Located at the top-centre of Sapin’s painting is an image which depicts the death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, entitled LA MORT DE DAG HAMMARSKJOLD DE L’ONU, 1961

On the 18th of September 1961, Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed in Northern Rhodesia while en route to negotiate a ceasefire between UN forces and Katangese troops. The unknown circumstances of the plane crash, claimed by some to be an assassination, created an atmosphere of distrust surrounding the official report of the crash. Officially, the 1961-62 Rhodesian-led inquiry concluded that pilot error caused the crash, however, a number of theories have since arisen which dispute this official conclusion. As such, Hammarskjöld’s death has become a central part of Western historiography on the Congo Crisis, particularly in discussion of international diplomacy (O’Brien: 1962; Nzongola-Ntalaja: 2002; Williams: 2011). However, when the class met with Sapin to discuss his painting he suggested that, at that time, he and many others in the Congo never heard about the crash. As such, the depiction in Sapin’s painting was developed from discussions he had with students. Here, one can see an interesting point of comparison between representations of the crash in ‘traditional’ accounts and in local, regional or collective memory of the Congo Crisis. 

The plane crash is also depicted in one of Tshibumba’s paintings, entitled LA MORT TRAGIQUE DE DAG-HAMMARSKJOLD:

In Tshibumba’s accompanying interviews with Fabian (the full transcript with translations of the original Swahili is linked below), the events surrounding the crash were characterised as follows:

He [Hammarskjöld] took off for Shaba to try to negotiate some kind of truce. Let’s just say that this was another affair involving the leaders. We know that it is historical. He really took off and arrived in an airplane. That plane followed a route over Zambian territory, at Ndola. He, too, died at that time … What you see there are the firemen who tried to put out the fire in the plane and rescue the bodies, all of them had died.

Tshibumba also states in the interview that this was an event that ‘got to the attention’ of the UN. In the painting, this attention may be depicted in the arrival of helicopters to the scene with ‘ONU’ written on their side. However, in contrast to Sapin’s representation of the plane with ‘UN’ written on its wing, in Tshibumba’s painting the plane has both the UN emblem and ‘USA PANAM‘ written on its side. In an interview, discussion between Fabian and Tshibumba on the inclusion of ‘USA PANAM’ suggests a further link between the role of the UN and the United States in the crisis. This is a theme which features in a number of Tshibumba’s paintings, particularly in relation to cooperation between these two forces. 

In relation to the absence of Hammarskjöld’s death in certain histories of the crisis, Tshibumba too suggests little was known about the Secretary-General during this period. In response to Fabian asking where Hammarskjöld was from, Tshibumba answered:

I don’t know his nationality, but ever since there were persons who became secretaries general of the United Nations… I don’t know their nationalities … But this name Hammarskjöld sounds like he was — what was it again? …  I had read about it once in the Tintin comics.

In Tshibumba’s historical account, it is evident that less attention is paid to Hammarskjöld himself as opposed to the significance of the event as a whole. Tshibumba’s painting focuses more heavily on the reaction to the crash in contrast to Sapin’s painting, which displays a portrait of Hammarskjöld in the foreground of the plane crash. However, both speak to the significance of Hammarskjöld’s death within alternative historiographies of the Congo Crisis. These works represent a source-base on this subject which may offer different insights into the events of the crisis, both in perception and in popular memory. 


[Next Page…]


All images are copyright of the KIT Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.