Ixelles will remove bust of Leopold II's 'ruthless' colonial general

Ixelles will remove bust of Leopold II's 'ruthless' colonial general
The mayor of Ixelles said a bust to colonial-era General Émile Storms, who led murderous expeditions in Congo to squash resistance to Belgian occupation, would be taken down. Credit: EmDee/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A bust honouring a colonial-era general who decapitated Congolese leaders and brought their skulls to Belgium as trophies will be removed from a public square in Brussels.

As the debate surrounding the presence of statues of Belgium's colonial king, Leopold II, rages on, one of the capital city's municipalities discreetly announced last month that it would take down a large bust honouring one of Leopold's most notorious colonial envoys: General Émile Storms.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Congo's independence from Belgium on Tuesday, Ixelles Mayor Christos Doulkeridis said that the statue would be taken down and likely end up in Belgium's Africa Museum.

The Monument to General Storms, one of the leading officers Leopold II sent to colonise central African territories, stands in a corner of Ixelles' Square de Meeûs, on the border of the African district of Matongé and the European Quarter.

"He was a particularly ruthless general, known above all for his violent actions," Doulkeridis told The Brussels Times. "The statue has been in the square for over 100 years — it will be taken down."

Doulkeridis first announced the removal of the statue in May, as decolonisation activists in Belgium, galvanised by massive anti-racism protests in the US, renewed calls for the removal of colonial monuments in Belgium, and namely of statues to Leopold II. 

"These requests have been there for decades, but today, in the context of Congo's 60th anniversary of independence, they have never been stronger," Historian Berangère Piré told BX1.

The announcement in May was a welcomed victory by Congolese activists in Brussels who remarked on the "limitless" means poured into sites and monuments promoting Belgium's colonial-era exploits, which contributed to Leopold's reputation as Belgium's 'Builder King.'

"He decapitated village chiefs to steal their riches," Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, president of anti-racism non-profit Bamko said in an interview with BX1.

"What we put in as a means to promote colonisation is absolutely limitless, you have the [Africa] Museum of Tervueren — it's beautiful, it's majestic," she said. "But there's not yet been an immigration museum that is as beautiful and that benefits from as many means."

Asked about an initiative floated but later dropped by the City of Brussels to erect a statue to Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was executed by Belgian-backed forces, Doulkeridis on Tuesday said that personal monuments were "not the priority."

"Personal and individual statues are not our main course of action —we don't exclude it, but I think the idea is more about using public space to highlight values, such as a people's independence," he said.

His statements came moments after the unveiling a small plaque to commemorate Congo's independence on a sidewall of Ixelles' town hall, which the municipality later announced it would replace because it contained spelling mistakes.

Storms' skull trophies

In 2018, an investigation by French weekly Paris Match shed light on the murderous expeditions led by Storms against Congolese tribal leaders who resisted Belgium's advances into their territory.

The paper drew attention to a letter kept in the Africa Museum in Tervueren in which Storms wrote that the head of a local chief, Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe, who was causing him "some trouble" could "one day arrive in Brussels with a tag on it, and it would look good in a museum."

Over 100 years later, Chief Lusinga's skull is still kept in a box in the storage rooms of Brussels' Museum of Natural History — one of several human remains held as "items" in the country's museum collections.

A written statement recorded by the Senate in 2016 showed that Belgium possessed a total of 687 human remains, kept as "items" in the collections of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (IRSCNB) and coming from "Africa, Asia, America and Oceania."

"It consists mainly of skulls and bone fragments as well as some partial or complete skeletons," the document reads. "We don't know the names of the individuals."

In 2018, IRSCNB director Camille Pisani said that she would be in favour of returning the human remains if Congolese descendants requested it — so long as they could provide DNA proof of their identity.

"These items (sic) are part of the patrimony of the State and relinquishing them would imply developing a legislative framework as it would be the first time this has happened in Belgium," Pisani said.

A year later, a request from a Congolese national who identified himself as Thierry Lusinga NGombe for the remains to be returned has not been followed up by government officials, even after Lusinga NGombe agreed to submit himself to a DNA test, Paris Match reports.

Following Doulkeridis' announcement in May, the director of the Africa Museum, Gido Gryssels, confirmed that they had agreed to retrieve Storms' bust from Ixelles, but said that no formal arrangement had been put in place so far, also adding that the museum had "no more room" for the bust.

"We already mention General Storms, in two different places," Gryssels told RTBF. "So there is already a lot of information about him. The bust is much too big and doesn't really bring any added value."

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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