Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. have sparked a reckoning about racism and colonialism across the world, including in Belgium, where a growing movement is demanding the country address systemic racism and make amends for its violent colonial legacy. King Philippe issued an unprecedented statement “expressing regret” for Belgium’s brutal colonial rule in Congo under Leopold II, who ran the country as his personal fiefdom and under whose command millions of Congolese were enslaved and killed. “It’s an erased history,” says Belgo-Congolese journalist and activist Gia Abrassart. We also speak with Princess Esméralda, a member of the Belgian royal family and great-grandniece of Leopold II, who says the country has taken an important first step, but adds that “we have to go much farther.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
The Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States has catalyzed a reckoning about racism and colonialism across the globe, including in Belgium, where a growing movement is demanding Belgium address systemic racism and make amends for its brutal colonial legacy. Protests have rocked Belgium as demonstrators demand the removal of statues of King Leopold II, who became king in 1865 and ruled what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo as his own personal colony until 1908, in a reign of terror that killed up to 10 million people.
In the 1880s, Leopold II seized land in Central Africa 76 times the size of Belgium. He ran the region for his own personal profit, commanding a private army that included Congolese children, and draining the land of its resources, including rubber and ivory. Under his command, millions of Congolese people were enslaved and separated from their families. His troops were ordered to collect the hands of victims and to shoot those who resisted slave labor. He also imported Congolese people for a human zoo in Belgium. Leopold II was forced to give up Congo as his private fiefdom in 1908, though it remained under Belgian rule until 1960, when Congo won its independence.
Now 60 years later, Belgium has hardly reckoned with its bloody past. Statues of Leopold II can be seen in cities across Belgium. In Brussels last month, activists climbed a statue of Leopold II and chanted “murderer” while waving the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Meanwhile, Belgian authorities in the city of Ghent removed a separate statue of Leopold on Congo’s Independence Day, June 30th. The move came after protesters doused it with red paint to symbolize the blood of murdered Congolese. A Leopold statue was also removed in Antwerp.
This reckoning led King Philippe of Belgium to issue an unprecedented statement expressing regret for Belgium’s colonial rule in a letter to DRC President Félix Tshisekedi. The Belgian Parliament has also agreed to form a new truth and reconciliation commission to address the legacy of its genocidal rule in Congo. This all comes amidst a growing demand for reparations.
For more, we’re joined by a descendant of King Leopold II who’s joining the protesters in demanding a reckoning about his brutal legacy. Princess Esméralda is the great-grandniece of Belgium’s Leopold II. She’s the aunt of the current King Philippe of Belgium and the daughter of the former King Leopold III. She is joining us from London. And in Brussels, we’re also joined by Gia Abrassart, the Congolese Belgian activist and founder of Café Congo in Brussels.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gia Abrassart, let’s begin with you. You are Congolese living in Belgium. You run the Congo Café. Can you talk about the legacy of Leopold II and what it means? So often, in now hearing the story of the king, who considered Congo his personal fiefdom, we think of the cutting off of hands. Ten million people died under his rule. Explain this history, or at least describe it to us.
GIA ABRASSART: Yes. I’m not a historian, but I’m a journalist. I’m a Belgo-Congolese journalist. And I like to read, to study the construction of the Belgium national narratives.
And I observed how systematically there is an obliteration, there is an erasure, of the Congo’s contribution in the co-construction of the Belgium identity. That’s why, coming from — starting from King Leopold II, who was the second king of Belgium, but also a builder and also the head of the Free State of Congo, he had duties and responsibilities, and that continuity, that colonial continuity, you know, after we had the Belgian Congo, and then we arrive today with the systematic discrimination. And I can confirm that I’m the fruit of this shared history between Belgium and Congo, but it is a denial history. It’s a erased history.
That’s why, you know, starting from my point of view, from my experience, I think it’s really important to testimony and also to anchor these observations in historical facts, because we have archives, we have facts, we have evidence of these crimes, of these colonial crimes under King Leopold II and under Belgian Congo. It’s important to frame directly, to link directly to the demands of the new generation today. That’s the colonial continuum.
That’s why now we arrive in a momentum. It starts from King Leopold II and, you know, the demands, the negotiations to remove definitely these statues of King Leopold II as the head of the Free Congo State. But, you know, if you keep on the reflection, it goes further. And we would like to work not on the material and memorial reparation, because it has still an impact today on us, on the new generation, on the Afro-descendant generation. It means, for example, the ceiling glass, you know, the racial ceiling glass, the discrimination, the systematic negrophobia. That’s why we are really aware, and we are really in that kind of momentum with the internationally, you know, revendications.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Princess Esméralda, I want to ask you about the Belgian government’s response so far to this history between Belgium and — colonial Belgium and Congo. In recent years, the Belgian government has issued apologies for some aspects of its relationship to Congo, including the separation of mixed-race children from their Congolese mothers, as well as for Belgium’s role in the assassination of Congo’s first post-colonial prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Even though many, including the U.N., have called for Belgium to apologize for its brutal rule, King Philippe, in the letter that we mentioned earlier and he sent to the DRC president, he only expressed the deepest regret for what Belgium had done, acts of violence and cruelty, as he said. Now many have said that that letter, quite apart from not containing an apology, is almost entirely irrelevant because the king does not represent the viewpoint of the Belgian government, since he’s not formally a member. And then the question of why it is that Belgium has apologized for certain aspects of its rule but not for its overall brutality in the region. So, could you talk about that, and whether you think these protests might produce an apology now?
PRINCESS ESMÉRALDA OF BELGIUM: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, there was also always some mixed message. There was some apologies for some things, but there were other people, other ministers, saying, “No, we should not apologize. We cannot erase history.”
So, I think, honestly, this first step by the king, saying that he expressed deep regret, obviously doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a first step. It’s quite historical in our country that a chief of state recognizes, acknowledges the problem of the past. Obviously, we have to go much further.
And the Parliament has voted for a commission of truth and reconciliation. And I really hope that this will expose the past honestly, get rid of a narrative that was built over the years with a certain nostalgia by some of Belgium ex-colonizers saying, “But there were good things in the colony.” No, there were not. It was a brutal system, which provoked crime. It was exploitation of the people. And not only the crimes and the rapes and the most atrocious human rights violation happened, but also it had an impact on the country culturally and a deep impact in the society that is still today.
And, of course, we have to realize that racism in our country, like in many countries of Europe, are essentially from colonialism and slavery. And Belgium is not alone. I’m aware that there are petitions that are starting to be organized for other European countries to recognize, acknowledge their past.
AMY GOODMAN: Princess —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gia, I want to ask —
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, Nermeen. Go ahead.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gia, I wanted to ask you — one of the demands that protesters are making is to transform the curricula of Belgian schools so this colonial history is taught more accurately. For decades, Belgian children were taught that Leopold II in fact brought civilization to the areas of Central Africa that he governed, abolishing slavery, building roads and schools, introducing democracy to Congo. Now the education minister for French-language schools has said educators would require the teaching of Congolese history and Belgian colonialism. Could you talk about that? What needs to be taught in Belgian schools?
GIA ABRASSART: I think it’s a first step for a memorial reparation. We are not talking about amnesty of amnesia. We are not here to restore, you know, the colonial personalities’ honor. But even if we are forgiving and we are doing great steps to include in schools the colonial past of Belgium, we can’t forget, for example, that the Congolese lands were plundered in the name of, apparently, legal text, which only recognized, you know, the white are the strongest. We can’t forget that there was apartheid under the colonial past, under the Belgian Congo and under the Free State of Congo, and that Black persons were not allowed to go to cinemas, to restaurants or so-called European shops. And it’s that kind of, you know, historical facts, historical denial, historical crimes, that we have to share in the public space.
And I think that this commission that Parliament will allow, that implements from September, the truth, reconciliation — and, I would add, reparation — it means material and memorial — will really create like a collective therapy for all the Belgians, including the post-colonial bodies like Congolese, Burundis and Rwandis. I think it’s a kind of a shared collective memory. I’m, you know, that kind of irreversible fruit of this shared history, and the fact that even at university when you are studying journalism, you don’t cope with the real facts of the history of Belgium, when at schools you are not including in the manuals the real colonial past of Belgium, coming from King Leopold II in 1885 'til 1960s, when the independence of Congo was there. You know, it's important for a affirmation and to include all the Belgium citizenships in the more serene atmosphere. No, Belgium won’t escape that kind of a therapy and work, you know, on its colonial past. It’s really important.
AMY GOODMAN: Princess Esméralda, I’m wondering if you can talk about the historic silence of your family, of the royal family, and the journey that you took, how you came to understand Leopold’s history? You’re the aunt of the current king. Your father was king. And, of course, you’re the great-grandniece of Leopold II, who we’re talking about today. Give us a history lesson on what you understand he did.
PRINCESS ESMÉRALDA OF BELGIUM: Well, obviously, because I am part of this family, I feel the responsibility to talk. I mean, my family has not talked before. I was one advocating always to talk about it, and, recently, to really apologize for this past, because I strongly believe that only with apologies first, we can build something different. We confront our past, and then we can build new relationship.
My personal path, I have been an activist for the environment and for human rights for a long time. And I can see so much the link between racism, even in the climate crisis now, even in the way the Indigenous people are displaced by all the multinationals, the same way the colonizer moved and killed the Indigenous people before. So, all that, for me, makes so much sense.
And I think we have to talk about that. It’s a difficult conversation for many, especially when we talk about reparation, but it is absolutely necessary if we want to have a just, fair society. So, if we talk about reparation, why not start by fair trade? That seems to be obvious. There are so many things we can do and try to have a better society, where community can talk and flourish, and where we don’t have the discrimination that we see every day.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Princess Esméralda, as you’ve mentioned — you mentioned and Gia mentioned earlier, as well — the question of reparations, one of the striking things is that Congo is an extremely resource-rich country but is also one of the poorest countries in the world. You mentioned now the issue of fair trade. Could you talk about the enduring legacy, the ways in which Congo continues to suffer from this legacy, and, in addition to fair trade and reparations, what you think needs to happen?
PRINCESS ESMÉRALDA OF BELGIUM: Well, yes, that’s really the doom of the country. The country is so rich in resources, in all the minerals, and, unfortunately, the population is still not benefiting from that, because you still have a lot of multinationals which are plundering the country. And that’s obviously a legacy from the past and from the colonial state before.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Princess Esméralda is the great-grandniece of Belgium’s Leopold II. She’s the aunt of the current King Philippe of Belgium and the daughter of the former King Leopold III. She’s speaking to us from London, where she’s been arrested with Extinction Rebellion, protesting around the climate crisis. I also want to thank Gia Abrassart, who is the Congolese Belgian activist and founder of Café Congo in Brussels.
And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras, María Taracena. Special thanks to Julie Crosby and Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.