Wednesday 23 November 2022 - This year, Vrije Universiteit Brussel researcher Benoît Henriet will receive the prestigious European Research Council Starting Grant from the European Commission, worth €1.5 million in research funding. He will use the grant to conduct five years of research on the environmental history of colonial Central Africa from around 1885 to around 1960. VUB has already secured more than 160 research and innovation projects since the launch of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme in 2014, accounting for total European funding of more than €78 million.

Benoît Henriet - ERC Starting Grants 2022 – SH6 The Study of the Human Past

Project: FORAGENCY: Foraging, Fishing and Hunting as Agency in Colonial Central Africa (c. 1885 – c. 1960)

Benoît Henriet, with two PhD students and a postdoc, will investigate how colonised communities in Central Africa tried to avoid and subvert colonial capitalism through the use of existing forms of hunting, fishing and foraging.

The project addresses four questions:

What techniques did people employ for hunting, fishing and foraging?

What strategies did people use to trade and consume hunted and gathered products against colonial laws and values?

How did people mobilise colonial economic structures outside colonial capitalism?

What knowledge was needed to hunt, find food and transform natural products?

The team will answer these questions through thematic sub-studies: on drug and alcohol production and its use; hunting, fishing and foraging for subsistence and trade; and using nature for healing practices. In each sub-study, Henriet and his team will examine the ecological interactions between four colonial towns and their hinterlands: Léopoldville (present-day Kinshasa), Brazzaville, Stanleyville (Kinsangani) and Usumbura (Bujumbura).

The research combines archival data, material culture, oral testimony and participatory observation. It will ultimately lead to the development of a new conceptual framework on indigenous ecologies, says Henriet: “The new framework will be at the intersection of decolonial and post-humanist studies. It will open up new perspectives on the history of indigenous responses to colonialism and capitalism.”

Benoît Henriet has been teaching history at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel since 2018, attached to the Social and Cultural Food Studies (FOST) research groups and the Gender, Diversity and Intersectionality Expertise Centre (RHEA) research group. Last summer he published the book Colonial Impotence: Virtue and Violence in a Congolese Concession (1911-1940).