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THE GREAT FORGETTING
- Saddam's statue and Leopold's ghost

In 2004, television viewers everywhere were treated to the carefully orchestrated toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad. A year later, something strange happened to what has now become a ritual charged with symbolism. In the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, the statute of a tyrant whose legacy the world has not yet come to terms with was, very briefly, rehabilitated. Leopold II, arguably the most cruel and rapacious face of colonialism, stood once again in post-colonial Africa. Leopold's statue, complete with horse, was hoisted onto an empty plinth. The statue stood for a few hours in Kinshasa.

At the same time, Leopold's mobile ghost was also stalking another place far away. In a potent coincidence, an exhibition was being opened at the same time at the Royal Africa Museum in Tervuren near Brussels. In his brilliant book, Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild describes this museum that houses one of the largest collections of Africana. The displays are rich and varied ' they include Stanley's cap, Leopold's cane, slave manacles, canoes, weapons, uniforms, wooden statues, stuffed wild animals. And, of course, plaques to memorialize the 'pioneers' who died in the Congo. Hochschild's point, however, is that the museum's exhibits are, above all, examples of the politics of forgetting: the exhibits seem to display no memory whatsoever of what Leopold's colonial adventure actually did.

On the eve of the 20th century, King Leopold II of Belgium carried the carving out of Africa by European powers to its most brutally logical conclusion. The territory surrounding the Congo River became his private fiefdom. He gave this territory, the only colony claimed by one man, an ironic name ' the Congo Free State. Yet Leopold was much admired, throughout Europe, as a philanthropist. His claims to humanitarian greatness were based on his encouragement of Christian missionaries to bring hope of salvation to his colony; the 'defence' of the people against local slave-traders; and the investment of the personal fortune he amassed from the Congo in public works to benefit the Africans.

In reality, Leopold's humanitarian activities were lethal for almost ten million people, the estimated number wiped out by the Belgian king's Congo enterprise. Slave labour ensured fantastically rich hauls of rubber and ivory. The bloodshed was copious, the worst of it taking place between 1890 and 1910. The accounts are full of massacres; piles of skeletons; heaps of severed hands. The missionary, Ellsworth Faris, records of the killing squads: 'Each time the corporal goes out to get rubber, cartridges are given to him. He must bring back all not used; and for every one used he must bring back a right hand!' This was the Africa that the young sea captain Joseph Conrad went to in search of the exotic; even he, with his white man's gaze, saw instead 'the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience'.

What is remembered, what forgotten' Put another way, what should we work at remembering, what allow ourselves to forget' There are some shameful chapters of human history that have, quite rightly, never been in danger of being forgotten. The Jewish experience during the Nazi era is perhaps the best example. Despite layers of silence and guilt, despite the rise of a new generation of neo-Nazis, what happened to the Jews has become, in public memory, the holocaust. It even seems, sometimes, that the memory is in danger of being taken over by a powerful, moneyed holocaust industry; of perhaps helping, indirectly, to dull the memories of other equally horrific instances of plunder and murder of large groups of people. No one can deny the importance of remembering forever what Hitler and his fellow-Nazis did; of remembering how easy it is for the 'decent common man and woman' to become accomplices in the perpetration of inhumanity; and indeed, of remembering how the descendants of the victims can become victims afresh of a Zionist view as blinkered as that of their erstwhile oppressors.

It is impossible to imagine a statue of Hitler being hoisted on a pedestal in Israel, even for a second. But Leopold ' whose portrait probably hangs right next to Hitler's in the gallery of history where mass murderers go ' can return as a statue in Kinshasa in 2005. Why isn't public memory big enough, informed enough, to contain the legacies of both megalomaniacs, both their killing grounds' In his book, Hochschild meticulously traces what he calls the 'great forgetting'. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials were thorough in their destruction of potentially incriminating evidence from the historical record.

Shortly before the colony was officially handed over to Belgium, Leopold said, 'I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.' This was the more official kind of forgetting; but there was also a process of forgetting that took place within the minds of those who staffed the regime. Sometimes this forgetting was so efficient that the victimizer could end up convincing himself that he was, after all, the victim. Hochschild quotes the memoirs of a man who ran rubber-collecting posts in the Kasai region of the Congo: 'Sometimes, I think it is I who have suffered most'

The project of forgetting received a boost when Germany invaded neutral Belgium in 1914. In an eerie echo of the piles of severed hands in Leopold's Congo, the press in Allied countries reported that German soldiers were cutting off the hands and feet of Belgian children. The allegation turned out to be false. But meanwhile, Leopold's brutal rule, as well as the movement that opposed it, slipped out of European memory. In the land that was plundered, the legacy was more than a particularly horrific colonial experience. The legacy also included burying the past under layer after layer: a legacy of forgetting.

School textbooks written by the colonizers, book-banning and press censorship helped to strengthen this legacy. It was possible, for a 1959 text for young soldiers, to turn the history of the Belgian Congo into the myth that the Belgians 'by acts of heroism, managed to create this immense territory'. Leopold's ruthless profit-making enterprise became, in words that the tyrant king would have been proud to claim as his own, 'the most humanitarian campaign of the century, liberating the decimated and exploited peoples of Africa'.

Today, it is not just in Kinshasa that the ex-colonized are vulnerable to forgetting. The post-colonial in different parts of the world seem to have occasional spasms during which they become, once again, however briefly, the obviously colonized. Such a spasm in postcolonial India, for instance, causes the resurrection of Mowgli, beloved little junglee blackboy of the raj, to have pride of place in the Madhya Pradesh float in the Republic Day parade of 2005. This example of forgetting seems innocuous, almost silly.

But it is part of the forgetting package that allows a Leopold to stand on a pedestal once again in the land he plundered. In our times of Bush-speak, it is not difficult to imagine what Leopold's ghost may say: It isn't plunder, it isn't megalomania, and it certainly isn't a holocaust. It is humanitarian work. My concern is human rights.

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