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In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests, Belgium is starting to break a long-held taboo: the uncomfortable subject of the country’s brutal colonial past — and what should be done to address that legacy today.
One person, however, has stayed conspicuously silent despite the mounting pressure: Belgium’s King Philippe. Until now.
On Tuesday, June 30, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium, the monarch issued a statement expressing his “profound regret” for the wounds of the colonial past, and the “acts of violence and cruelty [that] were committed” in Congo under Belgian occupation.
An indirect descendent of Leopold II, the Belgian king who ruled over the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as his personal fiefdom for several decades starting in the 1880s, Philippe had avoided wading into the debate, keeping with a tradition of silence from the royal palace on the country’s exploitation of its former colony.
An earlier version of this article, based on statements from the palace and Belgian politicians, had indicated the king did not intend to address the country’s colonial history.
In his statement, the king pledged to “continue to fight all forms of racism.”
“We must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and serenity,” he added.
Activists had intensified their calls for action ahead of the independence anniversary, putting the palace under increasing pressure to formally apologize for atrocities committed in the Congo.
As part of anti-racist protests in Belgium following the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., protesters attacked statues of the former king in a number of cities, setting them on fire and splattering them with paint. The renewed attention to Belgium’s colonial heritage also boosted a campaign to remove statues of Leopold II from public spaces and rename the many streets, squares and transport stops named after him. Some are floating the idea of financial reparations to the people of Congo.
The royal family had not made official remarks on Leopold II’s rule in the Congo since 1960.
The anniversary would be “a good moment” for an apology to the people of Congo, Joachim Coens, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) told Belgian media earlier this month.
Given the most egregious abuse took place during Leopold II’s rule of the Congo Free State, King Philippe, “would be the most appropriate person to acknowledge that Belgium’s colonial past was a problem in some ways,” said Coens.
Coens was not alone. In recent weeks, parties from across the political spectrum had voiced support for the idea that it was time for the royals to break their silence.
There were few, if any, indications the palace agreed. The royal family is known for taking an extremely cautious approach to communication — particularly when it comes to the polarizing public debates that frequently characterize Belgium’s fractious politics.
The palace is engaged in a “reflection” on “all of these subjects,” Francis Sobry, its head of communications, said earlier this month.
Grappling with the past
During Leopold II’s exploitation of the territory, colonial authorities and soldiers were notorious for the violent tactics they used to maintain control over forced laborers, including kidnapping their family members or cutting off their hands.
There are no official statistics on how many people lost their lives as a result of the occupation, but estimates run between 500,000 and 5 million and as high as 10 million.
Still, the notion of Leopold II as a “roi bâtisseur” — a benefactor who brought education and faith to the Congo, as well as enormous wealth to Belgium — runs deep in some segments of the country, particularly among older generations.
Formally admitting otherwise is a major shift in the narrative.
Earlier this month, Belgian Prince Laurent, the enfant terrible of the royal family, reacted to the toppling of Leopold II’s statues by defending his ancestor and claiming the monarch could not be held responsible, as he “never went to Congo.” Laurent added: “I don’t see how he could have made people suffer on the ground.”
The royal family had not made official remarks on Leopold II’s rule in the Congo since 1960, when King Baudouin traveled to Congo to mark its day of independence and in his remarks “celebrated Leopold II’s colonizing genius and the civilizing work of Belgium,” said Benoît Henriet, a professor of history at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
When, in 2010, Albert II — the father of King Philippe — was invited to Kinshasa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence, the occasion could have been “an opportunity for the king to offer a response, or at least some form of appeasement,” according to Henriet. Instead, he made no mention of colonization at all.
On its website, the Belgian monarchy recognizes that “excesses committed by the Europeans in Africa” cast a shadow on Leopold II’s “reputation,” but also notes that the palace in 1904 “set up an International Commission of Inquiry, which recognized the merits of the royal action in Congo, while pointing out abuses and shortcomings.”
Belgian’s colonial history remains a topic of heated discussion in the country, making it a particularly fraught subject for the royal family.
Resistance to a greater reckoning of Belgium’s colonial history — and its after-effects in the country today — runs deep. Activists have denounced Belgium’s reluctance to address institutionalized racism in the country, where black people face discrimination in employment and housing, despite high levels of education.
Historians largely agree that Leopold II knew of the prevalence of violence in the Congo Free State and that, although he signed formal orders to stop it, he never took any radical steps to reform the system or sanction those who committed the abuse.
Still, some say the question of who is responsible is complicated by the fact that there are gaps in knowledge when it comes to how the Congo Free State was run on the ground.
The colony’s governance was “based on locally established systems,” said Patricia Van Schuylenbergh, a historian and researcher at the Africa Museum in Tervuren. Some locals “at different levels and depending on the situation, participated in the system in place and benefited from it, while others fought against it because they had ambitions on the same territories.”
“We’re here to inform, not to judge,” she added. “Our role is to be dispassionate on these issues by providing the most accurate information possible, on a very complex, very nuanced history.”
How to treat Belgium’s colonial legacy remains a highly sensitive issue, politically, in a country that still struggles with racism.
There are few black MPs in Belgium’s federal and regional parliaments, and a federal action plan against racism — agreed to in 2001 — still hasn’t seen the light of day. (In light of the recent protests, Wilmès promised to move forward on the plan, after previous talks were stalled by the coronavirus crisis.)
As foreign minister, Belgian politician Didier Reynders appeared on television in 2015 wearing blackface as part of a cultural event — something that would have sparked an outcry in other countries but hardly made a ripple in Belgium. (He is now European commissioner, and said Wednesday an apology for the incident was “a possibility” if necessary.)
The country’s history in Africa is particularly charged.
Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès’ party, the Francophone liberals, has argued, for example, that “the king cannot take a position that influences our foreign policy.”
For the Greens, a formal apology from the royal family is not the point — or at least not the whole point. It must made alongside a concerted push to decolonize public spaces and revamp the school curriculum to tackle the reality of Belgium’s colonial legacy.
While the king has expressed regret, he has yet to formally ask forgiveness.
In recent years, the government has apologized for other aspects of its relationship with Congo: Former Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the separation of mixed-race children from their Congolese mothers, while his father Louis Michel, as foreign affairs minister, apologized for Belgium’s role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first post-colonial prime minister.
Earlier this month, the Belgian parliament took another step in addressing the two country’s common history by agreeing to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to delve into Belgium’s colonial history and the country’s problem with racism. Only the Flemish far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) came out against the idea, saying there is “no need for a committee that makes the Flemish people feel guilty.”
“It’s not our goal to rewrite history,” parliament leader Patrick Dewael, who initiated the idea, told POLITICO. “We want a broad debate on the historical research while involving the different communities.”
The initiative’s goal is to come up with a clear way forward, according to Dewael. “How do we deal with this past in education and in public space? Should there be an apology, by whom and about what precisely?”
The committee is slated to meet for the first time in September. There is no deadline for it to publish conclusions, though all parties agree the process shouldn’t take years.
Some activists say they would be happy, if the process takes some time to run its course. While the king has expressed regret, he has yet to formally ask forgiveness.
“We want an apology that comes at the end of a process of education, a process of decolonization of society,” said Mireille Tsheusi-Robert, an activist and founder of the Afro-Belgian organization BAMKO. She added she is hopeful this is starting to happen, as a result of more politicians taking a public stand against “colonial nostalgia.”
It’s not a one-way street, after all, she said. “It is an exchange. To be forgiven, apologies should be the culmination of a long-term process.”
This article was updated on June 30 following the publication of Belgian King Philippe’s letter to President Félix Tshisekedi.