It wasn’t about the tour guide, I was just feeling a bit sensitive about this kind of thing when she said it. I had been chaperoning a bunch of students around Brussels as part of a quick tour of European Union institutions, and in amongst the “to your left you can see…” patter on the bus (although more of that below) came an explanation of why there were 12 stars on the European flag, about how even when the EU expanded beyond 12 member states they had retained the 12 stars, and that this was because 12 was such a significant number. There had been 12 Olympian Gods, 12 hours in the day (and of course the night), and 12 apostles; said fact was then grounded in the following nugget of European ahistoricism and not-so-covert racism: “and, you know, our culture is still Christian, I must say” (stress in the original).
Now, like I said, this piece isn’t about that tour guide, nor do I think it is particularly sensible to extrapolate any broader point about Eurocentrism, racism or ahistoricism from one single individual. But my inside voice was screaming – How could you square a singular expression of European historical Polytheism and Pantheism with contemporary exclusivist Christianity? And then, my mind raced around the Brussels that I had been seeing, for the first time, over the previous 24 hours, and thought, Wow, the absence of what slavery was and is to Brussels is even embodied in its people.
Now, I know, that was pretty unfair. One person an’all. But like I said, I was feeling sensitive. I’d never been to Brussels before, and it’s certainly a beautiful city, its historic centre untouched by World War Two bombing. But it’s when you get out the very centre, and start to get the tours of the royal palaces, Chinese Pavilion, Japanese Tower, Europe’s largest greenhouses, the Parc du Cinquantenaire, and so on, that you begin to get a material sense of just how much of Brussels was and is bathed in the blood of Congolese rubber slaves. For these sites were the projects of Leopold II, known to some in Belgium as the ‘Builder King’, and many more both inside (I hope/imagine) and outside as a megalomaniac despot and butcher who robbed and murdered the inhabitants of what became known as the ‘Congo Free State’ in the latter part of the 19th Century, the legacy of which is arguably still being visited on its successor state, the DRC, today. It is of course the case that much of the supposed architectural splendour of Europe’s capitals is similarly bathed in the blood of slaves and other imperial subjects. And yet the silence which surrounds Leopold’s crimes in his own heartland is astonishing, all the more so because, unusually in the case of Imperial Belgium, there really is one person that stands out to be held responsible for the crimes against the Congolese, the self-same and heralded ‘Builder King’ Leopold II. On our tour we were told of Leopold’s hilarious escapades and vanities, like spending 100,000 Gold Francs on the Chinese Pavilion built for the Paris Exposition of 1900 (equivalent to roughly $1.5 million today). Not a single mention of where Leopold raised the funds for this, and the variety of other urban projects and public works Leopold commissioned in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when his personal wealth mushroomed thanks to the rubber producing personal fiefdom he had established in the Congo.
Bathed in the blood of Congo’s slaves: Centrepiece of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels
Now, I know that you can consult a Wikipedia page to find some of this out, and I’m fairly certain, from memory, that Adam Hochschild makes a similar point about the absence of its own bloody history one encounters in Belgium, but the point I want to convey here is how visceral this absence is. It’s everywhere, inscribed in the pillars of the rather unaptly named Palace of Justice (commissioned under Leopold II’s father, but completed, in all its grandeur, many years later in 1883 under Leopold II’s rule) and written into/out of official public histories of the period.
So, probably nothing new here, and apologies for the ‘shock and awe(d)’ tone, but I really had to write about this. You can be prepared for these things, but the shock of encountering the silencing of history, the silencing of violence, and the celebration of the results of this inflicted suffering…well, like I said, it left me feeling pretty sensitive to the casual ignorance and racism of a single tour guide. And then, as I was making ready my departure from Brussels, I noticed for the first time the view from my 5th floor window…