The Goffinet archives shed light on Belgium’s colonial past

What is the importance of acquiring documents and archives with a historical value? A great deal it seems, not only for historical research – as these documents provide a better understanding of the context and issues pertaining to a particular period – but also in relation to current events. Such is the case for the private archives of Kings Leopold I and Leopold II, acquired by the King Baudouin Foundation almost thirty years ago, but which today have a central role in the work of the current parliamentary commission on colonization.

In the 1980s, when it was thought that they had all had been destroyed, a mass of documents and archives, of inestimable historical value, were accidentally discovered during demolition work on the Château d’Hyon, which had previously belonged to the Goffinet family. Constant and Auguste Goffinet were the trusted confidents of Kings Leopold I and Leopold II and they kept, in the greatest secrecy, several thousand documents estimated to be of particular interest. In 1993, the King Baudouin Foundation’s Heritage Fund intervened in order to acquire the totality of these documents, which represent significant testimonies to our past and which were believed to have been lost forever.

Great diversity

Historian and author of numerous articles and publications, Olivier Defrance has recently established an inventory of the Goffinet archives, commissioned by the King Baudouin Foundation. "The archives cover principally the reign of Leopold II. The oldest document dates from 1811 and the most recent 1947. There are two main sections to the archives: firstly work done by the Goffinet brothers for the royal family and secondly the archives that Leopold II had personally entrusted to them. All kinds of documents can be found, including correspondence between the king and his advisors; diplomatic, political and town planning documents; notebooks; travel accounts; royal family marriage contracts; documents concerning the Congo and its management; and others relating to Leopold II’s private fortune, which also served to finance his interests in the Congo.”

There are several thousand pieces in total, which took Olivier Defrance a year and a half to carefully sort, classify and catalogue, with help from the Archives Department of the Royal Palace. “First of all, everything had to be examined. Then we had to sort the documents in function of their nature – cabinet notes, the king’s correspondence, accounts etc. We created over 1,800 inventory numbers and if you remember that one number can include up to 100 documents, you can imagine the number of documents that we analysed.”

Now entrusted to the Archives of the Royal Palace, the Goffinet archives have already been consulted by numerous historians. “However, they are not only for use by a few specialists” emphasises Olivier Defrance, "They are available to each and every one.” This is a sentiment shared by the King Baudouin Foundation, which has also financed the restoration of some of the items in the Goffinet Fund that were found to be in a rather poor state. "The Foundation has already supported the restoration of some important documents, including the travel notes of Leopold II in Egypt - these have also been the subject of a publication. There remain others, but which are too fragile at present and need restoration before they can be made available for consultation.”

A timely echo

"The intervention of the Heritage Fund enabled archives of huge historical value to be acquired, which today are making a valuable contribution to current issues."
Olivier Defrance
Historian and author of the Goffinet archives inventory

Whilst the Goffinet archives shed valuable light on the founders of the Belgian dynasty, they will also play a significant role within the framework of the Belgian parliamentary commission on Belgium’s colonial past, which has just begun its work. “The documents dealing with Leopold II’s policy regarding the Congo, will enable us to better understand the King’s mentality and ambitions for the Congo and to better understand how he acted in response to the criticisms levelled regarding the policy of colonisation” says Olivier Defrance. “Without the intervention of the King Baudouin Foundation to acquire these archives, we would not have been able to develop all of the historical knowledge that we have today. It is therefore in the interests of the parliamentary commission to carefully examine these documents.” By so doing, further complementary and nuanced understanding will be added to the delicate work of examining a past that the events of recent months has put firmly back on the agenda.

More about the King Baudouin Foundation

The King Baudouin Foundation is widely involved in the conservation and protection of Belgian heritage. Through its Heritage Fund, it acquires works of art and significant testimonies to Belgium’s past so as to preserve them for future generations. The Heritage Fund promotes over 25,000 works and thousands of documents and archives of historical value, exhibiting them in public collections in the four corners of the country.

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