Thursday, July 9, 2009

King Leopold II Through His Daughter's Eyes

King Leopold II (1835-1909) was a man of contradictions. Too softhearted to sign a criminal's death warrant, he was nonetheless a ruthless exploiter of Congo natives. Contemptuous of his loyal and long-suffering wife, notorious for his infidelity, he was still capable of deeply respecting other virtuous ladies- most notably his sister-in-law, the Countess of Flanders. Cold and stern, he could surprise his intimates with a gracious gesture. He was a "pious sinner" who lived scandalously for decades, yet always remained a firm believer and, on his deathbed, was very anxious to save his soul by marrying his last mistress and receiving the Last Rites.

His tragic eldest daughter, Louise, recalled him in her memoirs. Startlingly, although she became completely estranged from her father (even suing him in court over an inheritance dispute), she dedicated her memoirs to him in admiring terms as "the great man, the great King." She reiterates these sentiments here- before describing their painful relationship.
My father was not only a great king—he was a great man.

A king may achieve greatness through possessing the art of surrounding himself with the right entourage, and thus taking advantage of the importance which it is then so easy for him to gain. He must be superior, at least at heart, to have a taste for superiority.

When he came into power Leopold II did not aim at gathering round him those wonderful intellects who would have inspired him to greatness. He had not the same chances as Louis XIV, neither had he those men whom his own example later developed. Belgium was still an adolescent State, the government of which required very careful and exclusive handling. She had sprung into being from twin countries, widely different in character, but united by the same laws. Her national policy is like a web whose mission it is to hold them together, but such a form of Constitution is not without its inconveniences.

For a long time the King's secret conviction was, that in order to be able to endure and strengthen herself, Belgium had urgent need of some great scheme which would produce in her an amalgamation of effort and intelligence, and allow her to take one of the highest places among the nations of the world.

He had carefully studied the map of the world, and his observations resulted in the unheard-of project of endowing his little kingdom with immense colonial possessions. He had at the time neither the money nor the army; he only had the idea, but the idea obsessed him and he lived for it alone.

The man whom I recall to my mind in thinking of the King is one whose silence always frightened me when I was a child. Here is an instance of his taciturn character.

The Queen is seated, holding in her hand a book which she is no longer reading. She is folding me close to her heart, whilst her eyes follow the King. The doors of the drawing-room leading to the other rooms are open, and the Sovereign paces backwards and forwards, his hands behind his back, almost like an automaton, without glancing at us and without breaking his interminable train of thought. Silence lies over the palace; nobody dares enter, for the King has forbidden access to the Royal apartments. The Queen and I are involuntary prisoners of this prisoner of his own thoughts.

The King was a fine and strong figure. His imposing personality and his characteristic physiognomy are familiar even to the new generation, who have only seen the popular pictures of him; but photographs never did justice to his expression of sceptical shrewdness. His eyes, as I have already said, were light brown; at the least opposition they assumed a fixed expression, and when it rested on my sisters and myself when we were in fault, the King's glance terrified us more than any reproaches or punishment.

The King's voice was deep and somewhat muffled in timbre, sometimes it grew nasal; when he was angry it became, like his eyes, as hard as a stone, but if he wished to please it became soft and emotional. People still speak of the manner in which he delivered his speech from the Throne after the death of Leopold I, and his touching opening words : " Gentlemen, Belgium, like myself, has lost a father."

When he was in a happy mood he became animated, although his humour, when he was pleased to show it, was always bitter and satirical—and he possessed it in abundance. I have never forgotten certain of his opinions touching his Ministers and contemporaries. Some of those who are still living would be very flattered to know them. Others would not!

The King paid little attention to me or my sisters; his fatherly caresses were rare and brief. We were always awed in his presence; he was ever to us more the King than the father.

With regard to his attitude towards the Queen, as far back as I can remember I always see him as the same self-centred and taciturn man in his relations with her.

He was constantly away from home, so we little ones were rarely with both our parents. I alone, on account of my age and the advantage which it gave me over my sisters, enjoyed a little family life with my father and my mother before the differences between them arose. But I cannot recall a single act of kindness or tenderness on his part towards my mother that I especially noticed in my youth.

I only know that at a certain epoch, when I was about eleven years old, the King, who like my mother adored flowers, never missed bringing her some every week which he had gathered himself in the Royal gardens. He would arrive in my mother's apartment laden with his fragrant harvest and would say to her abruptly, " Here you are, my good wife."

Stephanie and I would at once begin to refill the vases —I especially, for I had been taught by the Queen to love and arrange flowers, those discreet companions of our thoughts, which bring into the home perfume, colour, caresses and rest, and which are verily the quintessence of earth and heaven!

One day at Laeken my father offered me a gardenia. I was simply stupefied. I was then about thirteen. I hoped for a long time for a repetition ot this paternal graciousness, but in vain !

This prince of genius, whose political conceptions and manner of conducting negotiations useful to Belgium won the admiration, if not of those to whom they were advantageous, of at least the high intelligences of other countries, was singularly thorough in small things. He clung to his ideas and his personal concerns in a most obstinate manner. I have seen him look into the management of the gardens at Laeken with the greatest attention to every detail.

Large, juicy peaches grew on the walls of the gardens, and the King was very proud of them. I had a passion for peaches, and one day I dared eat one which was hidden away among the leaves. And that year peaches were plentiful. But the following day the King discovered the theft—what a dramatic moment! At once suspected, I confessed my crime and I was promptly punished. I did not realize that the King counted his peaches !

This great realist had a realistic mind, and materialism carried him on to idealism. I will not allow myself for a moment to suppose that he did not believe in God, but certainly he had a different conception of the Creator from that of the Queen. She suffered greatly through this attitude of her husband, but he persisted in his way of thinking.

On Sundays he used to attend Mass; he considered it was an example which he owed to the Court and the people. Sometimes he escorted the Queen to Divine Service, taking with him " Squib," a tiny terrier of which the Queen was very fond and which the King always spoke of as one refers to a person. He called it " The Squib."

It was a sight to see the big man holding the tiny dog under his arm—the little animal too terrified to move. Thus, one supporting the other, they both heard Mass seated beside the Queen, who assuredly did not think this a very religious procedure. When Mass was over, the King, still carrying Squib, would cross the reception rooms until he reached the dining-room, when he would gravely deposit the little dog on the Queen's knee.

With regard to the King's policy, I only knew and understood that related to the Congo. I knew the alternate hopes and fears which passed through the mind of the author of this gigantic enterprise. It was the one topic of conversation around me, and it was always mentioned with bated breath; but the things which are spoken of in this way are, I think, those one hears of most.

I know that the Royal fortune and that of my aunt the Empress Charlotte, which was administered by the King, were employed at one time, not without some risk, in the acquisition and organization of the possessions that the Great Powers afterwards disputed with Belgium. Those were anxious days for the King. He manoeuvred cleverly between the Powers. History knows the value of his work; she realizes what a profound politician he was. Official Belgium does not remember, but the people have never forgotten. I have confidence in the soul of Belgium, the Belgium who has shown her greatness in the years 1914-1918. King Leopold II will one day receive the recognition he merits in the country which he enriched, and which he always wished to fortify against the dangers of war.

The private failings of the man only harmed himself and his family; his people never suffered by reason of them. They have even benefited by the immense wealth which it pleased the King to assign to his country, regardless of the justice of reserving that portion which belonged to his daughters, who were excluded by him from the Belgian family...

The King had long wished that our fortunes (those of my sisters and myself) should be reduced to the minimum of what he considered convenient to assign to us, that is to say, much less than our needs required, because, after the death of our brother Leopold, he only saw in us impediments to his own ambition and he was tortured by the fact that he had no male descendant...

Clementine came into the world; her birth was preceded by many vain hopes, but when the longed-for child arrived it was once more a girl!

The King was furious and thenceforth refused to have anything to do with his admirable wife to whom God had refused a son. What a mystery of human tribulation!

As for the daughters born of the Royal union, they were merely accepted and tolerated, but the King's heart never softened towards them...


MadMonarchist said...

I have defended Leopold II in the past at least as far as not being the horrible villain everyone thinks he was. It seems alot has been blown out of proportion to the point that he's portrayed as an absolute monster, which I don't think is true. That being said, he certainly was not exemplary or very admirable on many occasions. I don't know too much about him but I am very aware that he first encouraged his sister Carlota on the Mexican adventure but when things seemed to be going down hill he closed the recruiting office for the Belgian Legion and refused his sister any more support. He was also hardly the picture of compassion when she returned to Europe. Not too cool Leopold!

May said...

Good points. I rather suspect some of the accusations against him were exaggerated, too, but I have heard so many wildly conflicting things about his dealings in the Congo that I honestly am not sure what to believe. But I do think he was a pretty selfish, ruthless and coldhearted person. Certainly his private life and treatment of his family was far from admirable. Probably one of the least likable monarchs in history, definitely in modern times.

MadMonarchist said...

One problem is I don't think many people have tried to understand him; they just think "Congo" and then he's absolute evil -end of story. My defense of him has never been an effort to say he was good, but just probably not as absolutely horrid as is often thought. Of course, the Congo predominates any discussion of him and things were certainly terrible. From what I've gathered though, it seems to me his greatest crime was one of willful ignorance rather than malice. He could not possibly have overseen everything and he seems to have just "farmed out" to numerous private companies and did not seem to take care or notice how they did business. I also don't know how people can claim to be so exact with how bad things were considering how little information there was to begin with and to what extent existing problems played a part regardless of what any outsiders did. As far as policy goes the one thing I will give Leopold II credit for is, in his single-minded pursuit of national greatness, I think he was proven right in urging for a greater military build-up rather than trusting solely in the good will of signatories to the treaty of neutrality.

May said...

That is true, and whatever else he may have been, I think he was a genuine patriot, in his way. But I think always with mixed motives (I believe his nephew Baudouin, older brother of King Albert I, remarked on this and regretted it).