Belgium confronted its colonial past and looked toward reconciliation Tuesday, with the king expressing regret for the violence carried out by the country when it ruled over what is now Congo. Later in the day, the bust of a former monarch held responsible for the death of millions of Africans was taken off public display.
As Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo, King Philippe's words had resounding significance since none of his predecessors went so far as to convey remorse.
In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, Philippe stopped short of issuing a formal apology, but proclaimed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo.
The removal of King Leopold II's statue took place only hours after Philippe's letter was published. The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.
Following a short ceremony punctuated by readings, Leopold's bust in Ghent was attached to a crane with a strap and taken away from the small park where it stood amid applause. It will be transferred to a warehouse of a Ghent city museum pending further decision from a city's commission in charge of decolonization projects.
“Removing statues does not erase history, it rectifies history and makes new history that rightly calls into question dominant narratives," said Mathieu Charles, an activist from the Belgian Network for Black Lives.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past, instead focusing on the so-called positive aspects of the colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to Leopold removed.
Earlier this month, about 10,000 people gathered in Brussels despite the social distancing measures implemented to fight the spread of COVID-19, with many protesters chanting anti-colonialist slogans.
The Leopold statue in Ghent was vandalized several times in the past and again after Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Several other monuments of the former king scattered across Belgium were defaced over the past few weeks and a statue of the monarch in the port of Antwerp was removed from a marketplace by local authorities.
Meanwhile, regional authorities also promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism while the federal Parliament decided that a commission would look into Belgium’s colonial past.
Belgium Prime minister Sophie Wilmes has called for “an in-depth” debate conducted “without taboo.”
“In 2020, we must be able to look at this shared past with lucidity and discernment,” she said Tuesday. “Any work of truth and memory begins with the recognition of suffering. Acknowledging the suffering of the other.”
After Leopold's claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony 75 times Belgium’s size until the African nation became independent in 1960.
In his letter Philippe stressed the “common achievements” reached by Belgium and its former colony, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
“At the time of the independent State of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory," Philippe wrote, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” Philippe acknowledged. “I want to express my most deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today revived by discrimination that is all too present in our societies,"
Philippe also congratulated Tshisekedi on the anniversary of Congo's independence, ruing that he was not able to attend the celebrations to which he had been invited due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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