Belgium and Congo
Africamuseum, Parc de Tervueren © visit.brussels - Jean-Paul Remy - 2019

Dark Tourism: Belgium and Congo, Grim Beyond The Waffles

Belgium, a land renowned for its picturesque cities and delightful waffles, harbours a dark and controversial past that bleeds into the present. Beyond the charming façades and cobblestone streets lies a history steeped in colonial brutality, a narrative that unfolds ominously within its borders. This tale of exploitation and resistance, largely untold or glossed over in the mainstream narrative, is starkly evident in the ties between Belgium and Congo. The shadows of this history linger, turning Belgium into an unlikely destination for those exploring the darker aspects of European colonialism.

Belgium and Congo: The History

Tracing the shadowy links between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) unveils a narrative of exploitation and resistance. This tale unfolds in the late 19th century amidst European powers’ voracious scramble for Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, a notorious summit of colonial carving, saw Africa divvied up like a chocolate cake at a feast where no Africans were invited to the table. Here, King Leopold II of Belgium clutched the vast expanse of the Congo with a stroke of a pen and no semblance of African consent.

This marked the genesis of the Congo Free State, a personal fiefdom of Leopold II, sprawling 80 times the size of Belgium. Under his reign, the land, rich in rubber and minerals, was mercilessly plundered. The human cost was staggering – it’s estimated that the Congo’s population halved, plummeting by about 10 million, from murders, famine and disease.

In the nightmarish landscape of colonial rule, severed hands became a grotesque symbol, a dark testament to the tyranny for failing to meet harsh harvest quotas. This era was riddled with horrors: enforced labour under threat, relentless corporal punishment, abductions, and the ruthless destruction of rebellious villages – each act a stark, brutal chapter in the history of oppression.

Belgium and Congo
Quality Academy - AfricaMuseum © visit.brussels - Jean-Paul Remy - 2019

Following a global uproar, the Belgian state took over in 1908, renaming it the Belgian Congo. This shift was more in name than in nature, with exploitation continuing under a veneer of European civilisation. The Congolese relegated to second-class citizens in their land toiled under a system of racial hierarchy and economic disparity.

The winds of change began to stir in the 1950s, culminating in the Congo’s 1960 dance with independence, led by figures like Patrice Lumumba. However, this newfound freedom was short-lived. Lumumba’s vision for a genuinely independent Congo clashed with the interests of the West, leading to his tragic demise in 1961, with the complicity of Belgian and US secret services – a sinister chapter Belgium acknowledged only decades later.

The ensuing years under Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule were a rollercoaster of Belgian-Congolese relations – a tango of diplomatic pragmatism and moral ambiguity as Belgium grappled with its colonial legacy and Mobutu’s autocratic excesses.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we see Belgium wrestling with its colonial ghosts. Once a colonial showroom, the African Museum in Tervuren rebranded itself, kickstarting a wave of restitution of looted artefacts and remains. In a landmark moment, echoing amidst global anti-racist movements, King Philippe, in a letter to President Tshisekedi, voiced regret over colonial atrocities, a royal first.

Yet, Belgium’s journey towards atonement is complex. A parliamentary commission, set up in 2021, is sifting through the intricate web of colonial injustice, deliberating on financial reparations and integrating this dark chapter into the national consciousness.

For a genuine thaw in relations, Belgium needs not just to confront but also to reconcile with its colonial past actively. This involves a nod to historical accountability and a meaningful, equitable dialogue with the DRC. The path forward extends beyond mere diplomatic gestures; it calls for a more profound societal change. It’s about redefining history with Congolese perspectives leading the narrative, shifting the focus from a past dominated by control to one that celebrates shared human experiences and mutual respect.

Belgium and Congo
Africamuseum, Parc de Tervueren © visit.brussels - Jean-Paul Remy - 2019

Belgium has yet to repatriate numerous Congolese cultural treasures, including statues, ivory masks, manuscripts, and musical instruments, acquired by Belgian and other European collectors, scientists, and explorers during the colonial era. Beyond the return of these looted artefacts, a broader reparations policy encompassing the revision of Belgian educational curricula and the establishment of trade agreements favourable to the Congolese.

The general Belgian public remains largely uninformed about the country’s brutal colonial history in Congo, owing to the limited educational focus on this dark period. Controversially, the tradition of “Black Pete” – a character depicted by white individuals in blackface as a jester-like assistant to St. Nicholas – persists despite growing recognition of its discriminatory nature.

Belgium and Congo Landmarks

In a striking yet disturbing symbol of the colonial era, the Royal Museum for Central Africa houses a collection of artefacts, including sculptures made from the hands of Congolese labourers – a grim reminder of the atrocities where hands were cut off as punishment. 

Located in Tervuren, a suburban town near Brussels, the Royal Museum for Central Africa is an architectural wonder. This majestic building, reminiscent of a palace, is adorned with classical facades that speak of a time when European empires flourished. Surrounded by lush gardens, the museum stands as a testament to the grandeur often associated with imperial aesthetics. Its imposing structure and the elegance of its design are in stark contrast to the sombre history it houses, creating a poignant juxtaposition of beauty and historical gravity.

Yet, within these ornate walls lies a collection that starkly contrasts its outer beauty. Among the most jarring artifacts are sculptures, hauntingly crafted from the hands of Congolese laborers. These sculptures, beyond their macabre physicality, are harrowing symbols of the brutal practices in the Belgian Congo – a period when the severing of hands was a widespread, barbaric punishment meted out to enforce rubber quota failures or as grotesque trophies of colonial subjugation.

These sculptures, alongside other artifacts, narrate a tale of exploitation and horror under Belgian rule, depicting a time when human life was secondary to the whims of colonial profit and power. The Royal Museum for Central Africa, while offering a window into Belgium’s African ventures, stands predominantly as a somber testament to a dark chapter in history. It’s a space where the echoes of colonial atrocities linger, challenging visitors to confront uncomfortable truths about Belgium’s imperial legacy.

Food and Drink: A Delight with Dark Undertones

Belgian cuisine, known for its waffles, fries, and chocolates, is celebrated worldwide. However, even here, its past casts a shadow. Much of Belgium’s wealth, which contributed to its culinary development, was derived from its colonial exploits, particularly in the chocolate industry. Cocoa, essential for chocolate production, was historically sourced from colonies under exploitative conditions. This complex history adds a bittersweet dimension to the country’s culinary delights.

Linguistic Divide and Regional Tensions

Belgium’s internal dynamics are equally complex. The country is divided into Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with Brussels as a bilingual enclave. This linguistic divide is more than just a cultural distinction; it’s a source of political and social tension that traces back to historical inequalities between the regions. This divide plays a significant role in contemporary Belgian politics and affects everything from media to education and employment opportunities.

As we confront Belgium’s unsettling history, from the haunting legacy of colonialism to the complex dynamics of its modern society, the decision to travel there becomes a deeply personal one. Engaging with Belgium’s past and present is about acknowledging the darker chapters of history and understanding their impact on the world today.

Choosing to explore Belgium and Congo history offers a chance to witness firsthand how a nation grapples with its historical shadows while celebrating its cultural vibrancy. However, it’s crucial to remember that turning a blind eye to history doesn’t erase it; it only deepens the shadows. In the end, whether to journey through Belgium’s streets, where history whispers from every corner, is a decision that lies in the hands of the traveller – a choice between facing the uncomfortable truths of the past or remaining in the comfort of ignorance. Like history itself, this choice is an indelible part of our journey through the world’s complex tapestry.


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