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Research at a Belgian museum has revealed atrocities during the colonial rule in the Congo

Belgian historians have recently been revealing the horrors of their country's colonial rule in the Congo, and a government museum has initiated an official study on the subject. It turns out that many Congolese were murdered simply because they could not fulfill the quotas of rubber and ivory that were required of them, and others died of disease and starvation. This is not what Belgian children are taught

Alan Riding, Guardian

Photo: AP - staff member of the Royal Belgian Museum for Central Africa. Other colonial powers show no such eagerness to deal with their past

No less than any other European power in the colonial era, Belgium also declared in the past that its mission was to "spread civilization in the darkness of Africa". But while Britain and France, for example, had world empires, Belgium focused mainly on the Congolese territories in central Africa, which are 75 times larger than the territory of Belgium itself. It was a classic colonial deal: in exchange for the extreme wealth that Belgium produced from the colony rich in minerals, it provided schools, roads, Christianity, and yes - also culture.

But Belgium's pride in its colonial past is clouded by a dark history, which began with twenty years of rule in the Congo that was perhaps the most brutal ever imposed by a colonial power on an occupied people; It continued half a century later, with a violent intervention in Congolese politics immediately after the country gained its independence in 1960. This history, which had been buried for a long time, not taught in schools and not mentioned in public, now surfaced.

Last February, Belgium admitted that it participated in the 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo, and apologized for it. The motive for the crime was the fear of losing control of Congo's resources, but Belgium persistently denied any involvement, until new evidence gathered by a parliamentary committee last year confirmed the direct role played by Belgian agents in carrying out the murder and covering it up afterwards.

New light may now be shed on an earlier and darker period of Belgian rule in the Congo. Ahead of a major exhibition to be held in the fall of 2004, the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Trevorn near Brussels is funding a comprehensive study of Belgium's colonial past, including the period from 1885 to 1908 when the "Congo Free State" as it was called, as the personal property of King Leopold II, suffered from exploitation and from violence that cost the lives of millions of people.

Guido Grisiles, director of the government-owned museum, says that the purpose of the study is not to judge but to provide information. According to him, the research will not only deal with the political aspects of colonialism, but will also look at the history, anthropology, zoology and geology of Central Africa, permanent scientific fields of the museum.

Nevertheless, it is a bold initiative as it raises the broader question of a country's continuing responsibility for actions carried out in its name decades and more ago; Among other things, the promotion of slave trade, annexation of territories, colonial oppression and looting of natural resources.

All UK Crimes

So far no other colonial power has shown an eagerness to look critically at its past, although the colonial records of the British in India, the French in Algeria, the Dutch in Indonesia and the Portuguese in Angola, for example, all include many examples of human rights abuses and excessive use of force.

Maria Misra, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Oxford, believes that Britain must follow Belgium's lead. "The purpose of cataloging Britain's imperial crimes is not to discredit our forefathers," she wrote in the London "Guardian", "but to remind the rulers that even the best-run empires are cruel and violent, not just the Belgian Congo. Superior power combined with unlimited supremacy will lead to atrocities, even among those with good intentions."

About a hundred years ago, claims were made against King Leopold. "The Heart of Discrimination", Joseph Conrad's book published in 1899 revealed the atrocities in the Congo; And in 1904, British shipping agent Edmund Morrell founded the Congo Reform Organization, which publicized the cost in human life of Leopold's rule. Finally, under British pressure, Leopold sold the Congo to Belgium in 1908. In 1919, a Belgian committee estimated that the population of the Congo in that year was half of its size in 1879.

But all those things have been weeded out of Belgium's official memory. "My generation was brought up on the perception that Belgium brought civilization to the Congo, that we only did good things to the country," said Grisiles, 49, who attended high school in the late 60s. "I don't think that in all my years of study I have ever heard a single word of criticism about our colonial past." When he took over the management of the museum a year ago, his approach had already changed.

The new line of thought recently adopted by some Belgian intellectuals was first and foremost influenced by researcher Adam Hochschild's book: King Leopold's Ghost
in Colonial Africa A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism, published in 1998. In his book, Hochschild describes how, along with the many thousands who died of disease and starvation, many Congolese were murdered by Leopold's agents because they failed to fulfill the quotas of rubber and ivory - the main resources of The area before diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Hochschild estimates that during Leopold's time about ten million people perished.

money to build palaces

Leopold himself had never visited the Congo, but it provided him with the necessary income to build palaces, monuments and museums, and to buy villas and expensive clothes for his teenage mistress. In 1897 he founded the Congo Museum, which later became the Belgian Congo Museum, and today is the Royal Museum for Central Africa, to house an exhibition dedicated to animals, plants, ethnographic objects, sculptures and "pictures of African life". The popularity of the exhibition led to establishing the status of the museum, which is also related to a scientific research institute.

"Nowadays we have very good collections, but the museum has remained almost unchanged for more than 40 years, so it needs changes," Grisiles said. "The message is still very colonial, and it presents the Belgian perception of Africa before 1960. At the entrance to the museum, for example, there is still a large statue of a white colonialist and two kneeling Africans, on which is engraved the inscription: "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo".

As part of the reorganization of the museum in preparation for the 2004 exhibition, Grisiles decided to give a new look at Belgium's colonial past. The research, which will open this fall, will be conducted by a group of scientists headed by the Belgian historian Jean-Luc Velot and will deal with the entire colonial past of Belgium, not only during the Leopold era. To ensure objectivity, American and African researchers will also be included in the working groups.

At the moment, Grisiles admits, the museum is not prepared to address the questions raised by Hochschild and other researchers in recent times. "The visitor to our museum will not find any information about the allegations made in these books," he said. "That's why we think it's important to present the different opinions of historians about this period and provide scientific information so that the visitor can decide for himself."

However, he does not expect the research and display to lead to a new apology to Congo. "Many very positive things happened during the period of real colonization, after 1908," he said. "I also don't think that the past should be viewed according to today's moral standards. After all, at the beginning of the last century children of six or seven worked seventeen hours a day in factories in Belgium. We must look at things according to the moral standards of the time."

But, he was asked, was he shocked when he read Hochschild's book? "Yes, I was shocked," he said quietly. "Obviously it hurts badly. What's more, I am a member of a generation that grew up with a very positive and flattering view of our colonial activities. I come from a section that sold calendars and New Year cards to help missionaries in Central Africa. And when you read all those revelations, they hit you pretty hard."

The suspicion of aiding the Nazis may also be investigated

Belgium may open an investigation into the alleged cooperation of the country's authorities and its citizens in the deportation and murder of approximately 25 Jews during World War II. The Belgian member of parliament from the center-left party, Olivier Mangan, submitted a proposal to establish a commission of inquiry on the matter.

According to the suspicion, many Belgians helped the Nazis in identifying 25,257 non-Belgian Jews, in order to deport them to the camps; Between the years 1942 and 1944, 28 shipments of Jews left the country for the concentration camps, of which only 1,207 were saved; according to the suspicion, the Antwerp police helped the Germans and the Flemish SS unit carry out the raids and arrest the Jews.

Towards the 60th anniversary of the first deportation, Mangan says, it is time to find out the issue of Belgium's cooperation. According to him, "the historians revealed that Belgium's assistance was essential to the implementation of the final solution... and that the Belgian leadership agreed to provide its services to the Nazi occupier, who did not have the necessary manpower to carry out the task himself."

A commission of inquiry established after the liberation of Belgium prosecuted individuals for committing war crimes, but did not deal with the deportation of the Jews. A later investigation focused only on damages. Mangan fears that the establishment of the investigative committee on the issue will be delayed due to the elections that will be held next year, the fear of dealing with the past and the strong opposition of the Flemish public in the country. "The sensitivity to the issue is enormous and on the Flemish side there was a great willingness to cooperate", he said, "in Belgium we have a long history of reluctance to look at the past".

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