Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Belgium

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

Sir Roger Casement

Colonialism is rarely totally advantageous to the colonised. The British Empire was not the only villain. Certainly the pre-Nazi German colonial enterprise was not benign to the conquered. The Kaiser’s colonialism was enmeshed with racism. A  fear of guerrilla attacks created  a genocidal mentality and  a policy of total annihilation, including  deliberate starvation. 150,000 Hehe starved in Tanganyika and a further 300,000 people in the Maji-Maji revolt. Sixty  per cent of the Hereros and Nama were exterminated in Namibia.

Little Belgium was particularly vicious.

In a strange episode, Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat who exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo,  was executed by the British for his part in the Irish rebellion.

In the early sixties, I was staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Cobh, County Cork. The hotel was run and owned by the Allen family. Captain Allen of the Irish Army was home on leave from service with the UN force in the Congo. He gave us a slide show presentation about the Congo. I am glad that he did not go into the atrocities that occurred during that time of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe.

The Grand Union Hotel long ago succumbed to recession and subsidence. It was located in Casement Square.

Who was this man Casement?

Roger Casement was brought up in Northern Ireland as a protestant, a Unionist loyal to the Crown. He distinguished himself as an honourable member of the British diplomatic service and was awarded a knighthood.

In 1916 he was hanged by the British as a traitor and his body dumped in a pit of quicklime at Pentonville Prison.

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has written a novel about Casement. El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), was published in Spanish on 3 November, 2010. The novel won’t be available in English until early 2012.  “Casement is a figure with a complex historical relationship to the UK establishment and there is bound to be significant interest in this novel from a constituency of readers much broader than fans of Vargas Llosa or, indeed, readers of literary fiction,” said the publisher, Lee Brackstone. “We certainly expect to grow Mario’s sales dramatically in the wake of the Nobel with a novel so fixed in British and Irish political and cultural history.”

The Congo Free State

Casement was initially a willing participant in the colonial project. When he got a job with the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool he did not like the idea of being an office-bound clerk. He persuaded the company to let him go as a purser on one of its ships to Boma in the Congo and once there at the age of 20 joined the unpaid volunteers who were working for Henry Morton Stanley, the man who achieved fame by “finding” David Livingstone.

Stanley’s project of opening up the unmapped regions of Central Africa had attracted  King Leopold II of Belgium. However, the King could not arouse the interest of his subjects in colonial ventures and decided to look for financial support outside Belgium. An International African Association was set up with Leopold as its chairman. He stated that his sole ambition was “to open up to civilisation the only area of our globe to which it has not yet penetrated”.

Leopold was tall and striking in appearance but inspired neither the affection nor respect of his own people nor the friendship of his royal cousins. Leopold was first cousin to Queen Victoria, but her son, the future Edward VII , detested him. He founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he ran as a personal fiefdom and business venture.

After the break-up of Stanley’s team, Casement was recruited to the British diplomatic service and served as consul in a number of African locations.

Many people who met Casement at this time  were impressed by him. Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi : “All I can say from personal experience, and long friendship, is that I have always found him sympathetic, clever and fascinating, and that I have met very few men during my whole life who had such an exceptional personality. He possessed an absolutely genuine, though somewhat exaggerated, idealism: nothing whatever would stop him from assisting the weaker against the stronger, because he simply could not help it.”

Poultney Bigelow was one of the best-known American foreign correspondents of the time. He saw Casement as the sort of man depicted in Jules Verne’s novels, “the man who is everlastingly exploring and extricating himself from every imaginable difficulty by superhuman tact, wit and strength.”

In 1890 at Matadi, Casement met young Captain Korzeniowski, who found Casement “most intelligent and sympathetic”.   The captain recalled that Casement had “a touch of the conquistador in  him too; for I’ve seen him start into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crook-handled stick for all weapons, with two bulldogs Paddy (white) and Biddy, (brindle) at his heels, and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner, a little browner, with his stick, dogs and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in a park.”

The Captain later became Joseph Conrad and transmuted his Upper Congo experience into Heart of Darkness.

Casement was intelligent and sensitive enough to appreciate that there was an underbelly to  the colonial enterprise. He was a published poet. One of his poems, in the style of Thomas Davis, writer of the Irish rebel song ‘A Nation Once Again’, included the lines:

‘Prate not of England’s valour in the field

Her heart is sick with lust.

The gold she wins is red with blood, nor can it shield

Her name from tainted league with men of broken trust.’

The ostensible objective of the enterprise had been to benefit the natives,  not to enrich a colonial power. Trade returns showed that the flow of rubber out of the Congo into Belgium was rapidly increasing but there was an unchanging trickle of imports into the Congo. The main import seemed to be guns. The labour force was not being paid. Leopold’s authority in the Free State was absolute, so only he was in a position to embezzle the State’s funds.

Casement met King Leopold in Brussels in October 1900 and challenged him with these reports. The King pleaded that Belgium was only a tiny country wanting ‘a few- only a few- of the crumbs that fall from your well-stocked British table. And yet in England you are suspicious of us!’

By 1903, Casement was British consul in Kinshasa and was commissioned by the British government to write a report on the human rights situation in the Congo Free State.

There were some criticisms that Casement’s visit was too brief, but he had previous experience; he knew what he was looking for and was not surprised by what he found. He was prepared for Leopold’s possible defence that there might have been isolated incidents of abuse. Casement knew in his heart and his head that there was a ‘system’. The cutting off of hands was the deliberate act of soldiers of the administration, “who never made any concealment that in committing these acts they were but obeying the positive orders of their superiors”. The Free State, Casement knew and felt he could prove, was no more than a gigantic and ruthless commercial enterprise.

He was supported by the campaigning freelance journalist, Edmund D Morel, to whom he donated a third of his annual salary. Morel recalled, ‘The weapon which brought Leopold to his knees was forged by two men in straitened circumstances who, so far as they could see in to the future, had everything to lose and nothing to gain.’

The two men campaigned energetically in many countries to bring the abuses to light. In America, the campaign attracted the support of Booker T Washington and Mark Twain. Twain wrote of, “King Leopold II, who for money’s sake, mutilates and starves half a million of friendly and helpless poor natives in the Congo every year”. He described Leopold as “this mouldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster, whose mate is not found in history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there- which will be soon we hope and trust.”

The Casement Report comprises forty pages of the Parliamentary Papers, to which is appended another twenty pages of individual statements gathered by the Consul. The report demonstrated in grim detail how a slave labour force was maintained by systematic brutality including amputations, vicious beatings, kidnappings and killings of the native population by the Bula Matadi soldiers of King Leopold. The report contained long and detailed eye-witness reports.

Casement gave his own eye-witness reports:  “I was  able to institute a comparison between a state of affairs I had myself seen when the natives loved their own savage lives in anarchic and disorderly communities, uncontrolled by Europeans, and that created by more than a decade of very energetic European intervention”.

“On the 25th of July (1903) we reached Lukolela, where I spent two days. This district had, when I visited it in 1887, numbered fully 5,000 people; today the population is given, after a careful enumeration, at less than 600. The reasons given me for their decline in numbers were similar to those furnished elsewhere, namely, sleeping-sickness, general ill-health, insufficiency of food, and the methods employed to obtain labour from them by local officials and the exactions levied on them.”

“Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . In both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.”

The report led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for murders during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national who was given a five year sentence for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives).

Leopold had been granted control of the Congo Free State under the 1885 Berlin Agreement which carved up Africa between the European colonial powers.  The term ‘Free’ signified the free trade that the Berlin Act obliged Leopold to establish for the benefit of all nations who wished to trade there; a condition that the King managed to flout through awarding territorial concessions for rubber extraction to a number of private companies, some of which were mere disguises for his own aggrandizement The British government demanded a meeting of the 14 Berlin signatories. The Belgian parliament, pressed by socialist leader, Emile Vandervelde, forced Leopold to set up a commission of inquiry which could not avoid confirming the essentials of Casement’s report. In 1908, the Belgian parliament took over control of the Free State from Leopold and it became the Belgian Congo.

Casement was awarded a CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael St George in 1905 for his Congo work.

Putumayo

Casement had the chance to do similar work in Peru in 1906 among the Putumayo Indians. Public outrage in Britain over abuses against the Indians had been sparked in 1909 by articles in the British magazine Truth. Following two visits, Casement submitted a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March 1911, in which he detailed the punishments carried out by the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company.

“Men, women, and children were confined for days, weeks, and often months. … Whole families … were imprisoned–fathers, mothers, and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.”

Some of the men exposed as killers in his report were charged by Peru and others fled. The main culprit, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted. He instead went on to a successful political career, becoming a senator, and died in Lima in 1952 at age eighty-eight.

On returning to London, Casement campaigned on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Casement was knighted by George V for his efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians.

Five years after his Putumayo report to the foreign secretary, Casement’s body was in quicklime at Pentonville prison.

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