Who was Belgian King Leopold II and why is his statue being pulled down?

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy

A bust of former Belgian King Leopold II has been taken off public display in the city of Ghent as Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The removal of the monarch's likeness on Tuesday took place only hours after Belgium's King Philippe expressed his "deepest regrets" for the violence the one-time colonial power inflicted on Congo and its people during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the world - sparked by the death of George Floyd - monuments to the Belgian king have been a focus of anger and calls for removal.

The bust of King Leopold II was removed in Ghent earlier on Tuesday. Credit: AP

In recent weeks, statues of the late 19th and early 20th century leader have been defaced across the country as authorities face repeated calls for their removal.

Who was King Leopold II?

Among a history of ruthless European colonialism and racism, few historical figures are more notorious than the Belgian king who ruled from 1865 to 1909.

He had an entirely separate role in this time as Sovereign of the Congo Free State - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - from 1885 to 1908.

In this time, experts believe the Belgian leader was responsible for the deaths of as many as 10 million Congolese people.

Writing on the side of a statue of King Leopold II reads: 'This man killed 15 million people'. Credit: AP

Leopold held the African state as his personal property, ruling it as a fiefdom and forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his personal profit.

His reign was eventually deemed so cruel by fellow European leaders, it was condemned and Belgium took over the colony in 1908.

Why are there now calls for the removal of his statue?

Only as recently as 1960 was the Republic of the Congo established - finally gaining independence after a fight for its freedom.

Belgium had continued to hold power over the area - 75 times its size - for more than 40 years up until this point.

From 1961, a felled statue of Leopold II lies on the ground in Stanleyville, Congo. Credit: AP

Despite his bloody reign in Congo, statues of Leopold remain in pride of place across Belgium - even as evidence of the atrocities committed in his name continue to pile up over the past century.

According to a crowd-sourced map compiled by activists calling for the removal of the monuments, at least 14 statues of King Leopold II remain in place across the country.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, countries and their leaders have been forced to confront the controversial histories of the figures remembered with statues, street names, and monuments.

King Leopold II is just one of those names.

Analysis by ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy

History teaches Belgian schoolchildren of King Leopold II's reign.

At 44 years, it is the longest in the country's history and the bloodiest. But that is not in the school books.

His place in history focuses on Leopold as the builder king. The monarch who brought splendour to the country with spectacular national buildings.

What barely registers is his brutality.

How after acquiring parts of Congo with promises of freedom and humanity he ran the region as his own fiefdom, securing vast personal profit by stripping its natural resources by enslaving a population.

Workers clean a statue of King Leopold II after the monument was written on during protests. Credit: AP

His rule was enforced by the Force Publique, his own private army who would chop off the hands of men, woman and children who were not working hard enough. Millions more were killed.

Brussels' skyline is filled with the result of King Leopold’s avarice - he beautified the city but it was a beauty bought with blood money.

Across Belgium, statues in Leopold's honour stand without acknowledgement of his dark past.

Some are being removed and the current King has now acknowledged his predecessor's brutality - these are small steps towards reparation but for so many here and abroad the come many years too late.