Responding to a growing call to remove statues of Leopold II, the former Belgian king who colonized the Congo, Belgian Prince Laurent came to his ancestor’s defense.
“He never went to the Congo,” Laurent told Belgian outlet Sudpresse in an interview published Friday. “I don’t see how he could have made people suffer on the ground.”
He added: “You have to understand that there were many people who worked for Leopold II and those people really committed abuse, but that doesn’t mean Leopold II did.”
Laurent’s comments come amid a push from local activists to rid public spaces of statues of the former king, who ruled the Congo as his private colony starting in the 1880s until it was taken over by the Belgian state in 1908.
Leopold’s regime in the Congo Free State was notorious for its brutality, including forced labor, kidnappings and the killing of rebels. A typical punishment and method of exerting control involved cutting off the hands of Congolese workers or their children. Estimates of the occupation’s death toll run as high as 10 million lives.
Several statues of Leopold II across Belgium have been defaced and covered in graffiti and red paint in recent days, amid Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.
A petition to remove all statues to the former Belgian king by June 30, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, has gathered more than 75,000 signatures.
The royal palace hasn’t put out a formal statement in response to the growing call to revive a debate about the country’s colonial past, according to Le Soir.
Laurent, the younger brother of King Philippe, is known for speaking off the cuff and getting in the government’s crosshairs, including over his royal salary and money he says he is owed from the frozen funds of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.