Considered one of the worst examples of colonial abuse, many have called for Belgium to apologise and make reparations for the crimes committed during its colonisation of Congo.
Leopold II, King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909, founded and exploited the Congo Free State as a private venture and atrocities were perpetrated there under his rule from 1885 to 1908. After Leopold handed over Congo to the Belgian state, the tiny nation continued to hold sway over an area 80 times its size and half a world away until Congo became independent in 1960.
The boldest estimates state that the forced labour system led directly and indirectly to the deaths of 50 percent of the population. Leopold’s regime was characterised by notorious systematic brutality. Men, women and children had hands amputated for failing to deliver their quota of rubber and thousands were sold into slavery.
The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said in an interim report that Belgium should consider reparations to the Congolese “with a view to closing the dark chapter in history and as a means of reconciliation and healing”. It added that the Belgian government needs “to issue an apology for the atrocities committed during colonisation”.
“The root causes of present-day human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true scope of the violence and injustice of colonisation.”
The UN group also pointed to the reality that racism in Belgium continues today.
“(We are) concerned about the human rights situation of people of African descent in Belgium who experience racism and racial discrimination,” it said. “There is clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium.”
The Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) or AfricaMuseum is one of Belgium’s 10 federal scientific institutes under the authority of the Secretary of State for Federal Science Policy.
According to the museum’s website, the origin of the AfricaMuseum dates back to the Brussels International Exposition of 1897. It served as a propaganda tool for the king’s colonial project, aimed at attracting investors and winning over the Belgian population.
It goes on to detail that when independence was declared, its name was changed to the Royal Museum of Central Africa, offering a broader range of studies. Even today, two thirds of the staff and the budget of the AfricaMuseum are dedicated to scientific research.
“The Royal Museum for Central Africa must aspire to be a world centre of research and knowledge dissemination on past and present societies and natural environments of Africa, and in particular Central Africa,” the website states.
The museum was renovated as the spirit of colonialism pervaded it by presenting King Leopold II’s rule over the DRC and Belgium’s later colonisation as a “humanitarian endeavor”. It even had placards that boldly stated, “Belgium is bringing civilisation to Congo.”
“When it came to the renovation, the big challenge was to present a contemporary and decolonized vision of Africa in a building which had been designed as a colonial museum. Before the renovation, the permanent exhibition was outdated and its presentation not very critical of the colonial image. A new scenography was urgently required.”
However, the trauma of Belgium’s colonial past cannot be easily assuaged and remains an open wound, both for the Congolese and for Belgians. For decades there existed a system rooted in racism, based on military occupation and aimed at extracting profits from the resource-rich country.
“If you want to combat racism and Afrophobia, you have to look at the underlying cause, and it is found in our colonial past,” Tracy Tansia, a Flemish parliament worker with Congolese roots, told the online newspaper Flanders Today. “We continue to feel the pain of our ancestors. I’m convinced it’s in our DNA.” She described it as a collective form of trauma, passed on from one generation to the next. “For some white Belgians, it’s about covering up. Today they know: ‘What we did was not okay, so I’m going to close my eyes to it.’ But the best way to resolve trauma is to talk about it.”