Belgian society knows little of colonial past, study shows

Belgian society knows little of colonial past, study shows
A statue of King Leopold II in Brussels. Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times

Belgian society is “sorely lacking with regard to the colonial past of Belgium”, the AfricaMuseum (Royal Museum for Central Africa) and the University of Antwerp have concluded in a study published on Monday.

In answer to 12 general knowledge questions on Belgium's colonial history, Belgians average only four correct answers.

The University of Antwerp and the museum first launched the research project following the “Black Lives Matter” protests in 2020. Researchers and museum staff wanted to know whether the death of George Floyd and other social questions raised during the protests had improved Belgians’ knowledge of their colonial past.

“In summary, yes,” said the Royal Museum for Central Africa, “but the researchers also came to other conclusions.”

With the average Belgian being able to answer only four questions on average about Belgium’s colonial history in Arica, the museum noted that “the average level of knowledge of Belgium’s colonial past is very low.”

Belgians generally know that King Leopold II took possession of the Congo as a private state (70% answered correctly), but far fewer knew that Rwanda and Burundi had also been under Belgian colonial rule.

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Research teams also investigated “structural racism” linked to colonialism among the respondents. They found that 21.9% of those interviewed believed that classes on discrimination and racism were not necessary.

The study also looked into Belgian political discourse on issues of colonialism and decolonisation. Researchers allege that Belgian MPs seek to “avoid rather than assume their responsibility” on matters to do with their colonial past, ignoring the decolonisation debate, cutting links between current day racism and colonialism, and avoiding the theme of reparations.

Belgium has recently more concerted efforts to confront its colonial history further, opening up its colonial archive to mixed-raced children and removing many monuments to Belgian colonial leaders. Congolese and Central African activists are pushing for Belgium to begin an official procedure to give reparations to Belgian Afro-descendants.

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