Once in awhile you come across an item that is historically interesting, despite being quite specialized and perhaps not very valuable. Recently I came across such an item, a 10 franc banknote dated 1.12.1960 from Katanga, a secessionist state in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.
Katanga has shared in the tumultuous history of this region and existed as a separate state for a few short years in the early 1960s, shortly after Congo-Kinshasa (as it is also called) gained independence from Belgium. While the note itself is part of a short numismatic history (two sets of banknotes were issued, as well as two circulating coins and a commemorative gold coin of the same design), what makes it particularly interesting is that the note is autographed by Moïse Tshombe, leader of the Katangan State from 1960 to 1963, who is pictured on the note itself.
A brief history of Katanga is difficult to give, but I will do my best. Located in the southern part of Congo, Katanga is rich in minerals such as gold, copper, and uranium. Since the late 19th century, the area had been part of the Congo Free State, owned by King Leopold I of Belgium, who exploited the region for his own personal gain. In 1910, the area came under control of the Belgian government, and for the next half century it would be known as the Belgian Congo.
As in many parts of Africa, an independence movement gained ground in the 1950s, and the country was caught in a whirlwind of change; at a round-table conference in Brussels in January 1960, it was decided that the country would become independent on June 30 of that year. Needless to say, this period was too brief to prepare the country adequately, and chaos soon ensued, with many men from various tribes and regions attempting to gain control of the entire region.
One of these men was Moïse Tshombe, born on November 10, 1919, in the Belgian Congo. The son of a businessman, he became involved in politics in the 1940s. Initially a member of city and provincial councils, he was later a co-founder of the CONAKAT party, which had its roots in the Katanga region and was one of three main parties fighting for control of the soon-to-be-formed Republic of Congo. Tshombe was pro-Western and wanted to keep the mineral resources in Katanga for the Katangan people, as he believed the region would be exploited by the Congo government following independence. On July 11, 1960, less than two weeks after Congolese Independence, he declared Katanga an independent and autonomous nation.
Katanga was never recognized as a sovereign nation by the international community, despite initial support by Belgium, who saw support of Katanga as a way to keep some sort of control in the former colony. Intervention by the United Nations followed, and the conflict that ensued was one of the first that saw widespread use of mercenaries in modern times.
The State of Katanga ceased to exist in January 1963, when its capital, Elisabethville (modern-day Lubumbashi), had come under control of the United Nations. Moïse Tshombe admitted defeat on January 21, and went in exile in Northern Rhodesia, and later Spain. He returned to Congo the following year, however, and in a true 180-degree turnaround became Prime Minister of Congo under President Kasavubu. It proved to be a short-lived tenure, as he was ousted from this position in 1965 by Kasavubu’s successor, Mobuto Sese Soko, who had staged a coup against Kasavubu.
Tshombe returned to exile in Spain, but was kidnapped in 1967 and placed under house arrest in Algeria following rumors that he wanted to return to Congo (at this point he had also been sentenced to death by Mobuto for treason). He died in Algeria in 1969 following a heart attack and is buried in Brussels.
While there is a lot more to the Congo Crisis than what can be covered here (it is known for being a proxy-conflict in the Cold War) it is clear that Moïse Tshombe did play an important role in post-colonial African history. This makes this particular autographed note interesting to me, as I had been reading about Congolese history and was somewhat familiar with the story of Katanga (see David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People).
The note was offered online as a plain VF (which it technically is), but no mention was made of the autograph. While not very recognizable, I did compare it to known documents signed by Moïse Tshombe and the autograph is a match.
The question is: how did it end up in Canada, where I found it offered for sale? Finding the answer can require some imagination. The 10 franc note, the lowest denomination in the series (there were six denominations) was put into circulation in Katanga on January 9, 1961. The notes were printed in Switzerland and were exchangeable at par for Congolese Francs.
The fact that Katanga was able to issue these notes in the first place was very uncommon; very few short-lived governments ever had the infrastructure and economy to produce a currency that was accepted by the local population. Katanga succeeded in this, and the notes circulated widely during the years the secessionist state existed.
My theory is that this note went from the printer in Switzerland to Katanga, where it circulated for awhile, before being taken to some sort of political event attended by Moïse Tshombe. The person who happened to have this note in his wallet sought to obtain an autograph of the President of his new country, and with nothing else available, handed him a 10-franc note (at the time, 10 Katangan Francs was equal to $0.20) and asked Moïse Tshombe to autograph it next to his portrait on the note. The note was handed down a generation or two to somebody who emigrated to Belgium or Canada, and it ended up in a collection of world paper money, its historical significance forgotten until I purchased it.
I did ask the seller where he obtained the note, but all he could tell me was that it came in a collection of world paper money. There’s no way to prove anything I have written in the above paragraph but — as is so often the case in numismatics — its fascinating to think about it, and I think it’s an intriguing piece of post-colonial African history.