Saturday, August 30, 2008


Leopold II may have been a bastard but he was our bastard. This is one of the things he gave us:

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The triumphal arch of the Cinquantenaire Park, east Brussels. Pic taken on August 17 when I took my mother-in-law for a sightseeing tour of Brussels. "Cinquantenaire" is difficult to translate, "fiftyish" comes maybe closest. In 1880 Belgium was 50 years independent and Leopold II, yes, he of the Congo atrocities, was King. He organized a world exhibition in Brussels and for its location chose a former military exercising ground. To impress the European "established states" and to show off Belgium's growing prosperity, he ordered the arc and its adjacent palaces built. Unfortunately, the complex was not ready for the 1880 exhibition, and once this had taken place, the King got into a clinch with the Belgian government for funding of the project, which the government saw as unneccessary. It would take more than a decade before the project got back on its tracks again and then only because by then the King was flush with money from his Congolese adventure and decided to spend his personal fortune on it. And so it was that by 1905 the arch was finally ready, just in time for the celebration of... 75 years of Belgian independence. I don't want to brag, but it's really an impressive monument, crowned by a quadriga, an allegoric ensemble of horses and a battlecart symbolizing the key province of Belgium, Brabant, wherein Brussels lies (the colors of the Belgian flag are originally Brabantine, btw). The other 8 provinces are symbolized by allegoric statues of single persons at the foot of the columns.

Say about Leopold II what you will, and again, he may have been an atrocious man and a pervert, but if Brussels today has just enough grandeur and gravitas to be European capital it is because of him. That is not to say it has those qualities in abundance, because several large parts of Brussels are unimpressive and/or neglected, and after all Brussels is, with 1 million inhabitants, still a rather small city. But in many respects our capital is indeed a small version of Paris. Btw, now that I am talking about Leopold's Congolese endeavours, that deserves an elaborate post of its own. One very important thing to know, and which I see constantly overlooked by non-Belgian observers, is that the atrocities against the Congolese population took place during the period that the so-called Congo Free State was Leopold's personal fiefdom. By 1908, international pressure had rendered the King's holding onto his very own colony impossible, and Congo became a colony of the Belgian state, after which conditions for the local population improved dramatically. We do have a historical guilt towards the Congolese for the deprivations and the massive death toll - although demographic evidence strongly suggests that Adam Hochschild's 15 million victims are impossible - but on the other hand, I'd wager we paid at least part of that back. We paid it back because when we Belgians left the Congo in 1960, we left them also a modern infrastructure: good roads, hospitals, a decent educational system, a railway network, a well-equipped port, airfields, industry and mines etc. etc. etc... second perhaps only to South Africa's. And... the Congolese screwed it all. What followed after the independence practically reversed the clock to pre-1908 days, and if we are to believe the reports coming from Congo's eastern jungle, a genocide is taking place there of at least the magnitude of the one during Leopold's days. But I don't see Hochschild write a book about that soon. Still, I do think we have some kind of moral obligation to support the Congolese nation and by and large, I think we took/take our responsibility. But more about that later. Hopefully.


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