In 2020 Congo will be independent for 60 years. Independence put an end to 75 years of Belgian interference and domination in Congo. First 23 years as personal property of King Leopold II, and then 52 years as a Belgian colony.
Despite the long period since independence, Belgium is not at peace with its colonial past. Official representatives and authorities are still struggling to find the right tone when it comes to Congo. Some recognition is given for the atrocities that happened during the colonisation. Usually there is silence, sometimes even a certain nostalgia.
Contrary to other historical periods, such as the Second World War, the colonial past is not strongly present in our collective consciousness. Gradually, this starts to change, partly due to a new generation of opinion makers and artists, often with a migration background. Books, actions, the petition of the Brussels Congolese youngsters who have already collected more than 40,000 signatures, but also the television series ‘Children of the Colony’ or the reopening of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren contribute to this in their own way.
It is about time for the white Belgians to get involved as well. Too often we see this struggle as something that would only be important for our fellow citizens with African roots. We wait for them to launch a petition, for them to demonstrate, for them to take action. Yes, we sign these petitions and we like the Facebook messages, but we really don’t do enough. It doesn’t seem to touch us.
And it’s true that most people are not personally to blame for what happened during the colonial period in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. It’s been 60 years. But as a country we have reaped the benefits of it, and that makes every Belgian somehow involved and also responsible. After a crime, the injustice is not undone because the victim was allowed to loudly denounce the injustice. It is only when the criminal expresses regret and tries to remedy the injustice, that one can move forward. As individual citizens most of us have not been involved, as a country and as a society we are.
And it are mainly the white Belgians who have the power to do something about it.
In Brussels, the city where I live, we see the traces of that colonial past everywhere. In his book ‘Walking to Congo – Along colonial heritage in Brussels and Belgium’, writer Lucas Catherine describes how the appearance of the capital changed with the implementation of the ‘General plan for the extension and embellishment of the Brussels agglomeration’ by the architect Victor Besme, paid for with earnings from Congo. Think of the Cinquantenaire Park or of the many boulevards that were constructed at the time, such as Avenue Lambermont and Avenue Louis Bertrand.
We see the traces most clearly in monuments and street names dedicated to colonials or (scenes from) the colonial period. The most famous example in Brussels is the equestrian statue of Leopold II near the Royal Palace. In the Cinquantenaire Park we find the triumphal arch, the monument to the Belgian pioneers in Congo and also the monument to General Thys.
These statues and monuments are a tribute to an extremely dark period in our history without any place for the victims and/or their descendants. Many testimonies in the media and scientific research show that the statues are seen as hurtful and insensitive to the pain and traumas that many families carry with them. They are a continuation of colonial propaganda that propagates racist stereotypes and prejudices.
The significance of monuments in public space cannot be underestimated in this sense. The French-Cameroonian philosopher and Professor Achille Membe calls colonial monuments ‘l’extension sculpturale d’une forme de terreur raciale’ in his book Critique de la raison nègre. In other words, it is a continuation of the oppression of the ex-colonised by the immortalisation of a physical and symbolic power struggle and dominance in the public space and thus the collective imagination.
In his work Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization, the Belgian anthropologist Karel Arnaut refers to the images as a way of engraving revisionist and distorted historiography in our cultural memory.
If you want to make it clear to Belgians with African roots that Belgium really is and wants to be their country, you can’t ignore it: we have to decolonise public space.
The monuments have been under fire from activists and opinion makers for some time now. On several occasions the equestrian statue in Brussels has been covered with red paint. Other times the pedestal was filled with prints of bloody hands. The bust of Leopold II in the Duden Park in Forest has already been replaced by a bust of Nelson Mandela. A few years ago a hand was cut off from the Leopold monument in Ostend. And also in Ekeren, Ghent and Hasselt the statues of Leopold were tackled by activists.
Some voices within scientific and activist circles are calling for the statues to be removed and collected in a museum or park where interpretation and explanation may be given. They are of the opinion that such tribute to colonials no longer belongs in the public space.
Others believe that it is better to leave the statues in the public space because otherwise you risk erasing the past. Because where do we draw the line between what you can and cannot leave in place? Moreover, they also see practical objections: several sculptures are protected or are part of a building.
A solution that is frequently chosen nowadays is to place a sign with information. In this way the sculpture is framed and figuratively removed from its pedestal. In this way, passers-by, who often do not dwell on the history behind the statues, get the opportunity to inform themselves. It’s a step towards recovery: it’s a signal to the victims of colonisation that we don’t want to conceal the past and that we are aware of the role played by the Belgians.
Most of the Leopold statues in Flanders were already equipped with a sign. However, with a few exceptions, these texts often try to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. For example, the text on the equestrian statue of Leopold II in Ostend still has a considerable appreciation of the King’s urbanist realisations and does not clearly condemn colonial politics, but only mentions that these politics evoke ‘controversy’. The sign even ends with ‘In any case, the Sovereign has left a clear and lasting mark on his Ostend’. So, what kind of signal does one give?
If we want to initiate a recovery, it is important that the text is visible, powerful and accurate. It is not enough to frame the image in its spirit of the times, it is necessary that the text also contains apologies for the crimes committed during the Belgian reign in Congo. To this end, it is advisable to consult with heritage experts, writers, activists, experts on the colonial past and certainly with people who are victims of the same past or associations that give them a voice.
And turn those monuments, which still glorify colonization today, into symbols of decolonization. Give them to artists who can rework them or add to them so that the statues represent our abhorrence of that period. A statue of Leopold II on which you permanently paint red handprints immediately gives a strong anti-colonial message. Leave such a thing to artists.
In the Brussels-Capital Region you won’t only find statues glorifying the colonial period, but there are also many streets named after them. Rue des Colonies, Rue Tabora, Rue Sergeant de Bruyne and so on. You can delete some street names, but you can also take the opportunity to give the Congolese the recognition they deserve. In Rue Tabora (named after the Battle of Tabora in 1916), for example, one could honour the role of Congolese soldiers in the Belgian army.
Because decolonisation is more than just dealing with your dark past. It is not enough to think about how you deal with monuments and street names. Decolonising is more than taking Leopold II (symbolically) off his pedestal. We also need to take steps forward. For example, streets should be named after important figures of the fight against colonisation. Brussels has taken a first step in this direction with Place Lumumba, but it cannot stop there. In the future, many more squares, streets and even new monuments should be dedicated to people who played a significant role in the decolonisation or history of Congo, Burundi or Rwanda. And, when we do so, let us certainly give the women amongst them the visibility they deserve.
This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. As the translation is generated by machines, not all translations will be perfect. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/dekoloniseren-is-meer-dan-leopold-ii-van-zijn-sokkel-halen-knack-be/