By Eva Schalbroeck
As a historian, I strongly believe in studying history for its own sake, rather than from today’s perspective. As someone who devours news from every type of media outlet, I cannot help but see the connections between the news on the Democratic Republic of Congo and my research on Belgian colonialism. Barely a day passes without news from the Congo. A simple search on Google brings up numerous stories, almost all about conflict, disease and violence. A lot of ink has flowed about the continuing political unrest in the DRC following the presidential elections in December 2018. There seems no end to the stories about the struggle against ebola. Then there is the sad story of the shooting of a ranger in the Virunga national park, barely months after its reopening.
When reading these news items, I often find myself thinking that little has changed since colonial rule under Belgian King Léopold II (1885-1908) and Belgium (1908-1960). Many of the Congo’s current problems have roots in its colonial past. The ill-prepared decolonisation in 1960 set the scene for decades of political instability. For decades, diseases have been among the biggest killers in the Congo. Violence against people safeguarding the country’s natural riches and resources has been rife before and after 1960. These examples show that understanding the problems which afflict the Congo today starts with comprehending those of its colonial past.
This requires more than a simplified story of Belgian wrong-doing and African victimhood. As I wrote in my last post for DHP, the “Red Rubber” narratives of oppression and greed for too long have obscured the more nuanced histories this past deserves. Such revisionist histories explore how colonialism, in particular violence, touched all levels of Congolese society and every man, woman and child. These histories also connect the Congo to Belgium and the world beyond colonial and national borders. Only such histories can truly grasp what being colonised and colonising meant and how colonial rule was built upon violence.
In recent years, historians have embarked on various such revisionist history projects. In 2018, Belgium’s Royal Museum of Central-Africa in Tervuren reopened after a five-year renovation which aimed to give it a more critical view of the colonial past. In the television programme “Kinderen van de Kolonie” [Children of the Colony] Belgians and Congolese who experienced colonialism first hand – of course in very different ways – were brought together for the first time. But these initiatives have had a mixed reception. Much to the surprise of the Africa museum’s director and Belgian politicians, the United Nations believed that the new exhibition does not “do enough to exorcise the demons of [Belgium’s] exploitation of the Congo”. The television programme revealed how mutual misunderstanding between Congolese and Belgians, interviewed separately, is still commonplace. Still, any effort to better understand the Congo’s and Belgium’s shared past is better than silence; something for which Belgium has often received a rap on the knuckles.
A revisionist history, clearly already a fraught enterprise in itself, needs to go hand in hand with an equally challenging one: a change in Belgium’s and the Congo’s tense political relationship. Recent events give reason to hope. Some Belgian politicians and scholars, along with the UN, have encouraged Belgium to officially apologise to the Congo for the atrocities committed during the colonisation. The Patrice Lumumba square in Brussels, named after the first prime minister of the independent Congo, killed with Belgian involvement, was the first Belgian public space named in honour of a Congolese individual. In 2018, for the first time a Congolese migrant was elected mayor of a Belgian city – Pierre Kompany, the father of Belgian football god and Manchester City player, Vincent Kompany.
But significant challenges remain and recent incidents show how far there is to go. Uncritical references to the colonial past, including statues in honour of the “civilising genius” King Léopold II, still grace Belgian parks. The current king, Phillippe, declined his invitation to attend the opening of the new Africa Museum. Last summer, festival-goers’ offensive references to colonial punishment practices by chanting “chop off their hands, the Congo belongs to us” made shocking headlines. Even the successes of Pierre and Vincent Kompany fit uncomfortably within post-colonial debates which question whether migrants are only truly welcomed if they are seen to be ‘worthy’. Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done to create both new histories about and new attitudes towards the colonial past.
I believe we historians, both of Belgium and the Congo, need to up our game to bring about new understandings of the colonial past by the time of the sixtieth anniversary of the Congo’s independence in 2020. Perhaps we can learn from the world of music. Stromae, the world-famous Belgian singer with African roots, is the perfect example of how the mixing of cultural influences is always more than the sum of individual parts. Hopefully his eclectic music sets the tone for more culturally diverse post-colonial relationships. Researching the Congo’s and Belgium’s shared past to understand the present and hope for a better future has never been so timely or rewarding.
Image: Central court with Leopold II statue of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. Photograph by Lionel Allorge (via Creative Commons)