Myths and facts about Belgian Congo

Open Letter to Historians 

Pierre Van Bost, Author of 'L'héritage des banoko - un bilan de la colonisation' Veldhoven (NL), 13 June 2020

The death of a black citizen who succumbed to the violence of white police officers in the United States has sparked a legitimate wave of protest around the world. I can understand that it evokes feelings of racial hatred. But I have no sympathy for activists who use this event as a pretext to attack the colonial past. These people, who have an immigration background, do not want to accept the idea that they come from colonization, so they want to erase the colonial past through manipulation of history. 

And what do the professors of the history faculties of Belgium say? They are silent. In fact, some prominent figures such as Professor Dr. Guy Vanthemsche, professor at the Free University of Brussels, make it even more colorful with their statements. This professor, who was technical advisor to the program 'Kinderen van de Kolonie’ (Children of the Colony), broadcast by the Flemish channel VRT in 2018, stated: "It may be shocking, but I still think that a correct picture of what colonization actually is, is that you could say that colonization is the rape of one society by another society, and if one says that colonization has also had positive aspects, it is about the same as saying that the child born of that rape also has some nice facial features." That's the pinnacle! 

Surely a university professor should know that the world has developed since the beginning of time through successive colonizations. We ourselves emerged from the colonization of Europe by the Romans and later by the Franks. If we look at Belgium 's past, until 1830 our provinces were successively subject to Roman, Frankish, Burgundian, Spanish, Austrian and Dutch rulers. Each period had both negative and positive aspects. 

The activists demand the removal of the statues of Leopold II, a king whose terror regime is said to have caused the deaths of millions of Congolese; a number of 10 million is often put forward. Here, too, the scholars make it more colorful. For example, Professor Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, who teaches history at the universities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, wrote: "Between 1880 and 1908, about 13 million human lives were destroyed. A heavy toll for entry into the colonization." And Professor Idesbald Goddeeris, who teaches colonial history at KU Leuven, said in the aforementioned program 'Children of the Colony': "The colonial past is difficult because many of those developments, of those events, are not in line with our values, because because things happened that we really cannot defend, cannot place, that is about exploitation, that is about racism, that is about the plundering of the economy ... yes, about the millions of deaths.” 

If we go deeper into the history of the early colonization of the Congo, there are two parameters that cause confusion. The first is the huge size of the Congo (2,345,000 square kilometers) which is comparable to Western Europe. The second is the small number of Europeans who were scattered over this immense area. On January 1, 1902, according to the Official Bulletin of the Congo Free State, there were 2,346 : they were civil servants, soldiers, company officials, missionaries (fathers and nuns)... and half of them lived in Lower Congo, where the capital of the land was situated, far away from the rubber areas. I would like these eminent professors to explain to me how a thousand individuals, spread over an area the size of Western Europe, covered in jungle and devoid of any infrastructure, could have caused the deaths of millions of Congolese in a few years. That is materially impossible. 

Supporting such a statement is an intellectual monstrosity. With regard to the high number of deaths in the period 1885-1908, it should be noted that the whole of Central Africa, including the Congo Free State, was at that time experiencing an epidemic of sleeping sickness, a disease that was then unknown and therefore untreatable. This epidemic has wreaked havoc among the Congolese. 

Of course, not everything was perfect in the kingdom of Leopold II, but it is time to put things into perspective and put them in context. It is all very noble to worry about the fate of the workers in Congo, but the fate of the Belgian workers and miners was really unenviable during that same period! The millions of deaths during the time of the Congo Free State (1885-1908) are attributed to the atrocities allegedly practiced during the rubber harvest. But is it known that the rubber crop only developed after the opening of the Matadi-Leopoldstad railway in 1898? There is no doubt that there were abuses by some concessionaires at that time, but to make those abuses general for the whole country and for the entire period of the Congo Free State, and even to turn it into a state system, smacks of fraudulently influencing information. 

It is also said that Leopold II became rich with the proceeds from the mines and from the diamonds of the Congo. However, the first ton of copper was produced in 1911 and the first diamond was found in 1910; the king died in 1909... As for the atrocities committed in the Congo, the best known and most quoted is that of the severed hands: it is said that Leopold II had the natives cut off a hand if they did not put in the necessary amount of rubber. This is a persistent myth! In a study on Casement's 'Congo Report', published in 1985 by the Free University of Brussels, Daniel Vangroenweghe, the author of the well-known book 'Red rubber - Leopold II and his Congo', wrote: "To this day, journalists and even historians continue to tell fables...that the practice consisted of cutting off the hand of a living person as punishment...numerous conferences on Congo Free State, held in England were held and where a few pictures of mutilated persons were always displayed, have given rise to this myth.” 

The arguments used to discredit colonization are often taken out of context or simply wrong. This shows how biased the debate about colonization is. It is time to take stock of colonization, that is to say, to compare the positive results, because there are, regardless of Professor Vanthemsche's judgment, and to compare the negative aspects, and to stop condemning mere based on suspicions. 

 The colonial period was the best period ever for the Congolese: the people were safe, no tribal wars, no cannibalism, education for all children, hospitals, and so on.

If the African countries were still colonies, Africa would be very prosperous and happy and colonialism would have turned into a brotherhood with Europe

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   © Juliaan Van Acker 2024