Congo’s Colonial Past: A Critical Reflection
On 30 June 1960, the Belgian colony Congo achieved its independence. Congo was one of the first countries in a long line of colonies which became independent in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, 30 June 2010, the country celebrates its 50 years of independence with grand festivities, at which the Belgian King Albert II and Queen Paola will be present. The ties between the Belgian royal family and the former Belgian colony have always been close, though not always very cordial.
Congo became the personal property of the Belgian King Leopold II after the Berlin Conference in 1885, which in itself can be regarded as a masterpiece of tactical play by the Belgian King: after all, he, the king of that little unimportant country named Belgium, ran away with one of the biggest and richest parts of the African cake. And then the atrocities began in Congo Free State.
King Leopold II and his ‘business partners’ (for lack of a better word) set out to gain as much as possible with very little regard to the Congolese people. Railroad construction, road construction, ferry lines on the Congo stream… all was built only to make it easier to get to Congo’s natural resources. The Belgian royal family gained a fortune from the trade in diamonds and rubber, but the supervisors treated the Congolese people terribly. It is said that over 5 million Congolese died under Leopold II’s terror reign, and millions of others were mutilated and abused. Under massive international pressure, the governance of Congo Free State was transferred to the Belgian government.
You will not find this author claiming Leopold II was an angel who did nothing wrong. I will certainly not go as far as calling Leopold II a “visionary hero”, as one Belgian politician recently did. Rather, I want to ask for some moderation. It is my opinion that British historians never really could forgive the Belgian King for claiming such a big and rich part of Africa after the Berlin Conference. They focused on the atrocities and slavery, and all that went wrong under his reign. There was much international (read: British) pressure for the Crown Colony to become a Belgian Colony. This does not mean I wish to ignore what has happened. I do not question that many millions of Congolese died under Leopold II’s reign. I know the hands of children were chopped off when their parents did not work hard enough. I agree that Congo Free State is the epitome of greed.
What many seem to conveniently forget, according to this author at least, is that the other colonizing powers in the Western world were by no means any less guilty of these crimes. Should I remind them of the way the native Americans were treated by the early and later British colonists? Or maybe I should point them at their biggest national pride, the British Museum, which is filled with artifacts they stole from Egypt? Shall I show you around at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where you can see that giant Obelisk the French took from Luxor? Should I remind the Dutch of the Apartheid they helped maintain in South Africa? Was life so much better and fairer at the cotton plantations in the Southern States, or the tea plantations in India or Ceylon? Can anyone honestly tell me none of the atrocities that happened in Congo happened there?
Yet the views on British and French colonisation seem all that much more moderate. Did the Belgians not bring hospitals to Congo? Roads and transportation? Education? Just like all the other colonizing countries? Of course they did! Did each and every colonist act so atrociously and selfishly, killing off the indigenous people for their own profits? Were they all as cruel as Leopold II was always portrayed to be? Of course not!
Many went to the colony and gave the country the best they had. They treated the Congolese fairly, helped them where they could, and tried to build lives for themselves and their families. The unlucky ones were rewarded with death when the country became independent in 1960. The luckier ones escaped with nothing but their lives, broken spirits, every possible wealth and property they had gained lost, and were forced to return to Belgium, where they were rejected by society on top of everything else they had had to suffer.
In Belgium, Congo is a difficult subject. In fact, one could say that Congo is one of the collective traumas of the Belgians. The country transfers millions of development aid to its former colony, but refuses to criticise its functioning, even if corruption is rampant, money doesn’t go where it is supposed to go, and millions are still on the run for violence. The current rulers of the former Belgian colony are, to say the least, of questionable reputation. Certainly not much better than Leopold II’s reputation over a century ago. The politicians that dare question this, cause diplomatic commotion. A feeling of collective guilt in Belgium makes it impossible for its government to take a stand against the Congolese malpractices.
There was much controversy about the presence of the Belgian King at the festivities for Congo’s 50 years of independence. Not only have the diplomatic ties between both countries been tense, the King’s presence would mean that Belgium supports the current Congolese rulers. This is somewhat controversial, as the legitimacy of the rule of current President Joseph Kabila is questionable, and under his rule the Congolese people find life only more and more difficult.
Today, Congo is a country which symbolizes more than anything the lost dreams of so many people. Not only the colonists who had built lives for themselves in that Promised Land on the equator, but also the indigenous people, the Congolese themselves, who live amongst the ruins of past glory. The schools once built by Belgian missionaries are now reclaimed by the wilderness. Hospitals house monkeys and snakes, which live between the rust-eaten hospital beds and trees that grow through the roofs. Congo, a country built on diamonds, copper and cobalt, does not succeed in developing itself, the people do not profit from the richness in their soil. The past decade or so, the country has been in a continuous civil war, which doesn’t seem to get solved. And all the Congolese ask now, is when the Belgians will finally return.
Leave a Reply