A bust of former Belgian King Leopold II was taken off public display in the city of Ghent on Tuesday as Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo.
The removal of the monarch’s likeness took place only hours after Belgium’s King Philippe, in an unprecedented move, expressed his “deepest regrets” for the violence the one-time colonial power inflicted on Congo and its people during the late 19th century.
Leopold, who ruled Belgium during 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million native people dead.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past, instead focusing on the so-called positive aspects of the colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to Leopold removed.
After his claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony 75 times Belgium’s size until the African nation became independent in 1960.
King Philippe's apology marks the first time in Belgium's history a reigning king expressed his regret for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over what is now Congo.
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In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, the king stopped short of issuing a formal apology but conveyed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the "suffering and humiliation" inflicted on Belgian Congo. The letter was published on the 60th anniversary of the African country’s independence.
“To further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and serenity,” Philippe wrote.
Earlier this month, regional authorities also promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism. The federal Parliament has decided that a commission would look into Belgium’s colonial past.
Belgium Prime minister Sophie Wilmes has called for “an in-depth" debate conducted “without taboo."
“In 2020, we must be able to look at this shared past with lucidity and discernment,” she said on Tuesday. “Any work of truth and memory begins with the recognition of suffering. Acknowledging the suffering of the other.”
In his letter to Tshisekedi, Philippe stressed the “common achievements" reached by Belgium and its former colony, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
“At the time of the independent State of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory," Philippe wrote, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” Philippe acknowledged.
Leopold ruled Congo as a fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his personal profit. His early rule, starting in 1885, was famous for its brutality, which some experts say left as many as 10 million people dead.
After his ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed the central African country over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over an area 75 times its size until the African nation became independent in 1960.
“I want to express my most deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today revived by discrimination that is all too present in our societies," the king wrote, insisting that he is determined to keep “fighting all forms of racism."
Philippe also congratulated President Tshisekedi on the anniversary of the country's independence, ruing that he was not able to attend the celebrations to which he had been invited due to the coronavirus pandemic.