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  • Writer's pictureChuka Nwanazia

The Struggle to Tell the Story of Belgium's Colonial Past

Royal Museum for Central Africa Tervuren

Not a lot of people are aware of the fact that a Belgian King by the name of Leopold II founded a private enterprise he called Congo Free State, where he perpetrated countless atrocities as its ruler and sole proprietor. That Congo Free State is the present day Democratic Republic of Congo and the country was not only exploited by Belgium and her monarch, her people were also killed in the millions and made to work under harsh conditions for the benefit of the monarch and his country. In the newly reopened Royal Museum for Central Africa, better known as the Africa Museum, the crimes of King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo will finally be open and on display for all to see.

The grey-bearded King of Belgium carried out a true reign of terror from 1885 to 1908, all without setting foot on the Congolese territory. A reign of terror with which, under the guise of "bringing civilization to the native people", he plundered the entire African country, which was, for more than 30 years, his "private property".

The Africa Museum, which was originally set up by Leopold and housed in a majestic purpose-built palace just 20 minutes from Brussels, was initially built to promote his imperial venture into the Congo territory. A private collection of artefacts stolen from the Congolese by the King are housed in the museum. For years, the museum failed to tell the story of how the Congolese natives suffered and the atrocities perpetrated by King Leopold II. But maybe, after more than five years of renovating the building and trying to change its reputation and image as a museum that promotes the legacy of King Leopold II, it's time to listen to the criticism, especially from the Congolese population in Belgium and show all the atrocities and crimes committed by Leopold and his racist minions during their time in the African country. 

Undergoing the much needed change has been difficult and the museum knows that they may face a lot of criticism from the conservative part of the populace and also from the left who feel that it was time for the museum to critically review its colonial origins and maybe play an important role in helping Belgians learn from the past. The conservatives want the museum to stay just the way it is, while the liberal-minded populace want the museum to act as a means of teaching all Belgians about the mistakes of the past and how much of a negative influence it has had on the Congo, especially after her independence in 1960.

The Museum

An elephant at the Royal Museum for Central Africa.

If you have never visited Tervuren, you may not notice much because it a very small village just 20 minutes from Brussels by car. It is home to the museum, which is quite difficult to miss due to its size. A beautiful building, on the edge of a sleepy village. Erected in a neoclassical style, surrounded by lush greenery and a large pool of water. Inside the museum, visitors can walk in the midst of architectural grandeur, through a well-organized course of halls and around an almost empty courtyard.

The museum now looks exactly how a museum of an international caliber should look. With halls full of stuffed crocodiles, monkeys, nile basses, an elephant, chests full of colorful butterflies and bottles with fresh water cichlids in lake water. Showcases full of terrifying masks, elementally designed musical instruments and all kinds of carvings. There are also publications about dying hippos and the disappearing jungle in Central Africa. The museum also houses lumps of blue, pink and green minerals and newspaper clippings about Congolese independence in 1960. 

Radical Change?

There is nothing to suggest that this new development is a radical break with the former image of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which was called the 'last real colonial museum' in the world - not an honorary title, to be honest. The museum has been a controversial one from the first year it came into being - and that first year was 1897, when Leopold came up with the idea to build three Congolese villages just outside Brussels to amaze his people by "bringing Africa to them" and to get new investors for the Central African enterprise.

Congolese natives and slaves of Leopold II

And so it happened that he ordered 26 Congo natives to live in those three villages in Tervuren as exhibitions. Old photographs show how they paddled across the pond in their prahu and how they stood beside their simple huts, under a palm tree, in a wicker skirt and loincloth. Dressed too scantily for what turned out to be a chilly summer, as a result of which seven of them died and were buried in unmarked graves. First in the vicinity of the museum, later around the parish church of St. John the Evangelist in the center of Tervuren.

Incidentally, the exhibition turned out to be a huge success with 1.2 million Belgian visitors coming to see what the fuss was all about. The success became a reason for Leopold to entertain the idea of building a museum, which in 1910, a year after his death, became a reality. Except for some minor changes, the museum had been exactly as Leopold wanted it until 2013 when it closed its door for renovation. The museum initially had images of wild-looking Africans in the reception room and showcases in which animal life in Congo seemed very realistic. There were raw materials such as ivory and rubber and in the midst of all of this, a life-size image of Leopold proudly stood, firmly looking forward, arms majestically around his waist like an Egyptian pharaoh, as he would probably have loved to see himself.

Questions have been asked about the large-scale renovation in the museum and the museum reopening its doors may answer some of those questions. One of the answers is that, museums, especially museums with colonial roots, are more than just a collection of (stolen) artefacts. They showcase the customs and traditions of the people from whence the artefacts were derived. In the case of the African Museum, the customs and traditions on display are mostly those of the Congolese.

Ivories at the Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Leopold's criminal and imperial enterprise did not only financially enrich Belgium, it also brought into her possession, priceless and valuable treasures too great to fathom. The museum has in its possession, 125,000 ethnographic items, 10 million zoological items, 6 million insects, 8,000 musical instruments, 200,000 rock samples, 3,000 historical maps, 4km of archives, as well as contemporary and ancient Congolese art - just to name a few!

The Past or the Future?

Whether Leopold's enterprise could be considered a source of national pride or shame, what the museum has failed to do is show all the slave labor, torture, economic exploitation, large-scale land expropriation, racism and imperialism that came with the enterprise. The museum blatantly ignored what had been done to the African country, and how things developed after her independence in 1960, the people who now live there, and the effects of colonization and decolonization in the Congo. The Congo was exploited for profit (and nothing but profit) by Belgium and King Leopold II and then left to fend for herself without a transition period or any sort of aid for the purposes of governing herself and caring for her people.

Now that the Royal Museum for Central Africa has been renovated and the collection setup changed, it is still unclear how it intends to tell the story of Belgium's colonial past. Belgium, unlike other European countries took longer than needed to acknowledge the dark legacy of colonialism. Believe it or not, there are still conservative and right-wing citizens, some of whom are veterans, that staunchly defend the legacy of Leopold II and the wealth gained for Belgium through colonialism.

Slaves in the Congo for Leopold II of Belgium.

Some liberal-minded citizens are quick to point accusing fingers at Belgium's colonial past and King Leopold II for the misery that Congo has suffered before and after she got her independence in 1960. The old museum was well-organized in its colonial ambitions. Ambitions that could be traced back to an equally clear world view: Europe versus Africa, white versus black, ruler versus dominated, hunter versus prey. Unambiguous ideas that also point to one deranged man: Leopold II.

Now that "the Pandora box" has been opened, the polyphony can no longer be curbed. A lot of Belgian children have no idea who Leopold II is and the kind of atrocities he brought upon the Congolese. So what does the future hold for the Belgians of Congolese descent in the country and how does the museum intend to portray their country, ancestors and traditions? Will they be allowed to play a role in the development of things? Are some (or all) of their ancient and sacred artefacts ever going to be returned to the Congo or is it just a case of finders - keepers? Let us not kid ourselves, it is no secret that virtually all art brought from Africa to Europe in colonial times was stolen or bought from thieves. If every single artefact in the Royal Museum for Central Africa were to be returned, some Belgians are afraid that they might not have a museum to visit anymore. Even if they do, it might be an empty one.

Either way, the Royal Museum for Central Africa has been reopened and we are all curious as to how things will turn out and the message they intend to convey to the outside world in the coming years.

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