The Belgian king, Philippe, expressed his “deepest condolences” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for his country’s colonial abuses.
The reigning monarch made the comments in a letter to President Félix Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence.
Belgium controlled the 19th century Central African country until it gained independence in 1960.
Millions of Africans died during Belgium’s bloody colonial rule.
There is a renewed focus on the history of the European nation after George Floyd’s death in police custody in the USA and the ensuing protests by Black Lives Matter.
Thousands of Belgians have demonstrated in recent weeks and statues of Belgium’s colonial leader, King Leopoldo II, have been vandalized. Antwerp authorities removed a statue of him from a public square.
More than 10 million Africans are thought to have died during his reign. King Philippe is a direct descendant of the 19th century ruler.
What did King Philippe say?
It is the first time that a Belgian monarch has formally expressed remorse for what happened during the country’s colonial rule. The remarks, however, fell short of an apology.
In a letter sent to President Tshisekedi and published in the Belgian media, King Philippe praises the “privileged partnership” between the two nations today.
But he says there were “painful episodes” in his history, including during the reign of King Leopoldo II – which he does not name directly – and in the 20th century.
“I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now relived by discrimination still too present in our societies,” wrote King Philippe.
“I will continue to fight all forms of racism. I encourage the reflection initiated by our parliament so that our memory is definitely pacified.”
Like the United Kingdom, Belgium is a constitutional monarchy – meaning that King Philippe’s statement was previously agreed with Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès’s government.
Earlier this month, King Philippe’s brother, Prince Laurent, defended Leopoldo II.
“He never went to [DRC],” said the prince in an interview. “I don’t see how he could have made people suffer there.”
Prince Laurent added, however, that whenever he met African heads of state, he always apologized “for the actions that Europeans did to Africans in general”.
What’s the story?
In the 19th century, European powers began to take large extensions of Africa for colonial exploitation.
King Leopoldo II received personal control over large areas around the Congo River basin – what would be known as the Free State of Congo.
The country lasted from 1885 to 1908. During that period, more than 10 million Africans died of disease, colonial abuse and while working on plantations for the king.
The authorities would cut off the members of the enslaved people when they did not reach quotas on materials such as the rubber required by the crown.
Conditions have become so dire that other countries have exposed and condemned the atrocities. King Leopoldo II gave up direct control in 1908 and Belgium formally annexed the country, renaming it as Belgian Congo.
Colonists continued to use Africans as wage labor and tried to make it a “model colony”. Widespread resistance eventually led the nation to gain independence in 1960.