For three weeks every spring, the phenomenal Royal Greenhouses in Laken are open to the public (in 2016: from 15 April until 6 May). They are a marvel of 19th-century architecture that house a stunning collection of plants, many of which are now in bloom. You don’t have to be a gardening enthusiast to be swept away on a scented tidal wave of admiration for the man whose personal fortune made it all possible – Leopold II, King of the Belgians between 1865 and 1909.
But before you are, it might be worth considering how the King obtained the wealth that enabled the Royal Greenhouses to be expanded and lavishly stocked. Actually, Leopold II became rich as a result of a slave labour regime in the Congo Free State. He was a brutal, greedy, colonial ruler.
King Leopold II was known as the Builder King. He had a taste for monuments, boulevards and palaces. He is responsible for the Cinquantenaire arch in Brussels (below), the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, the seafront promenade and race track in Ostend and the Antwerp railway station.
The property of the Royal Palace of Laken was also greatly renovated during his reign. Here, he oversaw the construction of the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion and expanded the Royal Greenhouses.
The Congo Free State existed from 1885 to 1908. It was not a Belgian colony; it belonged personally to King Leopold II. It was thus the world’s only privately owned colony. It was a vast region: 26 times the size of Belgium itself and covering one-thirteenth of the African continent. Although Leopold II never set foot in his country, he ruled it from Brussels with an iron rod. His private army – the Force Publique – went from village to village, seizing the women and holding them hostage until their husbands had gone into the rain forest and returned with the necessary quota of rubber. Missionaries reported that beatings, rapes and executions by the Force Publique were the norm. Unwilling workers had their hands amputated.
Not surprisingly, life in the Congo Free State became untenable. Whole tribes fled, fields went unharvested, natives starved to death, and disease swept through the ravaged population. Between 1880 and 1920, the population was decimated, from 20 to 10 million. Meanwhile, the rubber was being shipped back to Belgium and making King Leopold II extremely rich. It was this money that he poured into his building projects.
The Royal Greenhouses existed before the Congo Free State came into being. They were first designed in 1873 and the Winter Garden was completed in 1876. But when the riches from the Congo started rolling in, buildings were added: the Congo House in 1886 and the Palm House in 1892.
At the turn of the century, reports began to leak out of the Congo detailing the atrocities. Public outcry eventually led to the annexation of the Congo by Belgium in 1908, for which Leopold was handsomely remunerated. Leopold died in 1909. At the time of his death, he was living in one of the greenhouse buildings: the Palm Pavilion (not open to the public). Here, on 17 December, aged 74, he died, just five days after marrying the 26-year old prostitute Caroline Lacroix. Nobody reported on the king’s state of mind on his death bed and whether he had any regrets.
For insight, I spoke to Adam Hochschild, author of the best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost: “As to his state of mind when he died, we can only speculate. I would guess that he felt no guilt whatsoever about anything he had done in the Congo. I would guess that he was proud that he had raised Belgium’s status in the imperial world by means of this colony and that, most of all, he was satisfied at how rich he had made himself – both through the profits reaped from the rubber system and through the extraordinary arrogance of making Belgium actually agree to buy the Congo from him.”
All this is not to put you off visiting the Royal Greenhouses. Visit them. Enjoy their splendours. Marvel at the architectural triumphs. Gaze in delight at the beautiful plants. But don’t forget the millions of Congolese who died, directly or indirectly, harvesting the rubber that enabled many of these greenhouses to be built.