King Philippe of Belgium, in a historic visit to DR Congo, said on Wednesday that his country's rule over the vast central African country had inflicted pain and humiliation through a mixture of "paternalism, discrimination and racism."
In a speech outside the Democratic Republic of Congo's parliament, Philippe amplified remorse he first voiced two years ago over Belgium's brutal colonial rule — an era that historians say saw millions die.
"This regime was one of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discriminations and racism," Philippe said, speaking in French.
"It led to abuse and humiliation," he said.
The king noted that many Belgians had been sincerely committed to the Congo and its people, however.
Philippe landed in Kinshasa on Tuesday afternoon for a six-day visit, billed as a chance for reconciliation between the DRC and its former colonial master.
Belgium's colonisation of the Congo was one of the harshest imposed by the European powers that ruled most of Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe's great great grandfather, governed what is now the DRC as his personal property between 1885 and 1908, before it became a Belgian colony.
Historians say that millions of people were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they were forced to collect rubber under his rule. The land was also pillaged for its mineral wealth, timber and ivory.
As the DRC headed to its 60th anniversary of independence, Philippe wrote a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in 2020 to express his "deepest regrets" for the "wounds of the past."
The king's speech Wednesday went further in expressing regret, but it fell short of an apology for colonial-era crimes.
Earlier Wednesday, Philippe visited DRC's national museum in Kinshasa, where he handed over a mask the ethnic Suku group use in initiation rites.
The ceremonial mask is on "unlimited" loan from Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa, he announced.
The Belgian government last year set out a roadmap for returning art works looted during the colonial era, a sensitive topic in the DRC.
"The coloniser hauled away our artworks, it's right that they should be returned to us," said Louis Karhebwa, a 63-year-old businessman.
Prince Pungi, a young civil servant, agreed. "Congo is changing, moving forward," he said. "It's time to take back what belongs to us".
Philippe is due to address university students in the southern city of Lubumbashi on Friday.
On Sunday, he will also visit the clinic of gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence, in the eastern city of Bukavu.
His trip comes as Belgium is preparing to return to Kinshasa a tooth — the last remains of Patrice Lumumba, a hero of the anti-colonial struggle and short-lived first prime minister of the independent Congo.
Lumumba was murdered by Congolese separatists and Belgian mercenaries in 1961 and his body dissolved in acid, but the tooth was kept as a trophy by one of his killers, a Belgian police officer.
The Belgian sovereign's trip also comes at a time of heightened tension between Kinshasa and neighbouring Rwanda over rebel activity in the conflict-torn eastern DRC.
DRC's government has accused Rwanda of backing the resurgent M23 militia, an accusation which Rwanda has denied.
At a news conference in Kinshasa on Wednesday, President Tshisekedi told reporters that he saw security support as a priority in DRC's relationship with Belgium.
"There is no development without security," the president said.
The DRC, a nation of about 90 million people, is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Over 120 groups roam the country's volatile east, many of which are a consequence of regional wars more than two decades ago, and civilian massacres remain common.
King Philippe, in his speech Wednesday, also said the situation in eastern DRC "cannot continue".
"It is the responsibility of all of us to do something about it," he added.