A colonial past in the heart of Brussels
Saturday, 6 February 2021 —
Right next to the Congress Column, in the heart of Brussels, you will find the Leverhouse. On your right-hand side, you have a beautiful view of the old part of the city. On the outside, unfortunately, it is yet another building in our capital city where the paint is peeling off due to the inclement Belgian weather.
What you do not see from the outside, is the rich history that this building represents, literally and figuratively speaking. With strong references to its colonial past, the Leverhouse is undeniably Brussels' essential heritage. That is why the Brussels Region, on the initiative of Pascal Smet, Secretary of State for Heritage and Town Planning, has protected the building's interior.
The current Leverhouse was originally built as a hotel in the mid-19th century by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar (also known for the St-Hubertus Galleries in Brussels). In 1919, Banque Transatlantique Belgium moved into the majestic building. Two years later, it was the British brothers, William and James Lever, who moved into the former hotel until 1950.
The Belgian state had granted the Lever brothers a concession to exploit the palm oil forests in the former Belgian colony of Congo. They were the only foreigners allowed to do so. They employed thousands of workers in their various plants all over the Congo. To put it mildly, these workers were not treated very well. There are documented cases of rape, murder and displacement. Lever Brothers is now part of the multinational Unilever (also known for brands such as Dove, Zwitsal and Signal). During this period, Lever Brothers was one of the few companies to make soap from vegetable palm oil and thus succeeded in amassing a fortune.
The entrance hall of the Lever House is made entirely of marble, following the example of the Africa Museum in Tervuren (formerly known as a colonial museum). On either side of the hall, two large bronze statues of Congolese bear witness to the colonial vision of the time. They depict the harsh conditions in which the Congolese people were exploited by oil companies such as LeverBrothers. What is also striking are the rooms that served as a cinema and museum in the Leverhouse. At the time, the building was more of a showcase for the flourishing commercial activities and propaganda of the colonial idea.
Since the 1970s, students of the ISIB, InstitutSupérieur Industriel de Bruxelles, have been taking classes in the Leverhouse. The space has been made available by the current owner, Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. In 2024 the school will move to a new location.
State Secretary Pascal Smet sees in the building a dream location for a museum of decolonisation. A place where several pieces of heritage with a colonial past can be exhibited. The decolonisation of the spirit is just as important as that of our heritage. The people of Brussels are surrounded by this history and should have the opportunity to learn about the origin of this splendour. By protecting it, we are sure that in the future this past will be known to visitors.