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Explained: Why a statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II was removed after ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests

Belgium’s longest reigning monarch, King Leopold II, was notorious for his treatment of the Congo Free State.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
Updated: June 19, 2020 10:04:01 pm
King Leopold II, King Leopold statue removed, Belgium King Leopold II, black lives matter A statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II is defaced with the words ‘shame’ prior to a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Brussels, on Sunday, June 7. (Photo: AP)

The protests following the death of George Floyd in the US have spread to several other countries in Europe. In places like the UK and Belgium, the movement is making people re-engage with the violent colonial histories of their own nations.

This past week, protesters in the UK pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and threw it into a nearby river. Winston Churchill, whose colonial policies devastated the Indian subcontinent, was defaced in London.

Also Read | Explained: Why has Edward Colston become a target of anti-racism protests?

In Belgium, protestors have been calling for the removal of statues of King Leopold II, whose violent, exploitative policies in the Congo were used to enrich Belgium.

On June 9, a statue of the king in Antwerp was defaced and removed.

Who was King Lepold II?

Belgium’s longest-reigning monarch King Leopold II, whose reign lasted between 1865 and 1909, was notorious for his treatment of the Congo Free State in the African continent, which he owned. During his reign and ownership of the Congo Free State, today known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, countless Congolese were subjected to atrocities and brutal killings, as the Belgium kingdom exploited Congo’s wealth and natural resources.

After Leopold II sold the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908, the territory became a colony of the Belgian government and was called the Belgian Congo. The Democratic Republic of the Congo achieved its independence in 1960.

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Congolese who perished due to colonial violence, researchers peg the number at approximately 10 million. Some say the figures could be higher.

According to researchers, like in other nations that engaged in colonial plunder, in Belgium, the wealth and resources looted from the Congolese people can still be witnessed in its public buildings and spaces across the country. Several cities and towns, including the capital Brussels, were largely built and developed using funds that Leopold II looted from the Congo.

Is controversy surrounding King Leopold II’s statues new?

The Belgian monarchy has never apologised for atrocities committed during its years of colonisation. Campaigners have been trying for years to get statues of Leopold II and other commemorations of the country’s colonial history removed from various public places in Belgium. Now, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought these issues to the forefront.

According to researchers and historians, many believe the situation in the Congo Free State under Leopold II was different from that under the Belgian government – some say it was worse, while others disagree.  Yet others are critical of Belgium’s colonial policies altogether.

This lack of consensus, researchers believe, is one reason why Belgium’s violent colonial history has not been more severely and widely criticised in the country.

Why do people want King Leopold II’s statues removed?

In Belgium, according to conversation on social media, there are people who believe his statues should be removed because of his own actions and role in the brutal murders and violence against the Congolese, including against children, and the sexual violence perpetrated on women. Others believe that the statues should be removed because Leopold II was representative of the country’s violent colonial past.

On June 9, a statue of Leopold II in Antwerp was removed. The ongoing protests may lead to other statues of the king being removed from public spaces and cities across the country.

There are some in Belgium who do not agree with the attempts to remove Leopold II’s statues. Anti-racism activists have told Belgian media that these oppositions are mainly coming from people whose ancestors may have socio-economically and politically benefitted from Leopold II’s colonial policies. Activists and researchers say that attempts to project colonisers in a more favourable light are usually made by people who are unwilling to fully acknowledge the inherently violent nature of colonialism.

Leopold II’s statue in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was removed after the country’s independence in 1960. In 2005, however, the country’s culture minister Christophe Muzungu decided to reinstate the statue, generating controversy, especially for justifying the actions by implying that Leopold II’s policies, when the country was still called the Congo Free State, brought in economic prosperity — a view rejected by many in the country. Till 1966, the capital Kinhasa was called ‘Leopoldville’ after Leopold II, when it got its present name.

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Following the defacement and removal of Leopold II’s statue in Antwerp, some Belgians began criticising the protestors. Twitter users @marionparidaens wrote on a video filmed by a BBC journalist: “As a historian, I’ll not stand back watching a marxist mob tearing down our monuments and history. There is no majority of Belgians in favor of removing this statues.”

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Several other users on social media platforms have supported the removal of Leopold’s statue and have also suggested that statues of other colonisers across Europe and the UK – of Winston Churchill for instance – be removed in similar ways.

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