Inside the palatial walls of Belgium’s Africa Museum stand statues of Leopold II – each one a monument to the king whose rule killed as many as 10 million Africans.
Standing close by, one visitor said, “I didn’t know anything about Leopold II until I heard about the statues defaced down town”.
Last week a statue of Leopold II in the city of Antwerp was set on fire before authorities took it down. Statues have been daubed with red paint in Ghent and Ostend and pulled down in Brussels.
Leopold II’s rule in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo was so bloody it was eventually condemned by other European colonialists in 1908 – but it has taken far longer to come under scrutiny at home.
Colony built on forced labour and brutality
“Civilisation” was at the core of Leopold II’s pitch to European leaders in 1885 when they sliced up and allocated territories in what became known as the Scramble for Africa.
He promised a humanitarian and philanthropic mission that would improve the lives of Africans.
In return European leaders, gathered at the Berlin Conference, granted him 2m sq km (770,000 sq miles) to forge a personal colony where he was free to do as he liked. He called it Congo Free State.
It quickly became a brutal, exploitative regime that relied on forced labour to cultivate and trade rubber, ivory and minerals.
Colonial administrators also kidnapped orphaned children from communities and transported them to “child colonies” to work or train as soldiers. Estimates suggest more than 50% died there.
Killings, famine and disease combined to cause the deaths of perhaps 10 million people, though historians dispute the true number.
Leopold II may never have set foot there, but he poured the profits into Belgium and into his pockets.