I will hold the Émile Francqui Chair at the Université Libre de Bruxelles next year. When I learned this my first thought was: Who's Émile Francqui? and my second thought was: I'm guessing I don't want to know. I'm guessing it has something to do with the history of the Belgian Congo.
And I was exactly right: in 1885 Francqui was appointed by King Leopold II to go to the Katanga Province as an army captain and a cartographer. Some sources, not least the Fondation Francqui, report that their namesake was active in combatting slavery, but what this seems to mean is that he was engaged in the Congo Arab war of 1892 against Zanzibari 'Arab' slave traders fighting for control of the Congo Free State.
Francqui's principal adversary was the Zanzibari ivory merchant, slavetrader, and memoirist known as Tippu Tip, a nom de guerre derived onomatopoeically from the sound of his gun. It is unlikely that Tippu Tip saw Francqui as any more enlightened than he was, but instead took the war as having to do only with control of territory. For his service there, Leopold would send him onward to China, to represent Belgian interests in the burgeoning mining industry.
As I was reading this part of Francqui's biography, I realised the name was vaguely familiar. A few months ago I was engaged in some minor research on the natural-philosophical and, shall we say, eudaimonistic writings of the 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, beginning with his translation in 1910 of Georg Agricola's 1556 work De re metallica, and right up through his 1963 swan song, Fishing for Fun-- And to Wash Your Soul.
I had checked out through interlibrary loan from Bavaria the only physical copy of this latter book known to exist on the European continent, and had to give the ILL librarian a special pleading look as if to say, "What? This is research too."
The fruits of the Hoover research will be made public, in Cabinet Magazine, soon enough, but here what is noteworthy is the small detail of his own passage through China, in the first years of the 20th century, having even fought in the Boxer Rebellion in Tianjin in 1900, alongside his wife, Lou Henry. And who would become his great rival in the struggle for control of the Chinese mines? The Belgian industrialist and envoyé of the king, Émile Francqui.
Some years later still, after the outbreak of World War I, Francqui and Hoover would collaborate to direct and manage the Commission for Relief in Belgium, offering food supplies to refugees of the German occupation. One of the principal thoroughfares in Brussels today is the Boulevard Herbert Hoover, which I remember from the mid-1990s, when I briefly had a Belgian girlfriend and flew to Brussels from New York on a Pakistan International Airlines flight that made a brief stopover for refuelling in Europe before continuing on to Karachi. She, a Francophone, had disappointed me for her total lack of interest in the language of the Flems, and would not indulge for a second my attempts to translate the Dutch part of the bilingual cereal box.
I disappointed her for other perhaps more profound reasons, but anyhow I have been surprised, recently, to find these two men, Francqui and Hoover, meeting again, not just in Brussels during the Great War, after their period of enmity in China, but also, a century later, in my own curiosity, my own wandering from this topic to that.
Belgium has its Francqui Foundation, and the United States has, at Stanford, its Hoover Institute. If you accept an affiliation with the Hoover Institute you can expect to be unfriended by your cool friends, the ones who post links to new books from Verso and who rigorously practice the hermeneutics of suspicion, about pretty much everything: the New York Times, Disney cartoon princesses, Miley Cyrus twerking. Accepting to be associated with the name of Émile Francqui seems somewhat less charged, though in truth the men seem to have been very much alike.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I err through life, taking opportunities as they come, accepting invitations, without much suspicion, but also without the hopefulness young Herbert Hoover surely felt as he set out to impose order and progress in the world. As a topic for the lecture series I’ll give in connection with the year-long chair, I have proposed: "What Is a Plant? Philosophical Reflections from Aristotle to Goethe." The world is going up in flames, there is a coming global order of idiocy and barbarism, and, like Herbert Hoover with his history of metals, though without the optimism, I have chosen to focus on the history of plants. I want to wash my soul of the history of men.