Belgian Reparations for its Rule over Congo

King Leopold II statue in Antwerp was set on fire by protestors of racism in Belgium colonial rule. The second largest port in Europe, Antwerp’s rise as a world capital for the diamond trade was largely due to imports from Congo. The 150 year old statue was recently removed. Photo: Jonas Roosens: Agence France Presse

It is remarkable how the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of officers of law and order in the U.S. have sparked massive protests worldwide.  Responding to the intensity and number of protests across their country, the Belgian Parliament just formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to revisit their country’s colonial history.  And sixty years after their vast colony of Congo achieved self rule, the Belgian King Phillippe has expressed “deepest regrets for these wounds” suffered by the Congolese people. The time has come to embark on the path of “research, truth and memory” focusing on their colonial legacy in the words of the current Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Willems. 

Many Parliament members and Belgian citizens will feel obligated to defend and whitewash their rule in Africa.  King Philippe’s younger brother Prince Laurent soon disputed his brother’s words of contrition.  In defense of the source of much of his royal family’s wealth, the system of resource extraction costing an estimated ten million Congolese lives, Prince Laurent pointed out that King Leopold II had never set foot in Africa.

Ten years before Leopold II was forced to cede his Congo Free State personal rule and create the colonial administration, Conrad’s narrator in the 1898 novella The Heart of Darkness condemned colonialism in general.  He emphasized features characterizing other European colonies in Africa:

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.  They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.  It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.  The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” 

Anti-racist protestors have succeeded in removing statues honoring King Leopold in Belgium but their call for reparations for the Congo will meet stout opposition.  As in the United States, there is profound discomfort and sensitivity among whites of all political leanings when faced with the truth of their complicity with and benefit from racism in their society.  

he museum and gardens at Tervuren on Brussels’ outskirts was built by order of King Leopold II to showcase the products and curiosities of Congo. Its opening for the International Exposition of 1897 also featured a “human zoo” with 60 Congolese living in a reconstructed village on the grounds. Photo: wikimedia.commons User:EmDee

Thanks to the continued protests there is however serious scrutiny for the first time of how even avowedly anti-racist whites participate in preserving their country’s structures of racism in the U.S. and in Europe.  Responding to the protests, movies, books, podcasts, etc. are challenging whites to consider previously neglected personal traits of “white fragility” and “white privilege”. Widespread recognition of deeply rooted injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system promises significant change. 

Whether continued calls for reparations to address the vast gulf between black and white families’ wealth and income will lead to a U.S. “truth and reconciliation commission” is more open to question.  Progressive U.S. religious leaders, notably Dr. King among them, have for years declared the nation faces a moral and spiritual crisis, a struggle to heal the soul of America. Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explores the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, agrees with Dr. King’s analysis:

“I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved through rational policy discussions….I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings.  These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.”

About erasingborders

The blog title harks back to an ancient Church history document, The Address to the Emperor Diognetus reporting on the lives of third century Christians in Asia Minor: “They live in their native lands but like foreigners…They take part in everything like citizens and endure everything like aliens. Every foreign country is their native land and every native land a foreign country…. They remain on earth but they are citizens of heaven.” Kate Moyer's wedding present to Doug Smith of a dancing jester figure bore the quote, “I like geography best, he said, because your mountains and rivers know the secret. Pay no attention to boundaries.” They dedicate this blog then to helping bring about the day when human beings share the resources of the planet equitably and without borders. Our geography experience features childhoods in the Midwest. Kate lived for over twenty years as an adult in the small town of Neodesha, Kansas while Doug has been an urban dweller all his adult life. She is able to readily identify most crops and keeps a close watch on her partner’s snob tendencies. The Nile Valley of Egypt, for Kate, and the Congo rainforest for Doug have left deep marks on their interior landscapes.

Posted on July 29, 2020, in Theology and Mission, U.S. Protest Movements and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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