UCLA International Institute, April 30, 2021 — “The May 25  murder of George Floyd re-ignited protests in Belgium against colonial amnesia and contemporary racism,” said UCLA Distinguished Professor of History and Art History Debora Silverman at the “Black Lives Matter in Belgium: Reckoning with the Legacies of Colonialism, Violence and Contemporary Racism” event on April 16, 2021.
“Activists had long demanded an end to official silence about the particularly violent history of Belgian colonialism in Congo,” said Silverman. The UCLA historian convened the most recent webinar in the Black Lives Matter: Global Perspectives Series of the UCLA International Institute, at which she spoke with Belgian scholars Stef Craps and Sibo Kanobana. The event was cosponsored by the Institute’s Center for European and Russian Studies and the African Studies Center.
Craps is professor of English literature at Ghent University, where he directs the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative; Kanobana is a sociolinguistics doctoral candidate at Ghent who conducts ethnographic case studies of language, race and work.
Floyd’s murder and subsequent nationwide and global protests led to the largest anti-racism demonstrations in Belgium’s history in early June 2020, further catalyzing the existing Belgian decolonization movement. Following the demonstrations, colonial monuments were — for the first time ever — removed from public spaces in Aiken, Ghent and Leuven, and from the campuses of the universities in Mons and Leuven, said Craps.
In mid-June, the lower chamber of the Belgium parliament created a commission to investigate Belgian’s colonial past in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. And on June 30, King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to the Congolese president that expressed his regrets for Belgium’s record of violence and cruelty in the Congo Free State (1885–1908) and, later, Belgian Congo.
The suppressed historical memory of Belgian imperialism
“The new conjuncture of global eruptions forced the blight of what has been called the ‘Great Forgetting’* into the mainstream,” said Silverman.
The UCLA historian contrasted the colonialism of France and Britain in their overseas territories with the imperialism of Belgium in the Congo Free State, a private possession of King Leopold established with the key support of U.S. President Chester Arthur and the lobbying efforts of U.S. businessman Henry Sanford and Southern politicians.
“For 23 years, [it] flourished as a separate free state apart from Belgium, but… was a form of abstraction, or conjury on a map, and a site of extraction of ivory, palm oil and wild rubber,” she said. The brutality of that extraction is estimated to have reduced the population of Congo by three to eight million people and included the widespread practice of severing people’s hands as a form of colonial “accounting” for spent bullets.
Left: Map of Free State of the Congo, Americanized Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 1 (Chicago: 1892). Derivate work by Vberger on French Wikipedia.
Right: Cartoon of Belgian King Leopold II and other imperial powers at Berlin Conference 1884. Courtesy of Isai Symens/ Wikimedia Commons.
After an international human rights movement led by the British activist E.D. Morrell began to publicly protest Belgium’s atrocities in the early 1900s, the Belgian state ended up formally annexing the territory in 1908. Popular opinion in Belgian holds that treatment of the Congolese improved afterwards, a fallacy refuted by the historical record.
Several reasons explain why the myth of the beneficence of Leopold II in Congo has endured in Belgium, said Silverman. “There was a sense of outwitting and outmaneuvering the Great Powers [in the 19th century], who had confined [Belgium itself] to limited horizons and to artificial boundaries.”
The Congo Free State was, in fact, “a great redemptive, second-stage nation building,” she explained, seen as “manna from heaven that [fell] into the laps of 'us lucky Belgians' and our visionary king.” In the 20th century, violence against Belgians by the Germans in both World War I and II, together with the Holocaust, came to dominate the nation’s historical memory and delayed a reckoning with its imperial past.
“[A]n important reason why Belgium struggles to adequately memorialize the colonial past,” commented Stef Craps, “is that this is a history in which Belgium or Belgians appeared in a distinctly unflattering light.”
Belgian decolonization movement
Activism to force Belgium to confront the reality of its colonial past began in earnest in 2004, said Silverman, when a subversive artists’ group called the Bold Ostendians cut off the hand of a figure in a famous monument dedicated to King Leopold II in the town of Ostend. (The figure depicted a “grateful Congolese” kneeling before Leopold).
Photos: Immanuel Giel/ Wikimedia Commons, 2010; cropped, altered. Public domain. Georges Jansoone/ Wikimedia Commons; cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Historical monuments — long the site for protest against what Silverman called ‘colonial amnesia’ — have been vandalized nationwide intermittently since then. The frequency of those incidents rose after the June 2020 demonstrations, when Craps said some 17 statues of Leopold II were defaced in some manner.
“Activists and artists had already been chipping away at the Great Forgetting for years,” he said. Craps specifically lauded the work of numerous local activist groups, including Collectif Memorie Colonial, Bamako, Change (ASBL), Black Speaks Back (BSB), Decolonize Belgium and Hand in Hand Against Racism.
He also singled out two important events that preceded the summer of 2020: “The Truth Commission,” a theatrical performance that occurred in the Senate Chamber of the Belgian parliament in 2018, and the visit to Belgium by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in 2019.
The UN group issued a report that “urged Belgium to recognize the true scope of the violence and injustice of its colonial past in order to tackle the root causes of present-day racism faced by people of African descent in the country,” said Craps.
The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren. (Photo: EmDee/ Wikimedia Commons, 2007; cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.)
In recent years, said Silverman, two exhibits at the Tervuren Museum (Royal Museum for Central Africa) — the “belly of the beast of the Great Forgetting” in her words — have also confronted the history of Belgian imperial and colonial violence.
One of those exhibits, now a permanent installation, is a collaboration between Congolose artist Aime Mpane and Beligan artist Jean-Pierre Müller. The exhibit hung semi-transparent veils directly in front of the museum’s large imperial statues, superimposing images that reveal the falsity of the statues’ benevolent imperial message. (See installation images here.)
Craps welcomed the acceleration of the decolonization process in Belgium, but remained cautious, saying progress was “only partial and precarious.” But he conceded that the parliamentary commission was important, noting, “[T]his is the first time that a country has decided to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the roles its institutions played in the colonization of other countries.”
Nearly a year after its creation, however, the commission — whose members include no representatives from the ex-colonies in question — is still awaiting an experts’ group report that will spell out its working agenda. Given its ambitious remit, Craps believed the commission was unlikely to meet expectations. Moreover, he observed that resistance to the removal of colonial monuments remains strong in numerous cities and towns, and among certain government ministers.
Minorities and race in post-war Belgium
Kinobana turned the conversation to the question of why the issue of race in Belgium has been hidden in plain sight. “During the colonial period,” he related, “the Belgian authorities explicitly avoided [promoting] Congolese settlement in Belgium and developed measures to prevent Congolese migration,” he said, a situation that repeated itself in the 1950s.
“Because racism in Belgium was essentially formed as a problem that emerged following the labor migration flows from Italy, Greece, Morocco and Turkey after the Second World War,” he observed, “the roots of racism in colonialism, in anti-Semitism, in Orientalism are erased, as well as how these sources have shaped Europe’s and Belgium's self-image as a place of whiteness.
“Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the subsequent Congo wars, people of Sub-Saharan African origin started to migrate in higher numbers than ever before to Belgium,” he said. By the early 21st century, added Kanobana, the large numbers of Afro Belgians in Belgium made it impossible to ignore how the logic of racism was rooted in the country’s colonial legacy.
“It seems that as long as Black people were not a ... part of the conversation on racism,” continued Kanobana, “race could be disregarded as a valid analytical tool to understand ethnic inequality in Belgium because issues were mainly understood as cultural, linguistic, migratory and religious issues inherent to the stigmatized groups themselves.”
Black anti-racist organizations in Belgium, who represent a very diverse population, became more active around 2008, said the scholar, coinciding with the diffusion of mobile phone technology. Their activism accelerated in reaction to Belgium’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence in 2010.
Kanobana traced an arc of Black intellectual thought based on the “coloniality of power” concept (i.e., the entrenched legacy of racialized social inequality in modern states ) coined by Latin American thinkers and embraced by scholars globally.
Kanobana also pointed to the impact of a number of influential Black Belgian thinkers, such as Melat Nigussie and Olivia Rutazibwa, who, drawing on the work of Paul Gilroy and others, address issues of race in Europe.
Belgium as an exemplar
Toward the end of the discussion, Craps cited the famous line from Joseph Conrad’s novel, “Heart of Darkness:” “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”** Or, as Silverman noted, all Europe and America.
“Kurtz is not just a Belgian colonist,” commented Craps. “He's actually the-arch European imperialist and he stands not just for Belgian colonization of Congo, but for the European colonial project at large.
“[H]is moral failure is Europe’s moral failure. So there’s a sense in which both Belgium and Congo were [key sites] in the making of a kind of Eurocentric world order.” Referring to the ongoing parliamentary commission on Belgium’s colonial past, Craps noted that its outcome is significant to all of Europe and, indeed, the world at large.
Belgium is paradigmatic in another way as well: its struggle to govern its linguistically and culturally diverse population of Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Waloons and a German-speaking minority, he added, is similar to the challenge of governing the diverse European Union.
Kanobana agreed that Belgium is in many ways emblematic. Brussels, he pointed out, has the second-highest number of residents born outside of the country after Dubai. He noted that increasing numbers of Afro-Europeans throughout Europe are beginning to write about the meaning of their identity, citing such as authors Caryl Phillips (“The European Tribe”) and Johnny Pitts (“Afropean”).***
“Black people in Belgium seemingly make coloniality, and thus also race and whiteness — and how they are implicated in institutions of nation states — unescapable,” said Kanobana. “Indeed, the roots of whiteness are to be found in colonialism and contemporary coloniality. Undoing it means to decolonize whiteness and Europe.”
*See Adam Hochschild, “King Leopold’s Ghost” (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
** Kurtz is the Belgian ivory trader described by the narrator in the novel.
***Kanobana and co-author Eric Campell also authored a now discontinued blog on the same theme: afroeurope.blogspot.com.