- Written by Emery Macumino and Cecilia Macaulay
- BBC News
King Philip handed over to the Democratic Republic of the Congo the first of the 84,000 pieces taken during the colonial era that Belgium agreed to return.
It is a mask called Kakungu, which was previously on display in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium.
King Philip and Queen Mathilde are visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the invitation of President Felix Tshisekedi.
Belgian colonization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has one of the most brutal records in Africa.
The newly returned mask was used in healing ceremonies by the Suku community in the southwest of the country.
It was purchased by an art dealer 70 years ago before it was displayed in the Belgian Museum.
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King Philip said the thing was on “indefinite loan” to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“During our visit to the National Museum, and in your presence, I wanted to return to you this exceptional work to allow the Congolese to discover and admire it,” the king declared.
“It represents the symbolic beginning of the strengthening of cultural cooperation between Belgium and the Congo,” he added.
Many other artifacts will be returned from the Royal Museum of Central Africa, where approximately 70% of the artifacts were seized during the colonial period.
After the handover, an agreement was signed to open a cultural cooperation between the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Royal Museum of Central Africa, but the details were not announced.
Princess Esmerelda, King Philip’s aunt, told the BBC it was right to return the looted items.
“The former European colonial powers must acknowledge the past,” she told BBC World Tonight.
“I strongly believe that artifacts that were stolen from many countries in Africa and beyond should be returned to their place.”
Millions of Congolese suffered atrocities under colonialism, especially during the reign of King Leopold II, who owned the Congo Free State as his personal property.
In 2020, King Philip wrote to President Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence to express his “deep regret” for the colonial abuses of his predecessors.
But Princess Esmeralda said more was needed: “I think apologies will probably come soon, official apologies for the past and for colonial atrocities.”
Why was the Belgian colonial rule so brutal?
- Belgium controlled the central African country from the 19th century until it gained its independence in 1960
- More than 10 million Africans are believed to have died during the reign of King Leopold II from disease, colonial abuse, and working with him on plantations.
- The authorities cut off the limbs of slaves when they failed to meet the quotas of materials such as rubber required by the crown
King Philip’s week-long visit, his first since taking the throne in 2013, received a mixed reception from people the BBC spoke to in Kinshasa.
“I am very happy with this visit, because the country has been in a bad state since the Belgians left,” one person said.
Another was less enthusiastic: “The president has decided to invite the King of the Belgians to do what to plunder us again?”
As part of the trip, King Philip also met Corporal Albert Kunioko, the last Congolese warrior to survive World War II who fought on the side of the Belgians. At a memorial to veterans, a wreath was laid and King Philip presented a medal to Corporal Kunioko.