Belgium opens up to horrors of its colonial past

Europe Letter: What are museums for? Recasting Belgium’s national narrative

A woman looks at the sculpture of the “leopard man” at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren in 2013, shortly before its closure for renovation and a reshaping of its narrative. It is due to reopen in December. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

When King Leopold in 1908 eventually handed over Congo, then the largest private estate ever acquired by a single man, to the Belgian state, the furnaces at his palace burned for eight days, "turning most of the Congo state records to ash and smoke", Adam Hochschild wrote in King Leopold's Ghost.

“I will give them my Congo,” the king is reported by the historian as saying, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”

Leopold was indeed extraordinarily successful in erasing from Belgium’s history a chapter of brutal infamy that only in the last 20 years – partly as a result of Hochshild’s book – has begun to impinge on the national consciousness and displace the narrative that a few still cling to.

Generations of Belgian schoolchildren were told of Leopold’s “civilising” mission – a humanitarian king who abolished slavery, built roads and schools and introduced Christianity and democracy to Congo.


Soldiers punished men who didn't gather the monthly quota of wild rubber by hacking off their children's hands and feet

In what became known as the Scramble for Africa, European rulers carved up the continent. In 1870, roughly 80 per cent of Africa south of the Sahara was under kings, chiefs and traditional leaders; within 35 years virtually the whole of sub-Saharan Africa was made up of European colonies or protectorates or white settler-ruled colonies such as South Africa.

Leopold made Congo a personal fiefdom. Over 23 years, he reaped an enormous fortune by turning the Congolese into slave labourers to gather wild rubber. As many as ten million died, Hochshild estimates.

“Rubber grew wild throughout the Central African rain forest,” he wrote. “[The king] took his private army, 19,000 men, and would send the soldiers from village to village. The soldiers would hold the women of the village hostage, in chains, and force the men of each village to go into the rainforest and gather wild rubber from vines that twined around the trees.”

Those who refused were killed. Soldiers punished men who didn’t gather the monthly quota of wild rubber by hacking off their children’s hands and feet.

‘Nothing but good’

"When we went to school, a lot of our teachers were former missionaries so the education that we got was that Belgium brought civilisation to Congo – that we did nothing but good in Congo," says Guido Gryseels, director of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Leopold's palace in Tervuren outside Brussels.

“We were all given a very favourable view of colonialism. I can’t remember a single negative comment.”

Belgium's task in rewriting its colonial history and so also repurposing institutions such as the museum is if anything more difficult

Gryseels has been charged with reshaping that national narrative with a massive renovation of the now-closed museum expected to cost nearly €75 million. It is due to reopen in December.

In my previous incarnation, before returning to report in Brussels, I helped edit an Irish Times series of supplements on remembering the decade 1912-22. It was a fascinating task. The decade has been largely recast from previous anniversary celebrations of the Rising into a broader, inclusive national narrative that encompasses the experience of  other  movements, labour, women, those who fought for Britain, unionists ...

Celebration has become commemoration, in which the weaving of a new understanding of our complex, interconnected history no longer privileges just one story.

Belgium’s task in rewriting its colonial history and so also repurposing institutions such as the museum is if anything more difficult. The question is what are museums for?

Shifting narrative

But as the generation still connected to colonial administration or missionaries in Congo dies off, official Belgium has been shifting its narrative. The 15-year renovation of the museum, the recent naming of a square after Patrice Lumumba, and even the pride in soccer player Romelu Lukaku, are each helping to give Congo a new place in the country's history.

Some of the museum’s old exhibits will remain, but now they will come with explanations about Leopold’s brutality. The museum space is also doubling its previous size, with a new building that includes exhibits on Congolese history, culture and contemporary art.

What it will most definitely not include is the human zoo the king set up, a copy of an “African village”, complete with grass huts, taxidermied animals and 267 men, women and children imported from the Congo to be exhibited in the three hectares of tropical gardens, in “traditional” dress behind a bamboo perimeter fence. It was a huge success: about 1.3 million, a third of Belgium’s population at the time, came to gawk.

“We walk a tightrope,” Gryseels says, “between those who fear this transformation won’t go far enough and others who fear it will go too far. We see ourselves as being a forum for debate. But we also take a line that we condemn colonialism as a system” .