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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 16:33 GMT
Belgians confront colonial past
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News, Brussels

Congolese harvesting rubber, 1897 (Royal Museum for Central Africa)
Belgium's riches were built on the harvest of rubber
Belgians are finally learning the unvarnished truth about the brutalities of their colonial past - and they are queuing up to find out more.

An exhibition at the Royal Museum for Central Africa just outside Brussels, entitled Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era, has been attracting 2,000 visitors a day.

Congo, which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, was Belgium's only African colony, and from 1885 to 1908 it was the personal possession of King Leopold II, who ran it like an enormous private business, plundering its rubber, ivory and minerals.

His police enforcers, the Force Publique, meted out cruel punishments on villages that failed to pay taxes or produce sufficient rubber.

Now we are giving a balanced view... For many people this has come as an enormous shock
Guido Gryseels
Museum director
The exhibition includes photographs of children with limbs chopped off by the white colonisers.

Yet for years most Belgians knew little about this.

The museum director, Guido Gryseels, says many Belgian family histories include doctors, missionaries or nuns who went to the Congo, and until recently most grew up with the idea that Belgium did nothing but good in Africa.

Portrait of Belgium's King Leopold II (Royal Museum for Central Africa)
King Leopold II treated the Congo as his personal possession
"We had a one-sided view of our colonial past" says Mr Gryseels.

"There was a positive view that Belgium went to Africa to stop the slave trade and civilise the Africans.

"Now we are giving a balanced view, with all the pros and cons. For many people this has come as an enormous shock."

Rubber was the chief commodity extracted from Congo's jungles at a time when the world was desperate for it.

A contemporaneous cartoon on show in the exhibition depicts a Belgian "concierge" at a barred door marked "Congo", saying to an American client: "Never mind what goes on behind the door! Should you feel any remorse, rest assured I will give you as much rubber as you require to render your conscience 'elastic'!"

Enormous wealth

King Leopold finally sold his "Congo Free State" to the Belgian government in 1908, having looted it and slaughtered millions of its people (exactly how many is a matter of dispute).

He used the enormous wealth thus gained to build grand palaces and monuments - including the Africa Museum and neighbouring Colonial Palace.

Congo's Force Publique, 1930 (Royal Museum for Central Africa)
Belgian rule was enforced by Congo's Force Publique
An enormous statue of the long-bearded Leopold has been moved from its once prominent position in his museum to a discreet corner - all part of what Mr Gryseels calls a "revolutionary" reassessment of the king's role.

The impetus for the change came from the publication in 1998 of King Leopold's Ghost, a devastating account by US historian Adam Hochschild of what he called Belgium's "greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa".

The exhibition does not accept Hochschild's claim that as many as 10 million died during Leopold's rule, but it no longer shies away from the atrocities the author described.

Mass education

The exhibition also chronicles the good work done by Belgian missionaries, who introduced health care and schools to the Congo.

Unlike the French and British colonial powers, the Belgians favoured mass education, in local languages, over educating an English or French-speaking elite.

Mr Gryseels says that despite a policy of racial segregation there was also a lively interchange of cultures between the colonisers and the natives.

Congolese children in school (Royal Museum for Central Africa)
Congolese children were taught in local languages
He concedes, though, that education only went so far - to the extent that even in 1960, when Congo finally gained its independence, there were only 27 Congolese with a university education, making it almost impossible to create a successful administration.

With no political class, the country fell into chaos and civil war.

Its first leader, Patrice Lumumba, was ousted within months and murdered, with Belgian and American complicity.

Belgium accepted responsibility and finally apologised for the assassination in 2002.

Belgium's collective amnesia about the unsavoury side of the country's rule in the Congo is strange, because the facts were well publicised a century ago.

The first claims of 10 million victims of Leopold's rule were made by Edmund Morel, a British shipping agent who in 1904 set up the Congo Reform Association.

Roger Casement, a British diplomat, also exposed the violence and forced labour he heard about from missionaries, while Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness described the brutality of the regime.

DR Congo's literary past
18 Jan 01 |  Entertainment
Belgian wealth squeezed from Congo
18 Jan 01 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
16 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Democratic Republic of Congo
08 Mar 05 |  Country profiles


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