Shooting an Elephant: History and memory in the Tervuren Museum

    Tuesday, 29 October 2019

    “When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys,” wrote George Orwell in Shooting an Elephant.

    First published in 1936, Orwell’s essay recounts the story of a British police officer in Moulmein (Mawlamyine), present-day Myanmar, who is called upon to deal with a loose elephant. Accompanied by a crowd of local spectators who expect him to kill the animal, the narrator ends up shooting the elephant, professedly against his will, in order “to avoid looking like a fool.”

    While frequently perceived as a metaphor for and critique of the self-destructive logic underlying British imperialism, the silences in Orwell’s essay speak more than its words. One cannot help but feel uneasy at the portrayal of the colonial administrator as the ultimate victim in the story.

    What about the thousands of Burmese, one wonders, who are reduced to a uniform mass of bystanders, deprived of both voice and agency?

    A stuffed elephant forms the centrepiece of the gallery “Landscapes and Biodiversity” in Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. The museum is located in Tervuren, a picturesque town in Flemish Brabant, just outside Brussels.

    Tramline 44 takes prospective visitors from Montgomery through the Sonian Forest to Tervuren station. Across the street lies the imposing Colonial Palace, a miniature Versailles built for the Brussels International Exposition of 1897.

    Hosted by King Leopold II to showcase his private colony, the exhibition included a “human zoo” of 267 Congolese men, women and children, who were displayed like objects. Seven people died from pneumonia and exposure; their bodies were dumped in mass graves.

    The elephant was shot more than five decades later, for the Brussels World Expo of 1958 – which, in the second half of the twentieth century, once again featured a “human zoo.”

    (The Atomium, constructed for the same occasion, would become one of the city’s landmarks.) Long after Congo’s independence in 1960, the palace remained the site of Europe’s last colonial museum.

    Then came 1998, and the publication of King Leopold’s Ghost. Adam Hochschild’s passionate account of crimes against humanity perpetrated in Leopold’s État Indépendant du Congo familiarised a wider audience with Belgium’s colonial past.

    The museum was closed in 2013 and reopened following five years of renovations. An overtly racist permanent exhibition was removed; sections on art, culture and languages took its place. Yet, even today, the victims of colonial violence are deprived of voice and memory. The elephant is still standing.

    Despite the inextricable links of the museum to the colonial past – not just by virtue of its essence as locus of historical understanding but, in this case, by its very location and origins – only one room is dedicated to the history of the Congo.

    An even smaller section deals with Leopold’s crimes, its omissions reminiscent of Orwell’s treatment of the Burmese: the enslavement of practically an entire population in the course of the rubber trade is described euphemistically as “large-scale violence.” Despite general agreement that the number of casualties ranges between 5 and 15 million, the total “population deficit” is deemed to have risen “to many hundreds of thousands, perhaps even several million.”

    Though widely available, images of Leopold’s victims are not displayed, and there is no mentioning of international opposition – E.D. Morel’s Congo Reform Association, for example – let alone local resistance. The Congolese are reduced to a footnote in their own history.

    And towering above it all, a great map detailing European expeditions to the Congo as well as the inscription: Ouvrir à la civilisation la seule partie de notre globe où elle n’ait point encore pénétré, percer les ténèbres qui enveloppent des populations entières, c’est une croisade digne de ce siècle de progrèsLéopold II, 1876. Yet, it was Leopold who brought darkness over an entire population.

    When Leopold handed over the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908, he burned all records of his atrocities: “They can have my Congo, but they can never know what I did there.” The great forgetting constitutes his last victory.

    Leopold’s victims never had a voice during their lifetimes. It is their bodies that were tortured, their freedom that was taken away, their dignity that was shattered. Theirs must be our memory.

    Anna-Christina Schmidl