Friday, October 30, 2009

King Baudouin in the Congo

We now come to the most controversial era in the history of royal visits to the Belgian Congo- the first decade of King Baudouin's reign. The young monarch visited Belgium's prized colony three times in this period, amidst mounting political tensions and demands for independence- a goal finally achieved in 1960. Above, we see a sombre Baudouin, arriving for the celebrations to mark this occasion in Kinshasa.

The last years of Belgian colonial rule were a deeply troubled, violent time. Nonetheless, the King's first visit- in the summer of 1955- left happy memories. The King was enthusiastically welcomed and nicknamed Bwana Kitoko ("Handsome Young Man") by the Congolese. Queen Fabiola, in her open letter on the 10th anniversary of her husband's death, recalled the warm atmosphere of this tour, while evoking the tragedies to come:
His first visit to the Congo left the memory of a young king, relaxed and cheerful among the Africans, amidst mutual sympathy and attachment. For this reason, he suffered greatly from the murderous clashes later endured in the Congo by Belgians and Congolese.
The moment was already fast approaching when Belgium and the Congo would part ways. From 1955 on, the movement for self-determination, led by nationalists such as Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba, became increasingly vocal. In 1958, Lumumba founded the National Congolese Movement (MNC) and was soon leading strikes and demonstrations against the Belgian régime. The climate became increasingly bitter; many Belgians, not surprisingly, were reluctant to relinquish their lucrative empire. 1959 (the year of Baudouin's second colonial tour) began tragically with riots in Léopoldville. What was Baudouin's view of the developments? According to David Wilsford's Political Leaders of Contemporary Europe: a biographical dictionary:
In 1959, King Baudouin addressed the Belgian nation and for the first time recognized that independence of the Congo was imminent. Black leaders continued to organize and criticize the colonial power; they envisioned a presidential, autonomous system of government for the Congo. Baudouin, however, still viewed the colony as an "inheritance" and favored a "Belgian-Congolese" community where he would be maintained as king both of Belgium and the Congo. Nonetheless, in the midst of great political turmoil (and haste, making it impossible for the country to prepare adequately for self-government), the colony was granted independence on June 1, 1960 (p. 30)
Are we to understand that Congolese leaders wanted a complete break with the colonial past, and a republican constitution, whereas Baudouin hoped for an arrangement analogous to the British Commonwealth?

The independence celebrations, according to one fervent nationalist author, began in an exalted atmosphere combining "the pain of separation and the intoxication of liberty." The Guardian, by contrast, reported that the crowd in Kinshasa was "as small, and as unenthusiastic as an independence crowd could very well be. There were only about four thousand there, due, perhaps, to the confusion caused by hasty arrangements." In any case, it was the occasion for a royal visit which, unfortunately, rapidly degenerated into a diplomatic disaster.

Ceremonial gunfire marked the solemn occasion. The King, after praising the Belgians' contributions to the Congo over the past 80 years (even declaring that independence was the "crowning of the work" initiated by the "genius" of his forebear, Leopold II, the founder of the colony, and continued by the Belgian pioneers who helped to build the country) and insisting that the Congolese owed Belgium a debt of gratitude, warned his audience of the heavy responsibilities of their newfound sovereignty:
...Your rulers will know the difficult task of governing. They will have to make the general interests of the country their first priority. They will have to teach the Congolese people that independence is not realized by the immediate satisfaction of facile enjoyment, but by work, respect of the freedom of others and the rights of minorities, by tolerance and the order without which no democratic regime can subsist...
Baudouin's speech has aroused sharp criticism to this day. His tribute to the colonial régime is portrayed as shameless whitewashing of decades of brutal exploitation; his words of warning, as arrogant paternalism. The praise of the Belgians' work in the Congo certainly contrasts with the critical portrayals of colonialism by Albert I and Leopold III. 

Lumumba (by then, the Congo's first Prime Minister) responded with an impromptu, violent denunciation of the evils of colonial rule.
Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting (for us to ever forget the colonial régime of the past 80 years)...(We) have known ironies, insults, and blows which we had to undergo morning, noon and night because we were Negroes. We have seen our lands spoiled in the name of laws which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have known laws which differed according to whether it dealt with a black man or a white.

We have known the atrocious sufferings of those who were imprisoned for their political opinions or religious beliefs and of those exiled in their own country. Their fate was worse than death itself. Who will forget the rifle-fire from which so many of our brothers perished, or the gaols in to which were brutally thrown those who did not want to submit to a regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation which were the means the colonialists employed to dominate us?
Tempers ran high (which was especially unfortunate, as the mood of the festivities had, hitherto, been fairly amicable), and the King, mortally offended, decided to cut short his visit and return to Belgium immediately. He was persuaded to stay, but reportedly long retained bitter memories of the episode...

So, our series on royal visits to the Congo sadly ends on a troubled note.