Leopold II of Belgium and his statues

The owner of Congo

In 1876, Léopold-Louis-Philippe-Marie-Victor of Saxony-Coburg-Gotha, better known as Leopold II of Belgium organized a private company with fake scientific and philanthropic purposes which he called the International African Society or International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo. The initial idea was to export ivory, not just for the Kingdom of Belgium, but also for the personal wealth of its king. In 1878, under the auspices of this company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Stanley to form a colony in the Congo, a geographical area 76 times larger than Belgium and which was officially established in the colony starting from February 5, 1885. The result was the Free State of the Congo, which Leopold was free to brutally control as a personal domain. It was not a Belgian colony, but a Leopoldine colony, controlled directly by Leopold II, a state without real governing bodies, with serious repercussions on the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, still battered today by epidemics, famines and armed clashes.

Congolese misfortune

The entity defined as a free state, comprising the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo, existed from 1885 to 1908: only then, at the death of Leopold, the Belgian government proceeded without enthusiasm to an annexation (many votes were against in Parliament). Under the administration of Leopold II, the free state of the Congo had been a humanitarian disaster, an authentic infamous disaster. The lack of precise data makes it difficult to quantify the number of deaths caused by the ruthless exploitation and the lack of immunity to new diseases introduced by contact with European settlers: such as the flu pandemic of 1889-90, which caused millions of deaths also in the European continent including Prince Baudouin of Belgium. The Force Publique, a private army under the command of Leopold II, terrorized the natives to make them work as forced labor for the extraction of resources. Failure to comply with the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. Corporal punishment, including cruel mutilations, was commonplace.

Mutilations and millions of deaths

Force Publique militiamen were required to provide a hand to their victims as proof that “justice had been done”. Whole baskets of severed hands were placed at the commanders’ feet; sometimes soldiers cut them regardless of rubber quotas, in order to speed up their leave from military service. In punitive raids on villages, men, women and children were hanged and hung on palisades. The treatment reserved for the natives, together with the epidemics, caused a very serious demographic crisis in the Congo of Leopold II; even if, as mentioned, the estimates of deaths vary, there is talk of figures ranging between ten and twenty million (Belgium currently has around 11 million inhabitants). If all colonial regimes have accumulated a significant share of what we now call crimes against humanity, and which in practice mean unpunished massacres of local populations, the case of Leopold II is particularly heinous because Congo, before 1908, it was his personal property and the laws came directly from him: from a constitutional sovereign, self-styled Catholic and liberal.

From Leopold II to George Floyd

The protests for the murder of George Floyd, which also quickly reached Europe, especially in the countries where minorities are strongest, also brought the discussion concerning the statues. Activists and demonstrators targeted the statue of Leopold II in the main cities of Belgium, smearing it and asking for its removal. In Antwerp, the statue was removed from its pedestal, as is the case in the USA. At home, however, Leopold II still has an excellent reputation and many streets and squares are also named after him. He is known as the builder king, but much of what he built was financed with the bloody wealth obtained in what is one of the largest African states. Not exactly an example, therefore, or at least not in its historical sense. Leopold II was a great king at home, but a butcher of men (literally) in Africa. Undoubtedly the statues and streets named after him do not exalt his brutality, but his work on the European continent. The criticisms have been in the public domain for about 20 years, but still remain rather niche, struggling to reach the average Belgian, perhaps also because teachers are not required to teach Belgian colonialism, only from next year will it be included in school curricula (also thanks to the will of Minister Ben Weyts, of the Conservative Right-wing party N-VA).

Removing or not removing?

The question of removing some statues is political, but it could very well be transversal: there are also roads dedicated to Stalin and Kant was a fervent male chauvinist. The requests could concern an infinite number of characters, but obviously at this moment we are talking mainly of colonization and racism and therefore of decolonization, not so territorial, because that has already been finished (almost totally, to remind the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean, British de jure and US de facto), as symbolic and cultural. If demolishing and decapitating the statues of Christopher Columbus or smearing that of Arnold Schwarzenegger is pure iconoclasm, the criticism of the exposure in public and frequented places of slaver or brutal people statues could make sense, especially for what these statues represent, i.e. not only history, but also violence, discrimination, part of a dark past that Europe, in large part, tends to forget, more than the US actually do. I think it is very complex to arrive at a clear and sure conclusion, a bit like what happens with certain issues concerning genetics. The violence carried out by Leopold II does not undoubtedly make him “the greatest king of Belgium“, as some epitaphs recite on his statues, but, at the same time, those statues and those streets were dedicated to the builder king, not to the bloodthirsty despot on African soil. The statue of Indro Montanelli in Milan was built to remember the writer and the journalist, not the colonialist soldier who married a twelve year old (fourteen year old?). When, however, the dark side emerges, it can no longer be forgotten, you can no longer pretend that it does not exist. We must deal with it. Perhaps, just as happens with other ethical questions, because this is what it is, it would be necessary to talk about it, publicly, but also and above all among experts. The first step is perhaps being taken (but it could only be a bubble, after all it has already happened), the second has already been partially taken, a solution should only be arrived at, but is there a solution? Unique, safe? Probably not, but also for this reason we must continue talking about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *