No Laughing Matter

03.20.15 3:41 PM ET

King Leopold’s Ghost Haunt’s Belgium’s Black-Faced Foreign Minister

When Didier Reynders appeared made up like somebody from an old minstrel show, he raised more than a few questions about his judgment—and some grim memories of the past.

AMSTERDAM — You can’t help but wondering, “What was he thinking?” Earlier this week during the carnival in Brussels the Belgian minister of foreign affairs, Didier Reynders, decided to paint his face black and join the parade of “Noirauds” —literally, “the swarthy ones”—who belong to the so-called Conservatoire Africaine.

In fact, Reynders may have believed he didn’t have to think twice about such things, because in Belgium, The Netherlands and several other parts of Europe there persists a kind of casual racism that’s no less offensive for being presented as part of venerable tradition. (The Dutch are still grappling with the issue of Black Piet,  the slave of St. Nicholas who helps deliver toys each Christmas.)

As soon as word of the black-faced Reynders was published, a Twitterstorm began. “Can the Belgian minister of foreign affairs paint himself black without shocking Africa?” asked François Beaudonnet, the Brussels correspondent for France 2 television, after he ran into Reynders at a carnival parade. Photographs were found, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“Defending racism by saying it’s ‘tradition’ is ludicrous, yet that’s how some in Belgium are reacting to their blackfaced foreign minister,” tweeted Andrew Stroehlein, media director in Europe for Human Rights Watch. “And the fact that some in Belgium don’t understand that #blackface is racist is a big part of this scandal.”

In contrast to Black Piet, the black-faced “helper” St. Nicholas, who is at best a servant and likely a slave, the Noirauds are supposed to represent African nobleman or “kings,” explains the Conservatoire Africaine. So the white men are dressed up like oddly archaic high-hatted blackamoors, with silk pants, black tights and flashy shoes.

The original intent, back in 1876, was to collect money festively and anonymously for an orphanage on the verge of bankruptcy, and Reynders and his friends were still collecting for good causes.

Of course, blackface was a common theatrical device in European and American culture well into the 20th century, as Al Jolson’s movie “The Jazz Singer” and the Mummers parade in Philadelphia would attest. But Jolson’s film came out in 1927, and the Mummers quit wearing blackface in 1964.

And, in truth, 1876 is a date in the annals of racism that you’d think the Belgians would like to forget. Certainly Africa has no fond memories of it. 

It was in 1876 that Belgian King Leopold II called together a meeting of 35 explorers, geographers and businessmen to talk about the so-called dark continent. The pretext was charitable or, as we’d say these days, “humanitarian.” The ostensible purpose was to stop the slave trade and bring “civilization” to the people. In fact, Leopold implemented a policy hard to describe as anything but genocidal.

The English explorer Henry Morton Stanley had been busy “discovering” Central Africa and Leopold II was fascinated by the stories trickling out. He wanted to be part of this great adventure.

“It didn’t start as a national enterprise, but was presented by the king as a international philanthropic endeavor, a personal project of Leopold II,” says David van Reybrouck, author of the acclaimed history Congo: The Epic History of a People. “It was the plan of a European head of state who wanted to rule African territory, but it was very costly to finance the colonization. He was trying to warm up the Belgian people for the project,” Van Reybrouck told The Daily Beast, “but that only worked for th. gentry and the upper middle classes.”  That is, precisely the kind of people who founded the Conservatoire Africaine. 

Of course the African population’s opinion on the matter was not part of the picture. 

From 1885 to 1908 the megalomaniacal Leopold ended up confiscating and brutally ruling what was called Congo-Free-State, making it his personal pet project, and the country that has since been called Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo is still paying the price of his misrule, with grave human rights abuses, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Leopold exerted his power through his “Force Publique,” an army of African soldiers and white officers to whom slavery, torture, rape, beheadings and amputations were part of a daily routine, as documented in Adam Hochshild’s memorable King Leopold’s Ghost. The monarch ruled with an iron fist, pillaging the Free State’s rubber and other resources, and slaughtering or starving its people. When the full scale of the massacre became known, it was estimated that of 20 million Africans in Congo when Belgium took it, only eight million survived.  

Maybe the average Belgian of the time was blissfully unaware of this holocaust in faraway lands. But there’s no excuse today, especially for Foreign Minister Reynders.

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And, really, it’s not just him.

You’d think extant members of the Belgian Royal family would be wise to keep away from any reference to this dark episode in history. Sadly according to the Noirauds’s own website, even the current King Phillippe and his brother Prince Laurent were members as children, after their mother, princess Paola, became an honorary member in 1959. Her name, to this day is attached to the Conservatoire Africaine.

King Leopold’s ghost lives on—in blackface.