Petitions demand removal of statues of Leopold II

Summary

In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests around the world, the subject of statues dedicated to Leopold II has resurfaced

Images ‘no longer belong’

Two petitions to remove statues of King Leopold II have gained 51,000 signatures this week. While one of them covers all monuments dedicated to Belgium’s former king in Brussels-City, the other is focused on one bust in Halle.

The petitions have arrived in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has reached a fever pitch in the US over the last 10 days following the death of George Floyd. A black man, Floyd died while a white police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes during an arrest.

While the death of black people at the hands police officers in the US has led to protests and rioting before, this is the largest and longest activity to date, and the first time that protests have taken place around the world, including in Flanders and Brussels.

Colonial atrocities

Local politicians, human rights representatives and historians have long debated the appropriateness of statues devoted to Leopold II. King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909, Leopold launched the colonisation of the Congo in 1885, which would last for 75 years.

The colonisation led to the death of up to 15 million Congolese, who were subjected to torture, murder and other atrocities in Leopold’s – and then Belgium’s – quest for rubber and other resources. Leopold made Congo his personal property until 1908, when the shocking level of abuse finally prompted the Belgian state to take over the administration of the colony.

“Despite the outright contempt that he had for life and for the Congolese people, Leopold II continues to be honoured in Belgium,” reads one of the petitions, which was posted under the name Reparons l’Histoire. “We are requesting that Brussels-City remove every statue of Leopold II, starting with the one on Troonplein. Brussels is made up of 118 neighbourhoods with 200 nationalities and is the capital of Belgium and of Europe. These images no longer belong in Brussels, nor in Belgium.”

We could take steps to create a better Belgium when it comes to racism

The petition also states that a deadline is set for 30 June, the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Congo, though what might follow should the city not make a statement by then is unclear.

In any case, Brussels-City councillor of heritage, Khalid Zian (PS), has indicated that the subject will be raised during the next council meeting on 8 June. The petition, launched two days ago, sets a goal of 25,000 signatures and was up to more than 48,000 when this article was posted.

One ‘hanne vande v’, meanwhile, has launched another petition to get a bust of Leopold II removed from the city park in Halle. “Everyone has seen what is happening in America,” she writes on the petition page. “But we could also take steps to create a better Belgium when it comes to racism. In Halle, there is still a statue of Leopold II, which I find shocking considering that he is responsible for the murder of millions of Congolese. We don’t learn anything about this in school, but 50 metres from the school you can find this bust of a murderer.”

The petition has collected over 3,400 of its 5,000 signature goal. Both petitions refer to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Photo: The statue of King Leopold II in Troonplein
©Herwig Vergult/BELGA