L’état C’est Moi: Leopold II and Belgium’s imperial memorials

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
L’état C’est Moi: Leopold II and Belgium’s imperial memorials
© Igor Pliner

As the Black Lives Matter protests go global and gather strength around the world, monuments to imperialism and slavery are being torn down in its wake as Europe joins the US in grappling with its own race issues.

Statues of prominent, often controversial, historical figures have been defaced and torn down. In Belgium, statues of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, have been defaced and burnt, and two petitions calling for the removal of statues of the former king begins to gather pace; at the time of writing, they have over 78,000 signatures.

Leopold’s propaganda

This is the latest chapter in an ever-growing debate over Belgium’s bloody colonial history and its memorialisation as represented by the many statues and hundreds of streets named after Leopold. The architect of Belgian colonialism, Leopold’s legacy lives on through the memorials to his reign in the Congo.

Leopold relinquished his hold on the Congo Free State (CFS), a region that had been his personal fiefdom for nearly thirty years, to the Belgian government in 1908.

During his reign, a system Leopold implemented in order to maximise profits from the ivory and rubber trade resulted in the mutilation, rape, and murder of Congolese natives. His rule in the Congo Free State left a bitter legacy of violence and cruelty amongst the Congolese.

Yet in Belgium, the opposite has been true for decades. Statues were erected, and streets and tunnels named after the king.

A central reason for this celebration of Leopold’s colonial endeavour was the success of his propaganda efforts in the face of criticism of his rule emanating primarily from British and American activists who sought reform in the Congo and, specifically, annexation of the region to the Belgian government.

Leopold successfully used propaganda to deflect criticism of his government’s system and its brutality towards the Congolese people up until annexation in 1908.

The first criticisms of the Congo government emerged in 1890 from an African-American named George Washington Williams, whose Open Letter was the first to accuse Leopold of ‘crimes against humanity’.

Leopold’s press bureau began its ad hominem attacks on Williams, attempting to destroy his character and standing in order to undermine his criticisms. This was a tactic Leopold successfully deployed throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s, diffusing reform efforts and delaying international intervention on the Congo issue.

This was done by using ad hominem attacks on key activists, arousing suspicions of donors and their motivations, and drawing attention to the colonial policies of other imperial powers whose mistreatment of its ‘subjects’, according to Leopold and his supporters, was not too dissimilar to that of his treatment of the Congolese.

Leopold was to exercise control over the narrative until his death in 1909 and beyond. Shortly before the Belgian government annexed the Congo Free State, all of the State archives held in Brussels and in the Congo were placed into furnaces and incinerated, forever condemning the voices of those implicated and affected by the Congo Free State government to silence.

A debate reopened

From 1909 onwards, the story of exploitation and reform in the Congo Free State almost vanished in Belgian government circles and the popular consciousness. Instead, Belgium consciously embarked on a rewriting of its history in the Congo Free State.

It denied access to its archives to historians and scholars in fear that they would damage the reputation of Belgium and it was the colonisers who wrote the school textbooks in Africa, maintaining and reinforcing Leopold’s initial argument of the ‘civilising mission’.

The same textbooks also maintained that Leopold’s rule was humanitarian as it oversaw the abolition of the Arab slave trade in the region, again neglecting to highlight the brutal system of forced labour that contributed to the deaths of around 10 million Congolese during Leopold’s reign in the Congo Free State.

The spotlight was put back onto Belgium’s colonial exploits in the Congo Free State with the publication in 1998 of Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost.

In 2004, a BBC Four documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death was aired, examining the history of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, using mock court scenes where individuals who witnessed the brutal oppression in the Congo give their testaments, effectively putting Leopold on trial for his complicity in the atrocities committed.

The following year, the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium (recently renamed AfricaMuseum), introduced the first exhibit to deal seriously with the Leopoldian and Belgian colonial periods of Congo history.

In 2018, the museum, which had been created to be used as a propaganda for Leopold, reopened with a new, more critical focus on Belgium’s colonial past; an approach that has not only divided the museum staff who curate the exhibits but one that has also drawn criticism from the ‘Old Colonials’ who feel it lacks balance in its account of Belgian colonialism and disproportionately focuses on violence and death.

Yet these efforts to redress the balance mark a new chapter in Belgium’s understanding of its colonial history.

However, there has been some pushback on this revisionism. Key government figures declared Leopold a hero and visionary for his Congo Free State project, whilst other supporters have perpetuated Leopold’s ‘civilising myth’ by claiming that when Leopold arrived the region ‘wasn’t even in the Middle Ages’.

In 2012, a Belgian court ruled against a campaign to ban Herge’s Tintin in the Congo, stating that the book displayed a ‘kind paternalism’ and was not racist.

The conflict in opinion and tension that exists within Belgian society regarding its imperial past is a result of the success of Leopold’s propaganda campaign.

One significant consequence of this campaign was that it created a tradition of pro-empire propaganda. Leopold’s propaganda campaign played a significant role in maintaining the myth that his reign benefitted the Congolese people.

It was also crucial in the forging of an imperial mindset post-annexation and had dominated the narrative of Belgium’s colonial past since.

As the petition gains more signatures and the defacing of statues continues, the protesters and their supporters will face opposition from those whose understanding of Leopold’s role in the Congo and place in Belgium’s colonial history greatly differs from their own, and will ensure that the contest for shaping the narrative on Belgium’s colonial history will be as fierce as the Congo Free State propaganda war, and continue on well into the twenty-first century.

Dr Dean Clay

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