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Bust of Belgian king who pillaged DR Congo removed from public display in Ghent

King Philippe earlier expressed his “deepest regrets” for the harm done during Belgian colonial rule in DR Congo, in a first for his country.

A bust of Belgium's King Leopold II is hoisted off of its plinth by a crane as it's removed from a park in Ghent.
A bust of Belgium's King Leopold II is hoisted off of its plinth by a crane as it's removed from a park in Ghent.
Image: Francisco Seco/PA

Updated Jun 30th 2020, 7:03 PM

A BUST OF former Belgian King Leopold II was taken off public display in the city of Ghent as Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The removal of the monarch’s likeness took place only hours after Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” for the violence the one-time colonial power inflicted on Congo and its people during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Leopold ruled Belgium during 1865-1909 and plundered DR Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery.

Philippe, who has reigned since 2013, made his remarks in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence on 30 June 1960.

The murder of George Floyd last month as he was being arrested by police in the US city of Minneapolis has stoked fresh debate in Belgium over its colonial record. 

“I want to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past whose pain is reawakened today by the discrimination still present in our societies,” Philippe said.

Historians say that millions of Africans from areas in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to Belgium’s King Leopold II.

‘Suffering and humiliation’

belgium-colonialism-congo-independence Leopold II's bust resting in the back of a truck after its removal Source: Francisco Seco

Philippe, without mentioning Leopold by name, said that during this period “acts of violence and cruelty were committed which weigh on our collective memory”.

“The colonial period which followed (1908-60) also caused suffering and humiliation,” he said.

Philippe said he would combat all forms of racism and said he wanted to encourage the reflection on the issue begun by the Belgian parliament so that such memories could be put to rest.

Several statues of Leopold, who ruled between 1865 and 1909, have been daubed with paint or torn down by protesters in Belgium in recent weeks, and a petition has been launched for their removal.

Today, the city of Ghent marked the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence by removing a statue of Leopold.

The French-speaking daily Le Soir welcomed the royal intervention in an editorial: “Finally, this gesture, so necessary, which lifts the King and his country.”

Through concession companies, Leopold II used forced labour to extract rubber in Congo, among other things. 

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Harsh treatment – up to the cutting off of hands for unproductive workers – have been documented. 

According to most historians the violence did not stop after Leopold II, and a regime of strict separation of blacks and whites, comparable to the apartheid of South Africa, was maintained for decades.

“We have heard of the famous ‘benefits of civilisation’ brought by the Belgians,” Romain Landmeters, a researcher at the University Saint-Louis in Brussels, told AFP.

“But between the roads, hospitals, schools, we know that everything that was built was essentially intended to serve this system of extraction and production of wealth for the settlers,” he said. 

© AFP 2020 

- With reporting from PA

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