It would have been a suitable assignment for Tintin, the intrepid Belgian boy reporter and his multitalented, intuitive dog Snowy.
Across Brussels, where Hergé, the creator of the eponymous comic books, was born, there are constant reminders of one of its most famous exports. A giant image of the character clinging to the back of a steam train from the book Tintin in America adorns one of the exits from the city’s Eurostar station, while a mural of Tintin, his seafaring friend Captain Haddock and Snowy covers the gable end of a house just over a mile away, surviving graffiti and vandalism.
But less than 10 days ago, a bust of Hergé that was situated in a quiet residential area away from the tourist trail disappeared, leading to speculation it had succumbed to the growing decolonisation movement.
It later emerged that the mayor of the local municipality of Etterbeek decided to remove the sculpture of the cartoonist, whose real name was Georges Remi, after a glass box covering it for safety had been badly damaged.
Hergé created Tintin as a serialised comic strip in the 1920s in Le Petit Vingtième, the youth supplement of the weekly Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle.
After the success of the first story, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Hergé was asked to send the boy reporter to the Belgian Congo, the central African colony then controlled by Brussels.
In the original comic from 1931, Tintin in the Congo, the character was shown teaching a group of children about “their motherland”, Belgium.
In 2012, a Brussels court rejected a legal attempt by a Congolese political science student at university in Belgium to get the book banned.
Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, who has been campaigning for years to have the book removed from Belgian shops, said its depiction of local people – including a scene where a black woman bows before Tintin, exclaiming: “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!” – was ignorant and offensive.
It is only since the turn of the century, after the publication in 1998 of the US historian Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, that Belgium has begun to seriously wrestle with its colonial legacy in Congo.
Belgium’s Leopold II claimed Congo as his personal colony in 1885. In the two decades that followed, an estimated 10 million Congolese were either murdered or worked to death, while women were systematically raped. Leopold’s private army stripped the country of its natural resources, making him – and Belgium – rich in the process.
Before he died, Hergé said he regretted the way he had depicted Congo but denied that it was racist, merely reflecting the way Africa was portrayed in the 1920s.
Etterbeek’s mayor believes that controversy about Belgium’s relationship with its former colony had nothing to do with the damage caused in Place de Theux, where the waist-high plinth now stands alone, next to a night shop and a condom machine.
“The mayor does not believe it is related to colonialism,” said his spokeswoman. “He really does think that it was because of the value of the bust. There is a lot of money for things like this on the black market,” she said, noting that the statue was made of bronze.
Etterbeek town hall officials said they were deeply proud of Hergé, who was born in the municipality and lived there for 20 years.
“Hergé is extremely important to Etterbeek. He was born here, he grew up here, and he is a Belgian icon and the author of one of the most famous comic strip books. In Etterbeek, there are many authors of comic strips today and it is important to us to show that this is a good place for culture.
“We are really invested in culture here and in artists like him,” said the spokeswoman.
Asked whether the plinth would be changed to put it out of reach of future potential bandits, she said the mayor was adamant it should remain visible to everyone, including children.
“He really wants to put it back on the same spot. It is symbolic of the area and it was originally put there in agreement with the family.”