As Leopold II statues fall, how do we ‘educate ourselves’ about his colony?

Statue of Leopold II of Belgium (2020) (wikimedia commons)

Robert Burroughs (Leeds Beckett University) and Sarah de Mul (Open University, the Netherlands)

Leopold Must Fall. The words become reality. In Belgium, officials are removing public statues of Leopold II in response to anti-racism protests.

Leopold II deserves notoriety. Between 1885 and 1908 he presided over a colonial regime in which mass murder and atrocities became routine. The impact of his destructive rule of the Congo Free State, today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, is profound.

The dismantling of public shrines is of course part of a wider movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Across much of the world, protestors are challenging racism by seeking removal of public monuments and street names honouring slave traders and colonial officials. Their actions are creating change. There have been repeated calls for the public to ‘educate ourselves’ on the histories of slavery, imperialism, and racism. Colonial history is now compulsory teaching in secondary schools in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, for example, and other national curricula will follow.

Questions have already been asked about this refrain, ‘educating ourselves’. Many of us are feeling a need to learn more about social injustice, but the links between learning and action against injustice are not always clear.  Discussion of historical racism in mainstream (and social) media allows an easy performance of moral values with definite limitations on the levels of commitment required. There is a danger that, as Tre Johnson recently put it, ‘When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs’.

As statues topple, many will take to the books. As professors of colonial and postcolonial literature, we value their efforts! But as this desire for education confronts a troubled or contested field of history, then new problems emerge. Take the Congo, for example. Particularly in Britain and the USA, media coverage of Leopold’s fall have refered readers to Adam Hochschild’s popular book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Central Africa (1998). This is understandable: Hochschild’s book is widely available and engaging  account of the Congo Free State. Its author successfully brought that history to a wider audience.

We would not seek to join forces with apologists for colonial history who defend Leopold’s reputation from Hochschild’s scathing assessment. In our past research, however, we have both registered concerns about Hochschild’s influential narrative.

Hochschild claims that by burying records of his actions Leopold helped begin a ‘great forgetting’ of the colonial past in Belgian society.  Yet in claiming to rediscover the Congo atrocities, Hochschild  repeats a rhetorical gesture made over generations of historical writing, including in the accounts by Jules Marchal and Daniel Vangroenweghe on which Hochschild drew. Time and again, the remembered events are condemned or denied; subsequently they are buried again, rediscovered, condemned, and denied, and so on.  Just as the journalistic flair of Morel in unmasking Leopold inspired Edwardian audiences, the revelatory experience of Congo history in King Leopold’s Ghost allows readers to side with history’s heroes. Their discovery of atrocities from a position of innocence mirrors our own. This form of history discharges us from broader, structural explanations for the events and how they affect and implicate us in postcolonial times.

The ‘heroism’ refered to in Hochschild’s subtitle are Americans and Europeans whose indignation at violence in the Congo triggered a major humanitarian campaign. Many of these figures were themselves deeply implicated in the wider project of empire, and in seeking to ‘reform’ the Congo they imagined that more benevolent models of colonial rule should be imposed on the region. Rarely did these figures question the supremacy of white peoples. Their liberal humanitarianism shielded them from the contradictions of their position. They focused humanitarian energies on central Africa at the expense of a wider investigation of other parts of Africa. The Liverpool journalist who led the Congo reform movement, E.D. Morel, was funded by traders in West Africa. Support from the Cadbury family helped sustain Morel’s voluble campaign while their firm more quietly extricated itself from a scandal involving slave-grown cocoa in Angola.

Statue of Leopold II in Ostende, with hand of African removed by protesters (2012) (by Michael Beaton at flickr)

This version of ‘educating ourselves’ also diminishes histories of anti-racist resistance and Congolese perspectives. As Idesbald Goddeeris recently pointed out, for example, antiracist campaigners began the call for the removal of Leopold’s statues some fifteen years ago. Far from representing a desecration of history, Leopold must Fall, Black Lives Matter and related movements have their own history. They have precursors stretching right back to the time of Leopold. Though Hochschild desclares that ‘[i]nstead of African voices from this time there is largely silence’, peoples of the Congo did resist Leopold’s rule both violently and peacefully. As Robert Burroughs shows in his recent book African Testimony in the Movement for Congo Reform (2018) they sought legal reparations and confided evidence to sympathetic third parties.

Should Leopold fall, perhaps monuments to these historic figures should take his place. And yet there might be more valuable responses than the creation of new statues, even if their implementation takes more time. In turning to historical books, the challenge of ‘educating ourselves’ clashes with the need for a decolonised curriculum. Indeed the slightly insular notion of ‘educating ourselves’, as opposed to being educated by others, starts to become apparent. For the will to ‘educate ourselves’, if it is to mean something more productive than white guilt and appeasement, entails a more radical notion of rethinking the ways education, and knowledge-production more generally, are bound up in structures of white privilege. In learning anew of the colonial past it is vital for educators to produce narratives which overcome some of the difficulties identified in this article’s discussion of Hochschild’s book. The inaccesibility of the knowledge of Congolese historians on this period is  clearly in need of reparation if we are to overcome the eurocentrism of most prior accounts. Learning about the distant past also entails educating ourselves about social patterns and structures which keep us in the loop of repeatedly discovering the Congo atrocities.

Robert Burroughs is Professor and Head of English at Leeds Beckett University. His publications include Travel Writing and Atrocities (2011) and African Testimony in the Movement for Congo Reform (2018).

Sarah de Mul is Professor of Literature, Culture and Diversity at the Open University in the Netherlands. Her publications include Colonial Memory (Amsterdam University Press, 2011) and The Postcolonial Low Countries (Lexington Books, 2012, with E. Boehmer).