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Pietro di Brazzà Savorgnan

The Story of my Great-Uncle Pietro the Explorer 

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Pietro di Brazzà Savorgnan was born in Rome on 25th January 1852 into a large family of Venetian noble birth; descended from three Doges and the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus.Still a child, he discovered in his family library at the Castello di Brazzà near Udine (Italy) an eighteenth-century map of Africa, which showed a large unmarked white patch in the centre described as the Kingdom of Makoko.  Pietro decided there and then that he would explore the Congo basin and get to know its inhabitants. He therefore joins the French navy (Italy did not have one yet). His direct competitor will be the American Stanley at the service of the Belgian King Leopold II.


Through Admiral de Montaignac, at the age of 13, Pietro enrolled in the French naval school at Brest where he showed strength of character and aptitude for command. His first mission as a naval officer was aboard the frigate, ‘Venus’ whose task was to stop the slave trade off the West African coast.  Although slavery had been officially abolished in 1833 it still remained a practice amongst the Arab slavers as well as the African tribes. During a brief stop at the Libreville harbour in Gabon, Pietro obtained a 48-hour permission to explore the interior. On returning to France, Pietro presented a preliminary exploratory project to map the Ogooué River from the mouth to the source to Admiral de Montaignac, who had become the Minister of the French Navy and Colonies. From 1875 to 1878, having become a naturalized French subject, he led his first mission to equatorial west Africa, but failed to reach the Congo River before his main rival, Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh journalist and adventurer who was working for King Leopold II of Belgium.

These two men were very different. Pietro was a blend of idealism and Realpolitik, of utopia and concrete approach, a philanthropist and an alternative explorer compared to the colonialist attitudes of his time. He persuaded locals to touch the French flag to better resist capture and bought the slaves’ freedom. In France the papers gave him the nickname of “Father of the Slaves”. Whereas Stanley was an intolerant and “excessive” adventurer who took a no holds barred approach in pursuing his path with dynamite and guns; he boasted to have burnt down whole villages and exploded the “woolly heads” that stood in his way; his methods earned him the nickname of Boula Matari (Rock-breaker). Unlike Pietro, Stanley enjoyed unlimited means of action supplied by King Leopold.


Initially, Pietro’s advance was hindered by the Ossyeba (previously ill-treated by Stanley) and by the Affourou tribe who feared the loss of its Alima River trade monopoly. But he won the hearts of the first by acting as a shaman with pyrotechnical tricks and using his navigation and hunting tools, and of the latter by shooting his Winchester up into the air when first attacked and offering peace and goods instead. Leopold II tried to recruit Pietro to work for him, bestowing on him the Order of Leopold II, but Pietro refused, saying that his aim was not to exploit but to civilize.

Pietro carried out his second mission in 1880 – 1881. His brother Giacomo, the friend Attilio Pecile, his administrators De Chavannes, and Dolisie, his doctor Ballay and the leader of his Senegalese sailors Sergeant Malamine accompanied him. Aware that colonialism could not be stopped and apprehensive about Stanley’s ways, King Makoko Iloo I, spiritual leader and head of the Batéké tribe, called on Pietro, receiving him with the signs of his power (a panther skin, a buffalo horn, the Kingdom’s protective spirit the Kwe Mbali) to place his kingdom under France’s protection.  A Treaty of Friendship and Protection was agreed. King Makoko then asked Pietro to make peace among forty of his tribes.  Pietro did so, by asking their Chiefs to dig a hole, bury their weapons in it, and plant a palm tree above it whose edible fruits would mark a lasting peace. As a parting gift, King Makoko gave Pietro some land on the banks of the Congo River along the Stanley Pool in order to build a French settlement that became today’s Brazzaville.

Whilst Pietro was in Paris, Stanley and his soldiers attempted to land at Brazzaville on behalf of Leopold II, but were forced to back-track by the Senegalese Sergeant Malamine, left to guard the settlement under a French flag, after he uttered the famous words: “Halte, içi c’est la France!” During their famous meeting at the Stanley Club in Paris in 1882, Stanley accused Pietro of being a charlatan and a va nu-pieds (a poor man who goes barefoot), leading the French press to assail him while praising Brazzà as a gentleman and “the apostle of freedom”.

After obtaining the ratification of his Treaty from a reluctant French Chamber Pietro returned to Africa for a third mission between 1883 and 1885. A large crowd chanting, “Our father is back”, met him in Libreville! In 1884 in Mbé he handed the Treaty over to Iloo I in a crystal box.  During this time he ventured further into the African continent and nearly died. The living conditions of African explorers were close to unbearable. Most died on route, like Pietro’s friend Latours (the town of Latoursville was named after him) from illness or Flicoteau in a hunting accident (killed by a buffalo) or others killed by locals.

In 1885, at the Berlin Conference, instigated by the German Chancellor Bismarck, Africa was divided up amongst the European powers. It was known as The Scramble for Africa. Pietro sensed that the time for explorations was over and that the French government would sideline him. His friend Ferdinand de Lesseps, President of the French section of King Leopold’s Association Internationale Africaine, rescued him by organizing a conference at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. The massive audience was spellbound by Pietro’s charisma as he expressed his fears that the great companies would exploit his Congo’s natural resources (cocoa, ivory and above all rubber) and trample African tribal traditions, imposing their methods and thereby risking annihilating unprepared peoples. It was a triumph. Public opinion demanded his return to the Congo. The French Government felt obliged to appoint Pietro as first Governor General of French Equatorial Africa (AEF), which he governed from 1886 until 1898. He got involved in the “race towards the Chad”, stopped German colonial aims at Kaoundé in the Cameroons and promoted a French march towards the Nile, only to be stopped by Paris. Too late France changed its mind and, in a hopeless attempt to cut the road to the British, sent the Marchand expedition that crossed the AEF and Darfour to reach Fashoda (in the Sudan) on the White Nile. Pietro was asked to support and equip Marchand, only to be later accused of mismanagement of the colony’s budget (abused by Marchand without consultation) and dismissed. This paved the way for the access to the colony by French companies of exploitation, which Pietro had kept at bay because of fears of monopolistic practices and derisory salaries. Pietro retired in Algiers where he lived happily with his family until 1903 when the colony was rocked by the Toque-Gaud scandal.  Two French administrators had celebrated that 14th July by blowing up the African tribes chief M’Pika.


It was a national scandal. The French Government was forced to resort to Pietro again, appointing him, in 1905 as Commissioner Inspector.  He knew he was not welcomed by Congo’s Governor Gentil, Archbishop Agouard, the big companies and the French Government itself. Weakened by malaria, he was accompanied by his wife Thérèse, her brother general de Chambrun and a friend, the journalist Félicien Challaye. Pietro gathered the local population in Brazzaville, listened to their complaints, criticized their taxes as excessive as well as their forced labour. At a farewell dinner in Bangui he understood the message of a dancing Shaman about arrests and torture. This led him to a concentration camp at FortCrampel. All of his dreams for French Africa seemed to have exploded in his face.  His health got worse. He died on his way back to Europe the 14thof September 1905 at the age of 53 at the Hôpital Principal in Dakar, Senegal. The official cause of his death was dysentery, like his role model Livingstone’s, among others. But his wife Thérèse maintained that the big companies had poisoned him. His damning mission report, impounded by the French government from a secret pocket in his Vuitton valise, was never released, for it was judged to be too critical. This made Félicien Challaye the key witness of the misdeeds of French colonialism in the AEF as resulted from his articles in the French press. Thérèse felt France had betrayed her husband and refused to bury him with the French heroes at the Pantheon in Paris, arranging to lay his remains to rest in Algiers’s cemetery Mustapha Supérieur.


Pietro’s humanitarian approach explains why in 1944 de Gaulle declared Brazzaville, rather than Dakar, Capitale de la France Libre, and obtained from the local governors the “French” troops that he needed to allow him to play a role in the liberation of France from the Nazis.

In 2003 my father Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli convinced the Congolese President Sassou Nguesso and the King Makoko to arrange for the remains of Pietro and his family to be transferred to Brazzaville so that his memory could be venerated in the town he had founded. The Mémorial Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza was inaugurated on 3rd October 2006, anniversary of the founding of Brazzaville.


© Testi Corrado Pirzio Biroli

© Habitat Brazzà - All Rights Reserved

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