Decolonizing Travel: A Decolonizing Tour of Brussels

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Decolonizing Travel is a series aimed at shedding light on the colonial past of major European and North American countries through the revisiting of monuments, streets, and sites particularly related to it.

2020 marks the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium. Starting in 1885, the territory we now know as the Democratic Republic of the Congo used to be King Leopold II’s personal property.

Named back then as the Congo Free State, this territory 76 times the size of Belgium was not precisely a colony — it was more akin to the personal property of the monarch. Leopold capitalized on the natural and human resources there to the tune of $1.1 billion in today’s dollars, enslaving Congo’s male population to gather wild rubber and ivory.

Women were held hostage by the king’s soldiers in order to force the men to go into the rain forest and work. Crops were left unattended, and the army seized much of the food left. The population succumbed to hunger, exploitation, and disease. According to some demographers, an estimated 10 million people died during these years.  

After 23 years, the violence was so ubiquitous and well documented, strong diplomatic pressure was placed on Belgium to take official control of the territory, which led to creation of the Belgian Congo in 1908.

While the situation became less dire then, the Congolese were still forcibly submitted to Belgian law. Corporal punishment remained until late in the 1950s, an “implicit apartheid” was installed, and discriminate laws caused thousands of mixed-race Congolese children to be forcibly deported and taken from the Congo to Belgium.

60 years after independence, most of this history remains outside of Belgian’s collective consciousness, while victims and their descendants still deal with the consequences of it. 

Thanks to the work done by different activist organizations, and a new generation of opinion makers and artists well-versed in migration, this is beginning to change.

In this decolonizing tour guide, we visit some of the main spots in Brussels still linked to colonial history as a way to remembrance the past and create opportunities for recovery and recognition.

central africa museum in brusselsA Decolonizing Tour Through Brussels

The Royal Museum for Central Africa

A highlight of the 1897 world’s fair in Brussels was the Colonial Exhibition, hosted in the Palais des Colonies located in Tervuren. In it, 267 Congolese men, women, and children were on display for months, showing the more than 1 million visitors what “life in Congo” was through various replicas of villages and sceneries, in which they pretended to hunt, fish, and cook traditional meals.

The Colonial Exhibition was so successful, and the assets presented in the Palais became so many — from indigenous art to an ichthyology room showcasing tropical fish — that the place was eventually transformed into what we now know as the Royal Museum for Central Africa.

The “Congolese village” in Brussels’s Tervuren.

After a full century of controversy regarding its treatment (or lack thereof) of colonial history that forced it to close several times and go through a series of remodels, the doors of the Museum opened again in 2018. While there’s still much work to be made, it now has a thematic area dedicated to colonial propaganda and history, explanatory signs of the exhibitions, and the work of multiple Congolese and African artists.

Matongé District

The Matongé district, located in Ixelles, gets its name from a district in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital, and was established by Congolese migrants shortly after independence. While the area is currently facing the perils of gentrification, it remains to this day a hotspot for the Congolese and African community in Brussels.

A century ago though, this was the political center for Congo, a place where you would find various colonial administration’s offices such as the Ministry of Colonies or the Belgian Bank for Africa. It was after the installment of the Maison Africaine in the late 1950s, a building meant to accommodate Africans studying in Belgium, that the area transformed into what it is today, eventually changing its name from Quartier Renking (after Jules Renkin, the then Belgian minister in charge of Colonies) to Matongé. 

Kuumba Cultural Center

As you’re strolling through Matongé, make sure to visit the Flemish-African cultural center Kuumba, which amongst many activities, such as dance and language workshops, exhibitions, and more, provides organized tours of the district led by local Congolese guides, looking to immerse visitors in the area’s history and main spots.

Lumumba Library & Art Gallery

Another must-visit site in Matongé would be the Lumumba Library and Art Gallery, where you’re welcome to browse through more than 10,000 titles, from magazines to books, regarding colonization, decolonization processes, and the history of Congo. If you’re lucky to find him, make sure to have a chat with its owner, Philip Buyck, a prominent activist who has led many initiatives regarding the decolonization of Brussel’s public spaces and the recognition of Congolese artists and creators.

Place Patrice Lumumba 

Named after the Congolese activist turned Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, the Lumumba Square is a recent victory for decolonizing activists in Brussels. After many years of demanding its installment, the Brussels City Council finally gave in in 2018 and declared the former Place du Bastion, at the gate of the Matongé district, the Lumumba Square.

Democratically elected after independence, Patrice Lumumba challenged the Belgian authorities and gave a famous anti-colonialist speech in 1960, shortly before being assassinated with the aid of Belgian officials. Although a national hero in Congo, it took more than 40 years for the Belgian government to recognize their compliance in his murder and almost 60 for his legacy to be publicly acknowledged.

decolonizing sign in brussels square

Cinquentenaire Park 

Built by King Leopold II with funds coming from his operations in the Congo Free State, the Cinquentennaire Park was one of the monarch’s attempts to develop Brussels into a prestigious European capital.

The project was so ambitious the Belgian government wanted nothing to do with its funding, but luckily for Leopold, the business of exporting rubber from his personal colony paid well enough. Not only could he finish building the Cinquentennaire as he wanted, but he also commissioned a large number of buildings and boulevards all around the city. 

As a monument to the Belgian pioneers in Congo, the park’s Triumphal Arc was erected, along with a memorial dedicated to all of the Belgians who died during the colonization process. To this day, both of these landmarks remain as some of the largest, least addressed symbols of colonization in the city.

Leopold II Statue, Place du Trône 

Located right in the center of Brussels, this statue of King Leopold II remains one of the most concrete symbols of the country’s colonial past. Standing at the gates of the Royal Palace, this statue has been attacked multiple times by activists and protestors who demand recognition of the crimes committed by the former monarch. 

square with colonial statue in brusselsAfter the worldwide protests ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement this year, King Leopold II’s statue found itself covered in paint and graffiti multiple times. While many statues across the country were removed, this one still remains, despite a petition signed by 74,000 people calling on the city for its takedown.

While he worked hard to portray himself as a philanthropist looking to bring Christianity and civilization to Africa and his colonized territory, Leopold II never set foot in Congo. Nor did he address or curtail the atrocities committed by his troops once they came to be exposed widely by the international press in the early 1900s. 

While a statue or the name of a street may seem like no big deal to some, they can be a hurtful and insensitive memorial that just seems to prolong the colonial propaganda that had such devastating effects on victims of colonization. Not only do such statues and monuments fail to recognize the horrors caused by such movements, but they end up honoring them. 

By informing ourselves about the darker and more truthful side of history, acknowledging it, and bringing it into the public conversation, we take a small step forward, giving the victims at least a bit of the recognition and visibility they deserve.

If you wish to learn more about Belgium’s colonial history or the decolonization processes currently supported by activists, visit the sites of organizations such as CMCLD or Bamko, both of which offer guided decolonizing tours through Brussels and are actively involved in the movement towards restoration and recognition.

How is your city handling its colonial past? Let us know on Twitter!

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