les résultats de la commission d'enquête de 1905. Une analyse minutieuse des caricatures présente le Roi comme un monarque autoritaire, un colonisateur sanguinaire ou un coureur de jupons. Laurence van Ypersele fait remarquer : "Sous le règne de Léopold II, la caricature rêve d'un roi Père de la patrie, tout entier offert au pays comme il le serait à sa famille, proche et aimant. Tout au long de son règne, les critiques se font de plus en plus sévères. Or, la frustration de l'opinion publique va creuser et renforcer l'attente d'un roi idéal. On comprend mieux, dès lors, la popularité dont a bénéficié son successeur dès son avènement : le roi Albert Ier apparaissait comme l'incarnation même de ce rêve".

Depuis l'indépendance du Congo, Léopold II n'est presque plus cité dans les discours officiels, sauf lors de l'hommage que lui a rendu le président congolais Joseph Kabila dans un discours prononcé au Sénat belge en 2004. L'analyse des manuels scolaires belges démontre que l'oeuvre coloniale y est glorifiée jusque les années 1980-1990, alors qu'on met désormais en évidence les abus qui y ont été commis. Stéphanie Planche place ce changement en parallèle avec l'évolution politique de notre pays : "Léopold II semble réussir le tour de force d'être désormais à la fois défendu et conspué, comme symbole et comme antisymbole, d'une Belgique unitaire et de son érosion : une qualité qui, dans le contexte belgo-belge, lui confère une charge et une portée toutes singulières, et lui prédit certainement encore une longue vie posthume". Quant aux jeunes Congolais, ils le considèrent comme le fondateur de leur pays, tout en rappelant les points négatifs de la colonisation.

Cet ouvrage collectif n'est pas destiné au grand public. Il permettra aux passionnés d'histoire d'avoir des éclairages nouveaux sur le règne et l'historiographie autour de Léopold II, un souverain très controversé. Les auteurs suggèrent également plusieurs pistes de recherche non encore explorées.

The New Book of Princesse Marie-Esméralda

Après deux années d'études de droit à l'Université Saint-Louis, la princesse Marie-Esméralda de Belgique (demi-soeur et filleule de notre roi Albert II) a poursuivi son cursus en communication sociale section journalisme à l'Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve. "Le rôle de la presse dans l'enlèvement du baron Empain" était son sujet de thèse. La princesse s'installe à Paris, et écrit pour des magazines français et italiens. En 1998, elle se marie avec le professeur Salvador Moncada (titré "Sir" en 2010 par la reine Elisabeth II) avec qui elle aura deux enfants Alexandra et Leopoldo. Ils vivent à Londres. Après des ouvrages sur Christian Dior et le roi Léopold III, elle sort, en décembre dernier, un nouveau livre intitulé "Terre! Agissons pour la planète, il n'est pas trop tard" (éditions Racine). (plus)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pro Belgica

In response to a question, Pro Belgica is a patriotic organization that was started in 1975, is bilingual, open to anyone of any political ideology or background, to support Belgian unity and national pride in the tricolor Belgian flag. Their original and still core intent is to honor the memory of the campaign of 1830 gave birth the independent Kingdom of Belgium. They still hold many ceremonies to honor the memory of the patriots of 1830 and the war for independence. Also as important today is the campaigns for national unity and Pro Belgica is known for holding mass demonstrations to show the national colors and to show support for the unity and continued independence of Belgium. This also means to show respect and the importance of the King and in the past this has put Pro Belgica in some controversy at times for their efforts to defend the monarchie and past kings when they are under unfair attack as a way to divide and denigrate the national integrity. I am and always have been proud to support them and I think their efforts are important and have a real effect, in contrast to the endless polls, but showing the actual crowds of people who love their country and support it to continue.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The King Popular and Pro-Belgica Message

SM King Albert II is voted the Belgian of 2010 in an on-line poll. In truth, with the 25,000 participants he was the runaway favorite with 74,7% of the vote, far ahead from the next most popular choice. The previous year winner, former prime minister and European president Herman Van Rompuy was voted only 1.7% of the support. This shows the appreciation the people of Belgium have for their king and their country, which is why the king was chosen surely as this vote was a support for the unity and continuation of the country and that is what the King stands for and symbolize. This was very good news to me. Vive le roi! Leve de koning!

Also, on the topic of national unity, I though this Pro-Belgica post was particularly interesting on "Les étonnantes origines de la querelle linguistique en Belgique" (Jean-Marie Gillet). I suggest to read. And on the topic of Pro-Belgica:

The Reaction of Pro-Belgica of the current political situation:

"La présidente et les membres du conseil d'administration sont très préoccupés par la situation dans laquelle se trouve notre Belgique bien aimée. Voilà plus de six mois qu'ont eu lieu les élections. Depuis lors, le pays est géré par un gouvernement sans pouvoir. Les hommes politiques sont d'accord pour proclamer que les problèmes économiques doivent trouver d'urgence des solutions mais ils butent sur des problèmes de répartitions communautaires qui pourraient être résolus si tous les candidats au pouvoir y mettaient du bon sens et de la bonne volonté. Mais hélas, ils sont sans cesse conditionnés par les prochaines élections, ils agissent en fonction de leur reconduction suivante, et cela compte énormément pour chacun d'eux.

Le manque manifeste de sens de l'État, l'égoïsme et la frilosité de différentes prises de position par les politiciens, les querelles incompréhensibles pour les étrangers, tout cela ne favorise pas le rayonnement de notre pays. Le conseil d'administration est bien résolu à poursuivre son combat pour que le pays demeure et que les Belges ne soient pas contaminés par la maladie de la peste politique. Il veut, sans relâche, que notre devise nationale, "L'union fait la force", soit une réalité, vécue par tous les Belges. Ils soutiennent le Roi qui, bien que sans pouvoir de décision, recherche avec ténacité une possibilité d'entente entre les hommes politiques. Encourageons-le.

Bonne année à tous. Vive la Belgique! Vive le Roi!

Displaying the Flag 2

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

King Rejects Resignation

SM Albert II has rejected the resignation of Johan vande Lanotte and urged the mediator to end the political stand-off as quickly as possible. Many people have given up spending energy to care but others have been motivated to stand up for the unity and preserverence of the Kingdom of Belgium. This lunacy must stop and the country come together. La Libre Belgique has said the country is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It is time to support the King and support unity.

Vive Belgique unie!
Vive l'roi!
Leve de koning!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Royal Mediator Resigns

More than two hundred days without a government and now the King’s mediator between the parties, Johan Van de Lanotte, is ready to quit. This is unfortunate but not expected given the intransigence of the parties and the suffering Vande Lanotte has been through with this. His mother only just died after worse health when she had a fall at home and while dealing with this he had also to deal with the feuding parties. After two of the Flemish parties refused to consider any more compromises the disgusted peacemaker informed His Majeste the King he wishes to resign. The King says he will consider it first and in the interval there had been some minor but hopeful changes. The Flemish Christian Democrats said they support the mediator continuing with his task and some other parties have been in touch, not in an obvious way, to try ensuring the situation does not deteriorate. Most parties support this, even the Flemish nationalists saying they will not make opposition. This is also after some Wallon commentators complained of the Flemish being treated too special in these negotiations. This poor man has the most unenviable job in Brussels today!

The only one with a more unhappy position must be the King himself who cares the most about getting everyone to come to an agreement and get along with each other! He must feel sympathy for his mediator and the King will be asking the leaders of the Flemish nationalists and Walon socialists to work more closely with him which is assuming that the King will not accept his resignation and send him back to work. What should he do? I know the King does not want him to resign and so have to start over again with someone new but also the poor man has been going through a lot of problems and this is not a job free of stress or anxiety. And, pardon I repeat myself, but, OVER 200 DAYS! Is ridiculous! Party leaders, stop acting like over indulged children and think of the country for a difference! Why I do not understand that the King and the Family Royal are not the most beloved people in the entire country, they are the only ones thinking of the country and not self-interest of only one group or one class (the politician-bureaucrat-rulers class).

Another report on this:

De Belgische koning Albert II moet deze week duidelijk maken hoe het verder moet met de moeizame regeringsvorming in zijn land. Hij ontvangt dinsdag bemiddelaar Johan Vande Lanotte, die in opdracht van het staatshoofd sinds 21 oktober probeerde zeven partijen op één lijn te brengen.

Vande Lanotte vroeg donderdag van zijn opdracht te worden verlost, maar Albert ging niet in op het verzoek. Hij nodigde de sociaaldemocratische senator uit voor een nieuwe audiëntie, dinsdag. De koning kan het ontslag alsnog inwilligen, maar hij kan de ervaren politicus ook vragen het nog een keer te proberen.

Vande Lanotte wierp de handdoek in de ring omdat niet alle partijen bereid waren te onderhandelen over een door hem opgestelde nota over een staatshervorming. De grootste Belgische partij, de Vlaams-nationalistische N-VA, en de Vlaamse christendemocraten eisten aanpassingen voor een
hervatting van het overleg.

De Vlamingen willen meer eigen bevoegdheden en verantwoordelijkheid en minder geld afdragen aan het armere, Franstalige Wallonië. Inmiddels zit België ruim 210 dagen zonder nieuwe regering na de
parlementsverkiezingen van 13 juni. © GPD; Bron: ANP

Monday, January 10, 2011

Captain William Stairs

Captain William Grant Stairs is someone, I think, who should be given a moment of memory because after all of his adventures in his life many of his own people did not view him with admiration because of his service in the employ of the King of the Belgians. He was a Canadian, born in Halifax and went to school there, in Scotland and in Ontario province. He became an engineer and worked in New Zealand and in 1885 was commissioned as an officer in the British Royal Engineers (army) and trained in England. In 1891 he joined the famous Welch Regiment. In the time between these two positions he went on a great adventure to central Africa. He joined, in 1887, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition led by the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley, still one of the most famous explorers in the world, especially African explorers. The purpose of the expedition was to relieve the besieged forces of Emin Pasha, governor of Equatoria for the British General Charles Gordon who was Governor-General of the Sudan and engaged in a war against Muslim fanatics.

Stairs left London on 20 January 1887 and met Stanley in Suez on 6 February. Starting at the mouth of the Congo on 19 March they reached Tanzania on 5 December after a very long and arduous journey through wild and unknown country. Stairs became deputy commander of the expedition when the previous man to hold that post, Captain Barttelot, was shot in a skirmish on 19 July 1888. These daring men crossed 500 kilometers of jungle rainforest, swamps and all of the most difficult terrain possible to imagine and all the time suffered from every possible tropical disease, usually malaria and dysentery. In those days, the days of the last great adventurers, men were more tough and determined than now. Stairs endured all of this, discovered one of the sources of the Nile, the Semliki River and became the first man to climb in the Ruwenzoris (Mountains of the Moon). Along the way he was attacked by natives, shot in the chest with a poisoned arrow. There were many bloody battles, some because of simple aggressiveness and some because many of the natives thought the party were slave traders and their extreme fear of such a fate was not unfounded because kidnapping slaves for trading was still a major problem in central Africa at that time.

The expedition was still a success, Emin Pasha was reached and with difficulty persuaded to abandon the district and leave with Stanley. Back in England Captain Stairs was highly praised for his courage and determination on this wilderness trek. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1890. The very next year, SM King Leopold II of the Belgians commissioned Stairs to command an expedition to Katanga in the Congo after Stanley had recommended him to the King. The goal was to come to terms with or defeat the native chief Msiri who ruled the region before the area was taken by the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes which was expanding north very quickly. Even though Stairs and the doctor of the party, Joseph Moloney, were subjects of the British Empire, they agreed that, regardless of who they might come in conflict with, they would carry out their obligations to King Leopold II and the Congo Free State. With only a relatively small party, Stairs set out to claim this vital region and deal with the chief Msiri.

Stairs and his force reached Katanga and began trying to come to terms with Msiri but he was obstinate. Plagued with sickness and surrounded by hostiles, Stairs decided finally to make Msiri an offer he could not refuse. After three days of diplomacy Stairs sent word to Msiri that if he did not sign the treaty he proposed the next day, 20 December 1891, there would be severe consequences. When the chief did not appear, Stairs sent Belgian Captain Omer Bodson (his second in command and only brother officer) to arrest Msiri. When the chief resisted and drew his sword on the captain, Captain Bodson shot him and this provoked a short but intense battle between the subject natives and the native Free State soldiers of Stairs in which Bodson was killed by Msiri‘s favorite slave. Stairs then put a new chief in charge (an adopted son of Msiri) and he signed the treaty recognizing Leopold II as king-sovereign and that Katanga was part of the Congo Free State.

The mission accomplished, Stairs and his remaining men began the overland march to the coast to Zanzibar, by the time they arrived a year of skirmishes and tropical diseases had reduced their number from 400 to 189. Stairs was not among them though, he had suffered long with malaria and finally died on a steamer on the Zambezi River on 9 June 1892 and he was buried in Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa). He had done his job and secured probably the most important and mineral rich region of central Africa for the Congo Free State. However, the British in Northern Rhodesia (who wanted the territory for themselves) declared Stairs a traitor for working for the Belgians rather than the British and they joined in the chorus condemning Stairs, his expedition and the death of Msiri (though of course it was not Stairs who killed him). Everyone knows that some self-interest and desire for profiteering was part of the whole colonial game at that time. However, Stairs cannot be a villain because Msiri was no hero. He had no better claim to rule that area that King Leopold II did. Msiri was not the son of a prior chief or anything of the sort, he was a slave trader who became wealthy and powerful, bought European weapons and conquered the people, imposing his rule by force and remained a major figure in the brutal slave trade business. He was certainly not a peaceful, innocent victim and when Captain Bodson died his last words were, “I don’t mind dying now that I’ve killed Msiri. Thank God my death will not be in vain. I’ve delivered Africa from one of her most detestable tyrants”.

I can well imagine that if the event had ended peacefully with the chief signing the treaty, Commander Stairs and King Leopold would have been criticized anyway for making friends with such a brutal local warlord. In so many words, they would have been condemned no matter what happened, mostly because they beat the other colonial powers to the prize. Also, we should not forget that Stairs was one of only two officers in an armed expedition made up entirely of African natives and they trusted and were totally loyal to him because of his solid leadership and fair treatment of them. If he had been a cruel or vicious man he could never have accomplished what he did, almost by himself. That is why I think Captain Stairs should be remembered and that it will not be that the only voices speaking of him are those who attack and criticize him. He had great courage, did things most today would regard as impossible, he had determination to always see the job through and his expedition had a great impact on the history of Belgium and central Africa.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The King in December

Last month, some of us lucky to have a nice vacation but SM the King has been busy all the time and the rest of the Family Royal also. It is surprising how much new was made by Crown Princess Mathilde being interviewed about her efforts to be bilingual. I thought nothing about it was unusual but simply talking about it may be out of the ordinary. She said learning Dutch is very difficult (not many would argue that point who did not grow up speaking it) and that she knows she speaks it with a French accent and has to make an effort to speak it, hear it and converse in it to remain fluent. She also mentioned the children attending a Dutch language school. Back to the King though in December he named former European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans a Grand Officer of the Crown of Belgium for his career in European cooperation and keeping good relations between Belgium and Nederlands. The Belgian ambassador to Nederlands presented him with his medal.

The story I missed that caused most upset for me was the NVA member Siegfried Bracke wrote on his blog a complaint that the King has too much power in the Belgian government. Of course that is totally outrageous as most media was at least honest enough to mention. The King has a very specific part to play and ministers may take or ignore his advice and on his own he has the power to do nothing. That is true but I also must say that for myself it would be better I think for the King to really have some power in government and be given more authority because the King seems the only person who does not put one community or one party or one ideology before the interests of the whole country. Some actions and statements of the King I have first disagreed with but I also do not see any major political figures who put the country first and only the King seems to really have any interest in that and has a self-interest in the unity of the country. For almost everyone else their self-interest is dis-unity and antagonism between the regions and communities.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Belgians on the Russian Front

In the First Great War my highest respect must goes to those monarchs who gave leadership to their soldiers on the battlefield. The best examples of this were our own King Albert I and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. They both were sovereigns devoted to doing their duty by their country but with very different results. Because it was small, neutral Belgium which was liberated and the vast powerful, politically involved Russian Empire that collapsed. I have posted before on the history shared by Belgium and Russia, how Tsar Peter the Great visited Belgium and how Belgian King Leopold I fought in the Russian army against Napoleon. It is known because of the Great War that Belgium and Russia fought on the same side against the Germans but not so many people know that they actually fought side by side. It is a triviality not included in most history books but the Russian Tsar did send some troops over to France to fight on the Western Front. Not many people know that, and even less know that King Albert I also sent Belgian troops to fight on the Russian front.

Of course, clearly, it is obvious, Belgium did not have the resources to send over a large force or even as much as the other allied powers sent later, but there was a Belgian contribution and it came in the form of armored cars. Belgium had been an innovator in this area and before the other powers developed armored cars that made the very heavy and cumbersome machine guns of the period mobile. These were made by the Minerva Motor Car Company in Antwerp and they saw service during the German invasion of Belgium and the siege of Antwerp, racing down the roads, shooting their machine guns at the pickle heads and having a more glamorous part of a war becoming uglier every day. Of course, after Antwerp was abandoned and there was the battle of the Yser and a stalemate on the western front, clearly the Belgian army did not have much use for armored cars in the flooded box trenches of Flanders. It was suggested that these could instead be put to good use on the Russian front which was much more fluid and mobile than the west.
A Russian officer suggested it and of course King Albert I was always willing to help but the Tsar had to ask first because, since Belgium was a neutral country, the small kingdom and the massive empire were fighting on the same side but not exactly were allies in the strictest sense. Also, because of this, on paper at least, the Belgian troops were volunteers in the Russian Imperial Army rather than officially soldiers of the Belgian army for this special mission. In all there were over 300 men who went with the armored cars, motorcycles and bicycles to the Russian front, over time around 400 men were served as troops rotated out. They saw their biggest battles on the Galician front and their speed and firepower were proven to be very good at eliminating Austrian machine-guns positions. These brave men far from home fought even after the Germans had clearly gained the upper hand and they also kept on fighting and doing their duty even after the 1917 Revolution. It was not until the new Russian government made their own peace with the Germans that the Belgians decided it was time to go home.
That was difficult to do because of the revolutionary forces that viewed the Belgian forces as enemies and they blocked the way to all the major ports. The Belgian forces then because of this had to travel across the whole of Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific where they took a ship to San Francisco, California and then went by train across the United States, being much celebrated along the way, reaching New York and from there sailed across the Atlantic to finally reach Paris two weeks later. In all, their losses were few, only 16 men during all of their fighting and travels were killed. The last Belgian veteran of service in Russia died in 1992.