Belgium confronts its heart of darkness

King Leopold was hailed as a hero for 'civilising' the Congo. Now a remarkable exhibition in Brussels tells the forgotten history of a brutal exploitation that killed millions and shamed a nation

In the sprawling palace of Tervuren, in a leafy suburb of Brussels, Leopold, King of the Belgians has finally been dethroned. A daunting statue of the hook-nosed monarch has been heaved from centre stage in the royal museum that was his brainchild and built with the proceeds of his African adventure.

In the sprawling palace of Tervuren, in a leafy suburb of Brussels, Leopold, King of the Belgians has finally been dethroned. A daunting statue of the hook-nosed monarch has been heaved from centre stage in the royal museum that was his brainchild and built with the proceeds of his African adventure.

The avatar of the former national hero now skulks in a distant corner; in his place are a series of antique black and white photographs of mutilated bodies in turn-of-the-previous-century Congo. One of the stark and disturbing images shows a father from the Nsala tribe contemplating the chopped-off hand and foot of his daughter in front of him. The sepia-tinted horror show is part of "Memory of Congo, The Colonial Era" a remarkable exhibition that has set off a critical re-examination of Belgium's grisly record in its only colonial possession.

As the decades roll by and the surviving archives are dusted off and opened up, the European powers that colonised Africa in the 19th century's undignified scramble for land are becoming accustomed to an unpleasant, prickly emotion: shame. Whatever our own Gordon Brown may have said during his recent trip to the continent, the time for apologising for colonialism's errors is by no means past. On the contrary, humble pie is more firmly on the menu now.

From the horrific tactics used by the British to put down Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s to the racist laws the Italians applied with such gusto in the Horn of Africa in the 1930s, more damning evidence is surfacing of systematic white misbehaviour in former Western colonies. But no colonial master has more to apologise for, or has proved more reluctant to acknowledge and accept its guilt, than Belgium.

On the roll-call of Africa's colonial and post-independence abusers, it undoubtedly holds unenviable pride of place. And the fractured, despairing state of the Democratic Republic of Congo today, a ragged hole at the heart of Africa, plagued by civil war, destitution and disease, can be traced back to that uniquely damaging misadministration. Little wonder, then, that when Congo's present leadership recently took the quixotic step of placing King Leopold's statue back on its plinth on the capital Kinshasa's main thoroughfare, it stayed up for less than a day before the authorities thought better of it. If modern-day Belgians have conveniently forgotten the past, the Congolese, who toppled all Belgian statues in the 1970s on a nod from dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, certainly have not.

The extraordinary brutality of the Belgian era owed a lot to the colony's unique status. Most other African colonies were appropriated by governments, regarded as national responsibilities. This vast land mass in central Africa, 80 times the size of Belgium itself, became the personal possession of King Leopold ll in 1885. With personal ownership comes a sense of total impunity.

While waiting to inherit the throne of tiny Belgium, Leopold had taken note of how Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands had built their national wealth on foreign territories. He became obsessed with finding his own, an acquisition that would, he believed, turn "a small country with small horizons" into a world power commanding respect. "No country has had a great history without colonies," he wrote. "A complete country cannot exist without overseas possessions."

He looked for openings in Fiji, Sarawak and the Philippines, before a golden opportunity presented itself in the form of the American explorer, Henry Stanley, who in 1877 had braved malaria, typhoid, whirlpools and cannibals to trace the course of the river snaking around the Congo basin.

Leopold recruited Stanley, known as "Breaker of Rocks", as his agent and soon the explorer was establishing trading stations along the river, signing treaties with chiefs who little understood they were giving away their rights, land, and natural resources.

The King was extraordinarily successful in keeping the details of his pet project a secret, bribing foreign journalists and politicians to write glowing accounts and systematically destroying sensitive paperwork. In many ways, that culture of obsessive secrecy has reached out from the past to suck in the modern era, making a form of national whitewash possible.

Leopold famously said when he was forced to hand over the Congo Free State to the Belgian nation: "I will give them my Congo but they have no right to know what I have done there," and proceeded to burn archives.

Congo's appropriation was presented to the world as a philanthropic act, a distorted version of the facts which the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren has faithfully disseminated well into the 21st century, despite a torrent of increasingly sarcastic remarks by modern historians.

In theory, Leopold was simultaneously wiping out the area's vibrant slave trade and spreading Christian civilisation. In fact, the monarch many Belgians still regard as a national hero had his eyes firmly fixed on Congo's ivory, timber, gum and copal. As the motorcar became popular in the civilised world, Leopold's attention turned to rubber, which grows wild in the Congo and was needed to feed the world's growing tyre industry. The entire colony became a vast rubber-tapping enterprise, with villagers set cripplingly high production quotas by their Belgian superiors.

If they failed to meet the targets, the Force Publique - essentially a mercenary army recruited in West Africa - would be sent in to slaughter the men, burn huts and rape women. These soldiers cut off the hands of their victims, whether dead or alive, as proof for their Belgian masters that their bullets had not gone to waste. If, today, we associate amputated hands as atrocities peculiar to Sierra Leone and Mozambique's rebel movements, it was a white-led force that introduced the practice to the Congo.

One Congolese historian, Professor Ndaywel e Nziem, has estimated the death toll during that era at a staggering 13 million. While that figure seems impossibly high, there is little doubt that vast areas of Congo were left depopulated. The proceeds of Leopold's looting funded many of the grandiose monuments that grace Belgium today: the Royal Palace at Laeken, Brussels' Cinquantanaire arch, Ostend's seaside arcade and golf course were all paid for with Congolese blood and sweat.

The brutality of the Leopold era, which prompted Joseph Conrad to write Heart of Darkness, was eventually exposed thanks to the efforts of British journalist Edmund Morel and the homosexual diplomat Roger Casement, who got the information they needed to create a scandal from missionaries working in the Congo.

In 1908, faced with growing controversy over the brutalities, the ageing Leopold was forced to reluctantly hand his prized possession - a territory he had never bothered to personally set foot in - over to the Belgian government. But Belgium's exploitation did not end with Leopold's rule, it merely entered a new chapter. The energetic extraction of copper and cobalt in the southern Katanga province replaced the ruthless extraction of rubber as Congo's main raison d'etre.

Belgian officials were known for their enthusiastic use of the chicotte, a murderous whip made of plaited hippopotamus hide, and although the Belgian government undoubtedly invested in Congo's infrastructure, it also kept the country in a deliberately infantilised state. The primitive Congolese needed to "evolve" before they could be trusted with their own destiny, white officials believed.

When Brussels, taken by surprise by the nationalist fervour sweeping Africa, reluctantly granted independence in 1960, the country had only 17 university graduates and was clearly unprepared for self-rule.

Some of Leopold's regal arrogance undoubtedly communicated itself to his successors in the Belgian government, who did not see why Congolese independence should mean the loss of precious mineral resources. In a brazen bid to perpetuate colonial rule by other means, Belgium encouraged Katangese leader Moise Tshombe to secede, pulling the carpet from under the feet of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first elected prime minister.

The behind-the-scenes role subsequently played by Belgian officials in Tshombe's torture and assassination of the charismatic Lumumba was exposed to withering public light in 2001 by Ludo de Witte, author of The Assassination of Lumumba.

Lumumba, still seen by many Congolese as the great nationalist leader they never had, was beaten relentlessly, shot along with two aides and his body then dissolved in acid, to ensure it was never found.

After publication of de Witte's book's and an official inquiry, a Belgian parliamentary commission concluded that the country bore "moral responsibility" for Lumumba's killing. Belgium's Foreign Minister formally apologised to the Congolese people and Lumumba's family for his country's "apathy" and "indifference".

For many Congolese, who see their own history as one long series of cynical manipulations by outside powers with designs on their nation's extraordinary natural resources, that apology marked something of a symbolic turning point. But there are still plenty of retired Belgian administrators and right-wing historians working and writing in Belgium today who believe their country did a fine job in Congo and deserves to be congratulated rather than vilified.

The fact that the most popular recent book written on King Leopold's depredations, Adam Hochschild's " King Leopold's Ghost, was the work of an American outsider rather than a Belgian speaks volumes about the deliberate amnesia Belgium developed on the actions of its beloved king.

Marc Reynebeau, who has written a political history of Belgium, is among those to highlight the national importance of the horrors on show at the controversial royal museum. "Belgian colonisation of Congo is seen as horror and violence," the author said. "The pictures of children with chopped-off hands are the ultimate symbols. It took Belgium a century to recognise that past. The exhibit 'Memory of Congo' is the first impetus for change, the first time Tervuren recognises the horror. But the real work has yet to start."

Although the museum in Tervuren may be belatedly changing, it seems likely to be a long time yet before Belgians look at statues of Leopold ll - instantly recognisable with his indomitable hooked nose and spade-shaped beard - with anything other than respect.

Michela Wrong is the author of 'In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo', published by Fourth Estate. Her second book, 'I didn't do it for you: How the world betrayed a small African nation' has just been published

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