A violent legacy: Belgian King Leopold II statues draw focus in protests

By Paula Boira Nacher

Brussels, Jun 8 (efe-epa).- The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis has ignited anti-racist movements the world over, not least in Belgium where attention has turned to effigies of former King Leopold II and the abuses carried out under his reign in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lawmakers in the regional parliament in Brussels have petitioned the capital’s city’s government to begin a process of decolonization of public spaces by moving statues of Leopold II (1835-1909) to museums and changing the names of streets and squares honoring him.

According to the local press, lawmakers will request the creation of a dedicated committee of experts to oversee the process.

Authorities are coming under increasing pressure to take action.

In recent days, protesters taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement have doused a number of Leopold II statues in fake blood and a petition calling for them to be removed altogether is gaining ground.

Leopold II was the sole sovereign of the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908. He ruled the territory with his private forces and the Belgian government of the time had no oversight as to how he managed the land.

The king brutally exploited the local population and the region’s resources, especially rubber. Labour policies including instruments of torture, slavery and punitive extrajudicial killings led to the death of between 10 to 15 million Congolese, according to historian Adam Hochschild.

“These statues have no place in Brussels,” the petition reads, adding that there are almost 200 nationalities spread across 188 districts in the city, both the capital of Belgium and the heart of the European Union.

Campaigners want the statue in the central Place du Trone to be the first to go, saying it is the wrong message to be sending the million of tourists who visit the city every year.

Leopold II began his foray into the Congo in 1879 and by 1885 he had secured the Congo Free State territory during the Berlin Conference, when Europe’s powers divided Africa into colonies.

The wealth he exploited from the land elevated Belgium, a country 76 times smaller than the Democratic Republic of Congo, to a new imperial status.

At the time, rubber was becoming a much sought-after resource amid the development of pneumatics.

In order to get an edge on his European counterparts, who were busy exploiting rubber from colonies in Latin America and Asia, the Belgian monarch enslaved the Congolese people and forced them to work under a campaign of extreme inhumanity.

Brutal punishments such as amputations, lashings and executions were commonplace, according to missionaries and journalists at the time, such as Edmund Dene Morel, a Brit.

At the world fair held in Brussels in 1958, Belgium showed off its colonial power with a human zoo, comprising men, women and who had been brought over from what was then the Belgian Congo (to which it was renamed after being transferred to the sovereignty of the state in 1909) and displayed like animals in situ for spectators to come and see.

Such practises were observed across Europe during the colonial period.

Experts like Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem have said the Leopold II’s reign in the Congo cut the local population by half through killings, hunger, overwork and illness.

Leopold II used the fortunes he amassed through exploitation to construct a series of grandiose buildings in the Belgian capital, including the Palace of Justice in Brussels. EFE-EPA

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