BRUSSELS Understandably perhaps, the European powers that once ruled much of Africa prefer to recall the “civilization” they bestowed over the abuses they committed. Yet, as Belgium is now discovering, alternative versions of history can resurface unexpectedly. Forty-five years after the Belgian Congo won its independence, a remarkable exhibition here has set off a critical re-examination of Belgium’s record in its only African colony.
That the show, “Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era,” is organized by the Royal Museum of Central Africa is itself surprising. This sprawling neo-Classical palace in the Tervuren suburb of Brussels was constructed in 1897 with profits from Congo. And even as Congo tumbled through civil war, dictatorship and more civil war in the years since independence, the museum has remained a symbol of the good works that Belgium brought to its “model colony.”
Four years ago, though, the museum’s new director, Guido Gryseels, decided that the time had come for modernization, not only of the building, but also of its philosophy. Concretely, he felt the institution could no longer ignore the darker aspects of Belgium’s rule of Congo, notably the brutal period between 1885 and 1908 when, as the Congo Free State, the territory was run as the personal property of Belgium’s King Leopold II.
The timing of Gryseels’s initiative, though, was not accidental.
Although the atrocities committed by the Congo Free State were widely denounced in the early 20th century, Belgium chose to remember the more orderly colonial period from 1908 to 1960. Then, in 1999, Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” appeared in translation in Belgium, and suddenly this forgotten story again became topical.
Hochschild’s headline message – that about 10 million people died during Leopold’s direct rule of Congo – was in fact challenged by some Belgian historians, but the book nonetheless raised questions about Belgium’s selective memory. It was in this context, then, that Gryseels formed a committee of Belgian and Congolese scientists and historians to carry out an in-depth study of Congo’s colonial experience to prepare for this exhibition.
Since “Memory of Congo” opened on Feb. 3, the public, press and television responses to the show suggest that Belgians may after all be willing to discover a different memory of Congo. “It’s what we intended,” Gryseels said. “We kick off with broad information, and then it’s up the public to pick up the debate. Some people have said we haven’t gone far enough in treating colonial violence, but for our museum this is revolutionary.”
Certainly, the exhibition aims to cover more than atrocities, if only to place the more unsavory episodes in a broad context. And this enables the museum to illustrate Belgium’s introduction of medicine, agriculture, education, railroads and mining, as well as Christianity, to Congo. It notes, for instance, that at the time of independence, 40 percent of Congolese were literate, a figure surpassed at the time in Africa only by South Africa.
But this is the story that Belgians already know. What is new is its treatment of the Congo Free State, where the scramble to extract rubber from the jungle led to widespread abuse of villagers and uncounted deaths from disease and at the hands of militias in the pay of rubber exporters. While few visual records survive, the show includes photographs of victims of hand amputations by militias and a painting, sarcastically titled “Civilization in Congo,” in which a colonialist witnesses the whipping of an African.
Easier to find are documents related to denunciations of the violence by Edmund Morel, a British shipping agent who in 1904 formed the Congo Reform Association, and Roger Casement, a British consul (executed by Britain for treason during World War I), who also exposed forced labor in Congo. Helped also by the publication of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in 1899, this protest movement led Leopold to sell his African property to the Belgian government in 1908.
One wall text prepared by the committee of experts asks the question: “Genocide in the Congo?” It argues that the estimate of 10 million killed, first mentioned by Morel, cannot be confirmed because reliable figures are not available for a population dispersed over a vast area. And while the committee accepts that Congo’s population fell by at least 20 percent in the half-century after 1875 – a result of violence and disease – it also rejects the charge of genocide.
But the protests by Morel and others did prompt Leopold – who never set foot in Congo – to dispatch an inquiry commission, which reported that abuse was rampant. “The commission concluded that the state administration and the contracting companies were implicated in atrocities, as were numerous militias who terrorized the region,” the museum’s committee reports.
Perhaps more surprising to many Belgians, the show also casts the colonial period after 1908 in a less benign light. Forced labor, for instance, did not end until around 1930. The colonial administration left health and education to missionaries. Segregation, while officially denied, was widespread: in housing, transportation, schools and health clinics.
City maps displayed here, for instance, clearly identify white and African neighborhoods. From 1952, a few Congolese given “civil merit cards” enjoyed some privileges.
Meanwhile, the exhibition acknowledges, Belgium did not prepare the colony for independence: In 1960, Congo had only a tiny corps of university graduates and no experience in democracy. Within days of independence, chaos erupted, followed by Belgian and UN military intervention, the murder of the ousted Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba – with Belgian collusion – and civil war, until Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and began three decades of U.S.-backed, one-man rule in 1965.
Today’s continuing crisis in Congo, where ethnic and militia violence has taken tens of thousands of lives in the country’s east, is not addressed in the show, yet it has led some Congolese to view the colonial period more positively. “In the eyes of many Congolese, the colonial era now looks like a golden age,” said Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem, a Congolese historian and member of the committee of experts, “while Belgian opinion is going in the opposite direction and recognizing the crimes of the past.”
Still, Josette Shaje’a Tshiluila, the director of Congo’s national museums, welcomed Belgium’s willingness to exorcise its colonial past.
“There are things that happened and must be presented as such,” she said at the show’s opening. “It’s the start of a real dialogue. We have shown that this is part of our shared history.”
Gryseels said he was particularly pleased by the reaction of many former colonialists, who in the past have felt hurt by criticism of their work in Congo. “They are coming to accept that there are parts of our past that are not full of glory,” the museum director said, adding that he expected their views to be echoed during a seminar on colonial violence in Congo to be held here May 12 and 13. The exhibition closes Oct. 9.
“There are still many questions left unanswered,” said Pierre de Maret, rector of the Free University of Brussels and a member of the committee of experts. “But it is worth noting that this is the first time that a former colonial power has had the courage to come to terms with its colonial past. I would like to see a conference organized in which all colonial powers address their past. This is only the beginning.”