The fracas surrounding the perceived racism of the comic book Tintin in the Congo is entering a new phase, with a decision on a fresh civil suit pending in a Brussels court. Pallavi Aiyar traces the history of outrage
Brussels’ gently warm summer days draw thronging crowds out to Cinquantenaire Park, a generous green sprawl a stone’s throw away from the European Union headquarters. The scents of vanilla and caramel float from waffle vendor vans and the excited shrieks of toddlers mucking about in sandpits punctuate the air.
But a bloody and unacknowledged history underlies this bucolic scene. Cinquantenaire Park was built in the late 19th century by King Leopold II using the proceeds of the brutal slave state he established in the Congo.
For almost 25 years the Congo was the private fiefdom of the king, until it was taken over by the Belgian state in 1908. During this time forced slave labour in the Congo was used to extract ivory, and later rubber, to feed Leopold’s coffers. Up to 10 million people are estimated to have died in the process. While the precise number of deaths remains fiercely contested, leading historian Adam Hochschild has compared the Congo under Leopold to the Holocaust.
Yet nowhere in Cinquantenaire Park are any traces of this barbaric story found. Instead, on one side a triumphalist arch cuts a gash in the sky, and on the other end a newly renovated monument gleams in the sun.
The arch stands today, as it has for decades, as a celebration of Belgian adventurism in the Congo. The sculpture, known as the Monument to the Congo, shows off images of a Belgian soldier sacrificing his life in the defence of the Congo and for the greater glory of Belgium. Elsewhere another soldier is shown heroically staving off an Arab slave dealer.
The scene is topped off by the figure of a graceful white lady, symbolising Belgium, receiving innocent black children into her munificent embrace.
At the centre of the monument a message in Leopold II’s words is 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 civilization and for the good of Belgium).
Explanations setting the monument in context, or attempting to explain to modern-day Belgians the hubris of Leopold’s Congo exploits are absent. The only sign in evidence near the monument was one up for a few months in 2009, stating that 94,472.26 euros were being spent to restore and clean the sculpture.
Park Cinquantenaire has plenty of company in Brussels. Much of the city was built by Leopold from the spoils of the Congo — including the city’s Palace of Justice, the main law courts.
But the story of how these grand buildings came to be paid for is all but forgotten in Belgium. Not only is this history not taught in schools, the active glorification of colonial figures continues apace.
A massive statue of Leopold II, atop a horse, in military attire, graces the front of the Royal Palace, around the corner from Matonge, the city’s main African neighbourhood.
In a suburban hamlet named Terveuren, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, established by Leopold, has what is considered to be one of the foremost collections of Central Africana in the world. Yet, until 2005, it made no mention at all of 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.
Since then a section on Congo under colonialism has been added, but the message of this exhibition is to stress that colonialism was a product of its time and cannot be judged by modern standards.
The result, as Adam Hochschild, author of the definitive work on Belgian colonialism, King Leopold’s Ghost, puts it is that: the Congo “offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting”.
This is a double forgetting because it is not only Belgians who have forgotten but the Congolese themselves. Congo’s was a largely non-literate culture, so that Congolese histories of the colonial period were never written down.
When Congo won its independence in 1960, there were fewer than 30 university graduates in the entire country. One Brussels-based Congolese accountant, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, has made it his life’s goal to try and reverse this forgetting, by insisting that colonialism be faced up to. His chosen route is that of taking on Belgium’s most beloved son, Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, the creator of the comic strip Tintin.
Tintin and Hergé are national heroes in Belgium, where a multimillion euro museum celebrates the adventures of this cartoon character. But Bienvenu has spent the last three years tirelessly campaigning against what he says is the outrageously racist comic book, Tintin in the Congo.
This title, the second in the Tintin series, was penned in 1930-31. The Africans in it look grotesquely ape-like, drawn with exaggeratedly thick lips and protruding skulls. There are several racist scenes, including one where a black woman bows before Tintin, exclaiming “White man very great.”
Hergé reportedly regretted his depiction of the Congolese in the comic. In 1946 he re-drew Tintin in the Congo for a colour edition. In this version a geography lesson Tintin gave to a class of Congolese children, in which he originally referred to Belgium as their country, was changed to a maths lesson. But the majority of the racist content in the book survived intact.
Bienvenu first conceived of moving the Belgian courts back in 2007, on reading a newspaper article reporting that Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality had complained about the racist nature of the book. As a result the book was being sold in the UK with a warning that some might find its contents offensive as well as a preface setting the book in context. British bookshops moreover no longer placed the book in the children’s section, moving it to the adult graphic novels shelves.
When Bienvenu first read Tintin in the Congo, freely available in the children’s sections of Belgian bookstores, he says he felt “deeply ashamed” by its portrayal of Africans. “I thought if they are putting warnings on it in England, then why not in Belgium?” But when he called Casterman, Tintin’s publisher in Belgium, to enquire about the possibility, they hung up on him.
An angry Bienvenu instigated a criminal case against the publisher and Moulinsart, the estate of Hergé, which continues to languish in court. Dismayed by the slow proceedings, he has launched a fresh civil suit, which is currently ongoing.
Alain Berenboom, a lawyer for Moulinsart, attacks Bienvenu’s attempts, calling them “censorship”. Were the judge to rule in favour of Bienvenu, similar cases for mandatory warnings could be made for the Bible, Koran, books by Rudyard Kipling, and so on, he argues.
Bienvenu’s lawsuit has been extensively covered in the international media, but he says the local media follow the case only sporadically, and often in tones of ridicule. Win or lose, the accountant insists his main goal in pursuing the case is tangential to the outcome. “This country of Belgium is built on the suffering of the Congolese but no one acknowledges or knows about it. I want this to change.”
This may be a laudable aim, but it’s also one that appears foolhardy given how he is largely ignored as a fringe element in Belgium.
And this indifference extends beyond the country to the European Union as a whole. Brussels is the headquarters of the EU. The European Parliament stands next to Leopold Park, its parliamentarians grabbing lunch at the restaurants that line Leopold Square.
Ever quick to lecture countries around the world on the necessity of facing up to their history (China and the Cultural Revolution being a case in point), perhaps the European Parliament might remind its host country to do the same? It is the 50th year of the Congo’s independence this year. The timing would be propitious.