Monuments of Racism – A tale of two cities

Since the founding of the European Union, and especially in the last thirty years or so, the construction of a collective sense of what it means to be European has accelerated. Thanks to the European Union, citizens of each Member State are happily also European Citizens. One feature of being European is to partake in the ritual of burying one’s head in the sand. I’m speaking of course about the millions of skeletons that Europe has in its closet that the populace continues to ignore. The skeletons are those of the millions of people who died because of European slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

It is this wilful ignorance that makes Europe a paradise for racism. While extremists like Hans Breivik shock the conscience, his existence does not result from a vacuum. Racist ideology is fomented by institutions and cultural practices. It comes in many forms such as the warped teaching of history, the representation of people outside of Europe in museums and cultural exhibitions, news reporting, public policy and a host of other mediums.

A favourite for me are museums, which Europe has in abundance. Museums have a unique function for a society. They are monuments to the cultural, scientific and social achievements of a nation. They reflect the ‘strength’ of a nation which is why they flourished so much in the 19th century when imperialism and nationalism were in their zenith. Importantly, they mirror the attitudes of the nation. Thus, when museums perpetuate colonial and racist thinking it is a natural reflection of the nation’s thinking when it comes to issues such as racism and colonialism.

Two contrasting examples illustrate the point. On a recent trip to the Netherlands, I has surprised to see that the museum I visited properly explained the context in which many of the cultural artefacts and works of art were created. A Romanticised depiction of a road construction in 19th century Dutch East Indies is captioned with the preface that thousands of local Indonesians perished building this monument of colonisation.

The Great Postal Route near Rejapolah, Auguste Antoine Joseph Payen, 1828

While it’s not a miracle, it at least acknowledges that Romanticised scenes such as this are far from the reality of what colonialism was about. But such efforts are rare in Europe. The populace by and large shows a staggering level of wilful ignorance for the actions of their ancestors. People even forget that they do not even need to go back very far. In many cases it was their grandparents who took part in national colonial projects.

By contrast a visit to the Central African Museum in Belgium is the epitome of this failure by Europe to account for its atrocities. The exhibition is controversial to say the least. The King of Belgium even refuses to visit it. It’s controversial because of Leopold II. In Belgium he is remembered as a national hero, a father of the country sort. He built magnificent buildings, created many national parks, and oversaw a flourishing of Belgian culture during the late 19th century.

Of course, such an image was built on the backs of the Congolese people whom he enslaved and butchered. Tens of millions of Congolese perished in the Congo Free State which he ruled over personally between 1885 and 1908. The reality of Leopold is that he would make good company with the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

The Central African Museum is a testament to Leopold’s legacy. Indeed, the entire museum is housed within opulent classical style buildings with large French gardens surrounding. One would think they are about to serve high tea at noon when visiting. Instead, you’re visiting a mausoleum to some of the worst crimes against humanity – lovely.

Recently the exhibition was ‘reformed’. The collection previously run by the colonial office, has since been changed to modernise the exhibition. In some limited respects it makes attempts to more accurately show what Belgium did to the Congolese people.

But based on what actually went on there, it would be like going to Auschwitz and seeing a sign that just said, “some people died here”.

But this attempt falls short because it fails to acknowledge the brutalities of King Leopold II. Here is a short list of the regime’s greatest hits. In the Congo Free State every person was required to produce a certain amount of goods for the king. If one failed to do this their hands would be cut off. If the man needed his hands for working the hands of his wife and children would be cut off.

It is estimated that in the 19th century Congo has a population of around 20 million people. By the time of the first census in 1924, that figure had dropped to 10 million. It wasn’t just hand amputations. Most of these deaths were due to mass starvation, overwork, disease (sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza, and amoebic dysentery), in addition to outright mass executions of ‘rebellious’ villages.

Leopold II advertised his takeover of the Congo Free State as a civilising mission. A quintessential example of the white man’s burden. A golden statue in the central rotunda still stands of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes along with a plaque that reads: “Belgium bringing civilisation to Congo.”

The Central African Museum should be recommended for those who would like a class in how Europe continues to this day to perpetuate racist and colonialist ideologies. Just as the Belgian state made only cosmetic changes to the Congo Free State when they took over in 1908, so too has this museum. At its core is a message of murder and genocide. All the while you are greeted with a smile.

The Belgians were well known for setting up human zoos – the greatest irony is that they themselves have become a zoo themselves. It’s a zoo of various perverse, sick and degenerate ideologies. The hypocrisy is glaring and it’s time Europe takes its head out the sand. Oh, but they have lovely museums don’t they!

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