Mwenda Msiri was a powerful African king who ruled over the Kingdom of yeke aka Garanganze in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a skilled and savvy leader who was able to expand his kingdom’s territory and wealth through trade and diplomacy. However, his success and the valuable mineral resources in his kingdom made him a target for European colonial powers, ultimately leading to his death at the hands of Belgian colonialists.
Msiri was born in the mid-19th century and became king of the Yeke Kingdom in 1856. He quickly set about expanding his kingdom through a combination of military conquest and diplomatic alliances. He established trade relations with Arab and Swahili traders, which helped to bring wealth and resources to his kingdom. He also built a strong army and developed a well-organized government, which helped him to maintain control over his territory and protect it from outside invaders.
However, the wealth and resources of his kingdom, particularly the valuable mineral deposits in the region, caught the attention of two imperial powers, the British South Africa Company BSAC and the Congo Free State which was owned by king Leopold.
In 1890, the British South Africa Company (BSAC) made the first attempt to win over Msiri, but their emissary was unsuccessful. In response, King Leopold of the Congo Free State dispatched two expeditions in 1891, the Paul Le Marinel expedition and the Delcommune Expedition.
The Paul Le Marinel expedition only managed to secure a vaguely worded letter from Msiri, which agreed to Free State agents having a presence in Katanga, but nothing more. The subsequent Delcommune Expedition attempted to persuade Msiri to accept the Free State flag and Leopold’s sovereignty on the basis of the Le Marinel letter, but this too proved unsuccessful.
Failing in their attempts to persuade Msiri through diplomatic means, Leopold turned to mercenaries. He hired Captain William Stairs, a British mercenary who was reputed to be a reliable and effective executor of orders, to carry out his bidding.
Captain William Stairs hired 400 Africans, consisting of supervisors, askari and force publique soldiers, a number of cooks and personal servants for the whites, and porters.
Stairs’ orders were to take Katanga with or without Msiri’s agreement and then await the arrival of a second Free State column, the Bia Expedition led by two Belgian officers, which was coming down from the Congo River in the north to meet them.
On arriving Msiri’s capital at Bunkeya, the expedition was directed to set up camp within a few hundred metres outside the city wall.
On December 17, 1891, after the customary three-day wait before seeing an African chief, Msiri received them courteously. Gifts were presented, and negotiations began. However, when Msiri refused to agree to Stair’s demands, Stair resorted to an ultimatum. He ordered Msiri to sign a treaty and participate in a ceremony of blood brotherhood the next day, threatening to fly the Free State flag without his consent. Stair proceeded to carry out his threat.
Msiri fled in the night for Munema, to a fortified village outside Bunkeya in response to the situation. Upon realizing Msiri had left, Stairs dispatched his second in command, Omer Bodson, with 100 askaris to apprehend him. After searching several villages, Bodson located Msiri at Munema and attempted to take him into custody. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated, resulting in violent conflict and ultimately leading to Msiri’s death. Tragically, this sparked widespread looting, destruction of villages, and countless civilian deaths.
The expedition eventually retreated with their injured, and Msiri’s lifeless body. To prevent msiri’s followers from deceiving the public into believing that he was still alive, the expedition decapitated him and displayed his head on a pole.
The day after, Msiri’s brothers sent messages asking for Msiri’s body to bury, and Stairs agreed to release it but without the head. Katanga sources say they buried a body without a head. After the burial, negotiations re-opened and the chiefs of Katanga signed every treaty that was given to them. By early January 1892 the expedition had the papers sufficient to convince their British rivals that they now owned Katanga.
After taking over Katanga, Stairs remained in the region until the delayed Bia Expedition of about 350 men arrived from the Free State in the north.
The expedition was regarded by the Belgians as a complete success.
Msiri’s death marked the end of an era in the region, and it signaled the beginning of a long period of exploitation and oppression by King Leopold of Belgium. The Congo Free State was eventually taken over by the Belgian government in 1908, and it remained a Belgian colony until it gained independence in 1960.
Today, the struggle for Katanga is remembered as one of the most significant events in the colonial history of the Congo, and the death of Mwenda Msiri as a tragic example of the violence and exploitation that characterized European colonialism in Africa.