King Leopold II: A Bloody Legacy written in Marble
Just off Avenue Louise, one of Brussels’ busiest thoroughfares and smartest shopping locations, lies a small formal park. The Jardin du Roi’s large well-tended lawn, elegant planting and children’s playground make the park a popular spot with families and dog-walkers; amongst the inhabitants of the surrounding apartments, it’s a favourite location for a stroll.
From the bottom point of the park’s distinctive diamond shape, the long green strip of lawn extends up towards Avenue Louise, flanked by two gravel paths. Walking up these paths there is a gentle, but noticeable, incline.
At the top, on a large plinth, a tall bearded figure carved from bright pale stone stands proud, gazing out over the park. An inscription on the plinth reads: “Il créa ce jardin et en fit donation pour notre repos et notre joie” (“He created this garden and gave it for our leisure and our joy.”) This figure, of course, is the ‘Roi’ of the park’s name, the infamous King Leopold II.
Who was King Leopold II?
The statue, the work of the sculptor René Cliquet, is one of the many representations of Leopold II to be found dotted around the Belgian capital, as well as several other towns in Belgium. The country’s celebratory memorialisation of Leopold II might seem surprising given that Leopold was personally responsible for the establishment of one of the most murderous enterprises in history. It has been estimated that Leopold’s absolute rule over the Congo, which was run as his personal colony, led to the deaths of up to 10 million Congolese. When Leopold claimed the vast central African territory, seventy-six times the size of Belgium, it was a result of his obsessive desire for international prestige and profit. Leopold successfully bargained, coerced, and tricked his way into the colony. He created the International African Association to convince the other European powers and the US that his colonial endeavour was, in fact, an altruistic one; he told British officials that his plans in Africa "had no commercial character" and a journalist that "only scientific explorations are intended"; his European staff on early expeditions were forbidden to disclose the real purpose of their work. Once he had done all this, he set about exploiting his new land (and its people) for all it was worth.
The territory was exceptionally rich in natural resources, particularly rubber and ivory. The Congo’s ivory trade is famously portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899). In order to extract as much of these valuable materials as possible Leopold established a brutal system of forced labour, under which many thousands of Congolese men were worked to death. Meanwhile, women were held hostage in terrible conditions, where many of them starved. Those who attempted to stage rebellions were shot.
Famously, the soldiers of the Force Publique (Leopold’s private army) were forbidden from wasting bullets; a rebel’s death was expected with each bullet. To prove this, soldiers had to produce a severed hand from each victim’s corpse. On occasion, soldiers who had wasted bullets removed the hands of living people to cover their tracks. Back in Belgium, Leopold’s colonial museum in the palace of Tervuren housed a “human zoo,” where 267 Congolese people were forced to pose as “villagers” in a model Congo village, as well as thousands of stolen African artefacts. Leopold’s involvement in the trafficking and sexual abuse of young girls in Europe has also been recorded.
The problems did not cease with Leopold’s death in 1909, or with the independence of the Congo in 1960. The legacy of Leopold’s actions in central Africa survives in modern-day anti-black racism in Belgium. 80% of the country’s large population of people of African origin report experiencing discrimination linked to the colour of their skin. In 2018, two black women were racially abused at the Pukkelpop music festival near Hasselt by a group who chanted “couper les mains, le Congo est à nous” (“cut off their hands, the Congo is ours”).
And yet, for some, Leopold’s legacy is quite different. The myth of Leopold’s philanthropy in central Africa has proved persistent; in discussions of his legacy some people are insistent that there were positive aspects to Belgian colonialism, often citing infrastructure or education. This reputation has survived into the 21st century: the statue in the Jardin du Roi was only erected in 1969, and in 2010 the former Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel described Leopold as “a hero” for his ambitions for Belgium.
Although King Philippe took the historic step on 30 June of expressing his “deepest regrets” for Congolese suffering under Belgian rule, the continued presence of Leopold’s family on the Belgian throne has perhaps contributed to a failure to challenge this legacy. The narrative of Leopold’s positive legacy is also much more tangible in Brussels today than his crimes: not only the Jardin du Roi but many of the city’s most attractive buildings and areas were developed thanks to Leopold, including the impressive greenhouses at the Palace of Laeken, the Arcade du Cinquantenaire, and Avenue Louise itself.
Should the statue(s) come down?
It is no surprise that there has been a recent backlash against Leopold’s statues. International Black Lives Matter protests have given new urgency and prominence to the discussion of race and colonialism in Belgium. Many Leopold statues have recently been vandalised, including the one in the Jardin du Roi. Statues in a few towns, including Antwerp, have been removed, and a petition to remove all of Brussels’ Leopolds received 83,000 signatures. Strong support for removing the statues has been voiced by Pierre Kompany, the son of a Congo tribal chief and Belgium’s first black mayor. The Belgian princess Esmeralda, Leopold’s great-niece, has also indicated her approval.
There will be those who argue that the presence of Leopold’s statues is educational, and I should admit it’s true that I first heard about Leopold’s crimes when someone pointed out the statue in the Jardin du Roi to me. But it’s also true that I’ve learnt far more about Leopold from the calls for his removal than I have from the many times I’ve walked past his statue. We should not accuse the statues’ opponents of seeking to ‘remove history’,
On the contrary, they are demanding increased public engagement with the past. Calls for the removal of statues have been accompanied by demands for a reform of education, as Belgium’s colonial history often lacks a prominent position on school curriculums. Outside schools, organisations like the Afro-Belgian collective ‘Mémoire Coloniale,’ who run walking tours exploring colonialism in Brussels and other cities, already exist to challenge Belgium’s colonial amnesia. The scale of suffering in the Congo under Leopold is almost incomprehensible, but this does not mean we should be excused from trying to comprehend it.
A statue is not a history book; Leopold’s monuments leave little room for nuance. Instead of inviting debate or criticism of Leopold’s legacy, the King’s many statues in Belgium are wholly celebratory. While these statues remain, and remain largely unchallenged, it is clear which half of Leopold’s divided legacy is being allowed to dominate.
Written by Lydia Ludlow
 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston, 1998).
 ‘La Belgique, moins violente mais aussi raciste que les États-Unis?’ L’echo, 12 June 2020, https://www.lecho.be/economie-politique/belgique/general/la-belgique-moins-violente-mais-aussi-raciste-que-les-etats-unis/10233001
‘Leopold II: Belgium 'wakes up' to its bloody colonial past’, BBC News, 13 June 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53017188
 Quoted in the ‘i’, Saturday 27 June 2020.
 ‘Esmeralda de Belgique: "Déboulonner les statues de Léopold II, sans doute, mais surtout s'attaquer aux discriminations"’L’echo, 12 June 2020, https://www.lecho.be/economie-politique/belgique/general/esmeralda-de-belgique-deboulonner-les-statues-de-leopold-ii-sans-doute-mais-surtout-s-attaquer-aux-discriminations/10232564.html.