Belgium revisits the scene of its colonial shame

King Leopold II terrorised Congo. Now his descendant is there to help celebrate 50 years of independence

Vanessa Mock
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:31

It must have been with at least some trepidation that Albert II, King of the Belgians, stepped off the plane in the Congolese capital Kinshasa this week to take part in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country's independence from Belgium on June 30 1960.

Albert is the great-grandnephew of Leopold II, the Belgian king who wrought colonial terror of the worst kind in the vast central African territory which he called the Congo Free State and ruled brutally as his private property from 1884 until 1908.

If that was not bad enough, Albert's late brother, King Baudouin was accused of indirectly inciting the post-independence assassination of Congo's independence hero and first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. Lumumba's sons announced this month that they want to bring murder charges against 12 living Belgians for involvement in their father's assassination.

Little wonder then that before the King was allowed to travel to the still troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, the matter triggered a heated debate in the Belgian Parliament. The mood was not helped by the declaration earlier this month by the former Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, who called Leopold II "a true visionary" and "a hero".

Yet, during this anniversary summer, scores of Congo-related concerts and exhibitions are taking place across Belgium, a sign that the country is slowly shaking off decades of guilt and silence over its shameful colonial entanglement.

But the guilt has not all gone, says David Van Reybrouck author of Congo: A History, a new book that involved five years of travel and research. "The word Congo used to have very dark connotations but today some of that darkness has lifted. There's even a kind of Congo mania in Belgium," he explains.

"There's an entire generation that wasn't brought up with the Congo, it wasn't mentioned in our history classes and that explains the strong urge to rediscover this country. So things are changing slowly but still there's been an unwillingness to open the lid on our colonial past. Some of the archives are still very difficult to access, something which I find indefensible."

Just to the back of the royal palace in Brussels stands a large copper statue of Leopold II on horseback. At the base of this triumphant, pompous effigy of the bearded monarch there is a tiny plaque announcing that the statue was made entirely from Congolese copper. In Kinshasa, a copy of this statue lies face down in a back-garden among weeds, an unwanted relic of the past.

Copper and ivory were among a wealth of natural resources that first lured Leopold after the territory's "discovery" by the British-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, but it was rubber that turned this hitherto lush but little-known swath of Africa into a personal goldmine for the monarch. Large scale rubber cultivation, whose use for tyres had just been discovered by the Scot John Boyd Dunlop, contributed to human rights abuses and cruel punishments like hand chopping, shocking even by the standards of other unenlightened colonial rulers.

Erik Nobels, who leads Congo-themed tours of Brussels, points to the grand trio of arches at the Cinquantenaire Park at one end of one of the main boulevards in the Belgian capital. "Leopold wanted a colony that would allow him to decorate his city. He believed immortality could either be gained by fighting wars or leaving your stamp on a city. And the huge wealth that Congo brought him allowed him to do so."

Leopold's acquisition of the Congo is a remarkable one of personal greed, cunning and brutality, with a starring role for the British explorer Stanley. The Belgian monarch enlisted Stanley, who was the first man to cross the entire African continent from east to west, to map out the territory and then buy up large swathes of land from local chieftains to create a gigantic area which was to become the King's personal plaything in 1885, when European powers met at the Berlin Conference to set out the rules of the colonial game.

"This wasn't to be compared with France, Germany or Britain because Belgium at that time simply wasn't interested in acquiring a colony. It was the King who dreamt of having an overseas territory and who then through his incredible diplomatic manoeuvres acquired an enormous part of the African pie," says Van Reybrouck. Leopold ignored the conditions set out in Berlin and installed a huge army of officials and African mercenaries to execute his wishes.

Villages were assigned a quota for the amount of rubber they had to collect and process and terror ensued if they failed to meet that quota. Military personnel, mostly made up of west Africans, ran the show and carried out the infamous practice of cutting off the hands and feet of villagers who failed to meet the quota.

"The violence was triggered by a bureaucratic system that meant these mercenaries had to justify the use of every one of their bullets by bringing back severed and smoked hands and feet," says Van Reybrouck, who was the first to gain access to rare testimonies of the time. "I read accounts of villagers who had pretended to be dead hoping to escape the terror but who then felt their limbs being cut off.

"But there is an obsession with these hands and people also forget that most of those limbs were cut off from people who were already dead."

Women would also be taken into custody until their husbands came up with the required amount of rubber. "It was a relentless policy of squeezing out local populations. Apart from the manslaughter, there was huge migration as people fled into the forest as they didn't want to work in the service of the King anymore."

Historians have struggled to come up with an estimate of the scale of the slaughter, though they are revising downwards the former figure of 10 million victims, as many deaths were also caused by disease.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Leopold ordered his archives to be burned just before control of Congo was wrested from him and transferred to the Belgian state after an international outcry in 1908 over his abuses. At one side of the royal palace, buildings that now house administrative offices which were once Leopold's Congolese control centre, one propaganda bureau is still etched with the Congolese star symbol. "There are many reports from the time of great heat emanating from all these buildings as the archives were stuffed into fireplaces and lit up to cover Leopold's tracks," says Mr Nobels.

"Belgian colonialism was at best highly paternalistic and when independence came, there was not one engineer or doctor. They began de-colonisation way too late and cleared out overnight, allowing for huge instability to follow," says Van Reybrouck.

Mr Lumumba became Congo's first prime minister but war erupted when Katanga tried to secede from the new republic. In September 1960, colonel Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a coup and Lumumba was arrested, tortured and killed and both the CIA and Belgian secret services were blamed. It was some 40 years before the Belgian government apologised for its involvement in his death. Belgian historian Ludo de Witte supports the new investigation brought by Lumumba's sons. "We as Belgians" he says, "should know that we participated in war crimes against the Congolese."

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