BRUSSELS | The King of the Belgians presented Tuesday “his deepest regrets for the wounds” inflicted during the Belgian colonial period in Congo – the current Democratic Republic of Congo -, a historic first in the wake of the wave of global emotion after the death of George Floyd in the United States.
King Philippe, who has reigned since 2013, chose to send a letter to the president of the DRC Félix Tshisekedi on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960.
In this letter communicated to the press, he evokes – without naming his ancestor – the era of Leopold II, which was considered the most brutal by historians, when the deceased king managed the Congo and its riches as his private domain from Brussels .
“At the time of the independent state of the Congo (from 1885 to 1908 when the ex-king ceded the territory to Belgium) acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory”, writes Philippe.
“The colonial period that followed (until 1960) also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today rekindled by the discrimination still too present in our societies, “he continues.
The daily Le Soir praised the royal initiative in an editorial: “Finally this much-needed gesture, which makes the King and his country grow.”
King Philippe assured that he would continue to “fight all forms of racism”, while the mobilization on behalf of the “Black Lives Matter” movement had led to demonstrations around the world.
“I encourage the reflection that is initiated by our parliament so that our memory is definitively pacified”, he adds, with reference to a parliamentary commission charged with examining the colonial memory with Belgian and African experts who should see the day following an agreement between political groups.
In 2000-2001, a parliamentary commission of inquiry investigated the background to the January 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the short-lived Prime Minister of the Congo. It concluded that Belgian “certain ministers and other actors” had “moral responsibility”.
The death of the African-American George Floyd, asphyxiated at the end of May by a white police officer in Minneapolis in the United States, has revived in Belgium the debate on the violence of the colonial period in Congo and on the very controversial personality of Leopold II who reigned from 1865 to 1909.
Numerous statues representing the former sovereign with a long beard have been vandalized, in Brussels and Antwerp in particular, most often covered with red paint symbolizing the blood shed by the Congolese.
Some universities and municipalities have also decided to remove statues or busts, as should still be the case on Tuesday in a public park in Ghent.
In a petition which collected more than 80,000 signatures, the collective of anti-colonial activists “Let’s Repair History” demanded that “all the statues” in tribute to Leopold II be removed in Brussels, including the most famous equestrian statue erected opposite at the royal palace.
The text of this petition, one of the triggers for the mobilization now relayed by Belgian elected officials, accuses Leopold II of having been “an executioner” and of having “killed more than 10 million Congolese”.
Via concessionary companies, Léopold II used forced labor to extract rubber in particular in the Congo. Abuses – to the point of cutting off hands for underproductive workers – have been documented.
According to most historians, the violence did not stop after 1908, and a regime of strict separation of blacks and whites, comparable to apartheid in South Africa, was maintained for decades.
“We have highlighted the famous + benefits of civilization + brought by the Belgians, but between roads, hospitals, schools, we know that everything that was built was essentially aimed at serving this system of extraction and production wealth for the settlers, ”Romain Landmeters, a researcher at Saint Louis University in Brussels, told AFP.