A country in denial: Belgium can no longer turn a blind eye to its colonial legacy
Illustration: Gabrielle Nero

Visiting Brussels last summer, the immense opulence that characterises Belgium’s capital struck me. Whether that be the ornate buildings of the Grand Square, glistening with gold, or the imposing grandeur of the Royal Palace, Brussel’s affluence is unavoidable. It is much easier to enjoy the riches when you ignore where they have come from; no wonder Belgium has long avoided addressing its exploitation of the Congo. Today, King Leopold II is even affectionately known as ‘the builder king’, the unbelievable brutality inflicted on the Congo reworded as a source of pride rather than shame. 

The reality is that King Leopold II should be regarded in the same light as history’s most vile despots – the fact that statues of him still stand in Belgium’s cities is a clear sign that this is not the case at the moment. Leopold created the so called ‘Congo Free State’ in 1885, claiming swathes of Central Africa as his own personal property. The arbitrarily drawn boundaries committed the country to a legacy of conflict – individual ethnicities and tribes that already had centuries of traditions and culture in place, entirely disregarded and destroyed by their colonisers. 

In this completely lawless country formed by Leopold, the Congolese were left without any legal protection, the colonisers free to exploit the country’s natural resources of ivory and rubber, and its people as slave labour, selling the goods on the international market and taking all profits for themselves. The treatment of the Congolese people was horrific: whipping, dismemberment and decapitation used as punishments; severed hands used as a kind of currency to pay off the unrealistic rubber quotas. If the Africans dared to rebel, entire villages would be destroyed. There is no accurate number of deaths in the period of Leopold’s rule, but estimates say around 13 million people died as a result of the colonisers between 1885 and 1908.

“It is time for Belgium to accept the critical role they played in creating a divided, virtually unrulable country, thus reducing the people to a state of dependency”

In order to cover up the horrifying truth of the unsurpassed brutality going on in his ‘Free State’, Leopold launched what was effectively a propaganda campaign, presenting himself on the international stage as a saviour of the Africans from ‘savagery’, claiming to have ‘civilised’ them. There is a sense that this idea still holds some presence in Belgium today. 

It took Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’, published in 1902, to begin to shatter the illusion Leopold had created. Conrad presented the colonisers as greedy and entirely ineffective, showing that no ‘civilising mission’ existed. Despite this, Conrad did nothing to counteract the view of the Congolese as savages, presenting them as more animal than human and almost obsessively using racial slurs. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe famously described him as a ‘thoroughgoing racist’. Conrad also describes the Congo itself in a way which still seems entirely present in Europe today:

‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.’

Since the beginning of colonialism, it has become commonplace to view the African continent as a place of primitivism and mystery. Somewhere that lacks tradition, culture, and even language. Conrad’s language of emptiness and silence perfectly captures what colonialism brought to the Congo. The pure ignorance as to the true richness and vibrancy of the civilisation that existed in the Congo are what created this perception of Africa.

Once the truth about Leopold spread, international condemnation led to power being transferred to the Belgian Parliament in 1908. Despite the improved treatment of the Congolese and the building of some infrastructure, the Europeans restricted the Africans from becoming doctors, lawyers, or holding any skilled jobs. The Congolese were treated as inferior second-class citizens, forced labour still taking place and curfews being imposed.

This treatment meant that when the Congolese demanded independence, triggered by the Pan-Africanism movement in the 1950s, the strive for liberation was doomed from the start. The sudden status of independence left them completely unprepared, with no transition period taking place. Their leader and symbol of hope Patrice Lumumba was then assassinated following the orders of US President Eisenhower, out of fear of Soviet influence on the newly independent state. This left the Congo in the power of Mobutu’s unbelievably corrupt and exploitative regime for the next 20 years. Laurant-Desire Kabila, and his son Joseph Kabila who was in power until 2019, were no better. The conflict taking place in the Congo has resulted in around 4 million deaths, one of the deadliest conflicts of the present day.

 It is tempting for the West to displace the blame for the corrupt dictatorships, in place since the Congo gained independence, onto the African people. However, it is time for Belgium to accept the critical role they played in creating a divided, virtually unrulable country, thus reducing the people to a state of dependency. The Congo is incredibly vulnerable to corruption as a result of it being shaped this way by the Belgians. 

Belgium’s systematic racism to this day is particularly evident in the newly renovated Royal Museum of Central Africa which I visited last year, situated on the outskirts of Brussels. It was first founded as a temporary exhibition of Leopold’s, to display his ‘civilising work’ in the Congo. I was impressed with the way in which it embraced displaying the vibrant culture of the Congo, the details of the oppression under the Belgians being hauntingly absent. A few horrifically racist statues had been hidden away in an easily missed side room. In the entrance there still remained statues built into the walls of white men carrying black children, protected under ‘heritage laws’, unexplained and uncaptioned. 

As a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement, protests are taking place and progress is being made. Following the 10,000 strong protest in Brussels, a petition has been made to campaign to remove every statue of Leopold by the end of June, marking the 60th anniversary of the Congo gaining independence. There is a lot more that can be done: education on the history of the Congo in schools, building of memorials to the millions who have died, and an apology from the Belgian government. The change cannot come too soon.