BRUSSELS: Belgium confronted its colonial past and looked toward reconciliation Tuesday, with the king expressing regret for the violence carried out by the country when it ruled over what is now Congo. Later in the day, the bust of a former monarch held responsible for the death of millions of Africans was taken off public display.
As Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo, King Philippe’s words had resounding significance since none of his predecessors went so far as to convey remorse.
In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, Philippe stopped short of issuing a formal apology, but proclaimed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo.
The removal of King Leopold II’s statue took place only hours after Philippe’s letter was published. The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.
Following a short ceremony punctuated by readings, Leopold’s bust in Ghent was attached to a crane with a strap and taken away from the small park where it stood amid applause. It will be transferred to a warehouse of a Ghent city museum pending further decision from a city’s commission in charge of decolonization projects.
“Removing statues does not erase history, it rectifies history and makes new history that rightly calls into question dominant narratives,” said Mathieu Charles, an activist from the Belgian Network for Black Lives.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past, instead focusing on the so-called positive aspects of the colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to Leopold removed.