In 1939, Belgian filmmaker Hélène Schirren made this promotional film about the Belgian Colonial College founded in 1920. This building is currently the University of Antwerp’s Rector’s Office on Campus Middelheim.

The historical images are set in a colonial era. A period marked by violence, oppression, exploitation and racism towards the Congolese. Please keep in mind that these images can be confronting to watch.

Sous l'Etoile d'Or

At the Colonial College, Belgian young men received education to become high-ranking officials in the colonies where they governed with a firm hand. Their education was elitist, masculine, colonial and military. The film shows a curriculum that emphasised physical and mental excellence and dominance. The curriculum also had to be technical and scientific, according to the standards of that period, with the study of mechanical engineering, botany and local languages, in addition to local customs and habits, public administration and administrative law, and so on. A thesis concluded their studies. The thesis defence took place in the ceremonial lecture hall, where they were awarded their diploma with flying colours.

The film feels austere due to the black-and-white recording and the sound of the film commentary. The educational programme was steeped in a hierarchical, authoritarian-colonial mindset in which Black people were at the very bottom.

An intriguing part is the sequence where a teacher, surrounded by young students, comments on a skull. Perhaps this was a ‘racial’ analysis, claiming that, in the evolution of homo sapiens, the Black population still occupied an inferior position. In academic and political circles, such an analysis was then very widespread.

According to the Belgian colonial concept of the period, the Black population was also only entitled to primary education, which means Belgium built the colonies from the basic principle of Apartheid.

The recording coincides with a visit to the Colonial College from the Belgian Prime Minister at that time, Hubert Pierlot. Very briefly, at the end, King Leopold III can also be seen on screen, but that short clip was taken at a different location.

We also see the prime minister laying a floral wreath at a monument. This monument was erected in memory of Belgians from the Antwerp region who died in the Congo Free State, so before 1908. It is located to the right of the colonial building and is now overgrown by weeds and bushes and hidden by trees. This makes it like a metaphor for what many had forgotten but are now starting to increasingly become aware of.

The Colonial College remained active until 1962. The University of Antwerp is indirectly the successor to the colonial college, because in 1965 staff from the former college were integrated into the Rijksuniversitair Centrum Antwerpen (RUCA). The buildings were also transferred to the university.

The ceremonial lecture hall was officially named the ‘Patrice Lumumba lecture hall’ in March 2023.

The original recording is owned by the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren and stored by Cinematek.