Fondly known as “the Historian of Forgotten Affairs”, Lucas Catherine (1947) worked for the former national broadcaster BRT for the majority of his career. Having also spent time in Khartoum and Dar es Salaam, he turned from film to print, publishing numerous books on not only Belgian Congo but also Palestine and the Middle East. In this candid interview, Lucas recalls the progression of Belgium’s colonial history throughout the 20th century in not only schools, but our general social fabric as a whole.
Photographer Eva Donckers (c).
Though it might be an obvious statement to make, education is a reflection of the society in which it belongs. In other words, it’s the current social mores and values which largely shape and determine school curricula. With that in mind, the teaching of Belgium’s colonial history in schools – at least starting from the 1950s – can be broken down into three phases. Right until the post-war years, Congo was everywhere, from my classroom to everyday surroundings – even if it was always in a frame of exoticism. Some of my earliest memories involved collecting Jaques and Côte d’Or chocolate tokens, or building miniature “Congolese” villages out of paper in pre-school. Then there are also the more than 60 streets in Brussels alone named after colonial officers, while not a single one references a Congolese individual. Back in the day, our military history was a key facet to be learnt and education was still largely standardised across French- and Dutch-speaking Belgium. History lessons would centre largely on the monarchy and the infamous exploits of Leopold II of course. Or the imperialist conquests of the Belgian military, like the Force Publique’s victory over the Swahili ivory traders – crudely branded as Arab slave traders – in the Congo Arab Wars. Always framed in a notion of humanitarianism, of the white man’s burden – cultural imperialism at its best. Let’s not forget, these were the golden years for Belgium: the Great War was over and the nation’s economy was growing again, mainly thanks to our exploitation of Congo. But the colonial experiment not only played a crucial role in Belgium’s rapid development, it also contributed towards the establishment of a cultural identity. In the monarchical mind-frame, the collaborative efforts between Flanders and Wallonia in Congo was the founding cement for the mobilised identity of Belgians all-round. So it was only more of a shock when suddenly, seemingly out of the blue – at least for us in the motherland – Congo gained its independence in 1960, with Patrice Lumumba’s bold Independence Day speech sending ripples through the establishment. I still remember hearing the news during a scouting trip in the Ardennes, how we were predisposed to see the democratically elected Congolese Prime Minister as a “black devil”, and how we rejoiced over his assassination half a year later. “Losing” Congo was such a blow to our political and cultural fabric, that there was a complete blackout, a sort of cultural amnesia which took over Belgium. No one really spoke about Congo anymore, including in schools, and this pretty much went on for three decades. We just wanted to forget. Even my own daughters, who grew up during the 80s, were never taught and thus unaware that Congo was a former Belgian colony.
“Losing” Congo was such a blow to our political and cultural fabric, that there was a complete blackout, a sort of cultural amnesia which took over Belgium.
It was only around the turn of the century that the notion of Congo was re-introduced into the public arena, forcing us to rethink our presupposed assumptions, thanks to writers and thinkers located outside the general historical discipline. Like Brugge’s Daniel Vangroenweghe and his 1958 publication Rood Rubber, which formed much of the groundwork for the more popular King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. In a way, it was precisely thanks to their disassociation from not only the historical academic circles but also Belgian society in general that they were able to develop such critical voices. And it’s precisely this type of material that formed the foundation for a sweeping wave of activism throughout Flanders during the noughties, starting with the Ostend-based anarchist group De Stoete Ostendenoare and the Drie Gapers debacle in 2004. Then it was Brussels’ turn to wake up in 2008, with Théophile de Giraud dousing the statue of Leopold II at Trône with red paint in a brazen act of artistic protest. Even just a month ago, a bust commemorating Leopold in Duden Park was defaced by militant activists. And so the study of the symbiotic relationship between Congo and Belgium started seeping back into the official and now-regionalised curricula, even if it was still hugely lacking. Indeed, placed primarily in a context of general (de)colonisation, teaching colonial history was essentially dependent on the educators. In other words, teachers were to pick from a range of “colonial examples”, from Congo to South Africa. Even critique is left to the pupils: receiving a wide assortment of different views and perspectives, they’re expected to draw their own conclusions. Of course, teaching children to be able to think critically for themselves is good – but at the same time, it’s still too ambiguous in my opinion. As if we as a society are avoiding the difficult conversations we undoubtedly need to have. That being said, I hope it’s just a question of time before Belgium will finally attain reasonable consciousness regarding our mutual histories. But beyond that, I’m also convinced that we as a society – especially our educators – need to enact change forcefully.