Civil engagement and Europe’s colonial heritage
Last autumn I participated in a guided tour of Belgium’s colonial heritage organised by the association ‘Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations’. Those visits are held on a regular basis in Brussels and concentrate on monuments, buildings, streets and commemorative plaques, which are physical reminders of Belgium’s colonial history and the wealth amassed in what was first named the Congo Free Sate (1885-1908) and then the Belgian Congo (1908-1960). This heritage comprises discreet architectural features as well as more conspicuous monuments such as the towering equestrian statue of Leopold II, that dominates the Place du Trôn next to the Royal Palace in the center of Brussels.
The equestrian statue of Leopold II at the Place du Trôn has become the most potent symbol of Belgium’s continuing ambivalence to its colonial past. In 2008 it stood at the centre of a protest action by Théophile de Giraud (1), who managed to climb on top and pour red paint on the statue. De Giraud wanted to express his indignation at the respect paid to the memory of a king, who during his rule of the Congo Free State had transformed from a “roi bâtisseur” (King Builder) into a “genocidaire” (Mass murderer). In 2015 the municipality of Brussels intended to commemorate the 150th anniversary of King Leopold II's accession to the throne with an official event and a conference of his architectural imprint in the city. Following their announcement, an avalanche of criticism ensued and resulted in the cancellation of these events. On the same day different associations gathered at the site of Leopold’s Statue to denounce not only the crimes committed during Belgium’s colonial rule but also the political apathy to publicly address this chapter of history.
One year later a manifest entitled “Pour un contre-monument ou comment décoloniser la statue de Léopold II?” (“For a counter-monument or how to decolonize Leopold II’s statue”), was signed by a long list of intellectuals, researchers, artists, politicians and activists. It was published in the national newspaper of “Le Soir” (2), urging the municipality to acknowledge the necessity to erect a counter-monument around the perimeters of the statue of Leopold II. An excerpt of the manifest reads as follows: “ … Given the current forms of resource exploitation (mining and other) in Africa, there is certainly an interest in reconnecting with some of the principles and struggles that have resisted economic predation and past colonial occupation. Finally, to counter these monuments, which above all represent the structural disregard of racialized lives - past and present - and the denial of non-Eurocentric histories (the history of the Congo is not limited to Belgian colonial history), we greatly need to learn yet again to honour the worthy figures that populate our world.” (translated by the author).
In a recent interview, one member of the Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations, Kalvin Soiresse Njall, explained (3): “A number of streets have names that glorify Belgium’s colonial history. The same is true of statues and buildings. But the population does not really know what it is about, why this has been done. These street names and buildings carry an insidious message of colonial propaganda, that Belgium brought to the savage people of Congo the benefits of civilization. Yet, this idea that black people were nothing before colonization has a direct impact on how black people are seen today. It is therefore important for us to allow the population to decode and deconstruct the propaganda message conveyed by this heritage.” (translated by the author from an interview given in June 2016)
The guided tours of Brussel’s colonial heritage are not a stand-alone case. Similar visits are organized in Berlin, Amsterdam, Liverpool and Bordeaux, to name just a few, which give testimony to a growing movement all over Europe. These tours should be taken as an impetus for coming to terms with our colonial past, which remains a difficult subject not only in Belgium but also in Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy and maybe also in Spain and Portugal. It is as David Van Reybrouck only recently stated during a conference at the Europalia Festival on Indonesia, “except for Luxembourg the colonial past is a shared history amongst all founding members of the European Union”.
The year 2018 will mark the European Year of Cultural Heritage and one of its themes will be on reinforcing a sense of belonging to a common European space (4). Could our shared colonial past be one of the first defining common legacies of what we term “European”? This question might seem absurd at first but researching on the slavery and ivory trade in eastern Congo during the 19th century, I have been astonished to read how many different European nationals passed through that area. They were Belgian, French, English, Swedish, Austrian, German, and so on. All of these individuals were naturally acting on behalf of their respective sponsors and/or countries but they all shared a common interest, the economic gains that were to be made under the wing of the “civilizing mission” during the colonial enterprise.
Parts of my own family history have also been entangled in the geopolitical mess that resulted from colonization. I am holder of a French passport even though I was born in Lebanon, as was my father and his father. My family never lived in France and the Lebanese civil war pushed us to migrate to Austria, where my mother is from. The reason I was born French goes back to my father’s grandfather, who was Algerian and Jewish. In 1870 the Crémieux Decree granted French citizenship to the Jewish population of Algeria in order to make them “embrace Frenchness”. This resulted in their separation of the other indigenous people of Algeria, the Muslims, and signalled the beginning of disunity (5). After growing up in Austria, studying in the UK and working and starting a family in Belgium, any potential adherence to that “Frenchness” from my part has long been replaced by my identification as a European. Pondering on the history of imperial and colonial expansionism, inside and outside of Europe, I wonder how the legacy of this shared heritage connects to the notion of a European identity.
The time might indeed be ripe to tackle the issue of colonialism on a European scale instead of confining the debate internally, within national borders. It might ease the process of coming to terms with a neglected part of our history and encourage a collective way of combating its negative legacies that still haunt us today.
3 Arnaud Lismond-Mertes 2016 Sortir du colonialism, reconnaître ses crimes. Ensemble! Pour la solidarité, contre l’exclusion, n°91 - juin juillet août 2016.
4 Call for Proposals EACEA 35/2017: Support for European cooperation projects related to the European Year of cultural Heritage 2018, https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/creative-europe/funding/support-european-cooperation-projects-2018_en
5 Benjamin Stora 2013 Le Décret Crémieux. A. Meddeb et B. Stora (eds.) Histoire des relations entre juifs et musulmans des origines à nos jours, Paris : Albin Michel, page 286-291.