Call for Brussels statue to be melted and made into memorial for Congo victims

A bronze statue of 19th-century Belgian king Léopold II in the centre of Brussels could be melted down and turned into a monument to the millions who died during his brutal rule of the Belgian Congo and other victims of colonialism, an expert group has suggested.

The group of historians, architects and other specialists, commissioned by the Brussels regional government, also suggests a second option for the Léopold II bronze: creating an open-air statue park to house the equestrian work, along with other controversial monuments to figures of the colonial past.

The two scenarios were proposed in a 256-page report on the “decolonisation” of public space in the Belgian capital, which was commissioned by Brussels after Black Lives Matter protests swept across the city in 2020.

The Léopold II equestrian statue, close to the Royal Palace, became a flashpoint for protesters during what became the largest demonstrations against racism in Brussels that participants could remember.

Brussels has scores of monuments and streets named after the men who built Belgium’s empire in the late 19th century “scramble for Africa”. King Léopold II ran the Congo as his personal fiefdom from 1885 に 1908, when millions of people died of brutal treatment, hunger and disease. The Belgian state took over the Congo from 1908 それまで 1960, gaining colonies in modern-day Rwanda and ブルンジ from Germany after the first world war.

Belgium’s colonial legacy, including violence against African populations, the theft of natural resources and anti-black racism are “established historical facts that are not always recognised and fully acknowledged by ベルギー,” states the report.

The group does not recommend tearing down all statutes, but proposes a case-by-case approach on what to do with them. Some monuments could be removed to museums or a statue park; others could be renamed or put in context with information plaques.

“A decolonised public space is not a space in which all colonial traces have been effaced,” stated the report, “but free of material elements that promote then and now the asymmetric relation between the former white ‘civiliser’ and the former colonised black person, perpetuating a racist ideology and inequalities”.

The Parc du Cinquantenaire, a monumental green space built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Belgian state, financed by wealth pouring in from Congolese rubber, should be redeveloped, the expert group suggested. A monument in the park to the “Belgian pioneers” of the colonies should be renamed “monument to the deconstruction of Belgian colonial propaganda”, they suggested.

The expert group also proposed a memorial to the victims of colonisation, as well as a museum or documentation centre where people can learn about Belgium’s imperial past.

It warns against changing names by public vote, しかしながら, highlighting the furore when the Léopold II tunnel in Brussels was renamed after the late Belgian singer Annie Cordy in 2021.

マーク・ラニーガン, で死んだ人 2020, came top of a public vote on renaming the tunnel, but the choice was controversial. Some criticised her old hit Hot Chocolate for its crude racial stereotypes, although her family strongly denied she had racist intentions. Others deplored the decision to name the tunnel in bilingual Brussels, after a singer far better known among Francophone Belgians than Dutch speakers. While fans said the decision to give an “ugly, dirty” tunnel her name was an “insult to her memory”.

Pascal Smet, the minister in charge of urban planning for the Brussels capital region, said the group had taken a nuanced approach in addressing colonial monuments. “The easiest thing would be to get rid of all the statues, but they didn’t choose that," 彼は言った.

“Of course we all know for the individuals that are living in our city today, nobody is responsible for the colonisation, so there is no question of culpability, but it’s a question of a collective responsibility," 彼は言った. “I think it very important, especially in the times that we are living now … not be stuck in history, but to understand history.”

Many Brussels residents did not realise the significance of some colonial-era monuments and street names, 彼は言った. He had been unaware that the large thoroughfare, rue Général Jacques, had a link with the Congo. The street commemorates Jules Jacques, who organised punitive expeditions against Congolese workers who resisted Belgian-imposed rubber collection, but was later celebrated as a national hero during the first world war.

Smet, who signs the permits to erect and dismantle monuments, hopes to publish an action plan by September, with the first decisions on individual monuments taken at the end of the year.

A memorial to the victims of colonisation could be funded by the Belgian public sector and companies that profited from empire, 彼が提案した. It was clear “something has to be done” with the Léopold II statue in central Brussels, but further debate was needed, 彼は言った.

Belgium’s federal government, the owner of the central Brussels Léopold II bronze, would take the final decision, while choices on street names fall largely to local authorities in Brussels’ 19 communes.

Smet promised the report would not languish. “This is not going to be a report that we have and say ‘ahh that’s interesting’ and then we put it on the shelf. This is going to be a report that has to be followed up.”