Reflections on Belgian Colonialism

By Emilie Jarrett and Adrienne Brayman


Living in Belgium as an expat, it is easy to forget or ignore Belgium’s colonial past. Yet, as we as UUs seek to explore our relationship to white supremacy and to become truly anti-racist, it seems essential to start with understanding the history of the place in which we live.

As the city of Brussels started trying to encourage a revival of the cultural sector, an array of COVID-proof events was offered at the beginning of October. This included a “decolonial guided tour” of the “royal neighborhood” of Brussels, which seemed like a perfect opportunity to follow through with our commitment to learn more about our adopted city.

The tour was offered by a local organization, and our guide was a young man from the Congo. Over an hour and a half, at times under the rain, he explained the history of buildings and statues in the royal quarter of Brussels, while remaining very factual and dispassionate. He pointed out commemorative plates on buildings indicating their use during colonial times that I had just never noticed before, even though I have walked by these buildings many times.

I was humbled and shocked by how little I knew, but also by how much of the colonial heritage of Belgium remains just below the surface. Yet this must be a constant reminder to those of Congolese, Burundian, and Rwandan descent of the exploitation of their country and its denial to this day.


Over the summer I participated in the anti-racism seminar offered by EUU Social Action, and one of the things it got me thinking about was just how little I know about racism in Belgium and Belgium’s colonial history, despite having lived in Brussels for a decade. When Emilie came across this series of guided walks, I therefore saw it as an opportunity to learn more about something fundamental to truly understanding my adopted country.

The royal quarter in Brussels is downtown, surrounded by some of the city’s most famous landmarks—its main art museum, the royal palace, and a great view of the Grand Place. And yet, the buildings that our guide took us to were often unassuming buildings that I, too, had walked by many times without ever thinking twice about them or what they represent. Our guide also talked a lot about Belgian colonial history in general, and the role that King Leopold II personally played in the Belgian Congo. It gave me a lot to think about, and I look forward to further tours by this organization, which regularly leads variations of this walk, exploring other aspects of Belgian colonialism.