Belgium’s monarch has expressed his “deepest regrets” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the brutal 23-year rule of his ancestor Leopold II, in a sign of how US antiracism protests have stoked a reckoning in Europe over its colonial past and present-day injustices.
King Philippe wrote to Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi as the country celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence from Belgium on Tuesday, acknowledging “acts of violence and cruelty” that historians estimate led to millions of deaths.
Congo was ruled as Leopold’s personal fiefdom, known as the Congo Free State, between 1885 and 1908, before the Belgian government took over and ruled it as a colony until 1960.
The killing by US police of African American George Floyd in May sparked attacks on statues of Leopold in Belgium and demonstrations against alleged contemporary racism and brutality by law enforcement.
“At the time of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory,” wrote King Philippe, in a statement that stopped short of a full apology. “The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today rekindled by the discrimination still too present in our societies.”
During Leopold’s rule, people were forced to cultivate rubber to fund grand building projects in Belgium. Demographers estimate the country’s population may have halved from 20m to 10m between 1880 and 1920 as a result of murder, hunger, disease and displacement. Other Congolese had their hands or feet cut off by Leopold’s agents.
Donatien Nshole, the leader of the DRC’s organisation of Catholic bishops and a powerful voice in the central African country, welcomed the Belgian king’s admission of regret over a “deep wrong”.
The killing of Mr Floyd had drawn the world’s attention to “the continued role of racism in society” and likely provoked the king’s letter, he said, adding: “The most important thing for me is that the Belgians today no longer behave as the colonists and have learned lessons from history.”
Last year, Charles Michel, then Belgium’s prime minister and now president of the European Council of EU leaders, apologised for the country’s abduction of thousands of mixed-race children from Congo in the years leading up to independence in 1960.
Five women born to Congolese mothers between 1945 and 1950, who were kidnapped and taken to Belgium, have launched a legal claim for crimes against humanity against the Belgian state, the Associated Press reported last week, and are seeking thousands of euros in compensation.
King Philippe’s move raises the question of whether more descendants of the victims of the colonial era might launch compensation claims.
“The unspeakable pain of the Congolese must be understood and eased,” said Israel Mutala, a political commentator in Kinshasa. “Public and solemn apologies are needed from the highest levels in Belgium and perhaps symbolic compensation for the horrors committed.”
The call for an accounting over Belgium’s imperial past has also focused attention on what campaigners say is racism still ingrained in society and institutions.
Didier Reynders, the country’s European commissioner, was publicly challenged by a reporter last week to apologise for wearing and appearing on television in blackface at a charity event when he was foreign minister in 2015. He responded that it was “very possible to apologise for such a situation” but did not explicitly say he did so.
Another high-profile row erupted this month after Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, one of a handful of black European parliament members, alleged that she was pushed against a wall by four Brussels police officers after she had taken pictures of officers harassing two black teenagers at a railway station. The police have denied any wrongdoing and issued a counter claim accusing the MEP of “outrageous behaviour”.
The Brussels prosecutor’s office has said it is investigating the allegations of both Ms Herzberger-Fofana and the police.