• Guillaume de Bassompierre

Travel in music: Chapter 3 - 1976-78, Belgium (part II)

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!

1976-1978 - Chapter 3 | Back from Congo. We spend a 2-year stint in Belgium. We lived in a tiny house off the main square in the village of Tervuren, in the outskirts of Brussels' greater suburbia. Coincidentally, just a few hundred meters away, lay Leopold II's gigantic ex-palace, by then already a museum and research institute dedicated to Central Africa.

Leopold II was a megalomaniac king, very frustrated with having inherited such a small and insignificant kingdom from his father. At the height of colonial frenzy, when Europe's great powers carved out Africa for themselves on map in a Berlin conference room, Leopold managed to convince his peers that the great, relatively unexplored chunk that lay at its center should remain 'neutral' and devoted to free trade and scientific research (in truth, the king had been financing Stanley's expeditions to the region for a few years already and secretly acquiring lands along the way). The territory that is nowadays the D.R. Congo was thus entrusted to Leopold's "International Congo Society" and he effectively became the sole, private owner of the Congo Free State.

History has judged Leopold II harshly. To some, he is a genocidal monster of Hitler-like proportions. His horrendous treatment of the native populations, his pursuit of colonial endeavor for personal (indecent) enrichment and the cunning deception he used to reach his objectives do little to soften this image. To others though, he was nothing more than a product of his time: a visionary leader who successfully grew his country's influence and wealth; a romantic 19th century king who firmly believed in Europe's mission to bring civilization, values and religion to 'savage' Africa.

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere in between. For while he was definitely hypocritical in stating his motives and incredibly violent in what was more akin to plundering than colonizing, he wasn't acting very differently from all the other European nations of the time. After all, hasn't France actively suppressed Brazza's report on identical colonial atrocities, afraid of its parliament's backlash and of the irreparable harm it would cause to its image? Didn't Britain and Germany force famine and massacre on their colonial subjects?

What is more than certain though is that Belgium has struggled to properly deal with its dark colonial past. Until not so long ago, the Tervuren museum still portrayed Leopold II's and Belgium's role in Congo's history as a positive, civilizing undertaking (it has now, thankfully, been completely overhauled). History schoolbooks still paint Leopold in a somewhat positive light too, barely nuanced by accusations of inhumane treatment of local populations, blaming them on the absence of parliamentary control pre-1908, when the Congo Free State was finally ceded by Leopold to Belgium.

If you've read this far, you'll understand that the reason I'm sharing this song by Belgian rapper Romeo Elvis doesn't have much to do with his music but the subject matter he is dealing with. Indeed, it is high time Belgium acknowledged its true role. If you can't change the past, you can definitely present it in a more accurate, empathetic light.

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© by Leanne & Guillaume de Bassompierre.