The Congo Free State of 1885 to 1908 was a pretty horrific episode in human history. Over an area that spans the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Belgian colonial regime was responsible for atrocities on a mass scale. Up to 15 million may have been killed during that period (which some have called a genocide) and at the head of it all was King Leopold II, Belgium’s ruler and the Congo Free State’s absolute monarch.
The Rubber Terror (named for Congo’s main export at the time) was so awful it was even condemned by other European colonisers at the time. So why, more than a century later, does a statue of Leopold II still take pride of place in the Place du Trône in Brussels?
That’s the question currently being debated by the Belgian government. Faced with appalling reminders of the country’s colonial history, Belgium is seeking to find a way to deal with public symbols that glorify the country’s empire.
Last week, Brussels regional authorities met with a commission on decolonising public spaces. The commission didn’t advocate to get rid of every colonial symbol throughout the country, but instead offered a more nuanced take, saying that statues should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Pascal Smet, the Belgian secretary of state for urbanism and heritage, said that he hopes the first measures for decolonising public spaces will be put in place by September.
Included in the commission’s findings were plans for King Leopold in the Place du Trône. The report suggested several options, from concealing the statue with a structure that provides information on Belgium’s colonial history to removing the figure entirely and storing it in a depot full of similar symbols. A more radical solution suggested it could be melted down and re-forged as a memorial to victims of colonialism.
Now, the idea that we shouldn’t continue to idolise historical figures that were responsible for genocides, wars and other mass atrocities isn’t particularly controversial. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people opposed to the removal of controversial statues. Defenders of King Leopold in the Place du Trône claim the statue has landmark status and is a symbol of the Belgian monarchy.
From statues of Confederate generals in the US to slave traders in the UK, these kind of debates are taking place across the world, often with claims that statue-removers are ‘erasing history’. On the other side of the argument are those who (quite rightly, we should add) say that history isn’t static, and that the entire point of the study of history is to constantly re-evaluate and re-contextualise the past. Which, in this case, means not glorifying racist and violent historical bastards.
George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA in 2020 prompted renewed focus on King Leopold II in Belgium, causing many of his statues to be defaced and damaged. A majority in the Brussels parliament requested a committee to be set up to ‘decolonise the public sphere’ in the capital region and, in the years since, several figures of Leopold have been removed.
Decolonisation, or the total undoing of colonialism, means more than just granting independence to an occupied country. It can be a long and complex process, involving the need to address issues like structural racism and to potentially overhaul education and public institutions. In other words, it’s very tricky business – but at least Belgium’s making a start, and potentially offering an example for other countries to follow.