BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The brother of Belgium’s king joined a swelling debate about its past on Friday by saying that King Leopold II, under whose rule millions of Congolese were killed or maimed, could not have “made people suffer” because he never visited his colony.
Statues of Leopold, who ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for 23 years until 1908, have been defaced by activists since anti-racism protests against the police killing of black American George Floyd turned global.
Prince Laurent, brother of King Philippe, told the Sudpresse agency that abuses had occurred in the Congo Free State, Leopold’s personal fiefdom and source of wealth, but that Leopold was not to blame.
“He never himself went to Congo,” he said. So I do not see how he could have made people there suffer.”
But Belgium has begun to debate what happened.
Adam Hochschild, author of the best-selling “King Leopold’s Ghost”, concluded that about half the population of the Congo Free State perished under the king. Villages that missed rubber collection quotas were made to provide severed hands instead.
Joachim Coens, chairman of the Flemish Christian Democrats, told the broadcaster VRT it was time for Belgium, and preferably the king himself, to address the issue.
“There must be an acknowledgement that this was a problem in certain aspects,” he said on Thursday evening.
The national newspaper Le Soir led its Friday edition with the headline “Leopold II, the king unnerving the palace”.
The royal household said it never commented on statements by political leaders.
A chronology of Leopold II on its website does contain a reference to “abuses”, adding: “Following the excesses committed by the Europeans in Africa, Leopold’s reputation and his overseas venture were questioned.”
A bust of Leopold in Brussels became the latest to be damaged, removed from its plinth by activists overnight.
“This is not how we proceed in a democracy. This is not how we put history back on the right track,” Auderghem Mayor Didier Gosuin told RTBF.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Giles Elgood and Kevin Liffey)