Matadi constitutes a prime example of a colonial city whose raison d’être was generated by a colonial project of economic exploitation. As the farthest navigable point on the Congo River sailing upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, Matadi became a key transfer node between export and import from Europe to the Belgian colony. From the 1920s onwards, the small existing trading post quickly developed into a modern harbour city situated amid an uninviting, rocky landscape.
In this paper, we will argue that because of its challenging landscape setting, the case of Matadi offers a particular insight into the underlying logics of Belgian colonial urban planning and its rationale of spatially segregating the “European town” from the residential quarters for the African population. Due to its function as a port city and a gateway of the railroad network, Matadi needed increasingly important numbers of African workers, creating major challenges in terms of housing, urban hygiene and policing. By visualizing the development of Matadi’s urban form over time via an explorative cartography that combines historical maps, images, documents and contemporary views, we will demonstrate to what extent generic colonial planning models –including such elements as the “cordon sanitaire” or the orthogonal grid of the “native town”— which were common characteristic of interwar urban planning practice in sub-Saharan Africa—, clashed with the complex topography of the site. As such, Matadi provides a powerful case to discuss the limits of spatial colonial governmentality. The making and shaping of Matadi was an often troublesome process, testifying of the growing importance of a bureaucratic apparatus as well as of conflicts and misunderstandings between a multitude of actors, both European and African.