Michela Wrong: Belgium's Amnesia About the Congo





Michela Wrong, the author of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo, in the Independent ( London) (2-23-05):

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....

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....

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.



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patricia naomi mitchell - 3/26/2005

It is not enough that Belgium has a temporary exhibit on their very bad behavior ( barbaric ) in Congo. If they are REALLY sorry then make financial restitution to the congolese people. It is not up to them to decide whether or not the $$$ would be handled responsibly ( Leopold sure wasn't ) . Just return to the people as much as possible what they stole. Acknowledge that they had no business except the business of thieves to be over there anyway. Write the history books correctly lest once the exhibit is gone they conveiently " forget " again. Black folk all over the world should keep these atrocities in the faces of the perpetrators just as the Jews of the Nazi Regime have done. I teach the truth to my students so that they will know and stop glorifying the " wonderfulness of european achievements" which was purchased and built with the blood money raped from africans and their descendants. Shame is the stain on Belgium and all the curs who thought it was business as usual to behave in such an abominable manner.

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