The Ultimate Expat – Alfons Vermeulen Congo 1898-1929
As an expat you probably work in a comfortable air-conditioned office. Your colleagues are likely to be civilised, nice people with whom you enjoy drinking your cappuccino in the morning. When you feel peckish during the day you pop over to the deli around the corner. On your way back home the worst that might happen is that the bus is late.
The ‘Ultimate Expat’, my great grandfather Alfons Vermeulen, was less fortunate when it came to his working conditions. He was warned he might be killed, roasted and eaten by his future business partners. And no, that is not an exaggeration…this is exactly what happened to his predecessors and colleagues.
Alfons’ expat experience started in 1898 at the age of 21. He applied for a job as a contractor with the Dutch New African Trade Company, the NAHV, and was sent to French Congo and Belgian Congo. The NAHV held about 75 concessions, franchised land so to speak, in Africa and traded products on the world market.
His mission was to set up trade posts, called factories, which were situated deep in the Equatorial Forest. Most of the terrain had not been explored or mapped and many of the indigenous inhabitants had never before seen a white man.
These factories were centres in which to initiate and maintain trade with the local inhabitants – if the relationship with the locals didn’t go awry. Additionally it also functioned as a ‘village’ for Alfons’ staff. The factories were usually situated near a river or existing villages. They consisted of living quarters and a large storeroom for the goods he traded or bought from the locals such as copal, rubber and ivory.
The only luxuries Alfons enjoyed were canned foods, some books and the bottles of wine he was given by the NAHV. There was no medical care apart from having a bottle of disinfectant at hand. First aid was administered by his staff and concubine and quite often Alfons had to act as a doctor himself.
It happened frequently that wounded people would be brought in to see him as the jungle was ridden with dangerous animals, disease and bandit tribes.
A lot of agent-traders died. Against all odds Alfons came out alive, even though sometimes his life hung in the balance. What pulled him through was his gift-of-the-gab, intelligence, willpower and, respect for the locals. Being a gifted story teller he published two well-received autobiographical books about his adventures in the 1930s.
Later in life he decided that there was more to tell and started working on some articles and chapters for his third book. He kept writing until his death in 1965. After his death, his personal archive was packed into a suitcase and left in a basement, only to see the light of day a couple of years ago.
This historical and anthropological treasure trove ended up with me and my relatives. After extensive work on it, I was able to piece together the book as he would have intended; recreation of a now lost paradise and a statement of his love for Africa and his African wife. If I say so myself, it contains some beautiful prose which is well worth a read.
Fred presented Alfons’ material to the Expatriate Archive and will provide the centre with a digital copy of the whole archive. In the future the originals may be stored in the centre to remain accessible for future generations.
By Fred van den Hoek