At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, it appears that former colonial powers’ relations to the colonial past are mediated by the ways in which they remember the Second World War. Its preoccupation with Nazism has led Germany to finally face its violent colonial past in Namibia. Seemingly, French remain as unwilling to give up on the myth that they brought their colonial subjects ‘civilisation’ as on the myth that all French passed the war as resistant fighters. Dutch tend to consider themselves victims of the Nazis who were therefore incapable of committing war crimes in Indonesia. Britons whose country escaped occupation revel in the idea that they beat the Nazi and appear incapable to accept criticism of the British Empire.
In Belgium, many Francophones have long held on to the idea that they were resistance fighters and Flemings collaborators, while many Flemings in turn have regarded the post-war period as a continuation of the war against idealistic Flemish nationalists who were unduly harshly punished for their collaboration. During the post-war period, the importance of the linguistic cleavage gradually replaced the political opposition between left and right. Whereas the Royal Question in 1950 pitted a Catholic Flanders that supported Leopold III against a socialist Wallonia that demanded the abdication of the King, the monarchy is now more popular among Francophones than among Flemings. The colonial past is often instrumentalised to serve postcolonial political agendas: given the close ties between the monarchy and Belgium’s acquisition of the Congo as a colony, many Francophones have long rebutted criticism of Leopold II’s brutal rule of the Congo Free State whereas many Flemings, by contrast, criticize that same rule in order to discredit the monarchy. I have argued elsewhere against the idea that Belgian society suffers from colonial amnesia as far as Leopold II’s reign of terror in the Congo Free State is concerned or that the period is the subject of a historical taboo and proposed that it should better be considered the object of truncated, skewed and fragmentary memories, consisting of made of legends and stereotypes, for fear of telling the truth (Ceuppens 2014: 86).1 At least since the 1950s, the controversy about the violence in the Congo Free State seems to flare up every ten years, only to be buried again. However, the publication of Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold II’s Ghost in 1997 and Pete Bate’s White King, Red Rubber, White Death in 2002 seems to have put an end to this cycle. A consensus is gradually growing on the violence that accompanied the rubber exploitation in the Congo Free State. Nowadays, with the exception of Louis Michel2 and former colonials, very few Belgians still publicly take up the defence of Leopold II by minimising or flatly denying the brutality of his rule. The period is no longer the subject of a debate among academic historians, even if the total number of victims is disputed. But it is telling that no Belgian academic historian has published a vulgarising text correcting Hochschild’s and Pete Wade’s journalistic endeavours and that there is still no real public debate on the issue.
In so far that such a debate exists in relation to the Belgian colonial past, the focus tends to fall on the violent transition from the Belgian Congo to the independent Congo: the mutinies, the flight of Europeans, the secession of Katanga and South-West Kasai, the Congo Crisis, the murder of the first Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Emery Lumumba, the civil war, the hostage crisis in Stanleyville (now Kisangani)… Public memories of these events are still dominated by inaccurate representations which contrast innocent Belgians forced to flee ‘paradise’ by murderous and raping Congolese (e.g. Van Doorslaer 2003). The one exception is the assassination of Lumumba. As was the case with the violence in the Congo Free State, publications by ‘outsiders’ (foreigners like E.D. Morel or Hochschild or a non-academic like Ludo De Witte) created international uproar that forced Belgians to react, albeit reluctantly.
In 2001, the Belgian parliament accepted that Belgium bore moral responsibility for the killing of Lumumba in 1961 and offered apologies to his family and the Congolese people. But the recommendations of the Commission that investigated the circumstances of Lumumba’s murder were largely ignored, as were subsequent warnings that the unresolved colonial past weighted upon relations between ‘white’ Belgians and Belgians of Congolese descent who now constitute the third largest non-European minority in Belgium, after Moroccans and Turks (if one accepts that Turkey is outside Europe).
In 2016, two deputies of Belgium’s two green parties, the Francophone Ecolo and the Flemish Groen drew inspiration from a study commissioned in 2006 by the state on Belgium’s role in the persecution of Jews during World War Two in order to jointly submit a proposal for a resolution to commission research on the responsibility of different Belgian institutions in the colonization of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. It elicited no reaction from other deputies or politicians and received scant attention in the media.
Belgians, it seems, are reluctant to confront their colonial past do so without external pressure and have to be shamed into doing so by ‘outsiders’. There are notable exceptions, such as the first exhibition on the period organised by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in 2005 (see below) and the publication of David Van Reybrouck’s book Congo: een geschiedenis, both of which have provoked very conflicted reactions. But in Flanders, at least, the colonial past has also provoked nostalgia in recent years, as witnessed by the success of Missie, a play by David Van Reybrouck on a missionary in the Congo, and Nonkel Pater, a television series on missionaries in the Belgian Congo. Both productions reinforced the colonial image of idealistic men (women are overlooked) making a live-long commitment to the Congo, while the recipients of their ‘largesse’ are systematically ignored. Indeed, insofar that there is a public debate on the colonial past in Belgium, Congolese in Belgium and elsewhere are systematically excluded.
The Belgian, in particular Flemish commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence was first of all a reflection on Belgian colonialism and in particular on the question: how well or badly did we do? It perceived Congolese independence first of all as the end station of Belgian colonialism rather than a new stepping stone within Congolese history, which is older than Belgian history for the very simple reason that there were human beings in the Congo long before humankind reached Europe.
In recent years, young Belgians who were born after Congolese independence have started making demands for the decolonization of Belgian society, but their initiatives are rarely picked up by the media. These tend to focus on the history courses in secondary school which pay insufficient attention to the colonial era and colonial monuments in the public domain. A number of collectives and associations, such as Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations, Decolonize Belgium and La Nouvelle Voie Anticoloniale, made up largely of individuals of African descent have taken the lead in demands for decolonising Belgian society by organising amongst others activities around colonial buildings and monuments. Occasionally, on November 1 (All Saints Day), Congolese pay tribute to the graves of the seven Congolese who died after having been exhibited during the Universal Exhibition in Tervuren in 1897. On November 11, Armistice Day of World War I, far more Congolese pay homage to Congolese soldiers of the colonial Force publique who fought in the war at the only monument commemorating Belgian and Congolese military men in Schaerbeek.
What sets these initiatives apart from actions undertaken by mainly ‘white’ individuals is that they specifically want to draw attention to the afterlife of colonialism in postcolonial Belgian society. Indeed, the colonial past that ‘white’ and ‘black’ Belgians have in common allows the latter to claim their place as citizens in Belgian society, while drawing attention to the racism and discrimination they face on a daily basis. This helps explain why, in recent years, they have started protesting against “Black Face". The most popular instance of this practice in Belgium is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who accompanies Saint Nicholas bringing presents to children on December 6. Other examples include the Noirauds, members of a charity in Brussels, founded in 1876, which is now under the patronage of Queen Paola (< a href="http://www.berceaux-wiegjesppaola.be/bienvenue.html" target="_blank">http://www.berceaux-wiegjesppaola.be/bienvenue.html) and folkloristic figures such as Le sauvage (the savage) in the Walloon town of Ath (http://www.espacegalloromain.be/videos/le-sauvage). By and large, however, activities organized by groups dominated by individuals of African descent who contest colonial monuments, street names and “Black Face" pass under the radar of Belgian media. Paraphrasing Michael Meeuwis, one can say that individuals of African descent in Belgium continue to constitute not so much an invisible but an absent category.3
Instead, the only actions that generate media attention are those organized by groups dominated by ‘white’ Belgians, but they usually gain little attention beyond the local level. Only three actions against colonial monuments were truly mediatised. All involve statues of Leopold II.
In 2004, activists took action against a statue of Leopold II on the dyke in Ostend in Flanders. To his left a group of Congolese thank him for “having saved them from Arab slavery". To his right, a group of inhabitants of the sea town pay tribute to him. The activists cut off the hand of one of the Congolese as a reminder of the practice of cutting off hands in the Congo Free State. Since neither by-passers nor the municipality noted the missing hand, the activists notified the municipality by fax. The municipality decided not to restore the statue on the grounds that it now better represents historical facts. To this day, the hand has never been returned. In 2016, the municipality added a text panel with more information on the statue which did not refer at all to the violence in the Congo Free State that had inspired the activists in the first place.
In 2008, the Francophone author Théophile de Giraud threw buckets of red paint over the equestrian statue of Leopold II that stands in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels (a small legend reminds the public that the copper and tin that went into the making of the statue came from the Belgian Congo and were provided by l’Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, which controlled the economy during the colonial era and has been described as a state within a state). Subsequently, the statue was cleaned.
But in 2015, it was once again ‘vandalised’, this time by ‘white’ and ‘black activists, after a (Francophone) counsellor of the municipality of Brussels had announced that he wanted to organise a conference on Leopold II and pay tribute to him at the foot of the same statue, 150 years after the king ascended to the throne. The events were cancelled and the statue once again cleaned.
Less spectacular and widely publicised actions have been undertaken against monuments of Leopold II and military men in his service, or streets, squares and tunnels bearing their names throughout the country. Bruno Latour describes destroying images as “a carefully planned, elitist, and governed action" and goes on to say: “Nothing [is] less popular, spontaneous, and undirected than idol-wrecking"(https://www.sfu.ca/cmns/courses/2011/488/1-Readings/Latour%20Iconoclash.pdf).4 One may take issue with his implicit assumption that popular actions are always spontaneous and undirected and elitist actions invariably carefully planned and governed. And if many activists in Belgium are highly educated, be they ‘black’ or ‘white’, this does not make them members of an elite in any sense of the term. However, with regard to the word popular, I would argue that their actions are not popular in the sense that they do not generate much media attention or trigger real public debate.
There are many more streets named after Leopold II and colonial military men and many more monuments erected for them than there are streets and monuments in memory of military men and civilians who lost their lives during the two world wars. While it makes sense that a nation would celebrate its military victories over its military losses, it is telling that the conquest of the Congo is still not generally considered for what it was: a combination of making Congolese rulers sign treaties they could neither read nor understand that transferred control over the territories and peoples they ruled to Leopold II and a number of brutal wars won by the king.
De olifant (the elephant) in Geraardsbergen is a case in point. It was created in 1948-1949 by Théophile L’Haire to commemorate amongst others Belgian military men who lost their lives in the Congo Free State “in the service of civilization" between 1885 and 1908, when control was delegated to the Belgian state. This was a period of almost non-stop war between Leopold II, Congolese and Arabo-Swahili for the control over the country during which many more Congolese than Belgians perished. These monuments have become almost the only testimonies to these wars, as most Belgians now wrongly associate violence in the Congo Free State exclusively with the exploitation of wild rubber. Still, most actions are undertaken in order to remind the public of the violent exploitation of rubber rather than of the wars, which claimed many more Congolese than Belgian lives.
This does not mean that there is no connection: burning down villages, taken women hostage, raping women, mutilating the living and the dead were some of the more gruesome punishments meted out to those who failed to pay taxes in rubber by soldiers of Leopold II’s Force publique. Outrage seems the obvious reaction when confronted with a commemoration of soldiers fallen “in the service of civilization" who may have been directly or indirectly implicated in these types of atrocities. There is a curious disconnect between the growing awareness of the brutality of the rubber exploitation in the Congo Free State and the general indifference towards monuments commemorating soldiers or lieutenants of the Force publique.
It would appear that now, as then, it is not so much the colonisation of the Congo that is questioned, but at most, its excesses (E.D. Morel, who played a key role in exposing that violence subsequently went on to oppose the stationing of French colonial troupes in the German Rhineland on the most racist grounds). Given the excesses associated with Leopold II’s reign of terror, the Belgian colonisation of the Congo remains for many Belgians a “civilizing mission", associated with the building of an infrastructure (hospitals, roads, schools…) for the benefit of Congolese. This conveniently allows Belgians to ignore the physical and symbolic violence that characterized the Belgian rule of the Congo and by extension the responsibility of the Belgian citizens in whose name the state applied or allowed it. Under these circumstances, it becomes very convenient to transform Leopold II in the man whom everybody loves to hate. The following quotation by the Flemish, ‘progressive’ author Geert Van Istendael is by no means atypical:
Sociale en medische zorg werden verstrekt door het bedrijfsleven en de katholieke Missie. (…) Missie en Société [Générale] waren in vergelijking met het schrikbewind van Leopold II een zegen voor de plaatselijke bevolking. Voor zover een koloniaal beleid goed kan zijn, was het Belgische beleid zo goed dat Kongo weldra een van de best uitgeruste en georganiseerde kolonies van Afrika was. Er werd één zware fout gemaakt. De vorming van een inlandse elite werd met opzet verwaarloosd. (1993: 30)
Censorship, a colonial ‘constitution’ that recognised racial differences, compulsory cultivation of cash crops, forced labour, internal exile, the introduction of the Code de Napoléon which relegated women’s legal status vis-à-vis men to that of minors, labour camps, persecution of members of Congolese churches, racial segregation, rampant sexual abuse, strikes and rebellions smothered in blood… are remarkably absent from Belgian memories of the Belgian colonisation of the Congo, which typically foreground the engagement of individual ‘idealistic’ doctors, missionaries, nurses etc. and ignore the Belgian state and the structure of the colonial system. Perhaps, the absence of a single public sphere in a federal state has rendered it difficult if not downright impossible to consider the Belgian colonial past, as opposed to a Francophone or Flemish memory thereof.
The type of story Van Istendael and others tell themselves about the Belgian colonisation of the Congo is reminiscent of the ways in which, until very recently, Flemish nationalists routinely described Flemish-nationalist collaboration with Nazis during World War II as little more than the sum of the misguided actions of ‘idealistic’ Flemings pursuing their ideal of an independent Flemish state. If recent academic research has sufficiently debunked the myth of the idealistic Flemish-nationalist collaborator, after more than 50 years of independence and more than 50 years of development cooperation, few Belgians seem to ask themselves whether it was not possible and even preferable to build an infrastructure in the Congo without swindling Congolese leaders out of their political control and subjugating a subcontinent the size of Western Europe by means of brutal force.
In Belgium, contested colonial monuments were erected after the death of the historical figures represented and actions against them thus does not qualify as damnatio memoriae. The distinction between the latter practice and iconoclasm is not always straightforward. Neither is the distinction between those monuments as symbols or tokens.5 Statues of Leopold II who is now routinely compared to Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin and considered evil incarnate have clearly become the most visible and contested symbols of a contested colonial period and the same goes, to a lesser extent, for monuments representing other historical figures. But other colonial monuments, such as De olifant, are merely tokens in the same battle. No one takes issue with the image of the elephant as image; it is the context of its creation, to which the star and inscription testify that render it controversial for some. In the words of Latour: “If it were not for the conflict, everyone in the two camps would be perfectly happy to confess that it is not the object that is disputed; it is just a stake for something entirely different".6 What is at stake for the activists is the refusal on the parts of the authorities to face up to the colonial past and address it by either removing colonial monuments or contextualizing them, by means of explanatory text panels or artistic interventions.
However, for reasons which are not entirely clear to me, during the colonial era, the elephant, rather than the lion, “the king of the jungle" (not an image with which most Congolese agree, by the way, was a powerful symbol of the colonisation of the Congo. Examples include the elephant that featured in the publicity of chocolate produced by Côte d’Or (as the name makes clear, the cacao with which this chocolate was made came mainly from the West coast of Africa rather than from the Congo), the statue of the elephant opposite the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren or the stuffed elephant in the museum. But I would argue that De olifant in Geraardsbergen is not just a token in attempts to decolonise Belgian society, but also a symbol.
First, the elephant can stand for the economic predation that characterized Leopold II’s and Belgium’s colonial system because, before the discovery of wild rubber trees, ivory was the most important natural resource extracted from the Congo and therefore the major source of income for Leopold II. The ivory trade from the Congo turned Antwerp into one of the largest markets for ivory in the world. Ivory and chryselephantine sculptures created by art nouveau artists featured prominently in the world exhibition Leopold II organized in the Palace of the Colonies in Tervuren in 1897 with the aim to make propaganda for his economic exploitation of the Congo. Like Congolese tropical wood, ivory became an integral element of art nouveau architecture and design, from piano keys to billiard balls.
As far as the second reason is concerned, the argument is a more elaborate one. Two texts by two British authors, who both lived and worked in the British Empire, Georges Orwell and Hector Hugh Munro, a.k.a. Saki, may serve as an introduction to my argument. In 1936, George Orwell published an essay Shooting an Elephant about an imperial police officer in Burma, who shoots an aggressive elephant that had killed an Indian coolie, because this is expected of him by Burmese. The essay is widely considered as a metaphor of British imperialism. But the opening phrase and contains a famous paragraph:
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at (http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/887/).
When I first read the essay, I was reminded of Milan Kundera’s verdict of Orwell that he would have done better to write pamphlets instead of novels (to my mind, Kundera would have done better to stick to literary criticism instead of writing novels). However powerful the above paragraph appears, the essay as a whole seems contrived and is unconvincing. It is as if Orwell tried to write as was expected of him, as someone wearing the mask of a British critic of British imperialism, all the while merely offering stereotypical images of the conscientious but ultimately cowardly narrator bowing to public pressure, the Burmese blood-baying ‘mob’, Buddhist priests gathering on corners to jeer at Europeans who in turn are invariably Europeans… They are all presented as if they were little more than stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte – to say nothing of the poor elephant itself (reader, it was shot). Shooting an Elephant reads dangerously close to a classic racist British colonial text. It would be more accurate to describe it as a metaphor for criticism of criticism of British imperialism: not the real thing, but simply George Orwell going through the motions.
Tobermory, Saki’s famous story about a speaking cat, also features a previously mild elephant that ends up killing a man in the Dresden Zoological Garden, far from its African or Asian homeland. In this particular case, it is reported that a man had been teasing it, but Saki suggests that it was Cornelius Appin who had tried to teach it to speak, in much the same way that he had previously taught Tobermory. The story concludes with the phrase: “’If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast,’ said Clovis, ‘he deserved all he got’" (Saki 2000: 115).7
Saki, who was born in Burma, followed his father into the Indian Imperial Service. There is still debate over the question whether the essay by Orwell, who served in the same service, was autobiographical and I do not know whether Saki or his father ever shot an elephant either. Nor am I aware of any publications making the connections between Shooting an Elephant and Tobermory and I must stress that it might be important to bear in mind that Saki’s mother miscarried her fourth child and died after having been charged by a runaway cow in rural England when he was barely two years old.
But whether or not the sad fate of the elephant in Tobermory was inspired by Saki’s personal experiences in Burma or Britain, I want to argue that it, too, can be read as a metaphor for colonialism. Whereas Orwell’s essay is contrived, Saki’s satire allows for the interpretation that Cornelius Appin, like the Belgian military men celebrated by Théophile L’Haire’s colonial monument, fell “in the service of civilization". (Here, it is worthy to bear in mind that, contrary to Orwell, Saki never pretended to be anything but a staunch imperialist. And it says much about the fans of Saki that on an internet page by amateur comedy writers, one writes that in 1896, Saki was appointed Head of the Commission for Education of English to Elephants and Natives [http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Saki]).
According to Orwell, colonialism turns colonial agents into conventional colonisers who act violently when this is expected of them. But according to Clovis in Saki’s story, colonial agents who try to ‘civilise’ elephants, i.e. colonial subjects, do so at their own peril. Both readings foreground the connection between colonialism and violence by portraying colonial agents as victims of colonial subjects’ symbolic or physical violence as they sacrifice either their ‘real’ self or their very life, i.e. dying a social or physical death, while trying to ‘civilise’ them. The idea of sacrifice runs deep in the self-image of former colonial powers, whether in military or religious terms (witnessed in heroic representations of missionaries who follow the example of Jesus Christ), obfuscating the physical and symbolic violence inflicted upon colonial subjects. Orwell starts his essay by saying that he was hated by a large number of people in Burma and thus goes on to detail the various ways in which this hate expresses itself among different groups. It is not unusual for colonials to describe the strong negative emotions they evoke in colonial subjects as if they were lovers whose affections have been spurned by their colonial paramour or to portray colonial subjects as bitter against their colonial masters because the latter have rejected their love. Representing the colonial relationship as a love relationship in which colonial agents give ‘civilisation’ to colonial subjects who reject it, is an effective way to mask the structural inequalities that qualifies it (see Ceuppens 2003: chapter 7).8
Conventional wisdom has it that in order to decolonise themselves, former colonial powers should recognise that, far from being victims who sacrificed themselves for the good of colonial subjects, colonial agents were actually perpetrators of violence against colonial subjects. I have never been convinced of this argument insofar that it retains an exclusive focus upon colonial agents and continues to conveniently overlook colonial subjects as proper agents in their own history. Changing the discourse from “look how well we did by them!", which comes with the implication “and what an ungrateful lot they are", to “look how badly we treated them!" means that one continues to engage in a debate amongst one’s own group without fully considering the perspective of those whose role in the discourse is merely changed from objects of the colonial “civilising mission" to that of objects of colonial violence, without ever being considered as subjects in their own right. The extent to which they engage for the creation of a public space named after Lumumba shows that Belgians of Congolese descent do not want to be reduced to mere victims of colonial rule. Moreover, there is something perverse and even pornographic about an obsession with all the blood and gore that accompanied the rubber exploitation if it refrains from attempting to contextualise, explain and even understand it.
There is no agreement among scholars about the number of Congolese who died directly or indirectly in relation to the rubber exploitation. But one may well wonder why ‘white’ Belgians (and westerners, by extension) seem to be more concerned about the unknown number of Congolese who died directly or indirectly as a result of the rubber exploitation more than 100 years ago than about the roughly six million Congolese who lost their lives during the Second Congo War, the second most violent conflict of the 20th century. No one could have prevented the deaths in the Congo Free State, but many could have prevented the victims of the Second Congo War and can still prevent the deaths of many Congolese in the current political situation. The argument that people shift their attention away from the present to the past because they feel helpless in the face of actual violence does not make much sense if one sees that individuals of Congolese descent in Belgium tend to engage themselves more for what goes wrong in the DRC now, as opposed to what went wrong there during Leopold II’s rule and, as mentioned, tend to link past colonial crimes to the discrimination, exclusion and racism that ‘black’ Belgians suffer in Belgium today.
This brings me back to the L’Haire’s elephant in Geraardsbergen by way of another story by Saki, and more specifically the famous last phrase of Reginald on Besetting Sins: “Women and elephants never forget an injury" (Saki 2000: 27). Leaving aside Saki’s comment on women (which again takes on a particular poignancy in view of the fate of his mother), research confirms that pachyderms indeed have remarkable recall power and can hold grudges over a long period of time. This leads me to paraphrase the title of the theatre play and movie Whose Life is it Anyway? by posing the question “whose memory is it anyway?" Or, to put it differently: if L’Haire’s elephant stands for remembering the colonial past long after it came to an end, even if its repercussions did not necessarily cease in 1960 in terms of the ongoing predatory exploitation of Congolese natural resources, racism against individuals of Congolese descent in Belgium etc., who is doing the remembering?
In 2005, two years before I joined the staff of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, the institution organised its first ever exhibition on the colonisation of the Congo, a topic that it had managed to avoid in its permanent and temporary exhibitions since its opening in 1910. The publicity campaign for the exhibition won a prestigious price. It also led to furious reactions by Congolese which, again, were ignored by the media.
The photographs of the publicity campaign showed two headless men, one in a type of colonial dress which I have never seen worn on colonial photographs, which completely covered his arms and legs and did not show his skin at all, the other a ‘black’ man in shorts (which I have seen very few Congolese men wear in the Congo or in Belgium) and a shirt with short sleeves that is open at the neck. Both wore a hat, which sat on their shoulders instead of their head. The portrait of the first man can only be recognised as being that of a ‘white’ Belgian in relation to the second. Both portraits are accompanied by the caption: “Het geheugen van Congo is momenteel in het Afrikamuseum" (the memory of the Congo is currently the Africa Museum). The idea that Congolese had no memories of the colonial past and that the only memories of that past were to be found in a museum created as an instrument of colonial propaganda by Leopold II, a museum that throughout its entire history had glorified Leopold II and his ‘pioneers’, while systematically ignoring the symbolic and physical violence that had created it and had characterised the colonisation of the Congo, was deeply painful. Adding insult to injury, considering the history of cut-off hands in the Congo Free State, depicting a headless Congolese as having no memory of the colonisation of the Congo was utterly insensitive, to say the least.
It could be argued that the ‘white’ Belgian man was equally represented headless and having his memory in the Royal Museum for Central Africa. But first of all, it is not innocent to represent a ‘white’ Belgian man as attired in colonial garb since this can be considered as confirming that the museum memory of the colonial past continued to be the memory of (former) colonial agents rather than young ‘white’ Belgians, whereas the Congolese man is wearing contemporary European clothes. Secondly, putting Congolese and Belgian memories of the colonial past on equal footing ignores the unequal power relations that continue to privilege Belgian memories while ignoring Congolese ones in Belgian debates about that past. When developing a publicity campaign, it does not strike me as a good idea to offend a group of stake-holders, but then, what do I know about publicity? But from the perspective of anyone with a real concern for the Belgo-Congolese or Congo-Belgian colonial past, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster. It is safe to speculate that the makers of the campaign and most Belgian visitors were not even aware of the “elephant in the room", i.e. the ways in which Congolese memories of the colonial past may differ from ‘white’ Belgians memories of that same period.
In October 2016, I gave (Flemish) journalists a guided tour in the temporary exhibition, Congo Art Works: Congolese Popular Painting in the Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar) in Brussels. One journalist was surprised that Congolese popular paintings show violent scenes, such as Congolese soldiers whipping Congolese prisoners under the watchful eye of ‘white’ Belgian lieutenants, instead of (female) missionaries teaching or nursing Congolese. Belgians and Congolese have not even started debating the colonial past they share. Why not start that debate around the symbolic figure of De olifant? Put simply, a symbol is something that stands for someone or something else: a deity, an idea, a letter, an object, a person, a relationship, a word… The relationship between a symbol and the being/object it stands for is always arbitrary and they never coincide. As such, a symbol is always open to interpretation.
Anyone should be free to read the image of the elephant as a symbol of remembering the colonial past in any way that s/he sees fit. But given the unequal power relations that continue to shape relations between Belgians and Congolese in the postcolonial era, a special and systematic effort should be made to consider Congolese memories of the colonial past and create platforms that allow Belgians and Congolese to share their memories of that period and engage in public debates about it.
Personally, I think that we can do with fewer colonial street names and monuments in Belgium. But since we know the past only through material and immaterial sources, a radical iconoclasm aimed at destroying them all is a dangerous proposition, which could result in removing all traces and all memories of the colonial past and in the long run, colonial history as such. This would ultimately serve the interests of ‘white’ as opposed to ‘black’ Belgians. Here, we may well heed the lessons of George Orwell’s 1984 which was published the same year that De olifant was created. Let me make the point by giving another example. Censoring or removing historical racist images and books such as Tintin in Africa amounts to censoring or removing historical sources about contemporary racism. This would effectively erase all evidence that ‘black’ Belgians need in order to show that not only they are being discriminated or excluded because they are ‘black’, but that this discrimination/exclusion has a long history that is directly linked to the colonial past. The general refusal to recognise connections between black face (see supra) and colonialism is related to the fact that in Belgium, considerations of racism are mediated through memories of the Second World War Belgium: even in the academic literature, the theorisation of racism is practically reduced to antisemitism9 and ‘whiteness’ as remains an absent category, while within society at large, racism vis-à-vis other groups is often minimized or described as being relative and tends to be taken seriously only when death threats are issued.
Some have suggested that all colonial monuments should be transferred to the park of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (e.g. Abrassart and Ben Yacoub 2014).10 Apart from the fact that there is a danger that the park would then become a focal point for all those who are nostalgic of the colonial past, transforming the RMCA into a dumping ground for colonial monuments and by extension transferring it into a national reservation for all things and memories colonial strikes me as an easy option that makes it easier to deny a public debate while simultaneously denying the historical reality that during the colonial era, the national discourse about colonialism was reproduced at the local level through monuments such as De olifant. Contextualising colonial monuments in their local context seems a better way to generate and connect local and nationwide debates on the colonial past.
But to return to De olifant. There is something to be said for keeping the monument, albeit it with a level of contextualisation that it now lacks, because it can powerfully embody the need for a shared and ongoing Belgian-Congolese debate on the colonial past – and let me make clear that ‘Congolese’ here refers to Congolese in the DRC and in Belgium and beyond. Referring to Saki’s identification of elephants and women, I yield to no one in my appreciation of elephants or women (I’m a feminist), but I would like to emphasise that if humans, like elephants, can bear grudges over a long period of time, unlike pachyderms, they can also discuss their differences in opinion and overcome their differences.
Writing in 2003, at the occasion of the publication of Peter Verlinden’s book Weg uit Congo, which told the conventional story of Belgians being driven from ‘paradise’ by Congolese in the wake of independence, Rudi Van Doorslaer observed that the Belgian debate about the colonial past was passing through a transitionary phase, characterised by a struggle between emotional testimonies of ‘white’ witnesses and detached academic research, and complained that many official documents were still not freely accessible. 13 years later, these documents are still not available to scholars and this may help explain why little seems to have changed in the intervening years, with the possible exception of a growing consensus about the brutality of Leopold II’s reign in the Congo Free State. But it is worth stressing that public debate about this period has long evolved without implication of direct witnesses and that it continues to be emotional because many former colonials who never lived through the Leopoldian period continue to identify so strongly with the “civilising mission" of the “Builder-King".
Van Doorslaer remarked upon the similarities between debates about the colonial past in 2003 and the evolution of the historiography of the Second World War 15 to 20 years previously:
Het lijkt erop dat de wetenschappelijke geschiedschrijving niet alleen moet wachten op het openstellen van de bronnen, maar tevens op het deels verdwijnen van de generatie die met haar sociale geheugen een allesoverheersende stempel heeft gedrukt op dergelijke sterk emotioneel geladen sleutel gebeurtenissen.
Toch vormde toen de confrontatie van dat sociaal geheugen met een kritische vraagstelling – denken wij maar aan de televisiereeks(en) van Maurice De Wilde – de motor tot het opentrekken van het debat (over collaboratie en verzet) en tot een grote progressie in de historische kennis. Dat kon omdat er tijd was overheen gegaan, omdat er nog voldoende getuigen in leven waren én omdat eindelijk de juiste vragen werden gesteld. Daar zijn wij nu, met de kolonialen, ook aanbeland.
Het wordt mijns inziens dus tijd dat allen die wetenschappelijk geïnteresseerd zijn in de geschiedenis van Afrika en de aanwezigheid aldaar (en ik denk hierbij niet enkel aan historici maar zeker ook aan politicologen en antropologen) hun inspanningen bundelen en de sociale getuigenis niet laten afsterven vooraleer met haar in debat te zijn getreden (PDF).11
Thus, we have come full circle as far as the connections between memories of the Second World War and the colonial past are concerned. In 2017, 14 years after he published his text, Van Doorslaer’s call is more urgent than ever.
“Carthago en Rome in oorlog. In de sneeuw trekt Hannibal met 60.000 soldaten en 37 olifanten over de Pyreneeën, door Gallië en over de Alpen. Ontzettend waren de moeilijkheden op die onbetreden wegen. Duizenden vonden de dood in de afgrond, duizenden werden onder lawines bedolven, duizenden door het zwaard van de bergvolkeren gedood. Toen Hannibals leger in Italië aankwam, telde het nog slechts 26.000 man en één olifant."1
Is die olifant verdwaald? Heeft hij de onherbergzame Alpen ingeruild voor het Grupellopark in Geraardsbergen? De muur is immers ook steil. Maar wordt het geen tijd dat deze laatste olifant ook naar beneden dondert? Moet dit trompetterende exemplaar vandaag, net als de Congopioniers meer dan een eeuw geleden, “in dienst van de beschaving" vallen?
In het Westen staat de overlevende olifant symbool voor de agressie van Hannibal ten aanzien van het Romeinse Rijk. Tunesische historici stellen net het omgekeerde: de Carthagers wilden na de verschillende Punische oorlogen absoluut niet opnieuw in oorlog treden met Rome. Ze waren een volk van handelaars en oorlog was een slechte zaak. De Carthagers waren allicht de inspiratie voor Aristoteles’ uitspraak: het doel van oorlog is vrede.
Eén olifant, meerdere interpretaties.
November 2016. Het docu-theatergezelschap Action Zoo Humain reikt de ‘Artiesten-Zonder-Grenzen’-trofee, een vergulde olifant, uit aan de beloftevolle Tunesische choreograaf Hafedh Zalit tijdens het internationale theaterfestival in Tunis. Hoe kunnen we uitleggen dat de prijs die we uitreiken het resultaat is van een denkoefening tijdens de voorstelling ‘Join the Revolution’ en een symbolische crowdfundingcampagne? Worstelend met bedenkingen rond de zin en onzin van onze (westerse) bemoeienis besef ik dat ik bovendien de twee slagtanden van het beest vergeten ben op de hotelkamer.
In de voorstelling ‘Join The Revolution’ proberen we een positief verhaal te brengen. Action Zoo Humain vond honderden donateurs en zamelde 12 000 euro in om een Tunesische artiest te ondersteunen die aan de slag gaat met jongeren uit het zuiden. Het zuiden van Tunesië dat ondanks zijn aandeel in de Jasmijnrevolutie (de start van de Arabische Lente) en zijn strijd voor verlichte waarden vandaag in economische ellende verkeert. Jongeren zijn radeloos en willen naar het Westen of in het slechtste geval radicaliseren ze (cf. de jonge aanslagplegers van Nice en Berlijn komen uit deze verpauperde streken).
Door de aanslagen in Sousse en Bardo blijven toeristen weg uit Tunesië. Een aderlating. De huidige westerse politiek ten aanzien van Tunesië is dubbelzinnig. Premier Charles Michel ging onlangs op economische en politieke missie naar Tunesië, samen met zijn Nederlandse en Luxemburgse collega’s. Een goede zaak, maar de olifant baarde een muis. Geen substantiële hulp of samenwerking en vooral geen wijziging van het negatief reisadvies. Dit advies ondergraaft een belangrijk segment van de economie: toerisme & investeringen. In Tunis zijn de soldaten nochtans minder ostentatief aanwezig dan in Brussel of Parijs. Maar de stapels souvenirs liggen onaangeroerd te wachten op kooplustige toeristen.
Terugkijkend hebben we ons met onze gulden olifant-prijs in een wespennest gewaagd. Eigenlijk verdienden alle Tunesische theatergroepen een prijs voor hun moed en doorzettingsvermogen. Is onze gulden olifant een doekje voor het bloeden? Een tandeloos beest? Een schaamlapje en een eyeopener voor het falen van het Westen? Sussen we ons geweten? Of is het juist een duidelijk signaal van internationale solidariteit? Action Zoo Humain heeft geen grote autoriteit. We zijn geen priesters noch politici. Maar we kunnen als kunstenaars wel vragen stellen. Alleen jammer dat de olifant zelf niet kan spreken.