Planning the Conference

The first announcement in Journal d'Anvers

Front page of the Journal d'Anvers, 19 November 1869.

A crucial date in the history of the organisation of the first Conference was October 15th, 1869. It was on this day that Charles Ruelens proposed his idea before the Société de Géographie de Paris. It was the first time he spoke in public about organising an international conference on geography. And Ruelens was overjoyed about the fact that he could speak before the Société de Géographie. This Society was considered an example for all geographical societies. The support of the established Paris Geographical Society was important for Ruelens. Without it the whole idea had little chance for success.

The core of his message was that geography should not just stay descriptive, nor be a matter of 'armchair scholars'. Every discipline should have an open mind and try to push the boundaries of knowledge. A conference was the place to make this happen.

The Antwerpians learned about the Conference a month later when the local newspaper Journal d'Anvers published Ruelens' Paris speech.

Letter of Goossens-De Jaeghere (dd. 12/05/1870)

Letter of Goossens-De Jaeghere to the organising committee. (dated 12 May 1870)

With the support of the Paris Society, Antwerp's local networks could be activated. Ruelens and Van Raemdonck stayed in touch and Ruelens got invited to present his plans at the Société Land van Waas.

He repeated his speech before the committee of the Society. They were impressed by his presentation and excited to become partners: mostly because an unveiling of the statue of Mercator would be part of the official programme.

This excitement can be found in the letter of J. Goossens-De Jaeghere, vice-president of the Société Land van Waas, to the organising committee of the Conference.

Minutes of the first meeting, 14 November 1869.

Minutes of the first meeting (14 November 1869)



Quite soon it became clear between Van Raemdonck and Ruelens that Génard would be an important part of the organisation. He could activate his connections in the Antwerp city administration and in other parts of the city's high society. Génard convinced Ruelens to invite high ranking figures for the very first meeting. Not just a few, but thirty-four at once.

On Sunday, November 14th, the doors of the Antwerp Cercle artistique, scientifique et littéraire opened its doors for the first meeting about the organisation of an international conference on geography. Thanks to Génard a fine selection of Antwerp's high society was present. President of the meeting was alderman J. Cogels-Osy. Besides him around twenty people from the city administration, commerce and sciences attended. 

Ruelens opened the meeting with a long presentation about the project. Van Raemdonck talked about the plans to erect a statue for Mercator. Influential alderman d'Hane-Steenhuyse thanked Ruelens in name of the City Government for his initiative. He was certain that all authorities would support the idea.

A commission was formed that was tasked with working out the administrative duties that were involved with the project. Two days later they met and made a first decision: the name of the conference would be Congrès International des sciences géographiques, cosmographiques et commerciales.

Minutes of the second meeting. 24/11/1869.

Minutes of the second meeting (28 November 1869). Note: the documents are mistakenly dated the 24th.

The committee's nex meeting, on sunday the 28th of November, was to decide on astructure for the organising committee. An important point was the patronage of the conference by the Belgian and local government:all these should be represented on the organising committee, in order that the precarious political field would not be disturbed. As honorary chairmen a quartet was chosen: the secretaries of Internal and of Foreign Affairs, the governor of Antwerp, and the Antwerp mayor. This last one would also be acting chairman. Two members of the city council were appointed vice-chairmen, as well as the chairman of the Chambre of Commerce and the president and of the Institut supérieur de Commerce.

Besides these honorary titles, five secretaries-general were appointed who should do the actual work. The three main characters Ruelens, Van Raemdonck and Génard were part of it, complemented with Auguste Stessels and Edouard Rigel. All these men had a certain organizational or scholastic quality. The City Treasurer, Le Grand de Ruelandt, was appointed treasurer.

In addition to the organising committee, the honorary committee was also to be formed. Ruelens suggested a selection of national and international scholarsand researchers, supplemented with individuals of exceptional merit from Belgium or Antwerp.

Now that the committee was formed the programme could be compiled.

Letter by Adolphe Quetelet to Van Put, 5/12/1869

Letter by Adolphe Quetelet to committee chairman J. Van Put. (5 December 1869)

Not only was the support of the local and federal government important for the organisation: also important was the support of the scientific community. Adolphe Quetelet, the famous Belgian statistician, was the first to express his support for the project. He also sent the organising committee a few of his works on statistics. A flock of international scholars followed Quetelet's lead: within a few weeks the honorary members reached seventy-six members from fifteen different countries.

This support provided a broad network connecting the most important geographical societies around the world. This network was of vital importance, as as it became a powerful promotional tool by which you could reach a large group of potential participants.

Not only as a promotional tool were the honorary members important: they also provided the organisation with a framework for the debates. Upon request of the organising committee the scholars sent in different topics for discussions and questions that could be addressed during the conference.

Notes of the meeting of April 27th, 1871.

Notes of the meeting of 27 April 1871.

All preparations were made for the Conference to take place in August 1870; but then the Franco-Prussian War broke loose. Although Belgium would remain neutral the conflict had a huge impact on the country. The Belgian government found it necessary to mobilise the armed forces and call up reservists for active duty. A few of the key figures in the organizing committee, among them Colonel Casterman, had to comply with this decision. Because of that, they could no longer perform their duties.

Not only did the Belgian situation made it difficult for the Conference to take place, but it was unclear if the French and German participants would even want to attent the same conference. And articipants of other nationalities would not want to travel in these dangerous conditions. Three weeks before the Conference was due to take place the committee came together and made the difficult decision to postpone the Conference for one year.

On April 27th 1871 the committee met again and decided that the Conference would take place from August 14th - 22nd, 1871