King Filip issues apology to Congo for colonial past

Summary

The first Belgian authority to formally apologise to the DRC for colonial atrocities, King Filip sent his letter on the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence

‘I express my deepest regrets’

King Filip has become the first authority in Belgium to apologise to the Democratic Republic of Congo for crimes and atrocities committed during the colonial period. The king’s letter of apology to Congolese president Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo has been delivered today, the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence from Belgium.

In the letter (full text below), Filip (pictured) expresses his “deepest regrets” for the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted by Leopold II. The former Belgian king, Filip’s great-granduncle, created the Congo Free State in 1885, making the country his personal property for 23 years.

Leopold is notorious in colonial history for his enslavement of millions of Congolese and ensuing atrocities over the period. It is estimated that anywhere from five to 15 million Congolese people died as a direct result of colonisation during the period.

So serious were the consequences that the Belgian state took over the administration of the colony from Leopold II in 1908, creating the Belgian Congo.

The DRC’s first president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, waves to the crowds during independence celebrations in 1960

King Filip is the first Belgian monarch to formally express regret for the country’s colonial atrocities. The king added that he was committed to combating “all forms of racism”.

In recent weeks, several statues of Leopold II in Belgium have been defaced, knocked over or removed by authorities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest, prompting a new round of debates about the presence of monuments to the colonialist king.

Prime minister Sophie Wilmès is also expected to deliver a speech later on the Belgian government’s behalf, apologising for 75 years of colonial mistreatment.

King Filip’s letter to president Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo:

“On the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to you and the Congolese people.

This anniversary is an excellent opportunity to reconfirm our bonds of friendship. We look forward to the intense co-operation between our two countries in various areas, particularly in the field of medicine. Today the pandemic demands our full attention, ahead of all other challenges. The privileged partnership between Belgium and Congo is a strong asset in addressing this. On the occasion of your national holiday, I would like to confirm our commitment to this partnership.

In order to strengthen our ties and deepen the friendship between our countries, we must be able to speak openly and serenely about our long shared history.

At the time of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and atrocity were committed that continue to weigh on our collective memory

This history consists of common achievements, but also of painful episodes. At the time of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and atrocity were committed that continue to weigh on our collective memory. The ensuing colonial period inflicted suffering and humiliation. I express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, wounds that are again painfully tangible today due to acts of discrimination and that are still so prevalent in our society. I will continue to fight against all forms of racism. I am in full support of the current state of reflection within our parliament in how to come to terms with the past.

We need to look to the future in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect to address global challenges. The struggle for human dignity and for sustainable development requires that we join forces. I have this ambition for both our countries and both continents, Africa and Europe.

Due to the current circumstances, I unfortunately cannot travel to your beautiful country, which I would like to get to know better. I hope I have the opportunity to do that soon.”

Photos, from top: ©Yorick Jansens/BELGA, Belga Archives