At this regular monthly assemblage of the habitually curious and attentive at the bewitching hour of 2.30pm in the Christian Centre our lively speaker, Melanie Gibson Barton, launched us into an insightful history of a subject I knew virtually nothing about, writes Juliet Eberle
Melanie explained how the constitution and distribution of power developed in Belgium, this small country lying so central and surrounded on all sides by other major European countries. Their royal family only came into existence in 1830 but they have had a wide impact on the world.
King Leopold I was our Queen Victoria’s uncle, as she married her first cousin, Albert. We heard how King Leopold II exploited the Belgian Congo, wreaking brutal devastation on the black population as he plundered the wealth of this vast country for his own benefit. King Leopold III surrendered to the Germans without consulting his government, sparking a political crisis after the war.
We heard about King Baudouin, who was the last ruler of the Belgian Congo until its independence in 1960, and how he was popular until the death of his first wife, Astrid of Sweden.
I had no idea that Belgium once had an imperial connection to Mexico when the Austrian Archduke Maximilian took his wife, the young Princess Charlotte of Belgium, to establish rule there. Their philanthropic goals of helping the poor were not so well received by his European backers and he ended up being shot while Princess Charlotte was back in Europe trying to raise funds for their good work. The strain resulted in her ending her days in an institution. Again, this talk brought home the connection with Edouard Manet’s 1867-68 painting, The Execution of Archduke Maximilian.
Melanie knew many personal details of this influential family as well as their detailed history and presented her talk with a wide range of slides, and so I think, like me, U3A devotees came away having learnt a lot, their curiosity aroused by a speaker who knew her subject fluently and brought it alive for us.