The Development Of Sleeping Sickness Policy In The Uele District Of The Belgian Congo, 1903-1914

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The Development of Sleeping Sickness Policy in the Uele District of the Belgian Congo, 1903-1914

Human trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, has played an important part in African socio-economic history and has been largely ignored by scholars. This is especially true when you realise that the sleep sickness was an early attempt of European ‘social engineering’ in Africa.

Sleeping sickness is caused by the “transmission of a flagellate parasite, trypanosome, through the bite of a tsetse fly, the vector, which for the area under discussion here is Glossina palpalis. This transmits the gambiense or Gambian variety of the disease. Manifestation of symptoms is complicated by a number of factors. Onset is generally quicker in Europeans than in Africans and usually the first few weeks, sometimes months, include headache, nausea and intermittent fever among other symptoms. In the first stage, trypanosomes remain in the circulatory system, making new victims highly infective carriers. Gradually, over a period of several months or years the parasites invade the lymphatic and finally the central nervous systems, at which point the disease is diagnosed as second stage. It is in the latter stage that the more dramatic symptoms of comatose sleep and death occur. Sleeping sickness is an intensely focal disease and this factor must be considered when using colonial statistics for percentages of infection. Furthermore, the number of criteria for an epidemic are so great with sleeping sickness, it is almost surprising when one occurs”.

Studies in the former Uele District in northern Province Orientale, shed light on this subject. French Equatorial Africa, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the Uganda Protectorate were the three colonial territories that bordered this area. Uganda had already experienced sleeping sickness and proved to be effective and by 1910 – 12, French Equatorial Africa and the Sudan were also experiencing this.

In the late 19th century, King Leopold wanted to control Uele as it was considered to be an important communication route. In 1898, it was announced that a grand autoroute, known as the Route Royale, would be constructed. As well as this, deposits of gold were found in this region in 1903 and 1906. The colonial administration that this area could be exploited if the region was affected by a massive crisis such as sleeping sickness since the area was densely populated.

Although this area didn’t feel the full force of the sleeping sickness as other parts of Africa did, the colonial administration soon had to act. Quarantine measures were placed, sanitation regulations with legal sanctions, obligatory medical examinations and medical passports and extensive sleeping sickness surveys were produced. “Sometimes African populations were reorganized, resettled and forbidden to return to their former territories to fish or cultivate”.

King Leopold sent a team to inspect the area. As there was no cure for the illness then, it was recommended that a cordon sanitaire, or the isolation of the infected from the non-infected areas in an attempt to prevent the introduction of disease, should be installed. It was also suggested that the Africans should not be allowed to travel on State steamers and all river transportation was regulated.

The first effective drug against the illness, atoxyl, was produced in 1905. In December 1905 the Vice-Governor-general ordered that all Africans with enlarged glands were to be isolated and sent to the nearest infected area. They were refused permission to be sent home or anywhere else. In 1910, the director of the major lazaret for the northeast, Ibembo, reported that ‘Strictly speaking, it was a permanent prison and should bear the inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here“‘.

It was riots and protests that ended the prison-like conditions of the camps. However, the effects of the social engineering left a bitter legacy on the Europeans tongues.


Lyons, Maryinez (1985) From ‘Death Camps’ to Cordon Sanitaire: The Development of Sleeping Sickness Policy in the Uele District of the Belgian Congo, 1903-1914, The Journal of African History, Cambridge University Press.


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