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. Continue reading “Leopold Must Fall”