Belgian king begins return of more than 80,000 artefacts to DRC

In 2020 Philippe wrote to Tshisekedi expressing his ‘deepest regrets’ for harm caused during Belgian rule

King Philippe of Belgium has handed over a famous “Kakuungu” mask to the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — marking the return of the first of more than 80,000 artefacts that were looted by Belgium and are now expected to be given back to their country of origin.

Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s state secretary for recovery and strategic investments, has said a draft law is likely to be put on the parliamentary agenda within the next few days, and the next returns of historical artefacts can be envisaged by the end of this year.

King Philippe is on a six-day visit to the DRC, his first since ascending the throne in 2013. His father, King Albert II, visited in 2010. Philippe is accompanied by Queen Mathilde and prime minister Alexander De Croo.

In 2020, Philippe marked the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence by writing a letter to the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, expressing his “deepest regrets” for the harm that was caused during Belgian rule.

“During the time of the Congo Free State [1885-1908], acts of violence and brutality were committed that weigh still on our collective memory,” Philippe wrote. “The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliations. I would like to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of today, which is rekindled by the discrimination all too present in our society.”

Belgium’s King Leopold II declared the DRC his personal possession between 1885-1908. As many as 10 million people are thought to have been killed or died of disease as he exploited the territory for his own benefit.

Belgium eventually gave up control of the DRC in 1960 upon the election of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratic prime minister. At the independence ceremony, Lumumba said he was glad the DRC was free of the “humiliating slavery” Belgium had imposed on its people. The following year, Lumumba was assassinated by Belgian security forces working with Congolese rebels. While his body was reportedly dissolved in acid, one of his Belgian killers kept one of Lumumba’s teeth as a memento. It is also soon expected to be returned to the DRC.

Patrick Muyaya, a spokesman for the Congolese government, told journalists that king Philippe’s visit is a sign that the DRC and Belgium are starting a “new partnership”, and “looking to the future”, while “not forgetting the past”.

The Kakuungu mask — created by the Suku people — had been previously displayed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels.

In the late 19th century, that site was used as a “human zoo” to display hundreds of Congolese villagers. Some did not survive the harsh journeys to Belgium and the conditions they were met with.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa