In the wake of the death of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world, tens of thousands of people in Belgium took to the streets to demand their government finally face up to its horrific colonial legacy.
The nationwide protests – the biggest demonstration in Brussels attracted 15,000 people – were a reaction to one of the darkest, if not the darkest chapter in the history of European colonisation.
The murderous policies of King Leopold II while he ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the end of the 19th century were so brutal that they appalled even other European colonists of the day.
Leopold called the territory, five times the size of Belgium, the Congo Free State, and he ruled it as a personal fiefdom. He ran the Congo Free State, which he would never step foot in, as a private business, the sole purpose of which was to make him richer.
Between 1885 and 1908 he enslaved millions of people from the local population, forcing them to extract rubber from vines that were sold to feed the growing global tyre industry. Much of the work of managing the slave labour was leased to private companies. These companies were not only required to shoot anyone who refused to work, but they had to produce a severed hand for every person killed to prove that they were abiding by their side of the brutal bargain, and not wasting bullets on hunting.
It’s estimated that 10 million people, or around half the population, were killed over the 20 years King Leopold ruled over the Congo Free State – a reign that, to this day, has left a mark on the hearts of the Congolese people.
Belgium eventually took the colony off of King Leopold after word of his brutal profit-chasing practices sparked international outrage. It would be renamed the Belgian Congo until it won independence in 1960. Before independence, Belgium would continue much of Leopold’s exploitations while eliminating only the most glaring abuses.
“During the 52 years of colonisation – which ended on June 30, 1960, with the hasty granting of independence – Belgium was not concerned enough with raising the standard of living and education,” Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel-è-Nziem told VICE World News.
“Belgium had no idea in mind” of how to run its colony, Ndaywel-è-Nziem said, because it “had not been fortunate enough to have had other colonies over a long period,” as was the case with France, Great Britain, and even Portugal, who were able to learn from different experiences.
The abuses did not end post-independence, however. Patrice Lumumba, the most prominent and vocal leader in the independence movement, became the country’s first prime minister in 1960, at age 34. But months of political instability ended in a coup three months later.
Lumumba was arrested and assassinated in suspicious circumstances, with many believing the government in Brussels played a significant role in his death, robbing the country of its independence leader. His body was dismembered and dissolved in acid, except for a single tooth that was kept and taken to Belgium.
Over the past year, Belgium has taken some steps toward addressing its colonial legacy, action largely forced by last summer’s demonstrations. Statues of King Leopold have been taken down across the country, including a 150-year-old monument in Antwerp that protesters set on fire. One statue in the city of Ghent was covered in red paint before it was finally removed.
The country also renamed a swath of its infrastructure that was previously dedicated to Leopold II, including Belgium’s largest tunnel, located in Brussels.
Even the reigning monarch, King Philippe, was moved to write to the president of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, to acknowledge the savage legacy and the “wounds” of colonisation. He referred to “the acts of violence and cruelty which have been committed and which still weigh heavily on our collective memory”.
The letter was sent on the 30th of June, a date that marked the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence.
“I would like to express my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past,” King Philippe wrote. “The pain of which is today revived by the discrimination that is still all too present in our societies. I will continue to fight all forms of racism.”
Though he stopped short of a full apology, King Philippe’s statement was a surprisingly strong gesture from a direct descendant of Leopold II.
Soon after the protests ended, the government also announced the launch of a commission that would examine Belgium’s colonial past and the role various Belgian institutions played at the time, focusing primarily on its actions in the DRC. Wouter De Vriendt, the president of the commission, promised in October that his team would produce "an inventory of existing historical research on Belgium's colonial past and an impetus for recognition and perspectives.” The report is expected to be made public soon.
Also in October 2020, a court in Belgium ordered the restitution of Lumumba’s tooth back to his family. A strong, symbolic act, even if the circumstances and responsibilities of his death continue to be debated.
"My first reaction is, of course, that this is a great victory," his daughter, Juliana Lumumba, said shortly after the restitution was made. "At last, 60 years after his death, the mortal remains of my father, who died for his country and its independence and for the dignity of Black people, will return to the land of his ancestors."
For many in the DRC, however, the return of Lumumba’s remains does not go far enough to appease a tragic loss that deprived the Congolese of a leader who was a symbol of the anti-colonial struggle.
In 2001, A Belgian parliamentary commission established to investigate the circumstances of Lumumba’s death concluded that the Belgian government bore a “moral responsibility” for the events leading up to the assasination. Last year, prosecutors in Belgium announced that they would investigate whether they could bring charges against anyone for their involvement in his death.
As the country waits for the conclusion of various reports into Belgium’s past, it’s clear there is still much work to do in the present, as BLM protests have continued in many parts of the country.
In January, BLM protesters in Brussels surrounded King Philippe’s car as he drove home as part of demonstrations over the unexplained death of 23-year-old Ibrahima Barrie in police custody. Authorities first claimed that Barrie had broken curfew, though that had to be walked back after his time of death was declared over an hour and a half before the 10PM curfew.
Then in March, hundreds of anti-racism demonstrators took to the streets of the eastern city of Liege, where riot police sparked clashes with protesters after a video of a Black woman being violently arrested spread through the crowd.
A year after the death of George Floyd and more than 60 years after the accession of several African countries to independence, Africans are still searching for justice. For the Congolese government, the circumstances of Lumumba's death should be clarified, while racial discrimination and all forms of neocolonialism must end.