The Monument to the Congo at the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels (Photo: Alamy)
ON A RECENT TRIP to Athens, I spent the day visiting the Acropolis and its most celebrated edifice, the Parthenon. Splendid though it was, the structure was mutilated, and not just by the ravages of time, but by the agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Between 1801 and 1812, Elgin’s crew dug up and shipped back to Britain about half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures from the time.
Despite pleas from contemporary Greek authorities for the return of these artefacts, on the grounds that they are an essential part of the nation’s civilisational patrimony, the sculptures, known as the “Elgin marbles”, are now the property of the British Museum.
There is very little in the British Museum that is British. Rather, it’s a record of loot and plunder by the British as they asset-stripped their various colonies around the world. While the countries in question may have been decolonised in the interim, most museums that house these artefacts are yet to do the same.
Recently, however, there are indications that some European nations have begun to confront their colonial past with less discombobulation than was the norm. Part of this new praxis is the recognition of the right of former colonies to historical artefacts that had been removed under duress during the colonial period. For many formerly colonised nations, the collections housed in the museums of their erstwhile colonisers do not represent innocent pedagogy. Rather, they symbolise historic and ongoing trauma and theft.
In July, the Netherlands announced that it will return 478 artefacts looted from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. For Indonesia, these include the “Lombok treasure”, which consists of 335 pieces of jewellery. Sri Lanka will have six items returned, including the Cannon of Kandy, a ceremonial 18th-century weapon inlaid with rubies.
Earlier in January, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin said it would repatriate hundreds of human skulls from the former German colony of East Africa. Other examples include the 2021 announcement by France that it was returning statues, royal thrones and sacred altars taken from the West African nation of Benin.
Last year, even Belgium returned a gold-capped tooth belonging to the slain Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 Belgium is known to be complicit in. I say “even” Belgium because during the three years that I lived in Brussels, from 2009 onwards, I was shocked often by the willed politics of forgetting that encapsulated the country’s attitude towards its colonial past.
I’d lived a short walk away from the city’s Cinquantenaire park, where on gently warm summer days, happy families had thronged the generous green sprawl. But a brutal history underlay these bucolic scenes. The park was built in the late-19th century by King Leopold II, with the proceeds from a horrific slave state that he’d established in the Congo.
For almost 25 years, the Congo, an area that was almost 80 times the size of Belgium, was a private estate of the king before being taken over by the Belgian government in 1908. During this time, and for several years afterwards, forced slave labour in the Congo was used to extract rubber to feed Leopold’s coffers. In his book, King Leopold’s Ghost, historian Adam Hochschild estimated a death toll of up to 10 million people in the Congo for the period between 1880 and 1920.
Yet, in Cinquantenaire, there were no traces of this barbaric story to be found. Instead, a recently renovated monument gleamed in the sun. This “Monument to the Congo” showed off images of a Belgian soldier sacrificing his life in the “defence of the Congo and for the greater glory of Belgium.” The scene was topped off by one of a graceful white lady, symbolising Belgium, receiving innocent Black children in her munificent embrace.
At the centre of the monument, a message in Leopold II’s words was carved out: “J’ai entrepris l’oeuvre du Congo dans l’interet de la civilisation et pour le bien de la Belgique. (I undertook the work of the Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium.)”
Across Europe, on the rare occasion that colonialism is addressed in museums or other public spaces, invariably the gist of the message is that it was a product of its time and therefore cannot be judged by modern-day standards.
A recently renovated monument gleamed in the sun. This ‘monument to the Congo’ showed off images of a Belgian soldier sacrificing his life in the ‘defence of the Congo and for the greater glory of Belgium.’ The scene was topped off by one of a graceful white lady, symbolising Belgium, receiving innocent Black children in her munificent embrace
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Why is the same never said of Nazism, or Stalin’s Russia? Hochschild argues that in Europe, colonialism has either been actively “forgotten” or remembered as a largely benign phenomenon whose unfortunate collateral damage is explained by mentalities that must be understood in their context. The reason communism and fascism have been singled out as the only genocides worth writing about is that their victims were mostly European.
One of the greatest offenders when it came to abetting this forgetting used to be Belgium’s Africa Museum. Located in a leafy suburb outside Brussels, it was considered one of the foremost collections of Central Africana in the world. Yet, until 2005, it made no mention at all about the millions of Africans who died in the region under Belgian colonial rule, although a “Gallery of Remembrance” honoured the colonialists who gave their lives there.
Over the last decade, however, it has taken an about turn and become a decent example of how a museum can decolonise itself. Today, one of the first things a visitor sees at the entrance to the building is a painting that centres the controversy surrounding the museum’s reinvention. The painting, by Congolese artist, Chéri Samba, is of a well-known sculpture from the museum’s collection, Leopard Man: a large, menacing figure of an African dressed in leopard skin, with claw-like knives in his hands, about to pounce on a sleeping victim. Titled Reorganization, it shows the statue on its pedestal, teetering on the steps outside the museum. A group of Black people are pulling on ropes to try to haul it away, while assorted white people strain at another set of ropes, trying to prevent its removal. The museum director, in suit and tie, looks on impassively. It’s a meta-examination of the institution’s ongoing preoccupation with making explicit its own part in perpetuating colonial mentalities.
Britain’s museums, however, seem to be less inclined to introspection. And the idea that “finders”/looters are keepers is entrenched. They have also been known to argue that only civilised (read rich, former colonial) nations have the interest in, and the means to, look after rare historical objects, which are the patrimony of all “humankind”. (This line of reasoning fails to take cognisance of the fact that most people from the countries to which these objects actually belonged are unable to get visas to visit the museums where they are now housed.)
If these artefacts are returned to uncivilised and poor former colonies, the argument continues, who knows how well or badly they will be looked after? Repatriation, it claimed, could be a loss to humanity. This is but an insidious extension of the white man’s burden rationale, in 21st-century guise.
Were these museums so worried about rescuing global patrimony for its own sake, they should not only return looted artefacts but also offer financial and technical support for museums in the global South to ensure their good resting places. This could be a powerful, moral, and just way to deal with the issue of colonial reparations. A true win-win for humanity.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open