Probably the biggest range of toy soldiers from an askari regiment by a single manufacturer is that of the Force Publique of the Belgian Congo, made by Belgian toy maker Durso.
The Force Publique was both a gendarmerie and a military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 when the territory was known as the Congo Free State and owned as private property by King Leopold II of the Belgians until 1908 when the Belgian Government took over direct rule which continued until independence in 1960.
Like similar askari regiments raised by other colonial powers, the Force Publique was formed of white European officers and locally-raised black warrant officers and soldiers. In the Free State period the Force Publique was primarily a tool for internal repression by what is now widely regarded as one of the most brutal of European colonial regimes.
The Force’s only significant military engagement in this period was the 1892-1894 war against Arab traders led by Tippu Tip for control of the Eastern Congo.
Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian Government in 1908, the Force Publique was reorganised into twenty-one separate companies, along with supporting artillery and engineers. This grew to fifteen battalions in three mobile brigades during the First World War, during which the Force Publique fought against German colonial forces in the Cameroun, Rwanda and Burundi – and alongside the King’s African Rifles in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania).
The Force Publique fought alongside the KAR again in the East Africa Campaign of the Second World War – although after the surrender of Belgium in May 1940, the main contribution to the Allied cause by Free Belgian Forces in the Congo was primarily an economic one in the supply of rubber, copper and other strategic minerals, rather than military.
The askari of the Second World War period are depicted by Durso in a set of twenty-five different figures in both ceremonial and action poses, designed and made between 1938 and the mid-1950s.
These figures are made of “composition” – a mixture of sawdust, casein, kaolin and glue moulded around a wire frame – on a rectangular base and are 75mm tall, which is larger than the 1/32 (54mm) scale that is the standard for most old toy soldiers and modern military models.
Durso also made a similar set of white colonial infantrymen wearing sun helmets rather than the fez worn by askari.
Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the independence of the Congo in 1960, Belgium continued to organise the Force Publique in the traditional manner of a colonial gendarmerie – separate from the people it policed and officered entirely by white Europeans.
Tightly disciplined and drilled the Force Publique impressed visitors to the Congo with its smart appearance. Durso reflected Belgian pride in their colonial army with a new set of post-war figures made on round bases from 1956 until the late-1960s.
Unfortunately, even as these figures were being produced, the culture of separateness within the Force Publique, encouraged by its Belgian officers – combined with the arrogance of these same officers in denying any change to their soldiers when they remained in command after Congolese independence – contributed to the outbreak of uncontrollable violence that engulfed the Congo after independence and has continued with varying degrees of ferocity to this day.
All of the Durso figures are rare and expensive to collect in the UK, but they definitely reward the collector with their quality and variety.