Pende whistle


  • Ivory
  • MO.0.0.28616
  • Displayed in the Languages and Music Room.
  • "Collected" in Kasaï (?) by Captain-Commander Léon-Auguste Théophile Rom (1860-1924), probably towards 1892.
  • Sold to the museum by Rom's widow in 1925.

An object that is part of a collection of over 200 items

This ivory whistle is part of a collection of 219 items bought by the museum for 20,000 Belgian Francs from Léon Rom's widow in 1925, a year after his death in January 1924.

The collection held by the museum comprises 204 ethnographic objects and 12 musical instruments, as well as 3 paintings by Léon Rom and several documents (the last of which was acquired in 1946).

The Congolese items primarily consist of small everyday items (light and easy to carry), and are similar to other collections gathered in the Kasaï region around that time (late 19th and early 20th centuries), and which mostly included weapons or Kuba items that appealed to the Western aesthetics of the day (bowls, boxes, textiles). 

The Rom collection also contains a few statuettes, but its defining piece is an imposing double caryatid stool from the cultural region of eastern Luba. This stool, not currently on display in the museum, is stored in the museum's reserves.

Uncertain “collection” date

The inventory cards only mention approximate "collection dates", most likely estimates made in retrospect (such as '1887-1896', or '1893-1896'). None of these dates are later than 1896, the end of Rom's service in the Congo Free State; he nevertheless continued to work in Congo for two concession companies, one of which was the Compagnie du Kasaï, for which he worked from 1901 until his death.

Although the dates mentioned above more or less correspond with the different terms that Rom served in the Congo Free State, the date of “1892” given for a number of Pende objects is difficult to connect with one of his postings or movements.

In 1891, Rom was appointed Lieutenant in the Congo Free State’s military force, the Force publique, and was stationed in Luluabourg (now Kananga) in the Kasaï region. However, all the military missions that Rom participated in were to the east of this area, while the Pende sociocultural region was located to the west.

As he does not appear to have stayed or even travelled in the region of the Pende, it is difficult to confirm an acquisition date for the twenty or so Pende objects in the collection (1 mask, 11 Ikhoko ivory pendants and 9 whistles, one of which is similar to the one displayed here), including this whistle, similar examples of which are recorded among the Western Pende, around Kikwit and Gungu.

Acquisition circumstances that are difficult to trace

It is also difficult to confirm the context surrounding the acquisition of this piece, the circumstances of which are not, as with the other pieces in the collection, mentioned in the museum's archives. Several old object labels nevertheless suggest that Rom was not necessarily their collector: the mention "collecting agent" followed by a name appears among other indications such as “indigenous name”, “village name”, “category”, etc. The Congo Free State’s officials traded items whenever they met; for instance, a raffia piece labelled 'Léon Rom' is part of the collection of another soldier, Oscar Michaux, which was sold to the Museum of Tervuren in 1919.

However, the majority of the objects, including the whistle, seem to have been transferred without a descriptive label and, as was often the case, were classified within the museum's sections based on comparison with collections that were already known and documented by the institution.

When museum pieces were not “scientifically” catalogued with “first-hand” field data, it was not rare for them to be somewhat relegated to a position of secondary interest. It was these objects that were then prioritised for lending to external exhibitions, and also transferred internally between sections of the museum.

Thus the Pende whistle was, for a period (probably between the late 1940s and the 1960s), passed to the Economy section (now Wood Biology) and was displayed in this section of the museum for its 'material value (ivory)' rather than for its 'cultural value'. 

However, these two aspects are of course intrinsically linked, and it is because of this that the piece is now exhibited in the 'Court Art' display in the museum's Languages and Music Room.

On the one hand, the instrument's material attests to the precious status of the object (which was passed down from one heir to the next) and the high rank of its owner, and on the other, the whistle refers to performance music similar to the 'court music' (as opposed to popular or religious uses) associated with a chief. In this case, these two-note whistles were used to accompany the musical pieces rather than perform them.

The two sounds of the whistle were also used to send a warning/message during hunting or in the more ceremonial context of mask dances. A contact of Léon De Sousberghe, Donatien Tukwezo, described these characteristically U-shaped whistles as “a war whistle or for turbulent moments by the Mingandji” (correspondence dated 1958, cited by V. Baeke, 2012).

Viviane Baeke (2012) associates the reference made to Mingandji masks with their "policing" role, ensuring order during the initiation of young Mukanda boys, but also with their warrior role, implying the capture and sacrifice of an enemy/foreigner during the construction of the chief's house.

Given these uses, such a whistle was most certainly of important symbolic value and as such would have been a prestigious ornament, ostensibly associated with its owner when the latter wore it around their neck.

Although no historical record specifically mentions the circumstances surrounding Léon Rom's acquisition of the whistle or any proof that he himself acquired the piece in the field, if this were the case, there is no doubt that Rom's military function could have influenced the inequality of the transaction between the parties during its acquisition.

Léon Rom's military career and his macabre notoriety

After abandoning a short military career in Belgium, Rom was working as an accountant in a customs office in Brussels when he enlisted in 1886 to work as an administrative official in the Congo Free State. Due to his previous experience, he was appointed export duties controller in Matadi, then district commissioner and finally bailiff for Bas-Congo.

When his first term came to an end, therefore, he had already risen rapidly in the ranks of the Congo Free State’s administration.

During his second term, which he began in July 1889 as acting district commissioner of Banana, then deputy judge, he left the civil service and pursued his ambitions by taking up a military role as second-lieutenant in the Force publique, the Congo Free State’s military force, and later commanded the station in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

It was there that Léon Rom may have met Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), the author of Heart of Darkness (published as a serial from 1899), who drew inspiration from his experiences in Congo, but also from news that reached him after his return to Europe in December 1891. As such, Conrad could have taken Léon Rom as his inspiration for his most famous character, the ivory trader Kurtz, drawing from later testimonies mentioning Rom in direct connection with atrocities that revealed the general brutality of his administration. 

Indeed, many consider certain elements of the novel and Kurtz’s character traits as a narrative inspired by the violence exacted by Rom in his post in Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls) between 1894 and 1895, where his house had a lawn surrounded by human skulls. 


Still in the Languages and Music Room, find another document from the "Léon Rom collection"

Several items of private correspondence addressed to Muhammad bin Halfān, the famous ivory and slave trader more commonly known as Rumaliza, were kept by Rom in his collection in a precious wooden writing box that had belonged to the chief.

The inclusion of one of these letters in the exhibition gives an insight into Rom's career when he was appointed to Stanley Falls in eastern Congo, where the fighting against the Swahili Arabs was taking place.

The campaign against Rumaliza by the Congo Free State's Force publique lasted several years, but Rom's decisive intervention was limited to the last few weeks, and he refers to the final assault in his notes, Mes services au Congo de 1886 à 1908 (Rom writes about himself in the third person):

"28 décembre 1893. Prenant part à une reconnaissance au boma du Chef arabe Ruma-Liza, est désigné pour faire l’attaque d’une des faces de ce boma. Après 20 minutes de combat, est obligé de se retirer laissant des tués et des blessés, des prisonniers. Ses blessés peuvent se retirer et rentrer au camp.

14 janvier 1894. Parti de nouveau en reconnaissance vers le Boma de Ruma-Liza, fait la rencontre, dans la forêt, du Lieutenant de Wouters d’Oplinter qui l’engage à l’accompagner au nouveau camp du Capitaine Lothaire où ils arrivent vers 9h du matin. Le lieutenant Haubursin venait d’arriver avec un canon Kruyp. Aussitôt, il est décidé que l’on commencerait l’attaque du boma et vers 10 heures, le canon fût pointé. A 10 heures juste, le 1er obus défonçait l’habitation de Ruma-Liza et y mit le feu (…). L’incendie de l’habitation de Ruma-Liza, aidé par le vent, communiqua le feu à toutes les cases. Les arabes, pris de panique, s’enfuirent ; beaucoup furent tués."

"28 December 1893. Taking part in a reconnaissance of the boma of the Arab chief Ruma-Liza, was appointed to attack one side of the boma. After 20 minutes of fighting, was forced to retreat leaving the dead and wounded, prisoners. His wounded were able to retreat and return to camp.

14 January 1894. Once again on reconnaissance near the boma of Ruma-Liza, met, in the forest, Lieutenant Wouters d'Oplinter, who recruited him to accompany him to Captain Lothaire's new camp, where they arrived around 9 a.m. Lieutenant Haubursin had just arrived with a Kruyp canon. It was forthwith decided to start the attack on the town and at around 10 o'clock, the canon was prepared. At 10 o'clock precisely, the first shell hit the home of Ruma-Liza, setting fire to it (…). The fire in Ruma-Liza's home, helped by the wind, spread to all the houses. The Arabs, in a panic, fled; many were killed."

The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels holds at least one item seized as spoils by Rom on this occasion (letter of thanks from the chief curator to Rom's widow, 27 May 1924):

« 1 paire de sandales prises pendant la retraite du chef arabe Rumaliza, après l’attaque de son retranchement par le Commandant Lothaire, le 14 janvier 1894. »

"1 pair of sandals seized during the retreat of the Arab chief Rumaliza, after the attack on his bastion by Commandant Lothaire, 14 January 1894."

But we do not know if the handwritten document held by the Royal Military Museum (or the other letters from Rumaliza in the box in which they were found), were taken by or handed to Rom at that time or at some earlier point. Nevertheless, following this armed attack - Rom repaired the canon that caused the fatal explosion - it most certainly gained trophy status as a "memento" of a defeated enemy

Nevertheless, Muhammad bin Halfān (Rumaliza), who repeatedly resisted German and Belgian attempts to settle in the region of Lake Tanganyika, survived the various attacks (unlike many of his allies) and managed to escape. He ended up settling in Zanzibar where he continued his trading activities. 

The items “seized” by Léon Rom given to the Royal Military Museum

In May 1924, Léon Rom's widow donated 31 objects (military equipment, personal and Congolese weapons, flags, photographs, various other objects) to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels.

The archives do not give any definitive idea as to how the distinction was made between these 31 objects and the more numerous objects that Rom's widow sold to the Royal Military Museum a little later. However, the museum's records point to, sometimes in precise detail, the specifically martial nature and context of the “seized items” (“prises” – the term most frequently used in the list of 27 May 1924 - ref IV/805) that made up the donation. For example:

  • "1 ceinture contenant treize tubes à poudre, provenant d’un Arabe tué en janvier 1894."
    "1 belt containing thirteen powder tubes, from an Arab killed in January 1894." 

  • "2 lances congolaises prises par le capitaine Rom."
    "2 Congolese lances seized by Captain Rom."

  • "1 couteau congolais, fourreau de cuir clouté de cuivre, pris par le Capitaine Rom."
    "1 Congolese knife, copper-studded leather scabbard, seized by Captain Rom."

  • "1 sabre maure, poignée corne noire garde de fer avec petite coquille, ornements de métal blanc. Fourreau de bois recouvert de cuir-bracelet d’argent. Cette arme appartint à un arabe tué pendant la campagne 1892-1894."
    "1 Moorish sabre, black horn handle, iron guard with small shell, white metal decoration. Wood scabbard covered in leather-silver band. This weapon belonged to an Arab killed during the 1892-1894 campaign."

This last piece, along with various items of clothing from an unnamed “rebel Arab chief”, make up the costume worn by a mannequin that is on permanent exhibition in the rooms of the Royal Military Museum (photo below).


Text compiled from a draft by Agnès Lacaille based on specific research and a synthesis of the data below.


Interviews, secondary sources, audio recordings: Noemie Arazi, Hans Beeckman, Rémy Jadinon, Pierre Lierneux, Xavier Luffin, J-N Maquet (sound recordings), Jacky Maniacky.


  • National Archives of Belgium: collection "Service du personnel d'Afrique. Dossier généraux" register no. 767, page 332, a file in the name of Auguste ROM; collection "Service du personnel d'Afrique. Colonie", individual file in the name of Auguste ROM: provisional number (2399) 14471 (the collection is currently being renumbered).
  • Royal Museum for Central Africa: Ethnography, acquisition record 435; History, file HA.01.139 ROM Léon (56.16); Wood Biology, section's registers.
  • Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History: Correspondence (1924)


  • Baeke V., “Les sculptures en ivoire des Pende. Quand l’ivoire chante avec les masques et chasse avec les chiens (partie 2)" in Felix, White gold, Black hands, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 21-47.
  • Conrad J., Heart of Darkness
  • Coosemans M., “ROM Léon-Auguste Théophile”, Biographie coloniale belge, KAOWARSOM, 1951, T. 2, 822-826.
  • Firchow, Peter Edgerly (2000). Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813191980.
  • Haustein Jörg, Religion, Politics and an Apocryphal Admonition: The German East African “Mecca Letter” of 1908 in Historical-Critical Analysis, SOAS, University of London
  • Rom Léon, Le nègre du Congo, Brussels, Vogels, 1900, 101 p.


The information contained in this article is mostly based on resources available at the museum (archives, publications, etc.). The object's biography, therefore, can still be developed further. Do you have any comments, information or stories to share about this object or this type of object? Please contact us at:


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