15 year anniversary – 10 October 2017

His Excellency, the Minister of State,

Ladies and gentlemen, in their different ranks, responsibilities and representations,

Today we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of our association ‘Mémoires du Congo’.

Paul VannèsIt is a great pleasure for me to see so many of you here today and, just as importantly, welcome your participation in these anniversary celebrations. The founders of our association were the first president, Patrick Fraeys de Veubeke, Georges Lambert, the first managing director, and a few other members. Today I am happy to welcome two of the founding members, Baron Pierre Snoy and the lawyer, Mr. Guy Lambrette, and thank them for their presence.

This small group of former colonials, who were exasperated by the tyranny of the politically correct trying to rewrite history while ignoring the facts, decided to put up a fight. Not by arguing each time an article in the press supports the disinformation but by collecting the stories of witnesses who lived and worked in the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi before and after 1960.

I would particularly like to thank Mr. Guido Gryseels, the director of the Royal Museum for Central Africa who is with us today. Right from the start, he allowed our group to meet here in the museum, free of charge.

We were aware from the beginning that we would not be able to change the misinformation divulged by the critics of Belgian colonisation or by the opponents of King Leopold II and his life’s work. The task we have undertaken is a long-term process and we would like historians to become aware of our way of seeing things. They should not have to rely solely on the works of Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, sources which the likes of Adam Hochschild and Peter Bate drew on to bring the Belgians’ record in the Congo into disrepute.

Yes, there were some excesses during our short presence in Central Africa and we acknowledge them. But in a period of 75 years, we made a virgin territory into a country where the net income per inhabitant was the highest in Africa in 1960, and we achieved this feat with the help of all of the Congolese people. If we had not had their support, we would not have achieved the results that you are so familiar with today.

How can we forget the education and healthcare provided free of charge to all the Congolese people, or the positive exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources? How many industries were created by the exploration and exploitation of gold, copper, diamond and other deposits? How many farms were built to feed the population? The tree of evil should not be allowed to hide the forest of good!

The journalist Jean Sépulchre from the newspaper in Elisabethville ‘L’Essor du Congo’ (‘The rise of Congo’), wrote in his ‘Propos sur le Congo politique de demain’ (‘Comments on tomorrow’s politics in the Congo’): I quote: ‘Thanks to their scientific knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit, methodical approach, hard work and also their limitless devotion to a great humanitarian cause, the Belgian colonials brought progress to their African territories in terms of conversion to Christianity, medical assistance, education and economic infrastructure’.

Already during the war of 1940-45, the colonials started to be concerned about political developments in the Congo. Jean Sépulchre voiced these concerns when he wrote in 1958 that the ‘responsible authorities in charge in Belgium have shown themselves to be incapable of producing as much as an outline of what their political status will be in this conglomeration of African states which is taking ever more concrete form around us. It is futile to want to swap the annoying name ‘Belgian colony’ for that of ‘Belgian overseas territories’, as long as our black and white populations are not governing their own interests themselves and developing, in a sensible manner, the future of this great emerging country’.

In opposition to the spirit of the Colonial Charter of 18 October 1908 which formalised the takeover of the Congo by Belgium, the unfortunate concentration of all the levers of power in Brussels, in the hands of uninvolved politicians, has proved to be the most disastrous of all the mistakes leading to an unprepared independence. This was what would lead to the disasters of 1960 and would cause the numerous later and current problems.

Finally, I would also like to pay tribute to King Leopold II, this king who was denounced from the moment that this enormous territory in Central Africa was allocated to Belgium in 1885 by the members of the Berlin Conference. Let us remember that he became Congo’s sovereign following a diplomatic process, as a result of treaties signed with the traditional leaders and the recognition of these treaties by the 14 colonial powers of the period. He did not buy the Congo (from whom do you think he might have bought it?) and he did not acquire it as a result of a Belgian military occupation. He confirmed the authority of the traditional leaders and recognised traditional law when it was not ‘contrary to public policy or accepted principles of morality’ as it was referred to at the time. All of the Belgian colonial administration was based on this premise. Leopold II provided the Congo with an administration and a legal system that favoured the indigenous people. Numerous legal texts have been enshrined in law to this effect. He put an end to slavery in the Congo. He initiated the country’s key economic development processes that were to create its wealth. He took up the fight against endemic diseases and provided the Congolese people with a medical system which was unique in the world. He had Belgian knowledge and know-how transferred to the Congo to help develop the country.

As for the various criticisms, accusations of abuse, violence and even of genocide, Leopold II behaved as only an enlightened sovereign could – by recognising the facts that had been established by publishing the public enquiry in the official bulletin of the Congo Free State. Not only that, a year later he promulgated a series of decrees aimed at preventing these wrongdoings and at reinforcing the protection of the Congolese people against the criminal actions of unscrupulous people. A number of historians who are worthy of the name have confirmed clearly that these facts are true.

Once again, we do not in any way want to deny that the violence and abuse committed by certain people nominated by the king took place.

Without studying the context of this period, and without comparing it with what happened in other colonies, the attacks aimed at King Leopold II for his actions in the Congo can be assumed to lack objectivity and to be politically motivated. It is not worthy of a historian’s work. Wouldn’t the best demonstration of this be the systematic omission of the remarkable progress that has been made and systematically hidden by the denigrators of the king’s actions? I would like to thank publically Mr André Bernard Ergo for his remarkable work and publications on this subject.

Leopold II wanted to let the Belgian people know about all of this and initiated, already in 1897, the construction of the Royal Museum for Central Africa here in Tervuren. All the schools in the country, as well as a large number of foreign tourists, visit this beautiful museum. For the whole world, this museum is a window on Belgium, a window which must display our knowhow as a result of the continued presence, for more than a hundred years, of researchers and scientists whose work is of interest to a good number of foreign societies. It is indeed easier and cheaper to consult the geodetic maps than to conduct surveys on-site!

In his last book about Jean de La Fontaine, Erik Orsenna refers to a little-known fable ‘Le statuaire et la statue de Jupiter’ (‘The sculptor and the statue of Jupiter’). The final verse is exceptional: ‘Truth leaves people cold but lies fire them up’.

Meanwhile, our association continues to collect testimonies and does its best to publish them via its publications and its website.

His Excellency, the Minister of State, ladies and gentlemen, it is my firm belief that we have no reason to be embarrassed about our king and our actions in Central Africa.

Thank you very much.

Paul Vannès