It almost goes without saying that Europe’s colonial record in central Africa is pretty shoddy. Okay, ‘shoddy’ is an understatement and a half – Europe has a murderous, disgusting, genocidal record in central Africa, a record spearheaded by the non-more-colonial actions of Belgian King Leopold II, a ruler so horrific that his death was followed by an official ‘Great Forgetting’. Leo did his damage in a state then-referred to as Congo Free State, which was little more than his personal fiefdom, where large-scale atrocities were committed and huge swathes of wealth was stolen.
Not every European involved in the colonial world was an utter shitbag though. Stuck in the middle of all of this was a young Croatian explorer by the name of Dragutin Lerman, a fast learning type of guy who saw it all as a legitimate humanitarian enterprise. Lerman helped to map out Congo Free State, immersing himself with as much local culture as possible, learning languages and engaging in battles alongside the local folk. But do hold on, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
Dragutin Lerman was born on this very day, August 24, although he was born in 1863 as opposed to 2017. The son of a wine-grower, Dragutin received a good education and soon went on his travels, stopping in cities such as Budapest and London. He worked a number of odd jobs, including stints as a salesman and a builder, immersing himself in a travel literature in his spare time, at least the spare time he had when he wasn’t learning English.
Lerman wanted to travel the world you see, and at the age of 19 he applied to join an 1882 expedition to Congo, led by Henry Morton Stanley himself. Stanley wasn’t particularly impressed with Lerman to begin with, viewing him as far and away the least experienced member of the crowd, but he soon grew to the 20 year old kid that he described as being ‘energetic, bright and alert in mind and body’. Stanley soon gave Lerman more and more responsibility, which meant the young man from Požega began to interact with Leopold himself.
Over time, Dragutin Lerman became a well-respected cartographer and writer. He kept a diary obsessively, two volumes of which were published whilst he was in Africa, the lazily titled ‘Diary from Africa’ (1891) and ‘New Diary from Africa’ (1894). Maybe we should have called this book ‘A Book of Cool Slavs’. Julije Kempf took care of the printing, but we’ll speak of him another time.
Lerman is probably best remembered for his discovery of a number of waterfalls on the Kwila River, which he decided to name after the Zrinski ruling family. These were discovered in 1882, during the young man’s first year in the area. His first trip came to an end in 1885 thanks to a bout of illness, but he soon returned to Africa. Illness ended his second run in 1890, before deja vu would strike during his fourth trip to Africa in 1896. This was the final time Dragutin Lerman stepped foot on the continent.
Lerman returned to Croatia to live on his pension, opening up a business that failed before moving to Kreševo in Bosnia to work as a prospector for a Belgian mining company. I suppose the lesson is that once you get into the exploitation business, it is pretty hard to get out of it all. Lerman died of malaria and tropical fever in July 1918, a month before his 56th birthday.
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