Public statues are also discussed in Belgium


In recent days in Belgium numerous statues of King Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, have been vandalized and targeted across the country during protests against racism triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, United States, while pressure groups that have long been asking for the removal of the monuments of the old king have returned to make their requests heard.

Historians believe Leopold II to be one of the most ruthless colonial rulers in history, and his personal government of the Belgian Congo, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, is believed to be responsible for the death of millions of the country’s inhabitants. Yet his name appears in various public places: only in Brussels is there an equestrian statue in the center of the city and until recently his name appeared in a metro stop.

The debate around his figure cyclically returns to the country and some reminds of a similar debate going on in the United States: the one on the removal of the statues of the political and military slave leaders who fought on the side of the confederation in the American Civil War.

Today, with protests against the brutality of the American police involving the whole world, these discussions have taken on particular international relevance.

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Belgian and Congolese activists and demonstrators are demanding that the statues of Leopold II be removed by June 30, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence. The monuments to a man responsible for serious massacres, they argue, “have no place in Brussels or anywhere else in Europe.”

Not many defend the figure of Leopold II, who had been the subject of criticism and controversy already in his time. Leopoldo received control over what was called the “Free State of the Congo” in 1885, during the Berlin conference, during which the great European powers divided among themselves a series of African geographic areas not yet subjected to colonial rule .

At the time, the Free State of the Congo was on the border between the French and British areas of influence. The plan was to entrust it to Leopold as a “personal” territory and not as a colony belonging to the Belgian government, so as to create a buffer state between the two great rivals, neutral and open to international trade.

This agreement meant that for 23 years Leopoldo personally and directly governed the Free State of the Congo, substantially without any parliamentary or governmental supervision, and managed it as a sort of personal investment whose purpose was to make a profit for him and other investors in the enterprise.

Leopold was greatly enriched thanks to the ivory trade and the cultivation of rubber, two activities to which his officials dedicated themselves with particular brutality. The villagers were subjected to a ruthless regime of forced labor, forced to live in unhealthy barracks, exposed to the harsh discipline of the para-state militia Force Publique.

A particularly common punishment at the time was the cutting of a hand or foot to those who did not reach the quotas established for the production of rubber or ivory. Sometimes the workers’ children or wives were subjected to the mutilation, so that they could continue to work. Soon, photographs of the members of the Force Publique who held severed limbs began to circulate in Europe and became one of the most evident symbols of the cruelty of Leopold’s regime.

At the time, all European powers were engaged in the administration of vast colonial empires in which power was exercised with varying degrees of brutality. During the same period, for example, the German government was carrying out a genocide of the indigenous peoples of what is now Namibia: a systematic extermination, even if numerically much smaller than what happened in the Congo.

What happened in the Free State of the Congo, however, became the subject of a special international disapproval: in part for the low political weight of Leopold II, in part for the level of ruthlessness achieved by the local colonial administration and for the consequences it produced.

Estimates vary widely, but according to historians during Leopoldo’s administration, between 5 and 15 million Congolese died due to forced labor, violence and epidemics caused by malnutrition, and the obligation to live crowded around plantations of rubber trees.

The expression “crimes against humanity” was used, it was one of the first times, to describe the oppression suffered by the inhabitants of the country, while an increasing number of stories coming mostly from missionaries revealed to all of Europe what was happening in the country.

In 1908 growing national and international pressure prompted the Belgian government to end the experiment of the Free State of the Congo and to annex the country directly. Forced labor was abolished, as were the worst excesses of Leopoldo’s administration. Life in the country continued to be brutal, but the number of deaths and the extent of the violence no longer reached the level reached in previous years.

Leopold died the following year and was long remembered above all as a builder monarch, who had given Belgium some of its most symbolic buildings, such as the royal palace in Brussels. More than a dozen statues and busts were dedicated to him, many of which explicitly celebrated his achievements in Central Africa. As many monuments were erected to the colonial enterprises of Belgium in general.

Its bloody role and that of the country in the history of Central Africa, however, has long been removed. Neither the Belgian government nor its royal family ever apologized for what happened in the Free State of the Congo and, until the 1990s, the African museum in Brussels did not contain a single reference to the massacres carried out during the time of Leopold.

The situation began to change in the late nineties, with the publication of a series of books on Leopoldo, many of which were extremely critical. Since then, criticisms of the country’s king and colonial past and attacks on its statues have never ceased.

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