Belgium forced to reckon with Léopold's legacy and its colonial past

African-Belgians are angered by what they see as country’s refusal to engage with the issue

In just a few weeks, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced Europe’s former colonial powers to reckon with the past, and few more so than Belgium. It has had some of the biggest anti-racism protests activists can remember: 10,000 people, many wearing masks, gathered in central Brussels on Sunday while smaller, physically distanced protests took place in other cities. 

The target was King Léopold II, whose brutal rule of Congo from 1885 to 1908 caused an estimated 10 million Congolese deaths through murder, starvation and disease. Brussels city authorities are facing a petition to remove all statutes of the king by 30 June, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence. By Friday, more than 75,000 people had signed it. 

The protesters are trying to dismantle racism in Belgium in 2020, and feel they have no choice but to confront the past. “I couldn’t have missed this moment,” said Dalilla Hermans, a writer and activist who overcame her initial health fears about attending a mass gathering. “Now you can really feel that this was everyday black people who had had enough.”

Dalilla Hermans
Dalilla Hermans Photograph: Tim De Backer.

Stone images of the former monarch – who never set foot in Congo – are dotted throughout Belgium’s squares, parks and university buildings.

One large equestrian statue of Leopold that has been a flashpoint for months stands behind the Royal Palace, close to the former headquarters of Belgium’s imperial office where a young Józef Korzeniowski interviewed for a job on the Congo river.

As Joseph Conrad, he went on to write Heart of Darkness, inspired by the horror he found in Léopold’s Congo. 

Hermans would like to see this statue – now daubed with graffiti – and others placed in a museum of colonial history, something that does not yet exist in Belgium. African-Belgians are angered by what they see as a refusal to engage with the issue: “The fact that you won’t give us that small concession of ‘let’s not honour the mass murderer who killed all of our ancestors’,” Hermans said

There are many other celebrations of the era, and the daily newspaper Le Soir has counted no fewer than 70 tributes to colonialism on the streets of Brussels. Jules Jacques, who oversaw rubber collection and threatened resisting Congolese workers with “complete extermination”, is remembered in rue Général Jacques. Arthur Pétillon, an artillery major charged with quashing rebellions, is lauded with a metro station.

A defaced statue of Leopold II at the park of the Africa Museum, in Tervuren, near Brussels
A defaced statue of Leopold II at the park of the Africa Museum, in Tervuren, near Brussels. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

Many Belgians know Léopold II fondly as the “builder king”. The country’s longest-serving monarch used Congo’s rubber wealth to fund a lavish programme of public works, including the renovation of two palaces, the spectacular royal greenhouses at Laeken and the grandiose triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

Belgium’s Prince Laurent, the brother of the current king, waded into the debate by putting the blame for the atrocities on those who worked for Léopold. “He never went to Congo himself, so I don’t see how he could have made people suffer there,” he told a regional newspaper.

One former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Louis Michel, the father of the European council president Charles Michel, in 2010 called Léopold a hero and claimed it was a “ false accusation” that he had enriched himself by turning the Congo into a giant labour camp. “At that time this was just the manner of working,” he said,

The death toll and savage punishments meted out to Congolese workers, such as chopping off hands and whipping people to death, were well documented by the time Michel spoke. Even a century earlier, during the imperial twilight, Léopold’s brutal rule was an international scandal, as recounted by Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost.

Many African-Belgians believe the country’s colonial past remains unacknowledged. Pitcho Womba Konga, a musician and actor who came to Belgium aged seven when his father fled Mobutu Sese Seko’s repressive rule, said he spent no more than an afternoon learning about Congo at school.

He objects to the benign epithet “the builder king”. He said: “It is not Léopold who made Belgium, it was the Congolese who made Belgium, plus the others who came – the Italians, the people who worked in the mines, the Moroccans.”

A bust of Léopold is removed by a city worker in Auderghem, near Brussels.
A bust of Léopold is removed by a city worker in Auderghem, near Brussels. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Rather than clear the streets of colonial monuments, he would like to see plaques to put them in context. “We need to remember what happened so that people don’t just think [this history] is an illusion … To take something down for the sake of taking it down doesn’t make any sense, it makes it invisible.”

Authorities in Brussels have promised a public debate on public spaces that will involve experts and members of the Congolese diaspora. The heritage minister, Pascal Smet, has proposed a memorial to decolonisation. 

Primrose Ntumba, who works in the Brussels parliament, is agnostic about whether the statues come down but hopes authorities are sincere about confronting the past. If statues stay with contextual references, she hopes they will be “shocking enough” to allow passersby to understand the magnitude of what happened.

One option, she suggests, could be a second statue near the colonial tribute that carries a counter message. “Is the government prepared to go that far?” she asks.

While Belgians of Congolese, Burundian and Rwandan origins have high levels of university education, their unemployment rate is four times higher than average, according to the King Baudouin Foundation.

“Belgium has been deaf and blind and mute on this subject for a long time,” Hermans said, highlighting the “tireless, tireless work” of African-Belgians in fighting for change. “We had to go out and risk our own health … [to get] people to listen to us for the first time.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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