It took sixty years for Belgium to express officially “deepest regrets for these wounds” caused by the nation’s 75 years of colonial rule in the Congo. King Philippe’s letter to the Congolese President Tshisekedi differs considerably from the view of his predecessor’s speech at Congo’s Indpendence Day ceremony sixty years ago. In that speech on June 30, 1960, King Baudoin declared Congo’s independence to be “the crowning of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II undertaken by him with firm courage, and continued by Belgium with perseverance”. The King also paid tribute to the “best of Belgian sons” who served in the administration of the Belgian colony and “who deserve admiration from us and acknowledgement from you (his Congolese audience)”.
The paternalistic tone of the entire speech reached its height when the King suggested Belgium had benevolently granted independence to the vast nation, “It is your job, gentlemen, to show that we were right in trusting you”. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba responded with a speech, not listed on the day’s official program, which emphasized his people’s long history of struggle to secure their human right to self determination. Refraining from revisiting the staggering loss of Congolese lives during Leopold II’s Congo Free State and the subsequent Belgian colonial rule, Lumumba did refer to specific “wounds” which King Philippe’s letter 60 years later briefly acknowledges. The undisputed, overwhelmingly elected leader of 1960 Congo noted, “We have been the victims of ironic taunts, of insults, of blows that we were forced to endure morning, noon, and night because we were blacks.”
Lumumba’s speech alarmed international guests from Europe and North America and the Belgian King nearly departed immediately after for home. Even the liberal Guardian newspaper described the Prime Minister’s words as “offensive” and praised the King for displaying “great dignity” throughout his stay. Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck in his 2010 history of Congo described the speech as “one of the great speeches of the twentieth century” while concluding it was “a problematical one in terms of its effect”.
The Belgian Parliament just formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to revisit their country’s colonial history. “As with other European countries, the time has come to embark on the path of “research, truth and memory” in the words of the current Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Willems. Many Parliament members and Belgian citizens will feel obligated to defend and whitewash their rule in Africa. King Philippe’s younger brother Prince Laurent disputed his brother’s June 30 letter. In defense of the source of much of his royal family’s wealth, the system of extraction of resources which took an estimated ten million Congolese lives, Prince Laurent noted that King Leopold II had never set foot in Africa.
Ten years before Leopold was forced to cede his brutalizing Congo Free State network of control and create the colonial administration, Conrad’s narrator in the 1898 novella The Heart of Darkness condemned the King’s rule. He emphasizes features characterizing other European colonies in Africa:
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, 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.”
Anti racist protestors have succeeded in forcing the removal of statues honoring King Leopold in Belgium but their call for reparations for the Congo will meet stout opposition. As in the United States, there is profound discomfort and sensitivity among whites of all political leanings when faced with the truth of their complicity with and benefit from the endemic racism of their society. Thanks to the continued protests there is however serious scrutiny for the first time of how even avowedly anti-racist whites participate in preserving the structures of racism in the U.S. and in Europe. Responding to the protests, movies, books, podcasts, etc. are challenging whites to consider previously neglected personal traits of “white fragility” and “white privilege”. Widespread recognition of the disparities in how people of color are treated in the U.S. criminal justice system lays a foundation for significant change. Whether continued calls for reparations to address the vast gulf between black and white families’ wealth and income will lead to a U.S. “truth and reconciliation commission” is more open to question. Progressive U.S. religious leaders, notably Dr. King among them, have for years declared the nation faces a moral and spiritual crisis, a struggle to heal the soul of America. It is worthy of note that the social scientist Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness concludes:
“I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved through rational policy discussions….I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings. These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.”
The poem which follows was written on the 60th Anniversary of Congo’s Independence June 30 this year. In addressing the moral and spiritual questions raised by European and American colonial rule and continued economic exploitation of nations and their people of color, it represents a call for repentance as a prelude to consideration of reparations or any other form of redress of the global status quo. It can also be read as a written response to “lectio divina” meditation on the above photo from the colonial era.
“What Is Carried” – June 30, 2020
At the first turning of the century past, the one we survived, We can be sure that dark folk Walked where the white rode. Whether it was sedan chair Rickshaw or the Stooped dorsal fin Under the pith helmeted White swatting flies above the sweat - Released criminals, dregs and the exiled Drank imports, Whips in the free hand ordering “boys” Around heedless of age or size Until the ice melted enough to reveal The ancient light Too bright for any devices Invented to defend Centuries of savagery. Howl now at Voltaire’s tracts on race His ghost dancing To Agassiz’s science of humankind The bilge smelling From huge minds infected By tropical fevers of ancestors Carried so long Through sweltering days Of harvesting The bodies of the ones who walked.