Antwerpse handjes

Colonial violence in Belgian objects and artwork went almost entirely unnoticed by the public. One of her most vivid examples involved chocolate hands, a regional specialty of Antwerp. Called Antwerpse handjes in Dutch, these sweets are associated with the myth of the founding of the city, in which the hero Brabo slew the tyrannical giant Antigoon, cut off one of his hands, and threw it in the river. Prof. Silverman contends, Antwerpse handjes also reflect the atrocities committed by Belgian colonial forces in the Congo. Between 1885-1908, Belgium controlled a sizeable chunk of Central Africa known as the Congo Free State, where it made an enormous profit using forced Congolese labor to harvest rubber and ivory. Agents of the Belgian-controlled state charged with enforcing rubber quotas were best known for their policy of collecting the severed hands of Congolese who failed to make these quotas. Heaped in baskets and presented to European higher-ups, these gruesome, iconic testaments to the brutality of Belgian imperialism were kept as proof that the soldiers’ bullets were not being wasted.
Knowing this history, it is almost impossible to look at pictures of Antwerpse handjes without cringing, let alone consume them. Yet, Professor Silverman explained, never once during her time researching in Belgium did she speak to someone who drew the connection between the severed hands of the Congo Free State and the hand-shaped chocolates enjoyed by thousands in Antwerp. The pervasiveness of this particular cultural blank spot might seem difficult for us to imagine, but it’s important to recognize that it’s easier to be shocked by foreign insensitivity than to identify similar instances in our own culture.