The Belgian government has announced plans to repatriate around 2,000 artefacts looted during the colonial era – a figure that represents under two percent of the country’s collection of artwork that originated from Africa.
The country’s Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, a municipality just outside of Brussels, holds around 120,000 items, the majority of which originated from an area of central Africa now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
King Leopold II ruled over the Congo Free State – 77 times the size of Belgium – at the end of the 19th century, running it as his personal fiefdom. He enslaved millions of people and put them to work extracting rubber from vines to feed the growing global tyre industry. An estimated 10 million people, roughly half the population, were killed during his 20-year reign.
The decision to return at least some of the country’s stolen artefacts comes after Belgium’s science minister, Thomas Dermine, recently declared that any items that can be proven to have been plundered, “don’t belong to us.”
“Instead of a piecemeal approach by artwork, we said let’s adopt a more radical and holistic approach,” Dermine said in a statement. “Everything that has been acquired through force and violence under illegitimate conditions must in principle be returned. Objects that have been acquired in an illegitimate fashion by our ancestors, by our grandparents, great-grandparents, do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop. Cultural heritage is one of the riches exploited by the colonial powers, and taking thousands of objects from colonies deprives the citizens of the former colony of access to their own history, culture, creativity and spirituality of their ancestors.”
Much of this progress, the 35-year-old Dermine later added in an interview, has been driven by changing attitudes across the country. “There has clearly been a generational shift in Belgium and the new generation has a different relationship with Africa.”
That generational shift was centre stage last summer as tens of thousands of predominantly young people took to the streets of cities across Belgium to demand their government take responsibility for their colonial legacy. The demonstrations – the largest of which attracted 15,000 people to Brussels – were sparked by Black Lives Matter demonstrations that spread throughout the world. Statues of King Leopold II were taken down across the country, while large swathes of Belgian infrastructure that was dedicated to Leopold was renamed.
Despite the progress, it’s still not clear exactly how many artefacts will be returned. Dermine has claimed that 60 percent of the items in the Royal Museum of Central Africa were acquired through legitimate purchases, though the criteria for that assessment has not been made public. That leaves the provenance of tens of thousands of items still to be assessed, with the government promising to work with the DRC government to carry out further investigations.