Albert Londres on slavery: “Africa, in chains”

DThe first reactions were devastating: Albert Londres was scolded, as soon as his most recent work had been published, as lump, pimp, traitor, Jew, mestizo, liar and even as a common journalist. It was a triumph. Because the outrage showed that Londres had achieved his goal: he had disturbed and shaken an entire country, startled from the slumber of self-righteousness. France, according to the sting that the reporter Londres had drilled into its homeland, finally had to admit that it is the sleep of justice that gives birth to colonies. At least that was the case for the overseas possessions of France, which considered itself to be so much better, more just and more civilized than its rivals England or Belgium. But France also had its heart of darkness, and Albert Londres had heard it beat.

In October and November of 1928, the magazine “Le Petit Parisien”, at that time a mass newspaper with a circulation of around two million copies, published a continuation report from the French colonies that filled the front page for several weeks: reports, photographs, drawings, Maps stood alongside impressions, descriptions of the landscape, facts, dialogues and – in good measure mixed in – scarce, sharp analyzes of devastating grievances.

Londres was a kind of subversive genre painter, without illusions to the limits of cynicism, which he rarely exceeded. His scenes of everyday life in the colonies could have titles such as “Slavery before sunset” or “Sadism under palm trees”. From the local color, the picturesque and the exotic of Africa, he peeled out the monstrosity and repulsiveness of colonialism like the stinking, rotten core of a lush fruit. He knew what readers would expect from a major Africa report – exoticism, entertainment, the sultry tickle of naked black bodies of both sexes – and gave it to them. Then he pushed her over the head that there was a crash.

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Research trip to the colonies

AndrĂ© Gide had published his African travel diaries in 1927 and 1928 under the titles “Congo trip” and “Return from Chad” and at least managed to have a parliamentary commission of inquiry set up. Londres took advantage of the attention that Gide had drawn to the colonies and carried out a four-month research trip with the editor-in-chief of the “Petit Parisien”.

First sections in the construction of the Congo-Ocean Railway, 1914.

It was not unusual for him. Londres has traveled more than half the world. When something was going on that seemed interesting enough to him, he set off: China, Palestine or Galicia. He traveled like a bird flies: “because God gave the one wing, the other the restlessness”. He not only lived out of his suitcase, he also spoke to him. They were soul mates. Like any good journalist, he did not rely solely on his powers of observation and talent to be in the right place at the right time. He works with historical backgrounds and up-to-date statistics, writes dialogues like from a tabloid comedy and prefers to let his guarantors report in the first person, especially if they tell their own life stories. Perhaps one of its idiosyncrasies is most evident: the reporter is a collector of fates. He picks them up along the way, how to collect shells by the sea: with great attention, but also with the willingness to drop them without hesitation as soon as a nicer specimen is found. His compassion is always on the go. It works without sentimentality.

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