Sammy BALOJI | Beaufort 21 | Zeebrugge
and to those North Sea waves whispering sunken stories
was one of the 32 Congolese who fought in Europe during the First World War. He was taken prisoner by the German army, and as an African he became the subject of scientific study.
In March 1917, the Prussian Phonographic Commission made several sound recordings of Albert Kudjabo singing and drumming. They are the only known sound recordings of a Congolese soldier in World War I (©Lautarchiv, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin).
Kudjabo’s voice and song complete Sammy Baloji’s installation, and remind of yet another sunken story.
The damaged Palace Hotel
after the First World War
© IFFM Ieper
Zeebrugge and WW1
The port of Zeebrugge played an important role during the First World War. It was a German submarines' base from where the supply from the UK to the front was disrupted. On 23 April 1918 (St George's Day) British sailors tried to block the harbour entrance in a heroic raid. A monument on the seawall reminds of this. During the war, the stately Palace Hotel, which still dominates this spot, housed German naval personnel.
Just like in Ypres, a flourishing war tourism developed in Zeebrugge after the First World War: the Palace Hotel now accommodated British tourists while a war museum was established next door.
for the Zeebrugge Museum
© Philippe Oosterlinck & IFFM Ieper
The Horse Market ('Paardenmarkt')
But in the sea just outside the port of Zeebrugge and off the coast of Heist, there is a much more sinister reminder of the Great War. Just a few kilometres from the eastern breakwater of the port is the sandbank called the Paardenmarkt. After the First World War, no less than 35,000 tonnes of gas shells were dumped on this site. This invisible munitions dump is potentially a toxic threat to underwater ecosystems.
in the Soltau prisoner of war camp
© IFFM Ieper
Congo in WW1
The little-known dumping operation near the Paardenmarkt has an analogy with Congo's role during the First World War. While a few dozen Congolese soldiers were deployed on the European front, the colonial army in Belgian Congo, the Force Publique, was used en masse against mainly German East Africa. In the memory of the Great War, these colonial troops were subsequently forgotten. Like the munitions dump, official monuments or ceremonies simply glossed over their presence completely.
All these shadow histories crystallise subtly in Baloji's installation. For the structure Baloji was inspired by the 'Wardian case', a glass transport case that was used to protect exotic plants during colonial sea transports to Europe. The shape of the sculpture is reminiscent of Congolese minerals, while the plants it houses were exiled from the same country. The temporary protective box has parallels with the temporary protection the dumping into the sea of toxic munitions offers. The work gives a voice back to forgotten traces of the past, but also highlights their effects in a global world and the active attempts to make things forgotten.