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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 September 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Final return to Congo
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

In the so-called "scramble" by European powers for the mineral wealth, the rubber and ivory and the territories of Africa at the end of the 19th Century, Italy didn't come out terribly well.

Pietro Di Brazza
Pietro Di Brazza's remains will be moved to Brazzaville
The British, the French and the Belgians all grabbed what they could, but curiously it was an Italian - Pietro Savorgnan Di Brazza - who has emerged as the only European explorer and colonialist to be honoured at the beginning of the 21st Century for what he gave to Africa rather than for what he grabbed.

Pietro Di Brazza was born in the mid-19th Century into a well-to-do Italian family who lived in a rather grand palace in the centre of Rome.

Three years after his birth Dr Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, reached the Zambezi river.

Di Brazza's imagination was fired by this story when he was still a child - and later by an atlas in his father's library containing a map of Africa with a big blank space in the dark heart of the continent.

"Would be interesting to visit" Di Brazza scrawled on the map in his own hand.

Pietro Di Brazza's constant pursuit of ideals of freedom and justice for Africans aroused criticism by his masters in Europe

He ingeniously managed to join the French Navy, as the newly established Kingdom of Italy hadn't yet acquired any ships, and got himself sent on an official French mission to West Africa where he travelled by river several hundred miles into the unexplored interior.

There, in what is now Congo, he met the local king who received him warmly.

Ceremonial transfer

More than a century later the descendants of King Makoko and the descendants of Pietro Di Brazza have also become friends.

Republic of Congo
They are all due to take part in the ceremonial transfer of the explorer's remains to Brazzaville - the city named after him - at the beginning of October.

Di Brazza's ideas on sustainable development were ignored in his day by greedy European businessmen and governments in the quest of easy profit.

In fact Di Brazza died on the journey home after a last visit to his beloved Congo just over a century ago.

In the meantime he had become something of a celebrity, with his handsome strong features, his brooding dark eyes and aquiline nose.

Pietro Di Brazza
He was photographed looking like Lawrence of Arabia
He was photographed in the studio of one of Paris's best known photographers, posing barefoot and wearing a headscarf and tattered robes, looking for all the world like an early version of Lawrence of Arabia.

His image was later used on advertisements for well known French brands of soup, chocolate and cheese.

Colonial crimes

During this last visit to Africa he drew up a report to the government for which he worked - that of France, for by that time he had become a French citizen - denouncing the crimes committed by the colonial merchant companies which exploited Africa's wealth for the benefit of their shareholders.

The report has never been published and to this day remains locked away in the archives of the French Foreign Ministry.

Its frankness about forced labour and cruel punishments of African workers in the rubber plantations was apparently the reason why it was never made public.

The report was discovered many years after Di Brazza's death locked inside a portable desk commissioned by the explorer for his African travels.

The desk, which folded up and became a trunk during the sea voyage, was specially designed for the explorer by Louis Vuitton, the well-known French luggage manufacturer.

There's a photograph of it on display in Rome, next to Di Brazza's original folding camp bed, constructed by the same company and which he used on many of his explorations.

Descendants pay tribute

The rusting American portable typewriter on which Di Brazza tapped out his reports from Africa is also on show.

One of Di Brazza's descendants, a great-niece, showed me a film of her participation last year in an African dance, touching toes with the current Makoko, or local king, as they both sway to the rhythm of the drums.

Up to a dozen descendants of the Italian explorer plan to be present in Brazzaville for the ceremonial transfer of his remains.

Pietro Di Brazza's constant pursuit of ideals of freedom and justice for Africans aroused criticism by his masters in Europe.

When he died, the French government did grudgingly decide to give him a state burial side-by-side with some of France's most illustrious military, political and literary heroes in the Pantheon in Paris, but his widow declined and Di Brazza was later buried in another former French colony, Algiers.

And it's from here that his remains will soon be flown to Brazzaville, their final and certainly most appropriate resting place.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 23 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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