A statue of King Leopold II on Brussels’s Place du Trône could be melted down for scrap, as Belgium reckons with its horrific colonial history. But not everyone is happy with the proposed solution.
Place du Trône is a funny place. Surrounded by low green hedges, it sits on the back edge of the Royal Palace of Brussels and faces the inner ring, an infamously busy, multi-lane, multi-tunnel road and every pedestrian and cyclist’s nightmare. It’s hardly one of the capital’s destination squares. Gazing out across the traffic, giant beard lifted defiantly, sits King Leopold II, second King of the Belgians and self-styled owner and absolute ruler of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908. How many passers-by know that, under his rule, he extracted a fortune from the territory, trading in ivory and rubber, while torturing, enslaving, maiming and murdering millions of Congolese?
Melting the bronze equestrian statue of Leopold II and turning it into a memorial for victims of his brutal regime in the Congo is one idea put forward by a committee looking at how to address Belgian’s colonial history. Other actions have already been taken. In Antwerp, a statue has been removed. In 2020, current monarch King Phillippe wrote a letter expressing regret for the colonial abuses to the Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi. And the AfricaMuseum recently underwent a five-year renovation, recontextualising its collection to present a decolonised view.
What to do with symbols of oppression as colonial powers face their past? It’s becoming a familiar debate in the culture wars. Belgium is far from being the only European nation with a bloody colonial history to reckon with. In the UK recently, statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled into Bristol harbour and the National Trust has been in dispute over even beginning to count how many of its properties have ties to colonialism. Meanwhile, Spain and Mexico have disagreed over Spain’s colonisation of the Americas, and Germany has recognised its genocide in Namibia and offered more than a billion euros in development aid.
A nation’s monuments help tell its story. They reflect history and build identity by showing what a nation values enough to memorialise — and what it is angry or ashamed enough to remove. So, when perceptions of history and identity change, are we obliged to hang onto bygone symbols? During the de-Stalinization process in Czechoslovakia, a vast statue of Stalin, the largest group statue in Europe at the time, was demolished in no uncertain terms – using 800kg of explosives.
Some say statues like King Leopold II should be left in place. Paid for by a public collection of more than 2.5 million euros in today’s money, it was commissioned in 1914, six years after Leopold’s death and was the last work by Thomas Vinçotte (1850-1926), who taught sculpture at Antwerp’s Beaux-Arts. There are suggestions Vinçotte’s work could be recontextualised, with digital links to information where onlookers can read about Leopold’s appalling legacy. After admiring a statue’s beard, how would you feel about scanning a QR code on your phone to be told: King Leopold II – a man whose cruelty in the Congo inspired one of the earliest uses of the term ‘crimes against humanity’?
One source, who worked at nearby Tervuren’s AfricaMuseum during its renovations, suggests attempts to reframe Belgian’s colonial history are just more propaganda, a sort of woke-washing that still isn’t honest about the real story of Belgium’s colonial past.
Stop giving Leopold and his horse pride of place. Start teaching Belgian school students the real history of Leopold and the Belgian colonial empire.AfricaMuseum employee told Travel Tomorrow
The cars roar by on the inner ring and the hedges do their best to dignify the spot and I have to wonder. If the statue were melted down and transformed, would this really be the best site for a memorial to Leopold’s victims? And does replacing a statue go anywhere far enough?
These and other questions, such as reparations and official apologies, will continue to be considered by the Congo commission, whose recommendations are due to be voted on before July 2022.