[*Disclaimer: There are some images below are a little graphic. Just thought I’d let you know]
For the past two weeks, we have seen so many photos and videos of thousands of people across the world participating in protests raising awareness on everything related to the Black Lives Matter movement – from police brutality to systematic and systemic racism, micro-aggressions and so much more. I myself took part in a protest last weekend and it was beautiful to see so many people from different backgrounds and different races coming together and making our voices heard. I’m so proud to be part of a generation who refuses to remain silent on these issues that should have been addressed a long time ago and must be addressed now. As many of us witnessed this past Sunday (7th June), protestors in Bristol did something that should have been done ages ago: they pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slave trader in the 17th century who made his fortune by transporting nearly 100,000 slaves on his ships.
For years, calls had been made to take the statue down and so yesterday Bristolians decided to take this matter into their own hands by pulling it down and throwing it into the habour. On this same day, Belgians also took the streets of Brussels, calling for justice to be served and changes to be made. After seeing images and video footage of the Bristol protests alongside those of the protests in the Belgian capital of Brussels, I couldn’t help but think that now more than ever it is time that ex-colonial countries face their colonial past by making numerous steps, including the removal of all statues that glorify individuals from slavers to dictators. For the case of Belgium, its the statues of King Leopold II.
Now, you’re probably thinking: ‘Why is she talking about a Belgian king despite being a Brit living in Britain?’ Firstly, I’m part of the Congolese diaspora myself: born to Congolese parents, grew up to listening Congolese Rumba and speaking Lingala even up today. And second, as many of you will be aware, I have recently spent a year living in Belgium during my year abroad, an experience which I absolutely loved and I would do all over again when my next opportunity comes. For years thousands of people, particularly those from the Congolese diaspora, have called for the removal of the king’s statues in Belgium. We have all been taught the atrocities and genocide conducted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, which cost the lives of six million Jews. I believe that it is extremely important that we learn about the Holocaust, and I will never disregard it. However, it is not the only genocide to have happened, and there are so many more that we are hardly taught about: Assyrian, Bosnian, Cambodian, Rwandan. Today, I’m going to open your eyes to another genocide that is unspoken of.
Leopold II and the forgotten genocide of the Congolese.
Leopold II. The second king of the Belgians who ruled from 1865 to 1909, and a despotic slave master. Despite having never stepped foot on Congolese land, his hands were soiled with the blood of millions of Congolese men, women and children. For a long time, the king wanted to establish an overseas empire like his European counterparts – a desire which turned into an obsession, hoping that it would build the nation’s standing among the others as well as his personal wealth. In order to fulfil his desire, he hired British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who had the task of travelling up and down the Congo River Basin, overseeing the construction of roads and on behalf of the king, persuading tribal chiefs and leaders to sign treaties. It should come as no surprise to find that the majority of these chiefs and leaders were illiterate. These treaties would work to Leopold’s advantage during the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference as it validated his claim to Congolese land: after establishing the “charitable” organisation of the International African Association (Association Internationale africaine) which had the purpose of bringing humanitarian assistance and “civilisation” to the natives. Which was, of course, a whole load of bullsh… Anyway, I’ll proceed.
The aftermath of the Berlin Conference saw the European colonial powers’ recognise the Congo Free State as Leopold private property. His private property, meaning that the Congo was not considered to be a Belgian colony but, the king’s private possession. His garden, his playground, his personal amusement park: his very own slave plantation. The Congo is seventy-seven times the size of Belgium, and Leopold had full control over it. With his recognition came Leopold’s venture in producing vast wealth from the exploitation of Congolese natural resources, and of the natives who were subjected to forced labour. It was particularly the exploitation of rubber, a material which experiences a surge in demands following the rise of automobiles and invention of inflatable tyres for bicycles among other demands, which saw great atrocities and horrors committed by Leopold’s Force Publique (his personal gendarmerie). The collection of rubber required the natives to slash the vines of trees in the jungle, laying their bodies with rubber latex then scrapping off the latex from their body. This was known as the Red Rubber System and it was designed to facilitate the maximum extraction of rubber, which involved the gruesome conduct and punishments perpetrated by the Force Publique to meet the monthly quotas.
Women and children were held hostages as their men were forced into the jungle to collect rubber and ordered to meet unreachable quotas. In order to speed up the process women and children were raped and tortured, the Force Publique committed mass looting, villages were burned to the ground, men were murdered. As a matter of fact, the Force Publique were required to provide evidence that they did not waste their bullets on hunting animals – they did this by presenting the severed hands of their victims. Take a look at this image below.
This was Nsala Wala: a father whose life was completely destroyed by the Force Publique. He had failed to meet his rubber quota that day, so they killed and mutilated his daughter and his wife. This image shows Nsala staring at the severed hand and foot of his daughter. She was just five years of age. This was the reality of millions of men who failed to meet their rubber quotas, and Leopold was very much aware of these abuses. He was famously known to have said the following:
“Cut off hands—that’s idiotic. I’d cut off all the rest of them, but not hands. That’s the one thing I need in the Congo.”
And that’s not all:
- If a village did not meet its quota, their chief would be imprisoned where they were tortured;
- Officials from extraction companies like ABIR Congo Company (founded as the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company and later known as the Compagnie du Congo Belge) deported those who resisted to forced labour camps;
- The stealing of crops and farm animals, which saw the many suffering from disease and famine. This also played a part in the loss of Congolese lives;
- The king had also sanctioned the formation of “child colonies” which saw kidnapped children being schooled by Christian missionaries, being taught to either work jungle or to become soldiers. Unfortunately, thousands of children died as a result of being forced to march to these colonies, and falling ill from diseases, including sleeping sickness, smallpox and syphilis just to name a few.
That’s the rough estimate out how many lives were perished in this cruel regime. Some say it’s ten million, some say it’s twenty million. Some estimate that between two to fifteen million, but many have agreed on the statistic of fifteen million. Of course, we cannot be certain of the exact number of lives lost because there are no existing verifiable records. Leopold had all evidence of his atrocious activities in the Congo destroyed after it was annexed to the Belgian State in 1908 following great international criticisms when these abuses came to light. There have been great debates surrounding the question of whether was a genocide taking into consideration the definition of genocide as stipulated by the United Nations:
“Genocide is defined…as ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as as: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…”
Office of the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG)
As Tim Stanley correctly states:
The motive was greed rather than ideology, but the organised slaughter and the racist assumptions behind it make it recognisable to those old enough to remember the siege of Sarajevo or the Rwandan genocide. It is a reminder of the many forgotten horrors that lace the narrative of imperialism.
(Tim Stanley in History Today, 2012)
Fifteen million. We, the Congolese people, have never received an apology for this, nor have seen any recognition from the Belgian state of these atrocities to Congolese lives and the exploitation of our Congolese land. It’s very clear that the Belgian Royal Family and the State have been reluctant to confront their brutal colonial past, as have all ex-colonial powers including…you’ve guessed it! The United Kingdom! Instead, they have chosen to instead glorify Leopold’s legacy by naming various streets and parks after him, and of course, commemorating him with numerous statues across the country. Well, dear Belgium, it’s time to get uncomfortable and face the Ghost of Colonial Past because we have had enough.
It’s time to get rid of the statues.
During my time living in Brussels, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t pass Place de Trône in the centre of the city, where a large statue of Leopold stands. Like I have said so many times, I absolutely loved living in Brussels but whenever I walked past the statue or caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye while sitting on the bus, I couldn’t help to feel uncomfortable with seeing this mass murderer being glorified despite all he did to my ancestors. It was already bad enough seeing so many streets, squares and other public spaces let alone his face. And I know I’m not the only one: it is estimated that around 120,000 people of Congolese descent live in Belgium, and many of them have long-called for the removal of his statues from the public. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen that statue vandalised with the word ASSASSIN sprayed in red. The images below just show some examples of busts and statues of Leopold being defaced with red paint, symbolising the bloodshed he is responsible for.
There have been numerous petitions that have been launched calling for these busts and statues to be removed, and I have added a link to one petition at the end of this post. And so far, it has seen a small achievement with the removal of one statue, which is actually the third one pictured above.
It can be done.
This morning (9th June) the statue in Ekeren (in Antwerp) was removed and will be placed in the Middelheim museum in the city, where it will reportedly remain.
Taken from atv.be
This demonstrates to other Belgian cities and of course, other countries that it is not an impossible task. As a country that is home to many of the European Union’s institutions and the NATO headquarters, Belgium cannot continue to present itself as a multicultural country and a promoter of human rights if it continues to glorify an individual who is responsible for the gravest of human rights abuses whose hands are, like I said at the beginning of this post, soiled with the blood of millions of Congolese men, women and children. And I haven’t even mentioned his human zoos in Tervuren (just outside of Brussels) but I’ll save that for a later post.
And that’s all for this post. I hope it has opened your eyes to understanding the reasons why many people are calling for the removal of statues commemorating and glorifying individuals with slavery links (whether they were slave traders or slave owners), mass murderers and outspoken racists. Again, I continue to encourage you all to continue to educate yourselves and others around you, sign petitions calling for changes like the removal of these statues and changes in the curriculum, continue to protest peacefully for justice.
Stay strong. Keep safe. Speak up and don’t stop speaking up.
Here are some links to petitions which I encourage you to sign:
- Enlever toutes les statues Léopold II – Alle Léopold II standbeelden verwijderen – https://www.change.org/p/ville-de-bruxelles-stad-brussel-enlever-toutes-les-statues-en-hommage-à-léopold-ii-alle-standbeelden-verwijderen-ter-ere-aan-léopold-ii
- Petition to take down all statues of slave traders in the UK – https://www.change.org/p/uk-government-petition-to-takr-down-all-statues-of-slave-traders-in-the-uk
- Justice for Shukri Abdi – https://www.change.org/p/manchester-police-justice-for-shukri-abdi
- Justice for Belly Mujinga – https://www.change.org/p/govia-thameslink-justice-for-belly-mujinga-justiceforbellymujinga
- Justice for Christopher Kapessa – https://www.change.org/p/crown-prosecution-s-a-public-inquiry-into-the-death-of-christopher-kapessa-540c4756-9b33-4d94-8c2b-fcf30ffd0a35
- Amend the British School Curriculum to Teach About Racism and British History – https://www.change.org/p/uk-parliament-amend-the-british-school-curriculum-to-teach-about-racism-and-british-history-336532f2-2294-45b4-9efa-8efdbfd72922