International

Colonial past: historical “regrets” from the King of the Belgians to the Congolese

(Brussels) The King of the Belgians presented on Tuesday “his deepest regrets for the wounds” inflicted during the colonial period in the former Belgian Congo, a historic first in the wake of the wave of global emotion after the death of George Floyd in the United States.

Céline LE PRIOUX

France Media Agency

Lack of ceremony in Kinshasa, capital of the current Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, ex-Zaire), made impossible by the coronavirus pandemic, King Philippe of Belgium sent a letter to the president of the DRC Félix Tshisekedi on the occasion of 60 th anniversary of the independence of his country on 30 June 1960.

In this letter communicated to the press, he evokes – without naming his ancestor – the era of Leopold II, which has been considered the most brutal by historians, when the late king managed the Congo and its riches as his private property from Brussels.

“At the time of the independent state of the Congo (from 1885 to 1908 when Léopold II yielded the territory to the Belgian State, note) acts of violence and cruelty have been committed, which still weigh on our collective memory “, writes Philippe, who has reigned since 2001.

“The colonial period that followed (until 1960) also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now rekindled by the discrimination still too present in our societies, ”he continues.

The daily newspaper Le Soir welcomed a “strong gesture and history ”of the sovereign.

After these “regrets” will come “perhaps an apology” as demanded by a growing share of opinion and the political world, underlined La Libre Belgique .

For her part, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès wanted a debate “without taboos, with sincerity and severity” on this “shared history” between Belgians and Congolese. At a ceremony in Brussels, she recalled that a parliamentary committee was to tackle it soon, bringing together Belgian and African experts, a first in Belgium.

PHOTO JOHN THYS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Prime Minister of Belgium, Sophie Wilmès.

“As for other European countries, the time has come for Belgium to embark on a journey of research, of truth, of memory” and “to recognize the suffering of the other”, affirmed the French-speaking liberal leader, echoing the king's letter evoking the objective of a memory that is finally “definitively pacified”.

Vandalized statues

In 2000-2001, a parliamentary committee of inquiry had examined the context of the assassination in January 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, short-lived prime minister of the Congo. It concluded that “certain Belgian ministers and other actors” had “moral responsibility”.

Besides the Congo, the Belgian colonial empire also included in Africa Ruanda-Urundi, territory which will become Rwanda and Burundi after its independence in 1961.

The death of the African-American George Floyd, asphyxiated at the end of May by a white police officer in Minneapolis in the United States, has revived in Belgium the debate on the violence of the colonial period in the Congo and on the personality very controversial of Leopold II who reigned from 1865 to 1909.

Many statues representing the former long-bearded sovereign have been vandalized across the country, often covered with red paint symbolizing the blood shed by the Congolese.

PHOTO VIRGINIA MAYO, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Statues representing the former king Leopold II were covered with red paint symbolizing the blood shed by the Congolese.

Some universities and municipalities have also decided to withdraw statues or busts. This must be the case Tuesday afternoon in a public park in Ghent.

In a petition that collected more than 80 000 signatures, the collective “Reparation for History” demanded that “all the statues” in homage to Leopold II be removed in Brussels, in particular the equestrian statue erected in front of the royal palace.

The text of this petition, one of the triggers for the mobilization now relayed by Belgian elected officials, accuses Léopold II of having “killed more than 06 millions of Congolese “, a number disputed by historians who assess the” demographic decrease ”(deaths, famines, diseases…) between 1 and 5 million.

Via concession companies, Léopold II used forced labor to extract rubber in particular in the Congo. Abuses – clipped hands for underproductive workers – have been documented.

“We have highlighted the famous” benefits of civilization “brought by the Belgians, but between roads, hospitals, schools, we know that everything that was built was essentially aimed at serving this system of 'extraction and production of wealth for the settlers', argued AFP Romain Landmeters, researcher at Saint-Louis University in Brussels.

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