Belgians confront colonial past

Belgians confront colonial past

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.

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.

“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’!”

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