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Research in African Literatures 34.1 (2003) 58-84

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The Ghost of Leopold II:
The Belgian Royal Museum of Central Africa and Its Dusty Colonialist Exhibition

Jean Muteba Rahier
Florida International University, North Miami


Leopold II's regime in the Congo has always been very controversial. It was so principally in England, but also—although much later—in Belgium. As a result of a campaign against the atrocities in the Congo, Leopold II was forced to let his colony be annexed by Belgium in 1908. All the atrocities were uncovered by American, Swedish, and English protestant missionaries. The British Consul, Roger Casement, as well as the Congo Reform Association led by E. D. Morel played an important role in the campaign.

(Vangroenweghe 17)

The conversation turned on the subject of the charges of cruelty and misgovernment in the Congo, and Leopold said:

"[. . .] I suppose there is nobody in Europe painted as such a monster of such blackness as I am. The words used in picturing my perfidy cannot be repeated in polite society. Nero, it is said, was a saint compared to me. I am an ogre, who delights to torture helpless African Negroes."

[. . .] "I do not deny that there have been cases of misjudgment on the part of Congo officials. Most likely, cruelties, even crimes have been committed. There have been a number of convictions before Congo tribunals for these offenses. I do deny that every effort as far as possible has not been made to stop the ill treatment of natives not only by white people, but by natives themselves."

("King Leopold Denies Charges against Him," 1906 interview of Leopold II by an American journalist, in Publishers' Press)


In April 1999, on my way back to the United States after participating in a conference at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, I made a three-day stop in Brussels. A friend and colleague, a black man from Guyana who teaches in California, accompanied me. We decided to spend most of one of the three days at the Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA) located in Tervuren (a suburb of Brussels). My friend, who was visiting Belgium for the first time, knew about the Museum of Tervuren from reading Adam Hochschild's book, King Leopold's Ghost (1998). Towards the end of his book, Hochschild writes (after having spent most of the 350-page book documenting the extent of the coercive methods of the Leopoldian colonial regime and the massacres committed under Leopold II's leadership, [End Page 58] and after having compared Tervuren's Royal Museum of Central Africa to the old Museum of the Revolution on Moscow's Gorky Street):

Today that museum in Moscow has changed in ways its creators could never have imagined. But on the other side of Europe is one that has not changed in the slightest. [. . .] Grandly overlooking a park, in an enormous Louis XV-style palace built by King Leopold II, is the Royal Museum of Central Africa. [. . .] The museum houses one of the world's largest collections of Africana. It takes a full day to see all the exhibits, from Henry Morton Stanley's cap to Leopold's cane, from slaves' manacles to a dugout canoe big enough for a hundred men. One gallery full of weapons and uniforms celebrates the "antislavery campaigns" of the 1890s—against the "Arab" slavers, of course. A plaque lists the names of several dozen Force Publique officers who "rest in African earth." Other plaques in this "memorial hall" have the names of hundreds more white pioneers who died in the Congo. Another gallery holds stuffed wild animals: elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas. [This is] an Africa composed entirely of exotic costumes and pounding drums. Everywhere, preserved in glass cases, are objects from the Congo's manifold cultures: spears, arrows, pipes, masks, bowls, baskets, paddles, scepters, fish traps, musical instruments. (Hochschild 292-93)

I found the idea of visiting the museum attractive: I had read Hochschild's book as well, and remembered visiting the museum as a...