Going Full Congo

By Scott Longman

So, what do you need if you’ve just been ambushed by Baluba warriors in the African Belgian Congo, and they’ve shot you in both the pecs and the biceps? Well, obviously, you first dispatch the Balubas with automatic weapons fire; that’s a given.

But right after that, what you really need is a cigarette. Oh, and your Carl Gustav Model 45 9mm submachine gun, in case some more of them show up. And a kickass wristwatch (likely a Lemania TG 195) and some great sunglasses. How about, say, bandages, or stitches, or maybe even surgery to get the bullets out? What kind of useless candyass wants those? The picture says it all.

Major Erik Bonde landed in that place at that time via a circuitous route. Born in Sweden to gentry, he inherited the title of “Count.” He started off in the Swedish Army, in the cavalry, but decided before too long to seek a pastoral life, so he went to study agriculture. But that didn’t mean all sense of adventure had left the man: instead of going to his native Sweden where he was a ruling-class royal who could run the show . . . he went to . . . Kenya. No word as to why.

Well, that was going fine for a while, but in 1960, something emerged which would come to be called “The Congo Crisis.” A detailed discussion of how it got there is a subject for a Ph.D thesis, but here’s the short story: The Congo had been a politically fragmented mess for literal centuries. In 1885, Leopold II, the King of Belgium, somehow managed to lay claim to the place, where he proceeded to declare it his personal property and act like an outright sonovabitch, grossly stripping it of resources and brutally abusing the inhabitants. The legendary novel Heart of Darkness is a chronicle of only some of the horrors of a Belgian ivory station from that period. Understandably, the locals eventually started shooting the bejeezus out of everybody who looked European. They got horribly crushed and then rose up again and then then got horribly crushed and add a whole bunch more times, until finally much of Africa entered a new phase of anti-colonial independence in the early 1960s.    

But that, sadly, was just the start for the Congo. Belgium had no intention of just trash-packing a Samsonite and writing a note on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. Their theory was that nobody in the Congo actually knew how to run any of the critical institutions in the country. So the Belgians figured to stay for some period of transition. The Belgians lingering was seen as a problem by a bunch of locals, including a group called the Baluba, who were really looking forward to having the Belgians just throw them the keys and the title. That would have been bad enough. But then, there was this other group of locals who thought the Belgians might be onto something with the whole transition thing. So . . . they sided with them, seceded and created a new state. Apparently nobody but them thought this was a good idea. Rebellion plus civil war plus foreign arms and a good shot of anarchy thrown in.

Result? Much alarm, despondency, hate and discontent, to the extent that the United Nations roused itself to step in.   

At the time, the secretary general of the UN was Swedish, a man named Dag Hammarskjold, who already had great international street cred. Dag cared about the Congo Crisis, with the result that Sweden was well and truly in. That was a big historic deal, because Sweden had gone the whole “hands off” route for about 140 years, including giving the Nazis a neutrality pass, but the Baluba, not so much. Game on, starting in July 1960.

A friend of Dag Hammarskjold was a Swedish general named Carl von Horn, so he was appointed as supreme commander of UN forces in the Congo. Erik Bonde was friends with Von Horne, and so Bonde got the order that—his agricultural aspirations and paid-for plowshares be damned— he was now recalled to active duty and to his rank of major and he was now running things in the first Swedish Battalion in the Katanga.

The Swedes were transporting a bunch of Baluba prisoners. The prisoners’ Baluba insurgency friends took a dim view of that, so they set up an ambush and lit up the train. The good news for Major Bonde: the Balubans were really, really late to the idea of guns. They were using mostly, if not exclusively, ancient muzzleloaders, which probably weren’t even charged properly. Which resulted in Major Bonde getting whacked twice, once in the chest and once in the arm, with him not getting particularly upset about it.

Kinetics aside, a huge piece of this outcome is simply the man’s attitude. After the firefight, one of his soldiers ran up and hollered: “Sir! You are hit! Your shirt is red!”

Bonde shook his head, sighed, took off his shirt, lit a smoke, and looked at him. “Don’t be impertinent. I’m a Count. My blood is blue.” 

May we all hope for that kind of attitude under critical stress.

Editor’s note: Archivist Ida Bellemo with the Swedish National Archives deserves credit for assisting our writer in verifying the legitimacy of Major Bonde’s badassery. Also, many thanks to Julius Backman Jääskeläinen for the expertly colorized photo. Skål to you both.

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