Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Belgium / Congo

Belgium Revisits the Scene of Its Colonial Shame
By Vanessa Mock
The Independent, June 30, 2010
Photo: AP
"It must have been with at least some trepidation that Albert II, King of the Belgians, stepped off the plane in the Congolese capital Kinshasa this week to take part in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country's independence from Belgium on June 30 1960. Albert is the great-grandnephew of Leopold II, the Belgian king who wrought colonial terror of the worst kind in the vast central African territory which he called the Congo Free State and ruled brutally as his private property from 1884 until 1908. If that was not bad enough, Albert's late brother, King Baudouin was accused of indirectly inciting the post-independence assassination of Congo's independence hero and first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. Lumumba's sons announced this month that they want to bring murder charges against 12 living Belgians for involvement in their father's assassination. Little wonder then that before the King was allowed to travel to the still troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, the matter triggered a heated debate in the Belgian Parliament. The mood was not helped by the declaration earlier this month by the former Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, who called Leopold II 'a true visionary' and 'a hero.'
Yet, during this anniversary summer, scores of Congo-related concerts and exhibitions are taking place across Belgium, a sign that the country is slowly shaking off decades of guilt and silence over its shameful colonial entanglement. But the guilt has not all gone, says David Van Reybrouck author of Congo: A History, a new book that involved five years of travel and research. 'The word Congo used to have very dark connotations but today some of that darkness has lifted. There's even a kind of Congo mania in Belgium,' he explains. 'There's an entire generation that wasn't brought up with the Congo, it wasn't mentioned in our history classes and that explains the strong urge to rediscover this country. So things are changing slowly but still there's been an unwillingness to open the lid on our colonial past. Some of the archives are still very difficult to access, something which I find indefensible.' Just to the back of the royal palace in Brussels stands a large copper statue of Leopold II on horseback. At the base of this triumphant, pompous effigy of the bearded monarch there is a tiny plaque announcing that the statue was made entirely from Congolese copper. In Kinshasa, a copy of this statue lies face down in a back-garden among weeds, an unwanted relic of the past. [...]"

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