Confronting Belgium’s Colonial Legacy

Belgium’s King Philippe is visiting Congo this week, but the country still has much to do to make amends.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A statue of Leopold II is shown defaced with red paint.
A statue of Leopold II is shown defaced with red paint.
A statue of Belgian King Leopold II is seen on a crossroad in Arlon, Belgium, on July 15, 2020. Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images

Something struck me for the first time when I landed at one of Western Europe’s busiest airports at the crack of dawn the other day. I have been taking trips like these all my adult life, but suddenly all I could see that morning was the forest of signs advertising coffee and chocolate.

Together with tobacco, nowadays unadvertised but tucked away on duty-free shelves, as well as perfumes and silk, these were the historic prestige goods acquired from afar that for centuries had signified wealth, status, and taste in the Western world. But that prestige came on the backs of millions of people. In my latest book, I document how an obsession with sweetness jump-started European imperialism at the end of the 15th century and drove the history of the next 300 years through the propagation of the terrible new institutions of chattel slavery and the prison industrial labor camps whose horrors we habitually gloss over whenever we refer to them as mere “plantations.”

Wealth from the production of sugar and such commodities as coffee and chocolate whose ads cried out to me at the airport propelled Europe’s economic rise in the modern age, pushing that continent toward a historic divergence in wealth and power from civilizations in the East and helping to create what we now call the West—that is, the condominium between Atlantic-facing Europe and North America, and especially the United States. Before 1820, four times as many people were brought westward across the Atlantic from Africa than from Europe, with the Africans coming in chains to do the brutal and unremunerated labor that made Europe’s colonies so immensely profitable.

Something struck me for the first time when I landed at one of Western Europe’s busiest airports at the crack of dawn the other day. I have been taking trips like these all my adult life, but suddenly all I could see that morning was the forest of signs advertising coffee and chocolate.

Together with tobacco, nowadays unadvertised but tucked away on duty-free shelves, as well as perfumes and silk, these were the historic prestige goods acquired from afar that for centuries had signified wealth, status, and taste in the Western world. But that prestige came on the backs of millions of people. In my latest book, I document how an obsession with sweetness jump-started European imperialism at the end of the 15th century and drove the history of the next 300 years through the propagation of the terrible new institutions of chattel slavery and the prison industrial labor camps whose horrors we habitually gloss over whenever we refer to them as mere “plantations.”

Wealth from the production of sugar and such commodities as coffee and chocolate whose ads cried out to me at the airport propelled Europe’s economic rise in the modern age, pushing that continent toward a historic divergence in wealth and power from civilizations in the East and helping to create what we now call the West—that is, the condominium between Atlantic-facing Europe and North America, and especially the United States. Before 1820, four times as many people were brought westward across the Atlantic from Africa than from Europe, with the Africans coming in chains to do the brutal and unremunerated labor that made Europe’s colonies so immensely profitable.

My trip last week, though, was not to meditate over where this long story began, in places like Portugal, Spain, England, and France—countries that conquered or settled so much of the world—but to contemplate where this process ended: in Central Africa, during the final stages of Europe’s historic real estate grab and with one of the biggest and longest-lasting tragedies of the entire imperial age.

In the 1870s, Belgium, one of Europe’s youngest and smallest countries at the time, decided that it, too, urgently needed to get into the business of exploiting Africa and its wealth. By then, the long era of outright enslavement of Blacks by Europeans was already decades into the past. But Belgium was a newly formed country born of a Catholic revolt from the Protestant Netherlands, and the diplomatic arrangements that determined its borders obliged it to surrender half of Luxembourg and half of Limburg. More crucially, the breakaway from Holland ended Belgium’s access to lucrative trade with Asia long controlled by the Dutch East India Company.

This set the country’s second leader, King Leopold II, on what at first seemed like a quixotic quest to find a foreign land that could power his country’s growth, whether through unequal trade relations or an imperial takeover. This search inspired dreams of Belgian control over China and the Philippines, among other places, before finally leading him to what the Yale University historian Robert Harms describes in his book Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa as the final frontier of European exploration and expansion: the heavily forested heart of Africa. There, disguising his true ambitions behind a screen of anti-slavery rhetoric and humanitarianism—claiming to want to suppress the trading of Africans into slavery in the Indian Ocean––Leopold maneuvered Europe’s big powers to grant him the rights to the territory that would later become the Congo, a country approximately 88 times the size of tiny Belgium and as vast as all Western Europe. As Harms writes, one of Leopold’s fraudulent but grand-sounding front organizations, the International Association of the Congo, counted the king as its sole known member.

Leopold’s posturing against slavery did not prevent him from taking over this territorial bonanza as his private property, under the cruelly ironic name of the Congo Free State, and imposing a regime of forced labor for the purpose of harvesting hundreds of thousands of pounds of ivory as well as one of the successor commodities to sugar in Europe’s drive toward industrialization and wealth: rubber. In the pursuit of rubber production, Leopold’s Congolese subjects were ferociously overworked and mistreated. Female villagers were routinely held hostage, for example, to force men to cull rubber from wild trees in the dense forest, and those who did not meet their production quota frequently had a hand publicly amputated as punishment. In the space of three decades at the end of the 19th century, the Congo went from being one of the places in the world least explored by outsiders to one of the most brutally exploited.

In time, this produced an international scandal that required Leopold to surrender personal control of the Congo to the Belgian state, but as many as 10 million inhabitants of the territory were killed outright or driven to early deaths by the dire conditions that prevailed during and immediately after his rule. The Belgian state ruled the Congo very differently but also catastrophically, extracting enormous wealth from its colony while investing little.

Even today, some Belgians deny this history or try to downplay it, saying they created many roads in the colony as well as schools and hospitals. What they decline to acknowledge in making specious arguments like these is that the limited construction that was done was carried out not through investment but again through the forced labor of Africans, and almost none of Belgium’s colonial subjects in the Congo were provided even secondary education. At dinner on the outskirts of Brussels during my recent trip, the Congolese Belgian historian Mathieu Zana Etambala reminded me of a fact that I had first learned as a correspondent in the Congo in the 1990s: that Belgium didn’t generate its first comprehensive development plan for the colony until 1949, just over 10 years before Congo gained independence.

Today this history is of more than passing interest. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the eventual successor state to Belgium’s colony is now known, is one of the poorest countries and weakest governments in the world and is a major part of what I have called “Africa’s Big States Crisis,” meaning the disproportional misery, misgovernance, and conflict that is concentrated in some of the continent’s largest countries: Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan, as well as Congo itself. Putting any one of these giants on a strong footing economically and politically would radically improve the prospects of large surrounding regions and help boost the trajectory of the continent as a whole.

This is all rendered even more topical by the visit this week of Belgium’s King Philippe—a distant nephew of Leopold II—to Congo, along with Belgium’s queen and the country’s prime minister. Belgium has made some progress in recent years toward recognizing its role in the grand tragedy of Congo, but its stated regret is still often formulaic and all too vague. Belgium still has considerable distance to travel before it can be said to not only have recognized the full truth of its imperial actions there but also, and even more importantly, to have made meaningful amends.

On my trip, I toured Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa—a place whose original purpose was to glorify Belgian colonial rule (and insult Africans) and that at one time featured a human zoo of Congolese people who were confined in a reproduction of a Congolese village and put on permanent display to visitors.

The museum has been substantially expanded and renovated in recent years, but some of the original museum’s repugnant politics still linger, such as a long wall that bears the engraved names of over a thousand Belgians who died in the colony, with no mention of the orders of magnitude greater numbers of Africans who were killed to fulfill the Europeans’ ambitions. The names of a few Africans have now been placed on windows casting shadows onto the floor in that space when the sun shines. Carved into another wall in the museum’s rotunda are statues, now partially and artfully covered with screens, that bear slogans such as “Belgium Brings Civilization to Congo” and “Belgium Brings Security to Congo.”

With its vast collections of statuary, masks, paintings, other relics, this museum is a premium site in an ongoing struggle being fought by Africa and other formerly colonized parts of the world to recover cultural artifacts, many of them priceless gems, that were stolen or purchased unfairly under Western imperialism and now sit on display or locked in drawers in museums far from the people and cultures to whom they belong. The museum says it is willing to restore its Congolese treasures to their land of origin but that the Congolese government has pleaded for the museum not to rush because the country does not yet have the means to properly house and preserve the items. Helping Congo acquire such means would seem to be a moral obligation.

Jos van Beurden, a Dutch scholar and author of the forthcoming book Inconvenient Heritage: Colonial Collections and Restitution in the Netherlands and Belgium, told me that although Belgium had done well to recognize its obligation to eventually restore ill-acquired artifacts on demand by its three African colonies—Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi—Belgian policies on restitution only cover those three countries and state-owned objects, thereby omitting huge collections in the hands of private museums, the Catholic University of Louvain, and individuals.

There can be no excuse for the horror and neglect of Belgian misrule. But even if it had wanted to, that little country never had even close to the kind of resources needed to colonize a territory as immense as the Congo in ways that could produce benefits for its subjects there. Similarly, Belgium today is far too small to dramatically shift Congo’s trajectory in a positive direction. What it can and should do is vigorously lead diplomatic efforts to galvanize Western and other international support for a reconstruction plan for the country, just as it once played a central role in the diplomatic discussions that led to the carving up of Africa during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

In recent years, China, a country with no imperial legacy there or in Africa overall, has become Congo’s leading economic and development partner while Western countries have generally sat on their hands. Congo is an ideal place for the West to unite in making amends for a long and deep legacy of destructive behavior in Africa through the commitment of major resources for reconstruction and sustained political engagement.

The United States was never a colonial power in Africa, but here is a place where it, too, has a specific historical debt to acknowledge and overcome: the deep role it played in encouraging the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba, the newly independent country’s first elected leader, in 1960, and support for ruinous and destabilizing dictatorships, beginning with its Cold War ally Mobutu Sese Seko, in the decades that followed.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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