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In the Heart of Darkness

Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era

an exhibition at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, February 4–October 9, 2005.
A forty-four-page pamphlet of text and photos is available in English from the museum’s Web site: www.congo 2005.be/geheugen/brochureEN.pdf.

La mémoire du Congo: Le temps colonial

catalog of the exhibition, in French or Dutch, edited by Jean-Luc Vellut et al
Ghent and Tervuren: Éditions Snoeck/Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, 271 pp., €39.00 (paper)


Recent decades have seen many battles over historical memory. The Turkish government—and, for that matter, our own—still refuses to speak of an Armenian genocide. Japan’s schoolbooks still whitewash its troops’ atrocities in World War II. And a curious conflict over memory is going on right now in Europe, where the battlefield is a Belgian museum.2

The battle is over Belgium’s past as a colonial power. For half a century it controlled the Congo, one thirteenth the land mass of the African continent. Before that the Congo was also linked to Belgium, as the private, personally owned property of the shrewd and ambitious King Leopold II. Belgians had been initially slow to colonize, but Leopold, who took his country’s throne in 1865, thought differently. Openly exasperated with being king of such a small country, he hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to stake out for him the boundaries of a huge African territory. From 1885 to 1908, when it became the Belgian Congo, the colony was known as l’État Indépendant du Congo, or the Congo Free State. Leopold exercised absolute control, referring to himself as the state’s “proprietor.”

Fearful of tropical diseases, the King never visited his prized possession. Instead, while living in Brussels, on his yacht, or in several luxurious villas on the French Riviera, he made a huge fortune off the Congo, conservatively estimated as at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars. In the early years, most of the money came from ivory. Joseph Conrad unforgettably depicted the ivory trade in Heart of Darkness in the severed heads of murdered African rebels Kurtz kept as trophies.

From the early 1890s on, the major source of Leopold’s Congo wealth was rubber. The Congo’s equatorial rain forest was rich in wild rubber vines, and the inventions of the inflatable bicycle tire and the automobile set off a worldwide rubber boom. Troops from the King’s private army came into village after village and held the women hostage in order to make the men go deep into the forest to gather their monthly quota of rubber. As demand for rubber soared, quotas rose. Men were forced to search for several weeks out of each month, sometimes having to walk for days to reach vines that were not tapped dry.

Many men were worked to death, while the women hostages were starved. Not surprisingly, the birth rate plummeted. Few able-bodied adults were left in the villages to harvest food, hunt, or fish. Famine spread. During two decades of widespread but unsuccessful rebellions more people died. Others fled the forced labor regime, but they had nowhere to go except to more remote parts of the forest, where there was little food or shelter. Years later, travelers would come upon their bones.

The greatest toll came as soldiers, as well as caravans of porters and large numbers of desperate refugees, moved throughout the country, bringing new diseases to people with no resistance to them. Many illnesses, particularly sleeping sickness, became far more lethal for people weakened by trauma and hunger. All these caused the death of millions. Once it became clear how much money the King was making, Leopold’s hostage system was copied in the other rubber-rich territories nearby: French Equatorial Africa across the Congo River, the Cameroons, then owned by Germany, and northern Angola under the Portuguese. The results were equally catastrophic.

One of the ways the King spent his profits was to found a museum. Today the Royal Museum for Central Africa has one of the world’s finest collections of African art and other materials (some of which toured the United States during 1997–1998), including 70,000 maps, 8,000 African musical instruments, six million insect specimens, 600,000 photographs, and tens of thousands of other human artifacts. However, until a few years ago, nothing on display gave any indication that millions of Congolese died unnatural deaths while these riches were being brought back to Europe. It was as if there were a huge museum of Jewish art and culture in Berlin that made no mention of the Holocaust.

The atrocities under Leopold’s rule and the Belgian colonial regime that followed it (although, regrettably, not the similar carnage in neighboring colonies) were the target of a huge protest campaign, organized chiefly by a dedicated British journalist named Edmund Dene Morel. Early in the twentieth century, hundreds of mass meetings were held throughout Britain, the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand demanding “Congo reform.” Leopold’s rubber system became the best-known human rights scandal of the era. Mark Twain wrote a pamphlet on the subject, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (1905), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a book, The Crime of the Congo (1909). But World War I, in which Belgium was a victim rather than an oppressor, pushed these events out of European and American public memory, and there they stayed. Statues of Leopold II still dot Belgian parks and squares today.

In 1998, I published a book about the King’s rule over the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, which was translated into Belgium’s two main languages, French and Dutch. Although very little of what it described had not appeared in print in some form before,3 the book was furiously denounced by Belgium’s “old colonials,” while the foreign ministry sent a confidential memo to Belgian diplomatic missions throughout the world suggesting how to answer embarrassing questions about Congolese history. (The advice: an active public relations effort would be futile; instead, change the subject to Belgium’s work for peace in Africa today.)

In 1999, the myth of benign colonialism in the Congo received another blow when a Belgian writer, Ludo De Witte, published much new detail on his country’s complicity in the death of Patrice Lumumba.4 Soon afterward, the movie director Raoul Peck incorporated some of these findings into his powerful film Lumumba. The first and last democratically chosen leader of his country, Lumumba became prime minister after the Congo won its independence in 1960. After a few months in office he was deposed, imprisoned, beaten, and killed by his political rivals, who were encouraged at every step by both the United States and Belgium. De Witte’s book provoked a Belgian parliamentary inquiry and an official apology from the government. The United States, however, has never apologized, even though President Eisenhower gave his approval to the aim of assassinating Lumumba.

Discussion ignited by the two books and the movie raised the question of what should be done with the Royal Museum for Central Africa.5 The museum was under conflicting pressures: from the old colonials, from the many Belgians genuinely concerned about human rights, from government officials worried about the country’s image, and, it was rumored, from the royal family.

In 2001 the government appointed a new director, who, in interviews with The New York Times and elsewhere, promised big changes. This year, with much fanfare, the museum has opened a major exhibit on the colonial period, accompanied by a catalog: a large-format book, lavishly illustrated with photographs from the museum’s great research archive. Unlike the exhibit, which is temporary, the catalog seems intended to be a permanent contribution to the subject. It consists of some three dozen articles on various aspects of Congo history and culture. Many are by first-rate scholars, from Jan Vansina’s essay on the earliest human inhabitants of the Congo basin to Wyatt MacGaffey’s on colonial ethnography. But, as we shall see, in the selection of material, the book’s editors have left a significant gap.

With rare exceptions,6 the exhibit has been praised. The Associated Press approvingly quoted the Belgian foreign minister, Karel De Gucht, who on opening night said, “That abuses were committed during the time of the Congo Free State is undeniable. The exhibition is unequivocally committed to showing them.”7 “The museum,” said Le Monde, “has done better than revisit a particularly stormy page in history…. The institution has pushed the public to join it in looking into the reality of colonialism.”8 The exhibit “lifts the veil,” declared a Belgian magazine.9 “Belgians are finally, and painfully, confronting a very different version of their colonial past,” said the London Times.10 Other papers have expressed similar judgments, but there is much about the exhibition that they have ignored.


To visit the Royal Museum for Central Africa is to step back in time. The museum lies in the ancient ducal borough of Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, at the end of a lovely trolley ride through a forest. Leopold II craved grandeur above all, and, like many of the buildings into which he poured the proceeds from his holdings in the Congo, this one was designed by his favorite architect, the Frenchman Charles Girault. Built in the style of a Louis XV château, it sits majestically on a rise, looking down across reflecting ponds and a large park. Inside, there are some twenty spacious galleries whose high ceilings dwarf the visitor. The entrance rotunda is ringed with gilded, bigger-than-life statues with titles like Belgium Bringing Security to the Congo (a white woman, with sword, flag, and two black children at her feet). Amid the sculptures, a small placard promises “A New Museum in 2010.”

Perhaps a third of the museum’s floor space is given over to its much-publicized exhibit devoted to the colonial era. At the entrance are two life-size photographs, both from the 1890s. One shows a white colonial official wearing a fez and “sitting comfortably,” the caption tells us, on a tribal chief’s carved wooden stool. The other shows an African chief, standing next to a European-style wooden chair, “proudly wearing the emblem of the new rule”—a white dress uniform, military cap with visor, and sword. The two men are each enjoying the accoutrements of the other’s world. This theme—two peoples, cheerfully absorbing one another’s way of life—runs through many other photographs and videos. We see Africans working in a bicycle factory; two white officials riding zebras; black customers and a clerk in a shop stacked with European goods; a smiling, sun-helmeted white official on a jungle trail; Congolese applauding a visiting Belgian king.

Similarly, the one-word titles of the exhibit’s half-dozen sections are neutral-sounding terms like “Transactions” and “Encounters,” which imply peaceful meetings between equals. But is taking a wife hostage to compel the husband into forced labor a “transaction”? Is the mass slaughter of rebels who resist an “encounter”? There is little suggestion that for several decades the most consequential white–black encounters in the Congo were at gunpoint. Though a deeply conservative man, Joseph Conrad after his Congo experience had no illusions: “The conquest of the earth,” Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, “which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

There is no danger here of anyone’s looking into it too much. But the sense of denial that infuses this exhibit is subtle not only in its suggestion of colonialism as a matter of cultural exchange among equals, but in its emphasis. The museum is not so unsophisticated, for instance, as to pretend that no bloodshed took place in the Congo, or that the territory was not the object of a major international human rights crusade. A few book covers and other items from this campaign are tucked away in a corner. But the exhibit’s hundreds of photos include only four of the famous atrocity images that once appeared in newspapers all over the world, and these are only small reproductions, while more than a dozen other photographs are blown up to life size, almost all of them innocuous, such as several of Congolese musicians. The visitor comes away with the impression that, yes, there were occasional “abuses”—the word, implying an unfortunate departure from the norm, is used at least eight times in the exhibit’s labels—but that the main experiences of colonial life for Africans were of studying in schools run by kindly, bearded missionaries, traveling on steamboats, working diligently in scientific laboratories, being cared for in clinics, and spending money on dance records and in cafés.

  1. 2

    For another controversy over the presentation of history in a museum, see History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt (Metropolitan, 1996), on the attack against the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum when it tried to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

  2. 3

    Above all in E.D. Morel’s voluminous writings, but also in later works such as Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts (Doubleday, 1964).

  3. 4

    English-language edition: The Assassination of Lumumba (Verso, 2001).

  4. 5

    See the London Guardian article by Stephen Bates, “The Hidden Holocaust,” May 13, 1999.

  5. 6

    These came chiefly in Belgium’s Dutch-language newspapers. These papers, compared to the country’s press in French, tend to be more critical of the monarchy, of the idea of Belgium as a unitary state, and of institutions like the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which are seen as linked to both. The colonial-era exhibit is one of many special events this year being marketed to celebrate Belgium’s 175th anniversary as a nation.

  6. 7

    Raf Casert, “Belgium’s Haunted History in Congo Moves from Heroes to Horror,” February 22, 2005.

  7. 8

    La Belgique confrontée à la violence de son aventure coloniale au Congo,” February 26, 2005.

  8. 9

    Congo-Belgique: la fin de l’amnésie?” Télé Moustique, February 9, 2005.[]

  9. 10

    Anthony Brown, “Dark Heart of Congo’s Former Rulers Returns to Haunt Them,” March 12, 2005.

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