by Eva Schalbroeck
Whenever I say that I study the history of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, most people confess to not knowing that Belgium had a colony. Others describe it as a particularly nasty and violent episode’. My explanations of ‘it’s far less black-and-white’ or ‘it’s complicated’ often confuse more than they illuminate. Popular media often associates Belgian imperialism with the ‘Red Rubber’ regime of the villainous and greedy King Leopold II. An article in New African calls him a ‘mass muderer’, who exploited the Congolese population to near extinction. Chopping off their limbs was ‘part of the “the butcher of the Congo’s” ‘repertoire’. According to an article in History Today ‘the Congo Free State evolved from a vanity possession into a slave plantation’. Leopold’s ‘playground’ and ‘hell’ operated with an insane logic’, allowing him to ‘cash in’ on rubber. It makes the bold claim that Leopold’s reign of terror anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Depicting him as the ‘African Hitler’, Leopold’s legacy is described as a Holocaust.
This imagery was first utilized by journalist Adam Hochschild, whose King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Heroism and Terrorism in Colonial Africa compares Leopold’s regime to a ‘Forgotten Holocaust’. Painting the picture of a bloody and brutal regime of plunder of rubber and ivory, it is saturated with images of mutilated Africans. Hochschild clearly evokes the imagery typical of the first colonial novels, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He placed Belgian imperial history in the limelight, but not in a manner appreciated by the Belgian authorities or historians.
How have these images of terror, violence and abuse come to define popular conceptions of Belgian imperialism and why are they so persistent? The answer partly lies in the nature of Belgian popular historical culture itself. Compared to countries with a strong imperial tradition, such as Great Britain and France, ongoing public interest in, engagement with and discussion about the colonial past appears absent in Belgium. Despite recent successful efforts at warming the Belgian public to its imperial past, such as David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: the Epic History of a People, public interest remains marginal and temporary. Claims from historians and politicians to ‘mentally decolonise’ Belgium and replace the ‘outdated depiction of Leopold as either a colonial genius or ordinary villain’ with attention for the African victims have not been backed up by concrete initiatives. To this day, the shadow of the ‘Red Rubber’ crimes still looms over Belgian imperial history.
Popular engagement is crucial to give Belgian imperialism the more nuanced historical story it needs and deserves. Historians need to respond to and question the images which prevail among the public and involve the public when doing so. They need to show the complex story behind these images, without downplaying past wrongdoings. It starts with the colonial dream of a king who became obsessed with giving his country its own colony and in the face of international protest and national indifference continued to believe in his colonial project.
A key moment is the take-over of Leopold’s private empire in 1908 by Belgium. How did this small nation came to terms with owning a colony 76 times its size it almost ‘accidentally’ inherited, but never actively sought? How did the initially ‘reluctant’ Belgian elite eventually turn into more ‘convinced imperialists’? The conception of the colonial enterprise as a ‘civilising mission’ that would lead to a ‘greater Belgium’ is part of the answer. This story also needs to narrate the suffering of the colonised Congolese population, from the abuse on Leopold’s rubber plantations until the Congo’s sudden decolonisation in 1960. The Congolese were not only physically exploited, but also mentally side-lined in the name of ‘modernity’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’. The closest they got to ‘experiencing the mother country’ was as exhibits in African villages, built on the occasion of the World Fair in celebration of ‘the grandeur’ of Belgium’s colony.
Historians need to show that Belgian imperial history is a rich and complicated story beyond one of a greedy and violent king who plundered the Congo. Only this kind of story will succeed in capturing the public’s imagination and generating more long-lasting and profound debate than is currently the case. A country that dances to the music of Stromae, the popular Belgian-Rwandan singer-songwriter, I believe is ready for it. It sees it as a personal calling.
(image from HM Stanley’s book “The Congo and the founding of its free state; a story of work and exploration”, 1885, via wikimedia commons)