Belgian King expresses ‘deepest regrets’ for DR Congo colonial abuses

30 June 2020

King Philippe of Belgium, left, and President Félix Tshisekedi of DR Congo 
 King Philippe made the remarks in a letter to President Félix Tshisekedi of DR Congo

Belgium’s King Philippe has expressed his “deepest regrets” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for his country’s colonial abuses.

The reigning monarch made the comments in a letter to President Félix Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of DR Congo’s independence.

Belgium controlled the central African country from the 19th Century until it won its independence in 1960.

Millions of Africans died during Belgium’s bloody colonial rule.

There is a renewed focus on the European nation’s history after the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

Thousands of Belgians have demonstrated in recent weeks and statues of Belgium’s colonial leader King Leopold II have been vandalised. Authorities in Antwerp have removed a statue of him from a public square.

More than 10 million Africans are thought to have died during his reign. King Philippe is a descendant of the 19th Century ruler.

What did King Philippe say?

This is the first time a Belgian monarch has formally expressed remorse for what happened during the country’s colonial rule. The remarks, however, fell short of an outright apology.

In a letter sent to President Tshisekedi and published in Belgian media, King Philippe praises the “privileged partnership” between the two nations now.

But he says there have been “painful episodes” in their history, including during the reign of King Leopold II – who he does not directly name – and in the 20th Century.

A vandalised statue of King Leopold II in Brussels 
I Belgians have taken down or vandalised statues of King Leopold II in recent weeks

“I would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies,” King Philippe wrote.

“I will continue to fight all forms of racism. I encourage the reflection that has been initiated by our parliament so that our memory is definitively pacified.”

Just like the UK, Belgium is a constitutional monarchy – meaning King Philippe’s statement will have been agreed beforehand with the government of Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès.

Earlier this month King Philippe’s brother, Prince Laurent, defended Leopold II.

“He never went to [DR Congo] himself,” the prince said in an interview. “I do not see how he could have made people there suffer.”

Prince Laurent did, however, add that whenever he met African heads of state he always apologised “for the actions Europeans have done to Africans in general”.

What’s the history?

In the 19th Century, European powers began seizing large swathes of Africa for colonial exploitation.

King Leopold II was granted personal control over huge areas around the Congo river basin – what would become known as the Congo Free State.

The country lasted from 1885 to 1908. During this period more than 10 million Africans are thought to have died of disease, colonial abuses, and while working on plantations for the king.

Authorities would chop off the limbs of enslaved people when they did not meet quotas of materials such as rubber demanded by the crown.

Conditions became so terrible other countries exposed and condemned the atrocities. King Leopold II gave up direct control in 1908, and Belgium formally annexed the country, renaming it the Belgian Congo.

Colonisers continued to use Africans as wage labour and tried to turn it into a “model colony”. Widespread resistance eventually led to the nation winning its independence in 1960.

1 reply

  1. Some views:

    Should we apologise for the wrongs of the past?

    Last week the city of Bristol was asked to apologise for its role in the slave trade

    Sunday 14 May 2006
    The Observer

    Karol Sikora
    What a load of sanctimonious claptrap this is. Let’s stop giving space, time and ego massages to third-rate politicians who waste our time with this sort of thing. Apologies, like monuments, are pointless. Let’s do something positive and useful for the many groups in the world that continue to be wronged.We must look to the future, not the past. We can help best by creating novel educational opportunities for them and their descendants. Scholarships for all sorts of subjects – not necessarily academic – are what’s needed. Sports, business, music, art, history, science and technology should all qualify. Embracing diversity and creating unique opportunities for the talented but disadvantaged young is the only way really to right the wrongs of the past.

    · Karol Sikora is a cancer specialist

    Mary Warnock

    It is fatuous to apologise for the bad behaviour of our ancestors. In fact, it is impossible. An apology is a speaking act; it is a formal acknowledgement of a wrong done, and it is the acceptance of responsibility for that wrongful act. That’s why we wish, for instance, that the Inland Revenue would apologise for making a mistake. If I were an inherited landlord, I would apologise for some wrong done to one of my father’s tenants, and even seek to make reparation. I would be taking on familial responsibility. But one cannot so identify with an amorphous group such as ‘our ancestors’. Men might as well apologise to women for depriving them for so long of the vote. The concept is not only meaningless, but totally lacking in historical perspective.

    · Mary Warnock is a philosopher

    Sarfraz Manzoor

    The idea of apologising for the wrongs of our ancestors is both foolish and dangerous. For an apology to have any worth, it needs to come from those directly responsible and be aimed at those directly affected. I find the idea of a city apologising for slavery utterly ludicrous; it is not an apology if it is being offered with hollow words. Slavery was an appalling episode, but I do not believe descendants of slaves deserve apologies from descendants of those who profited from slavery. I do not blame my white friends for having ancestors who ran India. The trend towards apologising for historical events encourages those who prefer to reheat the past rather than take responsibility for their own lives and actions.

    · Sarfraz Manzoor is a writer and broadcaster

    Sunder Katwala

    Atoning for past wrongs can play a symbolic role in asserting the values we believe should unite us today. As with Tony Blair’s apology for the Irish potato famine, they can affect contemporary politics. But a good thing/bad thing debate about British history is too thin. The past has shaped who we are. We should not airbrush out the complexity. The British campaigned to abolish slavery at the same time as extending the empire. My parents are Indian and Irish; I wouldn’t be here without the rise and fall of the empire or the postwar NHS and its need for immigration. But we teach too little of our history; it could do more to inform contemporary debates about both who we are and the society we want to become.

    · Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

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