Yesterday Belgium’s notorious Africa Museum in Tervuren reopened to the general public after a five-year renovation.
Still officially called the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but better known as the Africa Museum, it cannot help but ooze colonial triumphalism, despite recent protestations of egalitarian diversity. Housed in a majestic purpose-built palace 20 minutes’ drive east of Brussels, it stands above a lake amid parkland. Immaculate gravel paths sweep around the site. However radically the interior may have been refashioned to reflect new attitudes to Africa, the grandeur of King Leopold II’s design and the fervour of his desire to promote his imperial venture into the continent’s heart still overwhelm the visitor. The monarch ruled Congo as a private estate nearly 80 times bigger than his European homeland from 1885 until a year before his death in 1909; his double-L motif is embossed on almost every wall and above many an alcove.
Just a few hundred meters from where 267 Congolese villagers were kept behind fences bearing "Do Not Feed" signs, Brussels' Africa Museum is trying to make peace with that history.
This is currently a huge challenge for director Guido Gryseels, who now attempts to put Belgium’s colonial abuse in its context in the very museum that the chief perpetrator of the horrors of Congo had built for his own glory and whose dark legacy has long remained shielded from full scrutiny.
He also said that colonialists have long regarded the museum as a haven of nostalgia. “For them, this is their home and they are very nostalgic about this place,” Gryseels said. They see Belgium’s role in Congo as benign: building roads, providing health care, spreading Christianity and giving Congo a standard of living few others in Africa had at the time.
“They’re a bit disappointed about the critical view,” he said.
Though he never visited his private colony, let us be reminded, King Leopold gained the Congo from deception and not persuasive techniques and held absolute political, judicial and legislative power in the Congo.
All 'unoccupied' land was claimed as the property of his Association, both unexplored lands, and fields lying fallow. Even settled farmlands were subject to his orders. Leopold also claimed a large private estate in the region of Lake Leopold II (north-east of Kinshasa). Meanwhile, Leopold also set about confusing the question of legitimacy. In place of the old International African Association, which became moribund, Leopold constructed a new International Association of the Congo. Holding power always in his own hands, but often in the name of this distinct corporation, with its own flag, Leopold was also able to mask his private empire with some of the veneers of his former 'humanitarian' promises. In order to fund the project of colonization, the Association took control of the rubber and ivory trades. Much of the land was given to concessionary businesses, which in return were expected to build railroads or simply to occupy a specific, disputed region. Concessions were granted the power to tax Congolese villages at rates of between 6 and 24 francs annually per head, an almost meaningless figure in a country where there were no large stocks of cash in circulation. Africans then had to work to produce crops in kind. Companies were also set up to exploit the mineral resources, as well as human labor. The Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga, established in 1905, was soon joined by the Compagnie de Fer du Congo, the Compagnie du Katanga, the Compagnie des Magasins Generaux, the Compagnie des Produits du Congo, the Syndic at Commercial du Katanga, and so on. Many of these were owned directly by Leopold, or indirectly, through his appointed proxies.
But one would be wrong to assume that all Africans were repulsed by the old museum. When Congolese-born Aime Enkobo moved to Brussels and wanted to show his children his heritage, he came to the AfricaMuseum.
“For me it was to show them our culture. What artists did, created, the aesthetics, to explain that. It is what interested me. It was not the images that showed that whites were superior to blacks .... My kids asked me no questions on that,” Enkobo said.
Still, controversy is increasingly commonplace, and it has come from Belgians as well as the Congolese diaspora here.
Critics have increasingly questioned street names honoring colonialists, and statues have been given explanatory plaques highlighting the death and destruction colonialism spawned. A sculpture of Leopold II has had its bronze hand chopped off, and another was targeted with rude graffiti last year.
A lot of work is left. “You won’t find a town or city in Belgium, where you don’t have a colonial street name, monument or plaque. It is everywhere,” said activist and historian Jean-Pierre Laus.
He was instrumental in getting one of the first explanatory plaques next to a Leopold statue in the town of Halle, just south of Brussels, almost a decade ago. Instead of glorifying the monarch, it now reads: “the rubber and ivory trade, which was largely controlled by the King, took a heavy toll on Congolese lives.”
Instead of damaging or destroying statues, Enkobo has created a new one, right in the main hall of the new Africa Museum. It is a huge wooden lattice profile of a Congolese man, looking proudly, perhaps defiantly, at the condescending colonial statues all around him.
“I didn’t want to respond to the negative with something negative,” the artist said in his studio. “It is easy to destroy -- but have we thought of the others and history? It is interesting to leave traces.”
The controversial golden statue (full image see underneath on the left) still stands of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes along with a plaque that reads: “Belgium bringing civilization to Congo.” But a modern sculpture by Aime Enkobo (see underneath on the right) has been added in the middle of the rotunda to centralize Africans.
I (E.V.) did visit the museum myself in 2003, the year an initial renovation proposal was presented to the press. At that time I was working on a related seminar and had also posted on my website how Leopold II promoted his Congo project. That same year I also posted what by now might seem a somewhat controversial look at the Rwandan Genocide.
The person who brought me to the museum by private car (as a first-time visitor one will notice that the Museum is somewhat secluded) had spent his childhood in the Belgian Congo and just recently has also been interviewed in context of the Belgian "Children of the Colony" TV series. In fact, I did communicate with him today (10 Dec.) when I decided to write this article mentioning to him the "Belgium’s Africa Museum Had a Racist Image. Can It Change That?" article and he answered, "Thanks Eric I agree with this and have commented (in a similar vein) about this before."
As Guido Gryseels also said it is an emotional issue for many Belgians, who will have had relatives who worked in Congo in one form or another over the years.
Thus Gryseels expects a "very mixed" reaction to his institution's attempt to reconcile this past, and that African communities may say it doesn't go far enough toward decolonialization, that there should be much more awareness about the violence perpetrated against their people.
On the other hand, the director told DW, "a lot of [Belgians] went there with a lot of idealism. Obviously there's been thousands of doctors who went to Congo who worked in very difficult conditions, vaccinating children, helping women to deliver, building hospitals and dispensaries. You can't really say that they were racists on a negative mission."
We also should not forget that the now so absent Belgian Royal Family was publicly protesting the findings of Adam Hochschild's haunting best-seller, King Leopold's Ghost. And the Belgian government next denounced a BBC Four documentary with Louis Michel a Member of the European Parliament and the father of Charles Michel, the current Prime Minister of Belgium. saying Leopold was “a true visionary for his time – a hero”.
In fact in 2005 also director Guido Gryssels himself said that one simply needed to “contextualize” the “allegations” by Hochschild and debates over the misplaced use of the term “genocide” in the Leopoldian colonial past.
Thus the Royal Museum for Central Africa has long been accused of complicity in perpetuating the distorted history of the likes of Charles Michel.
But things started to change, in 2015 when the Belgian Government wanted to honor King Leopold II the event now was considered a “bad idea” by a number of organizations.
In fact we fully know today that as a result of King Leopold II‟s colonization of the Congo Free State and then Belgium’s annexation of the Congo from Leopold, the Congolese were left with little to no ability to successfully rule over themselves. After a series of revolts, Belgium finally granted the Congo its independence in 1960. However, when independence came there were less than 30 university graduates in the Congo. Hochschild states, “There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists, or physicians.” Thus they had no people who were specialized in military affairs, construction, farming, or healthcare which are all vital to any government. Furthermore, Hochschild notes, “The colony's administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people: of some five thousand management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.” Only three Africans out of millions in the Congo had administrative experience. This is a dilemma because it hinders the growth of businesses as there is no one who could lead them.
The policies of King Leopold II allowed for future rulers like Mobutu and the Kabila’s to dictate over the Congo and further extract its resources.
Thus King Leopold II, through his ability to deceitfully acquire the Congo using philanthropic smokescreens and his ability to institute extensive forced labor resembling slavery, he set the stage for the Congo’s ethnic, political, and economic turmoil. His actions helped disband some of the Congo’s most powerful kingdoms like the Luba, Lunda, and the Kongo. These kingdoms provided stability to a vast region and maintained an efficient administration that was connected to even the smallest of villages through councils for provinces, districts, and chiefdoms. With the annexation of the Congo by Belgium, which was only possible through Leopold’s previous ownership, they disbanded more tribes and as stated would cause massive ethnic wars among the many ethnic groups competing for power in the Congo’s independence of 1960.
Politically, Leopold ensured that the Congolese would not have a chance at self-rule for over a century. Belgian rule lasted for almost 60 years and continued the policies of Leopold. They granted land to concession companies, who all together extracted billions of dollars worth of resources that were never paid back. The Congolese were deprived of any positions in the administration and due to a lack of education would almost be inept at self-rule from the lack of training. The transition to Mobutu after Belgian rule also put the Congo in decades of dictatorial rule. Although Joseph Mobutu or Mobutu Sese Seko was born in the Congo, he was very much a puppet for the Western powers who assassinated the publicly elected Lumumba in 1961 to put him there. Then with the Kabila family in power today, it looks like the Congo is following the same political repression and lack of civil rights and equality that existed in Leopold’s Congo Free State. The Congo was never given the chance of having a representative democracy where people could vote for candidates who in turn would serve their best interests. Instead, due to Leopold’s rule, the Congo was placed in a quagmire of authoritarian rule and dictatorships which continue to prevail.
Economically, the Congo has suffered more than most states. Leopold created a policy of forced labor and those laborers were paid next to nothing for their hard work. The Congo was turned into an enclave economy that was solely developed for extraction of resources. Belgium also made the Congo a plantation economy demanding huge quantities of crops especially during World War I and the Great Depression. This, in turn, forced the Congo to take loans from Belgium to pay for their own resources. Yet, combined with interest, these loans could never possibly be paid back without a functioning domestic economy. As Leonard and Strauss mentioned above, with an enclave economy, Leopold, Belgium, Mobutu, nor the Kabila’s would have to provide for domestic production or social institutions as the wealth of the people were not in relation to the wealth of the state. Without an effective job industry, the Congolese could never pay back the debt inherited by early Belgian rule. Therefore, according to the dictators, reforms were unnecessary and hence the Congolese continued to be subjugated by poverty.
It was as recent as 2017 that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Friday that this authoritarian nation holds delayed national elections in 2018, saying continued international backing for a nation that hosts the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission is at stake.
One could also argue of course Belgium’s “great forgetting”, as Hochschild terms it, was not always an accident. In the years before 1908, Leopold instructed the burning of state archives, telling an aide: “I shall give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I have done there”. For much of the rest of the twentieth century, attempts to investigate the history of the Congo Free State were fiercely suppressed. Until the 1980s, Jules Marchal, leading historian and former Belgian Ambassador, was prevented from accessing papers held in Foreign Ministry archives, despite having diplomatic clearance. Others writing on the topic reported receiving threatening anonymous letters and having their lectures interrupted by former colonial officers.
But Guido Gryseels, who has been masterminding the changes, now insists he will "decolonize" the museum in form and message, delivering a more honest narrative to the Belgian public. "That the Congo was not the story of bringing civilization, that it was not a story of eliminating the slave trade, that it was a story of brutal capitalism, looking for resources, looking for profits."
Today problematic images like the above are stored in a barricaded section without descriptions titled: “A Museum in Motion.”