Is it best to erase history, or reappraise history? We haven’t started taking down statues of royalty in Britain yet, but they have in Belgium: statues of King Leopold II were vandalised across the country last week and taken down. It was no surprise – in the bloody history of colonialism, he was one of the bloodiest rulers. He took personal control of the Congo, effectively enslaved everyone, ruled by sadistic brutality (hand and foot removal were a common punishment), killed about half the population, and extracted great wealth. However, the lesson to learn from Belgium is not statue removal, but what they have done to the enormous monument that King Leopold and his successors built to pay tribute to their colonial endeavours.
When I became Brussels correspondent for the Times in 2003, I paid the obligatory visit to the Royal Museum of Central Africa, a vast palace on the outskirts of Brussels, which was a completely unreconstructed and unapologetic homage to the glories of Belgium in the Congo. In the vast opening dome, there were four giant statues of strong white men, with much smaller black people in loin cloths paying homage to the white saviours, and plaques which read ‘Belgium brings civilisation to the Congo’, ‘Belgium brings peace to the Congo’ and such like. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to think this is a self-serving whitewashing of history. Stories abound that the museum used to contain displays of stuffed pygmies, which I never managed to confirm, but the fact they are credible speaks volumes.
The opening exhibition certainly contained a ‘living zoo’ with Congolese people brought in to live in a remade African village for Belgians to stare at. The museum gave no visible hint there was anything remiss with all this until about 15 years ago, when the reformist curator dared to display a couple of historical photos which showed some of the Congolese with their amputated limbs. It was the first time the museum had shown anything critical of what Belgium did in the Congo. A national scandal erupted, with a storm in parliament and the media. I remember asking the curator why the Belgians were so defensive about their history in the Congo, and he replied: ‘the Congo is the only country in the world that has ever thought Belgium is a superpower. They don’t want that taken away from them.’
In the following years, the debate evolved into what to do about the vast palatial Museum, with some arguing that it should be stripped out of its contents and turned into an art gallery, with all its history erased. But I am glad to say that solution they have come to – after three years of renovation – is that it is now essentially a museum of colonialism and colonial attitudes. The outrageously offensive statues are still standing, but with plaques explaining their context and what it said about the views at the times. Visitors are taken through displays explaining the background to what happened. Colonialism is part of Belgium’s history, and now there is somewhere Belgians can go to learn about it, warts and all. We should not try to erase our histories, which are part of what we are, but equally we shouldn’t flinch from reappraising them.