History 1800-present, Post-colonial studies

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Matthew Stanard | The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock. Colonial Memories and Monuments in Belgium


“I hope readers would remember the value of studying history; both its intrinsic value, and the importance of learning history in order to better understand the past and the present.”

In ‘The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock’ Matthew Stanard examines the long-term effects and legacies of the colonial era on Belgium after 1960, the year the Congo gained its independence, and calls into question memories of the colonial past by focusing on the meaning and place of colonial monuments in public space. Read more about Stanard’s research and his inspiration for the book in this ‘Author’s Corner’ blog post.

Can you briefly and concisely explain in common language what your book is about?

‘The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock’ unveils the lasting cultural effects that the colonial experience had on Belgium in the years and decades after 1960, which was the year the Belgian Congo achieved independence. For a long time people believed that European overseas imperialism affected cultures across the colonized world, but hardly so in Europe itself. My book reveals how the colonial experience did indeed change Belgium and Belgian culture in important ways, albeit unevenly, and at times almost imperceptibly. One part of this is an examination of the many pro-colonial memorials and markers that still dot the Belgian landscape today. For example, there are still more than 150 streets and public squares in the country named after colonial figures, many of them of doubtful reputation, at best. The book includes photographs of a few of those street signs, along with nearly seventy photographs of colonialist monuments, taken across the country. And beyond monuments, the book also examines ‘colonial’ influences in theater, literature, cinema, migration, museums, and in colonial interest groups, among other areas.

Other issues I grapple with in the book are memory, empire, and colonialist legacies in Europe, including racism. Over the past three decades or so, there has been an explosion of interest among historians and others regarding how public and private memory work and the role memory has played in shaping past events. This has only gained urgency in the past few years with the #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa and the U.K., controversies over racist street names in Germany, French President Macron’s willingness to ‘repatriate’ African art seized during the colonial era, and closer to home, the re-opening of the renovated AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock considers differing memories of empire in the Flemish north (the ‘lion’ in the title) and Wallonia in the south (symbolized by the coq hardi), and how these varied over time after 1960, often depending on Belgium’s contemporaneous relationship with the Congo of Mobutu, the ‘leopard’ of the book’s title.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by European history. I have also lived in Europe and have traveled extensively across the continent, including to Belgium. It was my fascination with Europe, its history, and its cultures that led me to graduate school at Indiana University-Bloomington. There, a research seminar on European overseas empire with William B. Cohen led to me writing a research paper on the Congo section of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which opened up a whole new world to me: how Europe (including Belgium) brought the overseas empire ‘back home’ during the colonial era, and how Europe changed in important ways as a result. Work on another book on Belgian pro-empire propaganda from 1908-1960 led me to wonder as to the long-term effects of the colonial era that might have endured past the formal end of empire in 1960. The results of my research on the topic are to be found in The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock. I should add that I gained inspiration along the way from a number of wonderful scholars including Idesbald Goddeeris, Guy Vanthemsche, John M. MacKenzie, as well as Jean-Luc Vellut, to whom the book is dedicated.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

Two classics are Orientalism (1978), by the late Edward Said, and John M. MacKenzie’s Propaganda and Empire (1984). The ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series that MacKenzie founded at Manchester University Press has published a wealth of studies exploring overseas empire’s cultural (and other) effects on Europe, with a heavy focus on Britain. For France, one would do well to start with Pascal Blanchard, Sandrine Lemaire, Nicolas Bancel, and Dominic Thomas’s Colonial Culture in France since the Revolution (2014). Less has been written on culture and empire in the cases of the ‘lesser’ European colonial powers, including Belgium, which is a deficiency or lacuna that my book seeks to remedy. One key book-length study is Congo in België: Koloniale cultuur in de metropool, by Vincent Viaene, David Van Reybrouck, and Bambi Ceuppens, which came out with Leuven University Press in 2009. My own Selling the Congo (paperback, 2015) examines pro-colonial propaganda in Belgium from 1908-1960.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?

Over the past two decades, I visited Belgium numerous times, and over the course of my stays, I ended up taking hundreds of photographs of colonial monuments in the country. In May 2018, I returned to Belgium once more, this time to track down a number of colonial memorials whose existence I’d never been able to confirm, and also to take as many high-quality photographs of colonialist monuments as I could, for this book. The odd thing about my May 2018 visit was that apart from one day with a few sprinkles, the weather was absolutely gorgeous: bright, sunny, and warm. Quite unlike your typical Belgian weather! This was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise. Not only did it make for a wonderful spring visit, the great weather I enjoyed also lent itself to some excellent photo-taking opportunities.

What would you like the readers to remember from your book?

I hope readers would remember the value of studying history; both its intrinsic value, and the importance of learning history in order to better understand the past and the present. We are living through times of intense debates about public memory and the past: in Spain, about nationhood and the meaning of the Franco era; in the United States, about reparations for slavery, and how to remember the Confederacy; in Argentina, about that country’s recent military dictatorship; in Belgium, about the colonial past; and in Hungary, Poland, the U.K., and many other places, and about myriad past events and their meaning. The irony is that the study of history finds itself increasingly devalued these days. There has been a dramatic decline in enrollments in history programs at university as students (often with their parents’ approval) pursue degrees of supposedly more practical value, rather than study ideas. In some countries, a crackdown on free speech and the right to publish freely has begun to stifle historical research. All too often, the public and even top public officials and private sector leaders arrive at conclusions about the past without having done the necessary and valuable work of studying history. Debates about the meaning of the past that are based not on facts and informed interpretation but on one’s politics or other such doubtful criteria can lead to nothing other than a dialogue of the deaf, which gets us nowhere..

Do you have any plans yet for a next publication? What will it be about?

I am currently at work with Berny Sèbe (University of Birmingham, U.K.) on the co-edited book Decolonising Europe? Popular Responses to the End of Empire, to be published by Routledge. Our book aims to transform people’s understanding of decolonization by showing how it was a fluid process of fluxes and refluxes involving not only transfers of populations, of ideas, and of socio-cultural practices across continents but also of complex intra-European dynamics at a time of convergence following the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The book’s contributors are leading scholars from Australia, France, the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., and beyond, and they collectively set out a panorama of in-depth case studies analyzing the interwoven meaning, memory, material culture, and migration patterns of the end of empire across seven major European countries. We believe that the revised meaning of ‘decolonization’ that emerges will challenge scholars in several fields and chart paths for new research. The question mark in the book’s title asks not only how European cultures experienced the ‘end of empire’ but also the extent to which decolonization is still a work in progress.