by Sasha Alyson
In the late 1800s, the great powers of Europe carved up Africa, grabbing colonies for themselves.
One not-so-great power also got involved: The tiny kingdom of Belgium. Belgium itself had no colonial aspirations. But its ruler, King Leopold II, was greedy beyond measure. Early in life, Leopold set his heart on having a colony – of his own, as a personal possession and source of wealth. The best spots were already taken so Leopold looked at the vast, unmapped interior of Africa. To win acceptance from other Western powers – the only voices that mattered – he portrayed himself as a humanitarian. He would save the Congo from evil Arab slave traders. Furthermore, his European allies would also benefit; he promised to open the Congo to free trade.
At first, ivory was the main export. In the 1890s an unexpected invention changed the world: The inflatable tire. Now you could have a comfortable ride on a bicycle, with the tires acting as cushions. Soon automobile tires created an even bigger market. The West grew hungry for more rubber.
The Congo had wild rubber, the trick was to collect it. Leopold turned his energies toward this new source of wealth.
Collecting rubber sap is unpleasant and often dangerous work. Congolese farmers weren’t interested. They had to be forced, and Leopold’s overseers had several methods. One that worked well: Women were seized and held hostage until their husbands returned with a full quota of rubber. There was a booklet of tips for hostage-takers: “When you feel you have enough captives, you should choose among them an old person, preferably an old woman. Make her a present and send her to her chief to begin negotiations.”
Whippings, torture, rape, and casual murder were also widely documented.
One method became notorious above all others: Cutting off hands. Leopold and his lieutenants had no objection to villagers being murdered for refusal to cooperate. But they didn’t want bullets “wasted” on private hunting. A soldier who shot and killed someone was required to cut off the right hand, and present it as evidence that the bullet had been used for an approved purpose.
That was how it started. But the practice didn’t stay confined to corpses. Sometimes, a soldier might use a bullet for hunting, then chop off the hand of a living person, with blood spurting out from the arm stub. Or the amputations could be punishment: A picture from 1905 shows a young boy who had one hand and one foot cut off when his village failed to meet its rubber quota.
A number of people tried to tell the world about the atrocities in the Congo. Among the first was George Washington Williams, a black American who at first believed the stories he heard about Leopold’s humanitarianism, went to see for himself the utopia that had been created, and instead found a living hell. He was a skilled orator and writer, and might have threatened Leopold’s plans… but he came down with tuberculosis and died soon thereafter. A British man named E.D. Morel, through his work for a shipping company, realized that Leopold was using slave labor to loot the Congo; he and others, joined by several missionaries, organized the opposition.
At first, it was hard to get the world’s attention. Then Morel and his allies circulated photos of people in the Congo missing one or both hands. These images seared themselves into viewers’ minds.
Two prominent writers, Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Mark Twain, bought the issue to wider attention. European newspapers printed cartoons, some of which depicted chopped hands and human victims.
Leopold’s colony became Belgium’s shame. In 1908, the government of Belgium negotiated to buy the Congo from Leopold. Cruel forced labor continued, but Belgium put an end to the hand-chopping which had cause it such embarrassment.
Today, anyone who knows this story might be horrified to walk into a confectionary shop in Antwerp, Belgium’s most populous city, and find chocolate hands on sale.
These hands have nothing to do with the Congo, explains Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever. They’re about Antwerp. According to local legend, a mythical giant once lived near the Scheldt river and charged a toll to everyone who crossed the river. If anyone objected, he cut off one of their hands and threw it in the river. A hero named Brabo finally killed the giant and threw one of his hands into the river.
The Dutch words “hand werpen” (“hand throw”) became the name Antwerp. A statue of Brabo stands in city center; he holds a hand in the air, poised to throw it as water spurts from the wrist.
Does that mean it’s okay to buy and sell chocolate hands in Antwerp? I believe two more points should be considered.
First, symbolism matters. In the United States, the Confederate flag has been a controversial symbol for many decades. In 1861, thirteen slave-holding southern states seceded from the U.S.A., calling themselves the Confederate States. A chief cause, and the one identified with the Confederacy today, was slavery. After the Civil War, these states rejoined the U.S, but many incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag. This was defended with statements such as: “This isn’t a defense of racism, it represents regional pride.” Maybe. Maybe they were fibbing. Rarely if ever did the people waving the Confederate flag ever take a stance against racism.
Slowly, attitudes changed. Flags changed. For seventeen years only one state, Mississippi, continued to include the Confederate flag in its state flag. In 2020, voters overwhelmingly agreed to dump that and to adopt a new flag featuring a magnolia flower.
Severed hands symbolize one chapter of Belgium’s history. To insist on making snacks in this shape is to mock those who were murdered, tortured, raped, and mutilated – even if it’s only a coincidence that a severed hand symbolized both Antwerp’s founding myth and Leopold’s Congo.
And second: Is this story really, entirely, coincidence?
The severed-hand snacks date to 1934. A man named Jos Hakker, of the Antwerp Pastry Bakers Association, arranged a competition to select a culinary symbol for Antwerp. The winner was…. Jos Hakker himself, with his “Antwerp Hands,” which could be molded from cookie dough, chocolate, or whatever edible you wanted to sell.
Hakker was born in Amsterdam in 1887, then moved to Antwerp in 1903. He was in his late teens and very early twenties as the European campaign against Leopold’s atrocities reached its zenith. A leading foe of King Leopold was E.D. Morel, whose shipping-company job often took him to Antwerp, Belgium’s main port. Antwerp was the doorway through which Leopold’s loot entered his country. Antwerp was the city where Morel observed that as shiploads of ivory and rubber arrived from the Congo, it was mostly army officers, guns, and bullets being sent. There was no trade going on. The only explanation was that the Congo was being looted through the use of slave labor.
Morel tirelessly spread word of Leopold’s crimes. It seems likely that he would have done so in the key Belgian port where he spent so much time; and likely that Hakker, and others in his association, would have seen the pictures from the Congo. And right in their town square was Brabo holding a severed hand. Could anyone, seeing atrocity pictures from the Congo, have failed to think of their Brabo statue? Twenty-six years later, when they selected a severed hand as their symbol, had they really all forgotten it?
Or did it seem irrelevant, perhaps even humorous? We’re unlikely to ever know. But let’s remember that Europeans and Americans of that era generally saw Africans as sub-human. Leopold shipped 138 people from the Congo to be put on exhibit at a “human zoo” in Antwerp in 1894. Eight died soon after arrival. No matter. He shipped in another group to put on display in 1897. Seven died this time, after a rough voyage all too reminiscent of the slave trade, and were buried in unmarked graves.
Belgium wasn’t alone in this. The Philippines was a U.S. colony in 1904 when the U.S. shipped in Filipinos to exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, as evidence that these people – who had been independent for millennia until Europeans invaded – were not ready for independence.
As recently as 1958, Belgium clung to the idea that Africans existed for the amusement of white people. It shipped 183 families from the Belgian Congo (which gained independence two years later) to Brussels, to be exhibited in a “human zoo” at its Expo 58. The Congolese lived in a mock village. White spectators threw coins or bananas over the fence, to provoke a reaction. It appears, from one surviving photo, that there was even a petting zoo. Belgium was the last country in the world to host a “human zoo.”
So it’s entirely plausible to imagine a clique of Belgian bakers in 1934, chuckling over the double meaning of their newly-chosen symbol.
That’s pure speculation. We don’t know. We do know that Belgium was behind one of the world’s great mass murders. Belgians today enjoy public works paid for with Congo blood. After independence in 1960, the Congo elected Patrice Lumumba as its first prime minister. He talked of genuine economic independence. Within a year, Belgium (with U.S. support) had orchestrated his assassination.
Belgium has shamed itself by being slow to reckon with its past. Belgium cannot undo that past. It cannot bring back the dead, nor undo the pain. But here is an opportunity to take a small step toward showing a bit of remorse; inadequate of course, but better than thumbing its nose. Antwerp refuses.
Notes and Sources
My main source for the colonial era, which I highly recommend, has been King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild.
“De Wever takes up arms for contested Antwerp Hands,” by Alan Hope, The Brussels Times, 1 April 2021
Information about Jos Hakker and the history of the Antwerp Hands comes (with assistance from Google Translate) from “Uitvinder van de Antwerpse Handjes werd vervolgd tijdens WO II” and “Jos Hakker, de uitvinder van de ‘Antwerpse Handjes’ gedeporteerd uit de Dossinkazerne.”
Daniel Boffey has written about human zoos in The Guardian: “Belgium Comes to Terms with Human Zoos of its Colonial Past,” and “New find reveals grim truth of colonial Belgium’s ‘human zoos’“