Jun 15, 2020 (GIN) – Some of the largest anti-racism protests in Europe have taken place in Belgium, the birthplace of King Léopold II, whose brutal rule of Congo from 1885 to 1908 caused an estimated 10 million Congolese deaths through murder, starvation and disease.
This past week, close to 12,000 people gathered in central Brussels. They were targeting the King Leopold statue outside the royal palace and more than a dozen others. The most egregious one depicts a group of Congolese people kneeling below Leopold in “gratitude”.
Many of these statues were built in the 1930s when the Belgian government created a mythology around Leopold II, erasing the public memory of the Congo atrocities and replacing it with a narrative of a benevolent king who brought glory to Belgium.
But as calls for the statue’s removal grow louder, Belgian’s political class is raising objections to the dismay of Afro-Belgians and other citizens.
“You should see what Leopold II has done for Belgium!” Prince Laurent, younger brother of the current Belgian King Philippe, was quoted to say. “He had parks built in Brussels and many other things.”
“I don’t see how he could have made people (in the Congo) suffer,” Laurent said. “There were many people that worked for Leopold II, and they were really abusive — but that does not mean that Leopold II was abusive.”
“You won’t erase the history by removing statues,” said District Mayor Koen Palinckx of Antwerp. “You won’t turn back the clock.” He scolded activists destroying objects that are public property saying: “That’s a line you do not cross.”
“This is not how we proceed in a democracy,” added Auderghem Mayor Didier Gosuin. “This is not how we put history back on the right track.”
In 2010, former Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel, the father of future prime minister and present EU Council president Charles Michel, called Leopold “a hero with ambitions for a small country like Belgium” and described the Congo stories as “exaggerations”.
Belgians have been unwilling to confront colonialism, said Idesbald Goddeeris, a professor of history at Leuven Catholic University. When he was a student in the 1990s, instructors spent only one or two minutes on the country’s role in Congo, he recalled.
“Slavery is still very real history for black people – we are still living with the consequences of it, with a racial hierarchy that puts black people at the bottom,” said Mary Ononokpono, who is doing a PhD at the University of Cambridge on the British-Biafran slave trade.
“Britain, Europe and America – and Africa – have to confront their history,” said Ononokpono. “We urgently need to have a long-overdue and honest discussion about the history of slavery and its legacy of impoverishment.”