For three weeks every spring, the phenomenal Royal Greenhouses of Laeken (Brussels) are opened to the public. This year they are open from 15 April to 8 May 2022. Entrance is Avenue du Parc Royal, 1020 Brussels. Parking: opposite Chateau de Laeken, Avenue de la Dynastie.
The Royal Greenhouses are a marvel of 19th-century architecture that house a stunning collection of plants, many of which are now in bloom. Discovering Belgium’s roving photographer Herman Vandecauter has already visited them, and here are a few of his photos:
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 do …
I don’t wish to be a party-pooper, but while you are enjoying the floral splendour of the Royal Greenhouses, it might be worth asking a question:
How did King Leopold II get so rich?
And when I say he was rich, he was very rich. His personal wealth was estimated at between $100 and $500 million, making him the richest man in the world at that time, and furnishing him with the funds to build in Brussels, Antwerp and Ostend on a magnificent scale.
He became as the Builder King. Leopold 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 Butcher of the Congo
Unfortunately, Leopold II became rich as a result of an appalling slave labour regime in the Congo Free State, which he ruled in an extremely brutal, greedy manner.
The Congo Free State existed from 1885 to 1908. It was not a Belgian colony; it belonged personally to King Leopold II. The state 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.
He began by exploiting the trade in ivory. When this dried-up he turned his attention to the harvesting of the sap of rubber plants.
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 its original population of around 20 million, to 10 million just 40 years later. 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, including the Royal Greenhouses.
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. Amazingly, Leopold was handsomely remunerated for ceding it to Belgium, further adding to his wealth.
Leopold II died on 17 December, 1909, aged 74. At the time of his death, he was living in one of the greenhouse buildings: the Palm Pavilion. Five days before dying, he had married the 26-year old prostitute Caroline Lacroix.
Did he regret? Or feel guilty?
When I was writing about King Leopold II a few years ago, I spoke to Adam Hochschild, author of the best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost, and asked him about the King’s latter years:
“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.”
Enjoy, but remember
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.
Below is a link to the book I mentioned. It’s outstanding and well worth a read: