Belgium begins long-overdue discussion on racism by looking to its ‘brutal’ past

Recognition and acknowledgement of the shameful parts of history are essential, however painful:

There is perhaps no greater symbol of Belgium’s failure to address the dark chapters of its colonial past than the Royal Museum for Central Africa. This weekend, it reopens after a five-year process to revamp the story it tells — a story many Belgians have never been taught.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa just outside Brussels has long been accused of complicity in perpetuating that distorted history.

Now housed in one of Leopold’s Versailles-like palaces, its roots date back to 1897, when the king built a special tramline so people visiting the World Fair in Brussels could also visit his own exhibition showcasing his colonial exploits.

He even built a “human zoo” of grass huts inhabited by 267 Congolese brought over to be a part of the display.

This is a look at King Leopold II’s original exhibit at the colonial museum. (Wellcome Collection)

There is perhaps no greater symbol of Belgium’s failure to address the dark chapters of its past than the museum, which has maintained its colonialist perspective for all these decades.

“We have one gallery, for example, with the names of the 1,600 Belgians that died between 1876 and early 20th century in the Congo Free State,” director Guido Gryseels said. “There’s not a single mention about the many Congolese victims of colonization.”

Until now.

Gryseels is the man behind a five-year renovation that he insists will “decolonize” the museum in form and message, delivering a more honest narrative when it reopens its doors to the public this weekend.

“That the Congo was not the story of bringing civilization, that it was not a story of eliminating the slave trade, that it was a story of brutal capitalism, looking for resources, looking for profits.”

Leopold’s private agents were given free rein in his African empire. They used slave labour to satisfy Belgium’s hunger for rubber and other natural resources. Those who fell behind in delivering their quotas could be punished with the loss of a limb, or worse.

That these horrors still feel somehow veiled from ordinary Belgians seems extraordinary.

Gryseels says it is an emotional issue for many Belgians, who will have had relatives who worked in Congo in one form or another over the years, in particular after the Belgian government took over from the king in 1908.

“Many people are very nostalgic about the past,” he said. “For many Belgians, our museum is a symbol of the times when Belgium was still a major power, in 1961, one of the richest countries in the world thanks to colonialism. And, of course, now it’s gone down.”

Immigration from Belgium’s former colonies, which also included Rwanda and Burundi, was not actively encouraged before or after Congo gained its independence in 1960.

But the Central African community here numbers well over 100,000 people. Whether to engage with the museum as it tries to reform and rebrand itself has been a difficult question for many.

Artist Aimé​ Mpane won a competition to design an installation for the main rotunda of the new museum.

It will serve as a contrast to statues still in place from the old era, portraying colonizers as civilizers, including a golden piece depicting African children cowering at the feet of a cross-bearing missionary.

A statue of a missionary and a young boy at the museum. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane’s piece, titled New Breath, is a giant latticework head sculpted from wood and placed over a crown etched on the floor of the rotunda.

“I [wanted] to create one big piece that will take the place of King Leopold II,” he said. “That will replace this story, which links us all, with the good and the bad.”

The work also features a plant that seems to grow from the top of the head, in place of a crown, and draws the eye upward.

“There’s always a link between what’s on the ground and what’s in the sky,” he said. “And that’s to show the idea of genesis, of rebirth. We can rise above our past and reach something that’s ours.”

Mpane’s work, New Breath, in the museum’s rotunda. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane says he initially had doubts about taking part, despite reassurances that proper context would be provided for the colonial statues.

“But when I started to dig a bit deeper into it, I realized we’re really talking about our history and we must try to make sense of it. If we don’t take part in it, who is going to do it?”

Return the artifacts

Others say true contrition for the wrongs of the past would require returning all the cultural artifacts taken from colonial Africa now lining the museum’s shelves, from ritual masks and sculptures to tribal drums and a wooden canoe carved out of a single log.

The debate in Belgium comes in the wake of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron that recommended the return of thousands of items taken from former French colonies without consent.

The report, which was penned by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr, has sparked debate in other European countries including Germany and Belgium.

The current Belgian king, Philippe, changed his mind and decided not to attend the Royal Museum’s reopening this weekend in the wake of the controversy.

“I think that giving back these works of art is a question of law and justice,” said activist Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, who came to Brussels at the age of three with her Belgian father and Congolese mother.

“The original owners whose objects were stolen are villagers, chieftains, whole villages — in short, a country.”

Keeping the works of art sends the message: “We vanquished them,” she said.

For now, returning the artifacts is a step too far for Gryseels, although he acknowledges the role of the museum in Belgium’s failure to see itself as a multicultural society and to reflect the diversity of its population in its public institutions.

“For the most Belgians, their first encounter with Africa is through a visit of our museum. If then, in this museum, you get the impression that Africans don’t have a culture of their own, that the European view is superior, then you can’t be surprised that that has an impact. So we take our responsibility.”

‘Only ignorance’

To really change though, the country as a whole must take on that responsibility, many Belgians say. To carry it out of the museum and into mainstream society.

Pierre Kompany says he believes his election is a sign Belgium is headed in the right direction.

But he also says the country must work much harder to acknowledge the past if it wants to free itself from it.

“When it comes to history, there is no compromise,” he said. “Only ignorance.”

Source: Belgium begins long-overdue discussion on racism by looking to its ‘brutal’ past

How an article defending colonialism was ever published is a mystery roiling academia: Paradkar

One can only wonder:

If a social debate is based on fuzzy ideas accumulated from something read somewhere, sometime, an academically published view is the antithesis of it, based on rigorous research, citations and knowledge. Before being published, it is peer-reviewed, or tested for accuracy and integrity by someone with subject matter expertise.

This process is at the heart of a controversy roiling the academic community after the Third World Quarterly, a reputable British journal on global politics, published a piece earlier this month titled “The case for colonialism” by Bruce Gilley, a Princeton University Ph.D and Portland State University professor.

(Although “third world” is now considered a derogatory term, the 40-year-old journal’s name derived from the non-aligned movement of countries who did not want to support either side of the Cold War.)

In his article, Gilley says colonialism has been unjustly vilified, that it was legitimate and its “civilizing mission” was in fact beneficial. He also writes that it is time to re-colonize parts of the world and create “new Western colonies from scratch” because developing countries are failing at self-governance and anti-colonial ideology was harmful to native populations.

The reaction was explosive, targeted at both the article and the journal’s decision to publish it. A petition calling for the article’s retraction gathered more than 10,000 signatures. On Tuesday, roughly half of the journal’s 34 editorial board members resigned in protest.

Two researchers writing for a London School of Economics blog called the piece “a travesty, the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes.”

That it appeared in a respected journal devoted to anti-colonial politics, made it “the equivalent of a journal devoted to Holocaust studies publishing that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” according to Ilan Kapoor, a York University professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, who was one of the board members who quit.

The primary problem, though, revolved around whether the piece published under the label “Viewpoint” passed the scholarship test for publication.

“As with all articles in the journal, this Viewpoint did undergo double-blind peer review and was subsequently published,” said Shahid Qadir, editor-in-chief of the quarterly in a statement.

In a double-blind review, the author’s and reviewer’s identities are withheld from each other.

The editorial board members say they asked for but didn’t get copies of the review. They also say the article was not passed, but rejected by three reviewers. (Qadir did not respond to my requests for comment on this.)

“The piece in question was rejected by two peers who were editors of a special issue on ‘Whatever happened to the idea of imperialism?’ and then it was further rejected by another peer,” said Lisa Ann Richey, a scholar from Denmark currently at Duke University in the U.S.

“There was a remedy available last week — to retract the piece and apologize for the gross error — and this remedy was not implemented by the editor. After this disappointing outcome, the only option available for anyone sitting on the Board who wanted to stand for academic integrity was to resign.”

Kapoor said, “This discrepancy between what the editor has told us and what we have found is highly problematic.”.

Meanwhile, the piece is being torn apart by academics on factual grounds.

“Gilley says he is simply asking for an unbiased assessment of the facts, that he just wants us to take off our ideological blinders and examine colonialism from an empirical perspective,” writes Nathan Robinson in a scathing piece in Current Affairs.

“But this is not what he has done. Instead … (he has concealed) evidence of gross crimes against humanity.”

For instance, he omits any mention of the first 300 years of Western colonization because it’s “impossible to spin it,” as beneficial to native populations, says Robinson. Or he quotes a Congolese man saying, “Maybe the Belgians should come back” and entirely bypasses Belgian King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Congo that scandalized the world.

In the think tank Cato Institute’s blog, Sahar Khan gives five examples of how the piece is “empirically and historically inaccurate.”

For instance, “Gilley attributes the abolition of slave-trading to colonialism, which in addition to being ridiculous, is factually incorrect … Systematic decolonization and subsequent wars of independence eventually ended the slave trade.”

The unexplained publication of a piece that does not meet academic standards of quality should sound alarm bells for those of us outside the ivory towers, too.

The desire to appear even-handed under pressure from faux free-speech defenders has created a damaging false equivalency model in mainstream media, where the compulsion to get “the other side” means unfounded ideas are given the same weight as sound reasoning.

Despite the imperfections of academia, academically credited facts established with rigour, empirical evidence and scholarship remain a credible tool to fight climate change deniers, racism deniers, anti-vaxxers or any one floating in the universe of “alternative facts.”

Not condemning this attempt to Breitbart-ize academia will effectively wipe out the role of accountability in fact-gathering and remove any barriers to revisiting lasting atrocities of our past.

Source: How an article defending colonialism was ever published is a mystery roiling academia: Paradkar | Toronto Star

Do ‘British values’ favour colonial comeback over multiculturalism? | Middle East Eye

Myriam Francois’s view on removal of colonial symbols. Some valid points, but there are also risks associated with effacing and forgetting the past (‘those who forget history …’):

And yet, the campaigns have been largely met with consternation. For all the talk of the positive value of diversity within our society, such campaigns remain a struggle on the margins, not entirely dismissed, but requiring quiet co-optation through piecemeal concessions designed to quell the disruptive uprisings of those now too close to power to be metaphorically put down.

Indeed, an admission of racism following a decision to use an image of black hands in chains to advertise a drinks poster is surely a meagre victory for a movement of such ambition. And although a similar campaign at Cambridge succeeded in convincing Jesus College to take down and consider the repatriation of a bronze cockerel looted in the 19th century, such critical demands are yet to become audible to a broader audience.

It is not sufficient to eventually recognise the validity of the cries for freedom among oppressed peoples when the tools which served to uphold that domination continue to permeate popular culture and in many cases, justify new variants on imperial exploitation. In the case of Rhodes, to maintain as a central part of our social vocabulary a man who stands as the cultural equivalent of the “N” word, is to fail to recognise that just as language evolves to reflect changing social norms, so must our concrete edifices.

Critics of the decolonial movement have compared the call for the removal of Rhodes to a form of cultural censorship – where would the movement stop exactly, ask those who, in so doing, unwittingly concede the pervasiveness of imperial ideals within our contemporary culture.

If we might term white supremacy a culture which justifies the encroachment of European powers into other continents and lands under the guise of conferring civility upon peoples assumed to be lagging on the developmental scale, then the edifices of that supremacy must be dismantled.

In their place, society must make way for a consensual cultural construction, in which all voices are not a mere addition to a slightly reformed rotten core – the term “people” expanded to include women and ethnic minorities and quotas to guarantee a token visibility of the “other” – but rather serve to forge a new cultural project away from the racially skewed underpinning of the culture of empire. In this, the decolonial movement is the avant-garde of our generation.

Source: Do ‘British values’ favour colonial comeback over multiculturalism? | Middle East Eye