Reign of terror
The Congo Free State, founded in 1885 as the personal fiefdom of Leopold II (pictured right) inspired Joseph Conrad’s imperial horror story, Heart of Darkness. Under Leopold’s rapacious rule, as many as 10 million people were killed, according to an estimate by historian Adam Hochschild. The vast sums paid for monuments, museums and palaces in Belgium were considered extreme, and growing public protest contributed to the Belgian state taking over the Congolese remembers crying, aged four or five, after racist taunts by other children who flinched at holding her hand.
Belgian society has changed a lot since then, she thinks, from black girls proud to wear African print dresses to the increasing visibility of black people on TV. However, she said the colonial past still casts a shadow over how black Belgians are treated today, pointing to the absence of them in decision-making roles. “A lot of people feel weird when a black person is in charge, and that is because of colonialism.”
The best-known chapters of Belgium’s territory in 1908.
During the first world war, Belgium gained the lands of Rwanda and Burundi. While the murderous cruelty was over, economic exploitation of Congolese mineral wealth carried on as before. When independence arrived in 1960, hopes soared with the election of charismatic Patrice Lumumba as Congo’s first democratically elected leader. He was assassinated in 1961 on the orders of the CIA, with the tacit support of Belgium.