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The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken: Beauty and the Beast

For three weeks every spring, the phenomenal Royal Greenhouses of Laeken (Brussels) are opened to the public. This year they are open from 26 April to 20 May 2024. Entrance is Avenue du Parc Royal, 1020 Brussels. Parking: opposite Chateau de Laeken, Avenue de la Dynastie. The sale of tickets will start on 11 April at 11 am at

The Royal Greenhouses of Laken

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:

The Royal Greenhouses of Laken
The Royal Greenhouses of Laken
Visit these beautiful greenhouses
The Royal Greenhouses of Laken
Royal Greenhouses of Laken
Discover the royal greenhouses of Brussels

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.

The Royal Greenhouses

Public outcry

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.

Royal Greenhouses
Royal Greenhouse Laeken


I hope you enjoy your visit.

48 thoughts on “The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken: Beauty and the Beast”

  1. Excellent photos. Wish I was there. It’s still dipping into the thirties (F.) here at night.
    The juxtaposition of such horror with such beauty, and in particular, because I have a real love for gardens, greenhouses, and conservatories, is kind of mind-bending.
    Very well-done article. And I enjoyed ” scented tidal wave of admiration” very much! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Robert for your affirmation. It’s always tricky negotiating a path through this kind of subject. I guess there will be readers who don’t want the background story, but for others it will be (like it was for me the first time I researched this), eye-opening. Have a great Easter weekend. Denzil

  2. Denzil – wow what a fascinating post. I have always wanted to read the Adam Hochschild book – how did you come to speak or correspond with him? Lucky you – and thank you for including the dark side of this beautiful monument in Belgium. I deeply appreciate that you encourage us to visit but keeping in our minds the price paid for such splendor. I have visited Kew Gardens several times – and I do often wonder what was sacrificed by the colonies so that England could produce such an amazing garden. The brutalities you speak of here are far beyond imagination. I wonder how those of us now can recognize and make amends for these atrocities. I think you sharing this story is one way to do that – thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Amy. I agree, we visit so many lovely buildings from 100-200 years ago, and don’t really know how the money was raised to pay for them. I tracked Adam Hochschild down via email, I think through his publisher. It’s a really good read; well-written, and of course an eye-opening story.

  3. We never learned this about Leopold II at school. Thank you for this interesting article, Denzil and for finding a good way to incorporate both beauty and horror in the blog. People might not want to know, but they should know.

    1. Interesting about your school education Liesbet. I must ask my children if they learned about Leopold II (they were all educated in Flanders). I don’t recall them telling me about him. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Definitely a backstory I wasn’t expecting – it makes one wonder how many other beautiful things in the world come with such a cost. Far too many, I’d wager to guess. Nicely balanced story, Denzil – as Liesbet said, “both beauty and horror” in equal measure.

    1. Thank you Traci. I agree with you; there must be a lot of buildings paid for through the profits of slavery, for example. I guess there must be a time to say “that was in the past” and move on. Or maybe we should always remember these things. What do you think?

      1. I think there can be a balance of remembering, but not dwelling. I see no reason a something like a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of those who suffered couldn’t be included somewhere in places like that. While some might prefer to forget, it also lends greater appreciation of what was gained and at what cost. That’s my two cents, anyway. 🙂

  5. Well how very depressing, Denzil. But you know it’s not so very long ago that black people were regarded as some kind of subspecies, both in the States and in South Africa. We’ve come far in our ‘enlightenment’ but there are still plenty of folks out there who get rich on the backs of others.

    It does look a beautiful place, as well it should! Happy Easter to you 🙂

    1. Yes, Calensariel mentioned your name and blog, which is very interesting. Thanks for stopping by. Looking forward to reading more about the Benelux in your posts.

  6. Heel mooi.

    een weetje : de serres van Laekn zijn gemaakt in Leuven in de Ateliers de la Dyle.

    Een atelier dat treinen metro’s enz maakte. Het is tweemaal verwoest door de Duitsers, maar heeft een zeer bijzondere geschiedenis. Hier een link

    Er zijn tweede zeer goede boeken één over congo van David van Reybroeck, maar ook één Ivoor en Rubber, dat gaat vooral over de schanddaden die begonnen zijn onder The Butcher

    m vr gr


    1. Dit is interessant en iets dat ik niet wist. Dank U.
      For non-Dutch readers, Jos points out that the metal constructions of the Royal Greenhouses were made in Leuven by the company Ateliers de la Dyle; a company which was destroyed twice in the two world wars before closing its business under that name.

  7. A somber history to remind us that wealth often comes at horrible expense. I didn’t know much about Leopold II but was aware that European colonization of Africa has had awful and lasting imp0act on that continent from which is it still recovering. And now in the US, the current president and his greedy ilk are imposing similar slash and burn policies here and all over the world. Compassion and fairness never seem to lead, do they? Thank you, Denzil, for being courageous enough to post the entire story.

    1. Yes Sharon, it’s tragic that so many of the horrendous acts we read and write about from 50, 100, 150 years ago or so, seem to be repeated elsewhere today, just in another country and with other weapons or means. The general public often seem to have more of a sense of history repeating itself than some of the politicians and decision-makers.

  8. Pingback: The outstanding Africa Museum in Tervuren | Discovering Belgium

  9. Pingback: The outstanding Africa Museum in Tervuren – Discovering Belgium

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