Leopold II statues defaced and removed across Belgium

Summary

As Black Lives Matter protests continue to rage around the world, the debate around monuments to colonial king Leopold II has broken wide open

Re-examining the past

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 earlier this month. The protests were the catalyst for a new round of debates about the presence of monuments to the colonialist king.

The former Belgian king made Congo his personal property for 23 years, from 1885 to 1908. He 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 Congo from Leopold II in 1908.

Early this month, two petitions were launched demanding that Brussels-City and Halle remove their respective monuments to Leopold II. The Brussels petition currently has nearly 78,000 signatures.

Leopold II, despite his historical relevance to our country, is not the kind of public figure that we want to put on a pedestal

- KU Leuven rector Luc Sels

In Antwerp, a statue of Leopold was removed from its pedestal last week. The statue (pictured above) next to the Sint-Lambertus Church in the district of Ekeren had been set on fire and was too damaged to repair on site.

“We are planning a renovation of this square, in any case,” Ekeren mayor Koen Palinckx (N-VA) told VRT. “We’ll have to assess whether that statue, or another one entirely, should be placed on this spot.” He also said that if the statue can be restored it would perhaps be better placed at the Middelheim Museum, the city’s open air sculpture park.

In Mons, Wallonia, a bust of Leopold II has been removed from the city’s university. In a statement the university said that it had been moved “to a less visible location” 20 years ago. “On Monday, UMons made the decision to remove the bust entirely and place it in storage so that no one – students, staff and visitors – will be offended by its presence.”

‘No justice, no freedom’

Days after Mons removed its statue, KU Leuven removed its bust of Leopold from its famous library building. “The bust has no particular historical or artistic value,” wrote KU Leuven rector Luc Sels in a blog on the subject. “It does not shed light on or illustrate historical facts. At the moment, it does not come with any context at all. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that it has the usual function of a bust: honouring a historical figure. Like myself, many have noted that Leopold II, despite his historical relevance to our country, is not the kind of public figure that we, as the KU Leuven community, want to put on a pedestal.”

The well-known statue of Leopold on horseback in Troonplein in Brussels-City, meanwhile, was covered in graffiti, with phrases like “Murderer” and “No justice, no freedom”. The king’s hand was also painted red, a fairly regular occurrence, meant to represent both the blood of the Congolese who died under his reign and hands of slaves that were cut off when they failed to meet their rubber harvest quota.

The paint has been cleaned off, but Brussels state secretary for heritage and urban planning, Pascal Smet (one.brussels), announced that he is asking his government to organise a debate on the removal of statues and busts of Leopold.


The debate would be carried out among politicians, the Congolese community in Brussels and historians. If there is a consensus that the statues will be removed, he is prepared to issue the order to do so. He also said that he would like to see a memorial to the Congolese colonisation in Brussels.

The largest public work dedicated to Leopold II, meanwhile, is in Ostend, a city that greatly benefitted from Leopold’s riches gained through the trade of rubber and other resources from Congo. At the base of the statue (pictured above), Congolese people and colonialists gaze upwards at a mounted Leopold. On the other side, grateful fisherfolk of the city do the same.

A text states: “The Congolese people thank Leopold II for having freed them from slavery under the Arabs”.

‘Counter-monument’

Red paint has been splashed onto this statue many times over the years, and the hand of one of the statue’s Congolese slaves was cut off some years ago in reference to the common colonial practice. A suspect was arrested last week for defacing the statue the week before.

Ostend mayor Bart Tommelein has met with members of Belgian Youth Against Racism to discuss options, though removing the statue is out of the question. “We are choosing to look critically at Ostend’s colonial past,” said mayor Bart Tommelein (Open Vld) and equal opportunities city councillor Silke Beirens (Groen) said in a joint statement. “Colonialism is a black period in Belgian history, and also of our city. We understand the pain that some people continue to feel because of the colonial period, and have paid attention to the signals they have given over the last few weeks.”

The city has always held firm to retaining the statue, and that has not changed. Tommelein said, however, that another “counter-monument” would be placed to offer context. What form that would take is as yet unclear. “That will be decided in conversation with the Congolese and Ostend communities.”

Photos, from top: Courtesy ATV; ©Kurt Desplenter/BELGA