“In the time of the free state of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed which continue to weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation, “wrote the king in a letter to Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi. “I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which has now revived the discrimination that is still too present in our societies.”
The king stopped short of a formal apology, Belgian lawmakers said, because it would be considered a political act that can only be authorized by the government under the rules of the country̵
“I believe it is necessary that our common story with Belgium and its people be told to our children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to those in Belgium based on the scientific work done by historians of the two countries,” said Tshisekedi Monday in a television address . “The most important thing for the future is to build harmonious relations with Belgium, because in addition to the stigma of history, the two peoples have been able to build a strong relationship.”
King Léopold II, Philip’s great-great-uncle, took Belgian Congo as his personal property in 1885 as European nations claimed their colonial claims. His rule was so violent, even by the standards of the time, that a public outcry forced him to check on the Belgian state in 1908. Historians say that millions of Congolese died during the Belgian rule of the country. Philippe did not refer to Léopold by name in his letter.
Belgian royalty have long been silent on the subject of the colonial past, and King Baudouin, who reigned at the time of Congolese independence in 1960, even praised Léopold’s “tenacious courage” in developing the country.
Léopold acted “not as a conqueror but as a civilian,” Baudouin said in a speech during a 1960 independence ceremony in the Congo, expressing feelings still echoed by some Belgians.
“We are happy to have given Congo, despite the greatest difficulties, the essential elements for strengthening a country on the road to development,” said Baudouin at the ceremony in the city named after his ancestor, Léopoldville, who is now Kinshasa.
The Belgian authorities handed over power to Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, who was assassinated the following year by Congolese rebels and Belgian army officers who act in coordination with the CIA.
Philippe, born 2 and a half months before Congolese independence, has kept silent about the past. Unlike his predecessors – and many older Belgians – he never visited the country. Until the coronavirus pandemic, he had planned to visit Tuesday’s observances in Congo, which Tshisekedi designated a day of “meditation”, not celebration.
The king’s letter was at odds with recent comments from his younger brother, Prince Laurent, who claimed not to see how Léopold could have caused Congolese suffering because he had never personally set foot on the territory.
“It is a turning point to the extent that the highest authority in our country is making the connection between colonial history and the consequences of this history in our society today, with the discrimination and racism that many people suffer from”, Kalvin Soiresse, born in Togo regional legislator in Brussels, told the Belgian broadcaster RTBF in response to the king’s letter.
One of the organizers of the protests said Tuesday that Philippe’s letter was a start, but that much more had to happen in Belgium before the protesters’ demands were met.
“It is something that opens the window a little more; it’s something that makes it a bit more possible to argue, “said Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, protester of the Belgian Black Lives Network, which grew up between Congo and Belgium.” But it is not enough for us to say: “Yes, sorry. “We don’t want regrets; we want apologies from the royal family and the government. “
Sambi Nzeba said that words were only a beginning: “We have to work together on these things. It is not enough to apologize. We want repairs, we want to tear down the statues, change school books, have more black and brown faces in the media and politics. ” And he said there was a direct line between unrecognized colonial history and current racism in Belgium.
Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Max Bearak in Nairobi contributed to this report.