BRUSSELS (AP) – A bust of former Belgian king Leopold II was publicly exhibited in the city of Ghent on Tuesday when Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo.
The removal of the likeness of the monarch took place just hours after the Belgian king Philippe, in an unprecedented movement, expressed his ‘deepest regret’ at the violence inflicted by the one-time colonial power against Congo and his people in the late 19th century .
Leopold, who ruled Belgium in 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fief and forced many of his people into slavery to obtain means for their own gain.
The first few years after claiming the African country were notorious for murders, forced labor and other cruelty that some experts estimate killed as many as 10 million natives.
Belgium has long struggled to process its colonial past, instead of focusing on the so-called positive aspects of colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the death of George Floyd in the United States on May 25 have given new impetus to activists fighting to have the monuments to Leopold removed.
The Leopold statue in Ghent had been destroyed several times in the past and again after Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
After a brief ceremony, punctuated by lectures, the monarch’s bust was attached to a crane with a strap and removed from the small park where it was applauded.
After his alleged ownership of Congo ended in 1908, Leopold surrendered it to the Belgian state, which remained the colony 75 times the size of Belgium, until the African nation became independent in 1960.
In a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, King Philippe stopped offering a formal apology, but expressed his “deepest regret” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and “suffering and humiliation” of the Belgian Congo.
Philippe emphasized the “common achievements” that Belgium and its former colony achieved, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
THIS IS A NEWS UPDATE. The earlier AP story follows below.
BRUSSELS (AP) – For the first time in the history of Belgium, a reigning king regretted Tuesday the violence of the former colonial power when it ruled what is now Congo.
In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, the Belgian king Philippe stopped offering a formal apology, but expressed his ‘deepest regret’ for the ‘acts of violence and cruelty’ and the ‘suffering and humiliation’ that Belgian Congo was inflicted. The letter was published on the 60th anniversary of the African country’s independence.
“In order to further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we need to be able to talk to each other in all truth and serenity about our long common history,” wrote Philippe.
Philippe’s letter was sent amid increasing demands for Belgium to reassess its colonial past and take responsibility for the atrocities committed by former King Leopold II. Following the protests against racial inequality caused by the death of George Floyd on May 25 in the United States, several statues of Leopold, blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgian colonial rule, have been destroyed. A petition has called on Belgium to remove all images of the former king.
A bust of Leopold II is expected to be removed in the city of Ghent later on Tuesday after a decision by the local authorities.
Earlier this month, regional authorities also pledged history course reforms to better explain the true nature of colonialism. The federal parliament has decided that a committee would investigate Belgium’s colonial past.
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes has called for “an in-depth” debate to be conducted “without taboo”.
“In 2020, we should be able to look at this shared past with clarity and discernment,” she said Tuesday. Any work of truth and memory begins with the recognition of suffering. Acknowledge the other’s suffering. ‘
In his letter to Tshisekedi, Philippe emphasized the “common achievements” that Belgium and its former colony achieved, as well as the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
“In the time of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory,” wrote Philippe, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” Philippe acknowledged.
Leopold ruled Congo as a fief and forced many of his people into slavery to obtain funds for his personal gain. His early rule, beginning in 1885, was known for his cruelty, with some experts saying as many as 10 million people died.
After his ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he transferred the Central African country to the Belgian state, which continued to rule an area 75 times the size of the African nation in 1960.
“I would like to express my deepest regret for these wounds of the past, whose pain is revived today by discrimination that is all too common in our societies,” wrote the king, insisting that he is determined to “take all forms continue to fight “against racism. ”
Philippe also congratulated President Tshisekedi on the anniversary of the country’s independence, because he was sad that he could not attend the celebrations he was invited to because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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