With racial justice demonstrations occurring across the world after the passing of George Floyd in the USA, several activists are demanding states face up to their past, in addition to the difficulties of the current.
Voices questioning the pasts of European nations are becoming louder. In the united kingdom, a statue of slave dealer Edward Colston was thrown into a river in Bristol, igniting a nationwide debate about monuments into racists.
Back in Belgium, a similar argument that’s been in the background for decades has come into sharp focus.
This one is on the numerous statues of King Leopold II that adorn Belgian cities, in addition to the squares and streets named after him.
Today he’s notorious because of his rule within the Congo Free State, where millions of Congolese are estimated to have died as he imposed a regime of violence and manipulation, extracting the nation’s riches for his gain.
He stripped its prosperity, largely ivory and rubber, employing a barbarous system of forced labor. The Congo Reform Association says academic studies have discovered his rule, and its immediate wake resulted in the deaths of as many as 10 million individuals. His troops were famous for barbarous punishments such as the cutting off of hands for whatever they deemed a crime.
“The machine which has been set up at the Congo Free State has been a method that aimed toward manipulation,” says Gillian Mathys, a historian at Ghent University.
“Much of this cash which not just Leopold II but most ventures gathered throughout the Congo Free State remains observable in the public world.”
Mathys points to the instance of cities like Ostend and Brussels, where several buildings have been commissioned and paid for by Leopold II. His most building projects financed by the riches he took from the Congo earned him the title”Builder King”.
He visited the Congo, but dominated it in Belgium, before he offered it to the state, under pressure from reformers. From then, this is a colony of the state, called the Belgian Congo. Since the longest-reigning monarch, and with his”Builder King” moniker, quite a few statues had been erected in his honor in Belgium.
“If we take a look at the writings, the historic analysis of Belgium’s colonial past, it’s clear we could observe a change; he had been regarded as a hero, there were more critiques, also there was a really clear division made between the Congo Free State run by Leopold II as well as the Belgian Congo at the palms of the Belgian state,” states Emma-Lee Amponsah, a co-founder of this Belgian-Dutch organization Black Speaks Back.
However, this”clear branch” is debatable, claims Amponsah, since it legitimizes the thought that the Belgian Congo was”better” compared to the Congo Free State. “Due to the idea there has not been a great deal of room to condemn colonialism entirely,” she states.
Mathys insists that”much of this violence of the Congo Free State spilled over to the period of Belgian Congo.”
Amponsah asserts people are currently fighting to eliminate statues of Leopold II not simply due to his activities, but also because he’s”a sign of the past”.
“The statues reflect the background of Belgium obviously,” she states. “They signify who must be viewed as a fanatic, who’s responsible for their collective memories of yesteryear… that this is the most concrete thing people may contest. That is why we are referring to his cousins”
‘An authentic visionary for his time’
Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, a Belgian president and author of BAMKO, an anti-racism NGO, informs Euronews that there are bands of former colonists, households who have benefited from colonialism,” that are delighted with the job of Leopold II and desire the very statues of Leopold II to stay”.
The political class has been split on the problem she states, with all the right-wing parties not as likely to concur with the elimination of those.
Emma-Lee Amponsah says that her organization frequently receive messages from folks stating”the statues must remain, that is their history”
“But it is certainly not the most popular notion,” she adds.
Can protesters take things into their own hands, such as people in Bristol did? An internet request to eliminate Leopold II’s figurines is gathering speed, and protesters at Ghent defaced a Leopold II bust a week, scrawling on it that the last words of George Floyd -“Please, I can not breathe”.
“You understand, Belgians are very specific,” states Mireille-Tsheusi Robert.
There should always be compromises so I do not know whether they [politicians] will respond this time however if they do not respond the people may behave themselves. When they don’t wish to eliminate the statues, it’s quite likely that [the people ] will eliminate them.”
With the devastation of Edward Colston’s statue at the UK this weekend, it’s clear moves to re-assess yesteryear in other former colonialist countries have started to collect forces. And Gillian Mathys asserts it is important not to consider Leopold II’s regime in the Congo as something special.
“The British appear to believe their colonialism was more benevolent, I do not think that is correct. All colonial empires were violent and aimed toward manipulation. It is imperative not to exceptionalism the Leopold II program. Violence and exploitation have been a basic character trait of systems “