Belgium’s hand-shaped chocolates will remain an insult to victims of Leopold II’s genocide in Congo

Etsey Atisu June 19, 2019
Photo -- Atlas Obscura

It is no secret today, the atrocities committed by the King of the Belgians, Leopold II, who ruled from 1865 to 1909, and the one responsible for the maiming and killing of an undetermined number of Congolese – a country he considered his personal property including their lands and minerals.

For many still, this king was even worse than Adolf Hitler for his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo) especially when you consider the fact that in his entire reign and oppression over the people of Congo, he never stepped in that country.

Leopold was definitely a man of insatiable greed who instituted a very unscrupulous form of accounting for every bullet used by his blood-thirsty soldiers called the Force Publique. They had to, after killing people, hack off their right hands and have them kept for stock-taking.

Belgium's hand-shaped chocolates will remain an insult to victims of Leopold II's genocide in Congo
Some Congolese displaying their chopped hands/Lisapo Ya Kama

Peter Forbath, a historian says, “The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State (which was not actually a free state). The collection of hands became an end in itself… brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency.”

Today, in Antwerp-Belgium, the city called the capital of chocolate, there is a booming chocolate industry called with the Antwerpse Handjes reflecting a completely sensitive inspiration. The Antwerpse Handjes which many people believe to be trendy and creative at first, is actually a purely insensitive and ill-thought practice that only seems to glorify the brutality of its king.

Ancient myths emanating from Belgium speak of a time where there once lived a mighty giant called Druon Antigon, who terrorized his people by demanding tolls he did not deserve from labourers who worked on lands near the Scheldt river. Anybody who was unable to pay, this giant chopped off their hand and threw it into the river.

His terror grew by the years but he would not always be lucky though. One day, an overwhelmingly brave soldier named Silvius Brabo, in battle with the giant, defeated him and also chopped off his hand and likewise, threw it into the river. Some suggest that the name Antwerp comes from the Dutch for the words hand werpen or “hand throwing”.

Belgium's hand-shaped chocolates will remain an insult to victims of Leopold II's genocide in Congo
Congolese display cut hands with a Belgium official/Lisapo Ya Kama

In the late 1800s into the early 1900s however, King Leopold II would rule Belgium. Almost a déjà vu, this king exerted his influence over the people of the Congo Free State, although the state was nothing free, reliving similar evils that Antigon encouraged.

Leopold determined to make Congo his and so he did. From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold II used the people of the country to enrich himself by exporting valuable resources such as rubber and ivory out of the country, growing richer through his oppression of them as they worked the fields as labourers.

It was forced labour with a spontaneous punishment for anybody who challenged the system: anyone who refused to work or meet the quotas had their hands severed and presented to officials s proof of the enforcement.

And while the news of Leopold’s horrific regime sparked an international outcry that resulted in his losing control over the state in 1908, the Congo remained a Belgian colony until it regained its independence in 1960.

Over the subsequent years, severed hands interestingly became a symbol of the city of Antwerp, starting first as cookies decorated with sliced almonds, and then later as chocolates filled with praline or marzipan. Outside Antwerp’s city hall today, the Brabo Fountain even features a statue of the hero tossing the giant’s hand.

Belgium's hand-shaped chocolates will remain an insult to victims of Leopold II's genocide in Congo
A statue of Sylvius Brabo shows him about to throw the hand of Antigon away, in Antwerp/LAT. love art travel

It will be determined that chocolates from Antwerp tell the stories of a sweet victory by Brabo but it outrightly fails to highlight the even more horrendous role that their king played in Congo in later years. At least, in the case of Antigon, his hand also got to be hacked off and thrown into the same river in which he did of the others he took off but that was not the situation in the case of King Leopold II.   

And even worse, the barbarism of King Leopold outnumbered that of Antigon. So, it was an Antigon spirit revived after all.

Now back to the Antwerpse Handjes, how is that anybody, and pretty much so, an entire country, allow for a thing such as this – chocolate that is styled like the chopped hands of people who were oppressed by their king, to fester?

Although they may seem like simple candies, these chocolate hands represent a rather silent yet loud symbol of complexities. There is no doubt that there was a vanquishing victory in the history of the country but facing the reality that there is, how is it even fathomable that Belgium chose to highlight that over the less-than-savory realities exploitation and colonization in the Congo?

In fact, it had to take Belgium almost forever to even admit and apologize for all the harm it caused in the Central African region, where it ruled predominantly.

The hand-shaped chocolates are still in circulation. The memories of the days of oppression by King Leopold exist eternally in and on the minds of the people of DRC. Should there be a balance and should there be some honesty in these overly stated facts of what happened?

I would wish that for whatever motivations the country of Belgium derives from continuing to remind the entire world of something that they shouldn’t even be proud of in the first place, through the production of these chocolates, they will prove to everyone that indeed, they are remorseful. It’s a simple thing – stop the production of the hand-shaped chocolates.

What do you think: should Belgium stop the production of the hand-styled chocolates?

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: June 5, 2020


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