When Monuments Become the Narrative (review)

Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, memorials, British Empire, book review, public history


English rationalisations for empire are written into education, politics, and the church, but they are nothing to do with racism, we assure ourselves. They are to do with order, and economy, and helping infant nations develop and grow with Britannia as its caring nurturing guardian and protector.

And if anyone cares to argue to the contrary, well, we will say, at least we weren’t as bad as the French, who let’s face it are frightfully foreign. Or the Portuguese, look what happened to their possessions. And let’s not even mention the Belgians. They were absolute monsters. We can all agree and shake our head in horror at what the Belgians did in Congo. We’re not as bad as the Belgians!

Leopold’s Legacy by Oliver Leu is all about Belgium and Congo, the horrors that were inflicted there, and their airbrushing from Belgian history. The modestly sized book begins with a Contents Page that is a statement of intent, with eight chapters that examine the history, the memory, the monuments, the crimes, and the continuing presence of the empire in Belgium today.

The history of Congo is complex. Belgian involvement began with the establishment of the Congo Free State, a country privately ‘owned’ and run for the profit of King Leopold.

The Congo Free State became a byword for colonial horror, a slave colony where the inhabitants were forced to tap rubber for Leopold’s private gain, their forced labour both a ‘tax’ and part of the civilising influence that would break them away from their natural ‘indolence’. The population halved as starvation, kidnappings, and the amputation of the hands of people who didn’t fulfil their rubber quotas led to the population falling from maybe 20 million to 8 million in the period of Leopold’s rule.

It was a regime which led to one of the first campaigning uses of ‘atrocity photographs’ by Alice Seeley Harris. The most famous image shows a man called Nsala mournfully gazing at the amputated hand and foot of his 5-year-old daughter. She was killed along with her mother for failing to tap enough rubber.

Harris’s photographs were part of a campaign that helped lead to the death of the Congo Free State and the founding of the Belgian Congo in 1908, a colony that ‘endured’ until independence in 1960.


Read entire article at Photographic Museum of Humanity

comments powered by Disqus