With racial justice demonstrations taking place around the world following the death of George Floyd in the United States, many activists are demanding countries face up to their past, as well as the problems of the present.
Voices questioning the colonial pasts of European countries are getting louder. In the UK, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into a river in Bristol, sparking a national debate about monuments to racists.
In Belgium, a similar debate that has been in the background for years has suddenly come into sharp focus.
This one is over the many statues of King Leopold II that adorn Belgian cities, as well as the streets and squares named after him.
Who was Leopold II?
Leopold II was the King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 - the longest-reigning monarch in the country’s history. Today he is notorious for his personal rule over the Congo Free State, in which millions of Congolese are estimated to have died as he inflicted a regime of violence and exploitation, extracting the country’s wealth for his own personal gain.
In 1885 Leopold II established the Congo Free State — today the Democratic Republic of the Congo — taking direct control of the region. He extracted its wealth, largely rubber and ivory, using a brutal system of forced labour. The Congo Reform Association says academic research has found his rule, and its immediate aftermath, led to the deaths of as many as 10 million people. His troops were known for vicious punishments like the cutting off of hands for anything they deemed a crime.
“The system that was installed in the Congo Free State was a system that aimed at exploitation,” says Gillian Mathys, a historian at Ghent University.
“Much of the money that not only Leopold II but many enterprises gathered during the Congo Free State is still visible in the public sphere.”
Mathys points to the example of cities such as Ostend and Brussels, where many buildings were commissioned and paid for by Leopold II. His many construction projects funded by the wealth he took from the Congo earned him the name "Builder King".
He never visited the Congo, but ruled it from Belgium, until he sold it to the Belgian state, under pressure from reformers. From then, it was a colony of the Belgian state, known as the Belgian Congo. As the longest-reigning monarch, and with his "Builder King" moniker, a number of statues were erected in his honour in Belgium.
“If we look at the archives, the historical analysis of Belgium’s colonial past, it is clear we can see a shift; first he was seen as a hero, then there were more and more critiques, and there was a very clear division made between the Congo Free State run by Leopold II and the Belgian Congo in the hands of the Belgian state,” says Emma-Lee Amponsah, a co-founder of the Belgian-Dutch organisation Black Speaks Back.
But this “clear division” is problematic, asserts Amponsah, because it legitimises the idea that the Belgian Congo was “much better” than the Congo Free State. “Because of this idea there hasn’t been a lot of space to condemn colonialism altogether,” she says.
Mathys agrees that “much of the violence of the Congo Free State spilt over into the period of colonial Belgian Congo.”
Amponsah argues people are now fighting to remove statues of Leopold II not just because of his own actions, but also because he is “a symbol of the colonial past”.
“The statues represent the history of Belgium very clearly,” she says. “They represent who should be perceived as a hero, who is in charge of the collective memories of the past... this is the most tangible thing that people can contest. That’s why we are talking about his statues.”
'A true visionary for his time'
Not all Belgians are in agreement over the removal of the statues. Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, a Belgian author and president of BAMKO, an anti-racism NGO, tells Euronews there are groups of former colonists, families that have benefited from colonialism, “who are happy with the work of Leopold II and want the statues of Leopold II to remain”.
The political class is divided on the issue she says, with the right-wing parties less inclined to agree with the removal of them.
In 2010, Belgian politician Louis Michel told a magazine: “Leopold II was a true visionary for his time, a hero."
Louis Michel is the father of the former Belgian prime minister and current European Council President Charles Michel.
Emma-Lee Amponsah says her organisation often receive messages from people saying "the statues should stay, that’s their history.”
“But it’s definitely not the most popular opinion,” she adds.
Will protesters take matters into their own hands, like those in Bristol did? An online petition to remove Leopold II’s statues is gathering pace, and protesters in Ghent defaced a Leopold II bust last week, scrawling on it the final words of George Floyd - "Please, I can't breathe".
“You know, Belgians are very particular,” says Mireille-Tsheusi Robert.
“They love the culture of compromise. There should always be compromises and so I don’t know if they [politicians] will actually react this time but if they don’t react it is very possible that the population will act themselves. If they do not want to remove the statues, it is very possible that [the population] will remove them.”
With the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in the UK this weekend, it is clear movements to re-assess the past within other former colonialist nations are starting to gather force. And Gillian Mathys argues it's important not to think of Leopold II’s regime in the Congo as something exceptional.
“The British seem to think their colonialism was somehow more benevolent, I don’t think that’s really true. All colonial empires were inherently violent and aimed at exploitation. It’s important not to exceptionalise the Leopold II regime. Violence and exploitation were a fundamental character trait of colonial systems everywhere.”