A Dance of Assassins

A Dance of Assassins

Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo
Allen F. Roberts
Distribution: World
Publication date: 11/29/2012
ISBN: 978-0-253-00759-9
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Winner, 2013 Arnold Rubin Prize
Finalist, 2014 Herskovits Award
A Dance of Assassins presents the competing histories of how Congolese Chief Lusinga and Belgian Lieutenant Storms engaged in a deadly clash while striving to establish hegemony along the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in the 1880s. While Lusinga participated in the east African slave trade, Storms’ secret mandate was to meet Henry Stanley’s eastward march and trace “a white line across the Dark Continent” to legitimize King Leopold’s audacious claim to the Congo. Confrontation was inevitable, and Lusinga lost his head. His skull became the subject of a sinister evolutionary treatise, while his ancestral figure is now considered a treasure of the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Allen F. Roberts reveals the theatricality of early colonial encounter and how it continues to influence Congolese and Belgian understandings of history today.

Author Bio

Allen F. Roberts is Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author (with Mary Nooter Roberts) of A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal, which was awarded the Herskovits Prize.


"The dynamics of narrative history making, competing local histories, the equivalence of individuals in the colonial process, together with the display of trophies of conquest, and considerations of their deaths as a never-completed transition are explored in this signficant and cutting-edge analysis." —Arthur P. Bourgeois, Governors State University

"The beheading of the Tabwa ruler and slave trader Lusinga lwa Ng’ombe by warriors loyal to the Belgian commander Émile Storms sets the stage for
A Dance of Assassins, a beautifully written and compelling account of the drama, intrigue, and pathos of the 'theatrical enterprise' that characterized colonial conquest and the making of histories in central Africa. Anthropologist Allen F. Roberts convincingly presents the entangled and contradictory perspectives that inform the dynamics of power and history and memory in colonial and post-colonial central Africa.

" —Christine Mullen Kreamer, Smithsonian Institution

"As close as a thoroughly scholarly and intimately researched monograph gets to a veritable page-turner. In the hands of consummate narrator Roberts, this precisely engineered keyhole of a story opens a door on the ambiguities of colonial encounter.
A Dance of Assassins blends historical writing and anthropological interpretation at its best, and tells it all like it was—and is—in all its complexity and nuance." —John Mack, University of East Anglia

"Ultimately, this is an excellent, well-crafted meditation on the collision of colonial and indigenous worlds, and how the indigenous world has enfolded and come to its own terms with an irruption that invading world has largely never understood. . . . Highly recommended." —

"Allen Roberts uses . . . [the] assassination to explore the encounter between late nineteenth-century European and Congolese, specifically Tabwa, cultures. There is no scholar more familiar with Tabwa culture, art, and customs, as revealed in his many writings over the last few decades. But Roberts proves equally adept in describing a European culture steeped in an arrogant worldview that it claimed to be ‘scientific’ and progressive but was often little more than a justification for European conquest." —Jrnl of African History

"“A Dance of Assassins” is an engaging, vigorously researched historical ethnography that uses a set of micro-level events and interactions to reveal the complexity and nuances of the early colonial encounter in what would become the Belgian Congo. This book would be of interest to upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars in African Area Studies, Anthropology, History, Museum Studies, and even Performance Studies." —Anthropos

"A Dance of Assassins . . . is a deeply engaging account of the complex struggles that connected the lives of Europeans and Africans in the earliest days of the colonial encounter in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Elegantly written, this book challenges prevailing thinking about colonization and its effects on Africans and Europeans." —H-Net Reviews H-AfrArts

"[The]broader themes [of this book] conjure up a bitter and dramatic sense of the colonial past, still contested and poorly understood by both Belgians and Congolese. It imaginatively shows how much may be learned by examining the colonial record from a combination of African and European (and other) points of view. It also suggests how material culture may teach us to fashion new analyses." —Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"At the end of the day, A Dance of Assassins makes a compelling case for the necessity of ethnography—quality ethnography—in the interpretation of history as a means of opening the past to a more equitable exchange of voices and the 'what-might-have-beens.' It is also, as John Mack notes in his endorsement, a 'veritable page-turner.'" —African Arts

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Table of Contents


Part I. The “Emperor” Strikes Back
1. Invitation to a Beheading
2. A Conflict of Memories
3. Histories Made by Bodies
4. Tropical Gothic
5. Storms the Headhunter

Part II. Remembering the Dismembered
6. The Rise of a Colonial Macabre
Art Évo on the Chaussée d’Ixelles
8. Lusinga’s Lasting Laughs
9. Composing Decomposition
10. Defiances of the Dead

Appendix A: Some Background on Our Protagonists
Appendix B: A Note on Illustrations