Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary - Part 5

9 (Francis W. Joaque)

In the restoration studio, another image of sailor shirts has shown up. The photograph is labeled as un-authored but dated 1875, on the note card that identifies its subject as “Count de Brazza uittrekkend can Gabon naar Stanley Pool”.  The rest of the caption describes an entourage of a medical doctor, a quartermaster, both named, and thirteen Senegalese men, unnamed, and who appear on the photographs to be all the men wearing sailor shirts. The tired-looking group is huddled together with some standing and others sitting, forming a roughly pyramidal structure. The expedition leader, Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905) is uncharacteristically decentered and crouching in the grass, chin in hand.

Contrary to Fred Pepple’s fourteen sailors in pristine sailor shirts and bare legs, the men identified as the “thirteen Senegalese men” in sailor shirts are wearing full uniforms of French sailors, although some are more disheveled than others. A quick Internet search tells me that Brazza led his expeditions throughout Africa in the 1880s, with thirteen Senegalese men working as “laptots” or native sailors.  Brazza is quite a figure in French and Congolese colonial history, often presented as a freer of enslaved men and women who worked closely with his Senegalese troupe, and in particular one of them, non-commissioned officer Malamine Camara (c.1850-1886). Brazza’s name was used for the capital city of the Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville, which was retained after independence, and a gleaming memorial was erected to him after his body was transferred there in 2006. This was not without controversy in Congo as this hagiographic view overlooks or minimizes his participation in the European colonial enterprise.

Back home I search online for photographs and literature in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale and its associated database and repository, Gallica. I find another copy of that photograph and copies of several others I had also seen in Leiden. They bring about an unexpected find.  Firstly, the photographs kept in France bear the names of every single person in the photograph, African and European, written in the margin below by Brazza, including the name of Malamine Camara, his trusted non-commissioned officer. To my great surprise, all the photographs in the sequence are annotated with the names of the individuals included in the pictures, whether they are European or African, sailors or formerly enslaved men. It is so rare to see the names of natives or locals in photographs that this seems quite extraordinary, and it would seem to point to a personal engagement of Brazza with the individuals he encountered during his exploration trips.  But there is something else. While the Leiden photos leave the photographer unnamed, those in Paris are attributed to none other than Francis W. Joaque (although there is no mention of how the attribution is made). I double check in the database in Leiden. It tells me that the collections contain no pictures by Joaque and yet, if I am not mistaken, I have just identified two or three.

I am reminded of something that Jürg Schneider, in his article on Joaque mentions based on a compiled archive on Brazza: Brazza and Joaque “collaborated in what was a carefully engaged relationship, exchanging and crafting imagery of people and the moments of exploration over ten years.”[1] I realize how this must apply to the picture I found and to the second one I saw in Leiden and then again in Gallica, and this suggests the extent to which Brazza carefully constructed his image destined to circulate in Europe and did so through active exchange with local individuals including Senegalese sailors and a Sierra Leonnese photographer. In other words, these images show an intricate story of photography as tool for social exchange and propaganda.

<--    Part 4          |         Part 6    -->

[1] Jürg Schneider, ‘Demand and Supply: Francis W. Joaque, and Early African Photographer in an Emerging Market, Visual Anthopology, vol. 27, 316-338, 2014, 328. The source he bases himself on is: Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (editor) Brazza et la prise de possession du Congo, la mission de l’ouest africain 1883-1885. Paris, Mouton, 1969.


Sophie Berrebi
Rita Bolland Fellow