[Marxism] Fwd: BELGIUM: "Dark heart of Congo's former rulers returns to haunt them"
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Tue Mar 15 13:55:05 MST 2005
March 12, 2005
Dark heart of Congo's former rulers returns to haunt them
By Anthothy Browne
[From: The Times (London)
A new exhibition in Belgium is making the country face up to past
FOR generations, Belgian children were taught to be proud of what
their country gave to the Congo — education, healthcare and civilisation.
But 45 years after the Central African country gained its independence
the Belgians are finally, and painfully, confronting a very different
version of their colonial past: forced labour, mass murder and the
routine severing of hands in what was probably the most bloody of all
European colonial regimes.
The grandiose, Versailles-like 19th-century Royal Museum of Central
Africa in Brussels, originally built as a showcase for Belgian
achievements in the Congo, has just opened an exhibition that
acknowledges publicly for the first time the horrors of the Belgian
It is sponsored by the Government, Belgians are flocking to see it,
and even the Belgian Royal Family, whose ancestor Leopold II was
responsible for so much of the Congo's misery, has said it will attend.
While the original permanent exhibition has vast golden statues
inscribed "Belgium brings civilisation to the Congo" and "Belgium
brings justice to the Congo", the new exhibition shows a photograph of
a man looking forlornly at a severed hand and foot — the only remains
of his granddaughter after she was punished by the colonial police.
Another picture shows children with their hands amputated . A third
shows Belgian missionaries standing with two Congolese holding the
severed hands of their friends.
The exhibition also demonstrates that the region was not just peopled
by "primitives", but already had an elaborate and ancient civilisation
before the Europeans arrived.
The museum's new director, Guido Gryseels, said that the Memory of
Congo exhibition would have been impossible to hold until recently:
"It couldn't have happened five or six years ago. People wouldn't have
been ready for it. It's too controversial. A lot of things have
happened, meaning the times are ripe for it."
The Congo — the heart of the "Dark Continent" left blank on
19th-century maps — was claimed by King Leopold II, insisting that his
young country needed an empire. Perturbed by the rise of democracy in
Europe, he established the Congo Free State as his own private
possession, and himself as its absolute ruler from 1885. King Leopold,
who never visited the Congo himself, remains a towering figure in Belgium.
He built almost every major palace and monumental building in the
country, using the fortune he extracted from the Congo to try to give
his country the imperial grandeur of France and Britain. Belgium's
parks still feature monuments to the heroism of citizens who helped to
"civilise" the Congo. But the reputation of Leopold II was severely
punctured in 1998 by the American historian, Adam Hochschild, whose
book King Leopold's Ghost caused outrage but forced Belgians to start
thinking about their history. For the first time it brought to public
attention the reality of the Belgian Congo, which had also inspired
Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness.
To harvest the Congo's natural wealth of ivory, rubber and expensive
tropical woods, a system of forced labour was established, in effect
enslaving most of the population. Villages had all their women and
children held hostage until the men had collected predetermined
quantities of rubber from trees in the jungle. Villages that failed to
supply enough rubber were left with piles of bodies. Those that
resisted were wiped out as an example to the rest.
King Leopold upheld his rule with the Force Publique, largely staffed
by Congolese. To ensure they did not steal bullets, they had to return
a human right hand for every bullet used. To stop the hands rotting in
the moist heat in the jungle, they were smoked on fires to preserve
them until the soldiers returned to base.
One Belgian officer, Leon Rom, was famous for decorating his garden
with severed African heads, while Guillaume van Kerckhoven paid his
black soldiers five brass rods for every human head they delivered him
during military operations.
Mr Hochschild estimated that King Leopold was responsible for ten
million deaths — halving the population of the Congo — during his
23-year rule, though most other historians and the present exhibition
consider that an exaggeration.
The book was followed a few years later by a TV documentary that drew
mass protests from old colonials, the Government and Royal Family alike.
"There are 40,000 old colonials living in Belgium who are very hurt by
these accusations. It is very emotional. Every family has a member who
was in the Congo, so everyone is implicated in a way," said Mr Gryseels.
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