This cover has given insights into a remarkable story of intrigue with the key player being King Leopold II of the Belgians. This region in South West Africa has been the playing field of Belgium, England, France and Portugal, with all colonial powers reaping vast riches. In 1908 there were four different Congo States, French, German and Portuguese as well as the Free or Independent Congo, which became the Belgian Congo on 15 November 1898. The colonial powers showed little regard for the welfare of the area’s native inhabitants, who suffered much loss of life, and the more recent post-colonial life has not shown much improvement, if any.
The names of the countries in the area have changed over the years but the map identifies some of the countries in the area. At the time of this map, a large portion of this map was called Belgian Congo, Central African Republic, Zaire and Democratic Republic of Congo. Matadi is the provincial capital of the small most western province known as Bas-Congo which is the only area that has direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, and access by shipping to Europe. The red arrow points to Matadi, on the Congo River, which is the main port for the country (Figure1).
The letter was sent to Mr. Geo(rge) Prawn, Underhill (?R). M., Matadi, Congow (sic) Free State, S.W. Africa and at some point it was readdressed to 19 Furnival St., Holbourn, London E.C. Angleterre (England), with a directional instruction‘Via Lisbon’. A total postage of 2½d with two stamps of Victoria, the pink ½d and lilac 2d, were postmarked by a single circle duplex of MELBOURNE/ 7 A/ JY 3/ 93 with the VICTORIA obliterator. A single copy of the brown ETAT INDEPENDANT DU CONGO (Free State of Congo) 50 centimes stamp with a portrait of King Leopold II of Belgium (Scott #9) was applied at Matadi (Figure 2).
An enlarged view of this Free Congo stamp is also shown, with the fine blue postmark of MATADI/ 23/ SEPT/ 9-M/ 1893, is shown in Figure 3.
The reverse has four blue postmarks, both partial and complete, applied in Congo which read from left to right, BOMA/ 19/ SEPT/ 7S/ 1893, BOMA/ 23 SEPT/ ( )/ 1893, BOMA/ ( )/ SEPT/ 7-M/ 1893 and MATADI/ 23/ SEPT/ 10-M/ 1893. There are also two black LISBOA (Lisbon, Portugal) postmarks, reading left to right 20 AOUT, 93 and 18 AOUT, 93. One of the two London arrival postmarks is totally legible with an AU 14/ 93 postmark. These dates suggests that the routing in 1893 was Melbourne (July 3), London (August 14), Lisbon (August 18 & 20), Boma, Congo (September 19 & 23) and Matadi (September 23) as shown in Figure 4.
Leopold II (born April 9, 1835 – died December 17, 1909), King of the Belgians succeeded his father, Leopold I of Belgium to the throne in 1865 and remained the king until his death. He was a brother of Empress Carlota of Mexico and cousin to Queen Victoria. Outside of Belgium, Leopold is chiefly remembered as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, which was a private project undertaken by the very rich King to extract rubber and ivory, which relied on forced native labour (Figure 5).
Matadi is the major port (one of Central Africa’s largest harbors accessible to ocean-going vessels) in the now Democratic Republic of the Congo and it is situated on the left bank of the River Congo, 91 miles from the river’s mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. It is the last navigable point before the rapids to the east make the river impassable for a long stretch. Matadi was founded by the famous explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley in 1879. The word ‘matadi’ means stone in the local Kikongo language and the town is built on steep hills (note ‘Underhill’, in the address). A mixed rail and road bridge across the Congo now links Matadi to Boma (Figure 6).
Addendum: This paper has been published in the NSW Philatelist, May 2007, Volume 29, pages 13-15.