Overshadowed by Oxford’s ongoing Rhodes statue controversy, in late April a motion was debated by student representatives at Queen Mary, University of London, calling for the removal of plaques commemorating the 1887 visit of King Leopold II of Belgium. Presenting the motion, the university’s Pan-African Society referred to atrocities committed during Leopold’s rule of the Congo Free State and argued that the presence of the “deeply offensive relics” was “glorifying and uncritical”. The group proposed that the plaques be relocated and recontextualised, “preferably in a space dedicated to the memorialization of the crimes of genocide, colonialism and imperialism”.
Transnational protestors across the world are presently demanding critical reflection on the legacies of prominent imperial figures and the “decolonisation” of higher education institutions, addressing wider issues of institutional racism, from Oxford to Princeton. This protest movement began in 2015 when students demonstrated against statues of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town, before protests spread internationally, taking up the hashtag #RhodesMustFall.
The vote at Queen Mary is among the latest in a series of debates inspired by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement. The colonial history of the Congo Free State, if not always widely known, has been well established. From 1885, in the era of the European ‘Scramble for Africa’, an area of over 2,000,000 square kilometres around the Congo river basin (covering much of the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) was brought under Leopold’s personal control. With the imposition of a brutal system of forced labour for the extraction of wild rubber, evidence of widespread abuses eventually surfaced. Though the exact figures are unknown, some have estimated a population loss in this period of up to 10 million lives. Following an international humanitarian outcry, the monarch was forced to relinquish his territory to the Belgian government in 1908.
Over the past couple of decades, Leopold’s imperial legacy has been the subject of great controversy. Adam Hochschild, in his 1998 best-selling book, King Leopold’s Ghost, reignited public interest in Leopold’s bloody regime, claiming it resulted in “a death toll of Holocaust dimensions”. At the time, Hochschild’s retelling starkly contradicted the prevailing narrative in Belgium, where, according to Matthew Stanard, Leopold was recast after his death as “a prescient, ingenious and generous colonial ruler”. The BBC broadcast of the documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death in 2004 prompted a backlash from Belgian officials, with Foreign Minister Louis Michel denouncing the film as a “tendentious diatribe”, saying Leopold was “a true visionary for his time – a hero”.
Belgium’s “great forgetting”, as Hochschild terms it, was no accident. In the years before 1908, Leopold instructed the burning of state archives, telling an aide: “I shall give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I have done there”. For much of the rest of the twentieth century, attempts to investigate the history of the Congo Free State were fiercely suppressed. Until the 1980s, Jules Marchal, leading historian and former Belgian Ambassador, was prevented from accessing papers held in Foreign Ministry archives, despite having diplomatic clearance. Others writing on the topic reported receiving threatening anonymous letters and having their lectures interrupted by former colonial officers.
Predating the Rhodes Must Fall movement by more than a decade, activists have been seeking to counter this false memorialization of Leopold. In 2004, the defacement of a statue in Ostend, which portrays the “benevolent” Belgian ruler surrounded by a group of “grateful” Congolese, became headline news. The group responsible demanded the addition of explanatory text beside the monument to provide suitable historical context. This incident has since been dramatised by the short film Sikitiko. There have also been over the context of exhibits at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, home to a vast number of Congolese items – which is now closed while its collections are updated to give a more critical perspective.
More recently, in December 2015, protests took place against events marking the 150th anniversary of Leopold’s coronation. This prompted the cancellation of an official gathering that was due to be held in front of a statue of the king in central Brussels. Speaking in support of protestors, Brussels MP Bruno De Lille said that the celebrations were “morally reprehensible”, and would in effect be “laughing at the suffering of the genocide victims and their families”.
The April 2016 motion at Queen Mary is the most recent iteration of what might be called the ‘Leopold Must Fall’ movement. However, unlike at Oxford, the student motion ultimately did not pass, with representatives voting nine to seven against backing removal of the plaques. But such debates have always been about more than monuments; they are more concerned with reawakening dormant historical debates and showing that imperial memory continues to be contested. These campaigns are at their strongest when they engage with anti-colonial voices of both past and present, and acknowledge connections with related causes elsewhere. As the Rhodes campaigns continue, it may be that Leopold’s legacy will also begin to receive greater recognition – and that a more vocal Leopold Must Fall movement emerges.
Daniel Cullen is a Geneva-based researcher working in human rights. He is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has recently written for African Arguments, The Guardian and Oxford Human Rights Hub.