Thursday, May 23, 2024


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Tackling the Legacy of King Leopold: Brussels Confronts Its Colonial Monuments

This piece is a component of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, an initiative in collaborative journalism that delves into the prospects of urban areas. Subscribe here.

The Black Lives Matter movement compelled Brussels to come to terms with Belgium’s violent history of colonization. However, the city’s structural designs serve as a constant reminder of this contentious past.

The Brussels regional government has eight months left until the next election and is currently debating several proposals to either contextualize or remove some of the city’s most controversial monuments.

Although the proposed ideas are fairly minor, they have already been met with resistance from those who claim the city intends to eliminate its history.

The city of Brussels is filled with statues and memorials dedicated to Leopold II, the Belgian monarch who ruled the Congo as his own personal property during the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are also numerous monuments commemorating Belgium’s time as a colonial power. Taking a stroll around the city will bring you to many sculptures honoring the “Belgian pioneers” in the colonies, such as one located in Cinquantenaire park, which was built to celebrate Belgium’s efforts to “civilize” Congo.

The city’s Art Nouveau structures reflect its colonial past, with many being built during that time and incorporating elements and materials from the Congo such as rubber, ivory, and tropical woods. This influence was so significant that the architectural style was first referred to as Congo style or whiplash style.

“We cannot completely eradicate the effects of colonialism, even if we desired to, as much of Brussels was constructed with profits gained from Congo,” stated Ans Persoons, the secretary of state for urban planning in the Brussels-Capital Region, who is spearheading the initiative. “This is why raising public awareness is of greater significance than simply removing a monument here and there.”

The government intends to compile a list of the city’s monuments, sites, and topography related to the colonial period. They also plan to establish a “decolonization interpretation center” to inform residents about the city’s uncomfortable history and construct a memorial for those affected by colonization.

One of the most disputed suggestions is to take down numerous historical monuments from public areas and store them in a depot that would be accessible to the public as a symbol of the city’s decolonization efforts.

Persoons envisions the decolonization center and the depot being located at Lever House, which was formerly owned by Lever Brothers, a British company that operated in Congo. However, she acknowledges that these endeavors will require both time and funds.

Initially proposed in a 2022 document and officially implemented in May, the city’s actions are already facing criticism.

Chantal Kesteloot, a historian and member of Belgium’s CegeSoma, stated that the action plan may be overly ambitious. The majority of the proposed actions have a timeline of 2023-2024, and the project was initially introduced in May 2023.

She stated that hastily implementing it will not alleviate the tension, especially with the upcoming elections.

A prevalent presence

There is no denying that the question is a highly debated one.

Persoons acknowledged that the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests gave Brussels a much-needed push, although the coalition government had already committed to making progress on decolonization in its 2019 governing agreement.

A statue of Leopold II stands on a pedestal in Auderghem, Belgium’s Souverain Square.

She stated that the killing of George Floyd increased the government’s sense of urgency to take action.

In 2020, demonstrators vandalized and splattered red paint on monuments of individuals with connections to colonialism. The targeted statues included King Leopold II, whose rule was notorious for its savage treatment of people through forced work, abductions, and executions of rebels and innocent civilians.

In the city of Brussels, a petition with over 84,000 signatures is calling for the removal of all statues portraying the former king.

Anne Wetsi Mpoma, an activist, art historian, and curator, believes that it is no longer acceptable for individuals of African descent to be subjected to a discourse of glorifying colonialism through street names, plaques, statues, and monuments. She considers these forms of commemoration to be a crime against humanity.

According to historian Kesteloot, the city’s plans are still considered challenging and even distressing by many Belgians. She observed that the political responses to the release of the 2022 report demonstrate the ongoing sensitivity and division surrounding the issue.

Race against time

The discussion has evoked strong emotions from all perspectives.

Regional Member of Parliament Gaëtan Van Goidsenhoven stated that the plan proposed by the Brussels government was not clearly defined and did not align with their limited financial resources.

The politician Van Goidsenhoven, representing the liberal Reformist Movement, stated that taking down certain monuments in public areas would start a never-ending cycle where any time someone is offended by a statue, it would be subject to scrutiny.

The speaker suggests that instead of removing colonial artifacts, they should be displayed in their historical context with the addition of plaques, posters, artwork, and the perspectives of those who were negatively affected by colonialism. They also warn against erasing the history of individuals who may have held values that no longer align with current beliefs, as it would greatly impact our understanding of history.

According to art historian and curator Wetsi Mpoma, simplifying the conversation to only two options – contextualizing monuments or completely removing them – is a tactic to discredit activists. Mpoma emphasized the importance of having a larger societal discussion before making any decisions.

“As an activist, I have always advocated for a public discussion before the hasty removal of colonial monuments. My goal is to spark contemplation about how we envision coexisting as a society, rather than simply leaving or removing the monuments.”

A statue of Leopold II in the Africa Museum in Tervuren, near Brussels, has been vandalized with red paint and the acronym “BLM” spray-painted on its base. The act was captured in a photo by François Walschaerts and shared on social media.

“Many individuals tend to overlook the fact that a statue does not provide an unbiased portrayal of history,” stated Yasmina Zian, a historian and co-author of the 2022 report. “Instead, it serves as a commemoration to remind us of significant moments and individuals that contribute to a country’s narrative.”

“When individuals claim that removing monuments is erasing history, they fail to recognize that by keeping those monuments in place, they are also erasing other histories,” she remarked.

As the regional election in June approaches and the political situation is expected to change, Persoons is working quickly to complete her tasks before her term ends. According to historian Kesteloot, the protests in 2020 initially sparked political energy, but it appears to be fading now.

Despite any obstacles, Persoons stated that the work will persist: “The process cannot be halted and will carry on for future generations.”

Laura Hülsemann provided information.