Belgium has started facing its colonial past by removing tributes to King Leopold II in its cities, who is widely seen as contributing to the murder of at least 10 million people in what is today’s Democratic Republic of Congo.
The council of Kortrijk, a Belgian city in the Flemish province of West Flanders, announced that it is renaming Leopold II Laan avenue. Officials in Dendermonde, a Flemish city located 20 miles north of Brussels, also stated that they were changing a street similarly named ‘Leopold Laan’ to avoid ‘shame’ for its residents.
So what is this shame, exactly? Estimates say that at least 10 million people were killed in King Leopold II’s ‘Congo Free State’, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a result of his policies and what many call a ‘genocide’. Slave labour to develop vast rubber reserves, maiming and torture, cost the lives of between 10 million and 15 million people.
All the while, the king amassed a fortune.
Following these decisions, elsewhere, a group working in Ghent announced that they are considering their city’s role in Belgium’s dark colonial past questioning whether is it suitable to have the name of Leopold II.
Dirk de Fauw, the Mayor of Bruges, said he is assessing the situation. He said: “If other cities start with it, it could trigger a chain reaction, but there are no plans yet.”
Hundreds of roads take King Leopold II’s name along with memorials dedicated to his glory and memory. Despite the recent ongoing debates based on his legacy, the subject has mostly gone under the radar.
Following growing public pressure, it seems Belgium is now facing its past and its attitudes towards its former colonies. Museums are now starting to display colonial history, sins of the past that were previously ignored. History books in schools might also start getting a makeover.
In February 2019, after a week-long investigation, a UN working group told Belgium that the racism suffered by those of African origin in Belgium could be traced back to its failure to address its past. They noted that several statues of Leopold II and monuments to the colonial army still dot the streets and parks of Brussels.
Many activists mentioned a step was taken in the right direction when a square in Brussels was named after Patrice Lumumba last year, the first legally elected prime minister of the DRC. Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 with the complicity of the Belgian and American governments.
Belgium’s colonial background in Congo under the administration of King Leopold II
The desire of King Leopold II to benefit from the Congo started with the Africa-based English researcher Henry Stanley being sent to Congo in 1879 on behalf of Leopold II to meet with native chiefs, forcing them to sign a deal with the king.
This ‘deal’ allowed Belgium to acquire therefore the title deeds to Congo’s lands. During the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Belgium’s efforts were formalised. Belgium’s hegemony was recognised officially and an independent state was established. Eventually, Leopold II converted Congo into his own private fiefdom - the Congo Free State.
King Leopold II forced the Congolese to work under particularly abusive conditions. He cut the hands and feet of the people who resisted him and even the children and wives of the men who couldn’t meet their ‘quotas’.
The rubber harvest in the Congo Free State directly contributed to Belgium’s rising economic power.
Some tried to resist Belgium’s actions but to no avail. Belgium found a brutal solution to quell unrest and Congolese soldiers were obliged to prove that they were not wasting costly ammunition by providing one cut hand of any native rebel they killed.
The brutal crimes of Belgium, which more or less started in 1885 were first revealed by the journalist Edmund Dene Morel at the beginning of the 20th Century. Morel made a huge effort to spread the word about what was happening in Belgium’s colony. He revealed photos of forced labour, murders, child soldiers, handless people, torture and genocide in the Congo Free State.
Eventually, in 1908, because of public pressure and the British Government, the Belgium Parliament seized the Congo Free State.
Estimates claim that the population of Congo decreased to 10 million from 20 million during this time.
The Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960.