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Antwerp Chocolate Hands
These sweet hands come with stories of triumph and brutality.
Antwerp is the capital of chocolate, selling it in various shapes and flavors, ranging from little peeing boys (manneken pis) to more traditional shapes such as animals and happy faces. But one of the most popular shapes is a severed hand.
As the myth behind Antwerpse handjes (Antwerp hands) goes, there once was a mighty giant called Druon Antigoon. The giant terrorized the people by demanding tolls to anyone passing his lair near the Scheldt river. When someone could not pay, the giant chopped off their hand and threw it into the river. One day, however, a brave soldier named Silvius Brabo defeated the giant in battle, then chopped off his hand and threw it into the river. Some suggest that the name Antwerp comes from the Dutch for the words hand werpen or “hand throwing” (though this is debated among etymologists). Over the years, severed hands have became a symbol of the city, first as cookies decorated with sliced almonds, and later as chocolates filled with praline or marzipan. Outside Antwerp’s city hall, the Brabo Fountain even features a statue of the hero tossing the giant’s hand.
While the legend about Antwerp’s chocolate hands tells a story of sweet victory, there is a more complex, bitter, and oft-overlooked history associated with the symbol of severed hands in Belgium. From 1885 to 1908, the Congo Free State was a private holding controlled by Belgium’s King Leopold II. Leopold grew rich, exporting valuable Congolese resources such as rubber and ivory. To do this, the king’s army forced many Congolese into labor. And for those who did not meet quotas? Soldiers would sever their hands and present them to officials as proof of enforcement. And while the news of Leopold’s horrific regime sparked an international outcry that resulted in his losing control over the state in 1908, the Congo remained a Belgian colony until regaining its independence in 1960.
Though they may seem like simple candies, the chocolate hands represent a complex story of symbolism. The triumphant myth of vanquishing the giant is tempered by the less-than-savory realties of exploitation and colonization in the Congo. Perhaps the best way to consume such complicated stories is not by rewriting history or rejecting their edible symbols, but rather by using them as tool for discussion about how to build a better, sweeter future.
The Chocolate Hands of Belgium
In the late 1800s, the great powers of Europe carved up Africa, grabbing colonies for themselves.
One not-so-great power also got involved: The tiny kingdom of Belgium. Belgium itself had no colonial aspirations. But its ruler, King Leopold II, was greedy beyond measure. Early in life, Leopold set his heart on having a colony – of his own, as a personal possession and source of wealth. The best spots were already taken so Leopold looked at the vast, unmapped interior of Africa. To win acceptance from other Western powers – the only voices that mattered – he portrayed himself as a humanitarian. He would save the Congo from evil Arab slave traders. Furthermore, his European allies would also benefit; he promised to open the Congo to free trade.
At first, ivory was the main export. In the 1890s an unexpected invention changed the world: The inflatable tire. Now you could have a comfortable ride on a bicycle, with the tires acting as cushions. Soon automobile tires created an even bigger market. The West grew hungry for more rubber.
The Congo had wild rubber, the trick was to collect it. Leopold turned his energies toward this new source of wealth.
Collecting rubber sap is unpleasant and often dangerous work. Congolese farmers weren’t interested. They had to be forced, and Leopold’s overseers had several methods. One that worked well: Women were seized and held hostage until their husbands returned with a full quota of rubber. There was a booklet of tips for hostage-takers: “When you feel you have enough captives, you should choose among them an old person, preferably an old woman. Make her a present and send her to her chief to begin negotiations.”
Whippings, torture, rape, and casual murder were also widely documented.
One method became notorious above all others: Cutting off hands. Leopold and his lieutenants had no objection to villagers being murdered for refusal to cooperate. But they didn’t want bullets “wasted” on private hunting. A soldier who shot and killed someone was required to cut off the right hand, and present it as evidence that the bullet had been used for an approved purpose.
That was how it started. But the practice didn’t stay confined to corpses. Sometimes, a soldier might use a bullet for hunting, then chop off the hand of a living person, with blood spurting out from the arm stub. Or the amputations could be punishment: A picture from 1905 shows a young boy who had one hand and one foot cut off when his village failed to meet its rubber quota.
A number of people tried to tell the world about the atrocities in the Congo. Among the first was George Washington Williams, a black American who at first believed the stories he heard about Leopold’s humanitarianism, went to see for himself the utopia that had been created, and instead found a living hell. He was a skilled orator and writer, and might have threatened Leopold’s plans… but he came down with tuberculosis and died soon thereafter. A British man named E.D. Morel, through his work for a shipping company, realized that Leopold was using slave labor to loot the Congo; he and others, joined by several missionaries, organized the opposition.
At first, it was hard to get the world’s attention. Then Morel and his allies circulated photos of people in the Congo missing one or both hands. These images seared themselves into viewers’ minds.
Two prominent writers, Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Mark Twain, bought the issue to wider attention. European newspapers printed cartoons, some of which depicted chopped hands and human victims.
Leopold’s colony became Belgium’s shame. In 1908, the government of Belgium negotiated to buy the Congo from Leopold. Cruel forced labor continued, but Belgium put an end to the hand-chopping which had cause it such embarrassment.
Today, anyone who knows this story might be horrified to walk into a confectionary shop in Antwerp, Belgium’s most populous city, and find chocolate hands on sale.
These hands have nothing to do with the Congo, explains Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever. They’re about Antwerp. According to local legend, a mythical giant once lived near the Scheldt river and charged a toll to everyone who crossed the river. If anyone objected, he cut off one of their hands and threw it in the river. A hero named Brabo finally killed the giant and threw one of his hands into the river.
The Dutch words “hand werpen” (“hand throw”) became the name Antwerp. A statue of Brabo stands in city center; he holds a hand in the air, poised to throw it as water spurts from the wrist.
Does that mean it’s okay to buy and sell chocolate hands in Antwerp? I believe two more points should be considered.
First, symbolism matters. In the United States, the Confederate flag has been a controversial symbol for many decades. In 1861, thirteen slave-holding southern states seceded from the U.S.A., calling themselves the Confederate States. A chief cause, and the one identified with the Confederacy today, was slavery. After the Civil War, these states rejoined the U.S, but many incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag. This was defended with statements such as: “This isn’t a defense of racism, it represents regional pride.” Maybe. Maybe they were fibbing. Rarely if ever did the people waving the Confederate flag ever take a stance against racism.
Slowly, attitudes changed. Flags changed. For seventeen years only one state, Mississippi, continued to include the Confederate flag in its state flag. In 2020, voters overwhelmingly agreed to dump that and to adopt a new flag featuring a magnolia flower.
Severed hands symbolize one chapter of Belgium’s history. To insist on making snacks in this shape is to mock those who were murdered, tortured, raped, and mutilated – even if it’s only a coincidence that a severed hand symbolized both Antwerp’s founding myth and Leopold’s Congo.
And second: Is this story really, entirely, coincidence?
The severed-hand snacks date to 1934. A man named Jos Hakker, of the Antwerp Pastry Bakers Association, arranged a competition to select a culinary symbol for Antwerp. The winner was…. Jos Hakker himself, with his “Antwerp Hands,” which could be molded from cookie dough, chocolate, or whatever edible you wanted to sell.
Hakker was born in Amsterdam in 1887, then moved to Antwerp in 1903. He was in his late teens and very early twenties as the European campaign against Leopold’s atrocities reached its zenith. A leading foe of King Leopold was E.D. Morel, whose shipping-company job often took him to Antwerp, Belgium’s main port. Antwerp was the doorway through which Leopold’s loot entered his country. Antwerp was the city where Morel observed that as shiploads of ivory and rubber arrived from the Congo, it was mostly army officers, guns, and bullets being sent. There was no trade going on. The only explanation was that the Congo was being looted through the use of slave labor.
Morel tirelessly spread word of Leopold’s crimes. It seems likely that he would have done so in the key Belgian port where he spent so much time; and likely that Hakker, and others in his association, would have seen the pictures from the Congo. And right in their town square was Brabo holding a severed hand. Could anyone, seeing atrocity pictures from the Congo, have failed to think of their Brabo statue? Twenty-six years later, when they selected a severed hand as their symbol, had they really all forgotten it?
Or did it seem irrelevant, perhaps even humorous? We’re unlikely to ever know. But let’s remember that Europeans and Americans of that era generally saw Africans as sub-human. Leopold shipped 138 people from the Congo to be put on exhibit at a “human zoo” in Antwerp in 1894. Eight died soon after arrival. No matter. He shipped in another group to put on display in 1897. Seven died this time, after a rough voyage all too reminiscent of the slave trade, and were buried in unmarked graves.
Belgium wasn’t alone in this. The Philippines was a U.S. colony in 1904 when the U.S. shipped in Filipinos to exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, as evidence that these people – who had been independent for millennia until Europeans invaded – were not ready for independence.
As recently as 1958, Belgium clung to the idea that Africans existed for the amusement of white people. It shipped 183 families from the Belgian Congo (which gained independence two years later) to Brussels, to be exhibited in a “human zoo” at its Expo 58. The Congolese lived in a mock village. White spectators threw coins or bananas over the fence, to provoke a reaction. It appears, from one surviving photo, that there was even a petting zoo. Belgium was the last country in the world to host a “human zoo.”
So it’s entirely plausible to imagine a clique of Belgian bakers in 1934, chuckling over the double meaning of their newly-chosen symbol.
That’s pure speculation. We don’t know. We do know that Belgium was behind one of the world’s great mass murders. Belgians today enjoy public works paid for with Congo blood. After independence in 1960, the Congo elected Patrice Lumumba as its first prime minister. He talked of genuine economic independence. Within a year, Belgium (with U.S. support) had orchestrated his assassination.
Belgium has shamed itself by being slow to reckon with its past. Belgium cannot undo that past. It cannot bring back the dead, nor undo the pain. But here is an opportunity to take a small step toward showing a bit of remorse; inadequate of course, but better than thumbing its nose. Antwerp refuses.
Notes and Sources
My main source for the colonial era, which I highly recommend, has been King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild.
“De Wever takes up arms for contested Antwerp Hands,” by Alan Hope, The Brussels Times, 1 April 2021
Information about Jos Hakker and the history of the Antwerp Hands comes (with assistance from Google Translate) from “Uitvinder van de Antwerpse Handjes werd vervolgd tijdens WO II” and “Jos Hakker, de uitvinder van de ‘Antwerpse Handjes’ gedeporteerd uit de Dossinkazerne.”
Daniel Boffey has written about human zoos in The Guardian: “Belgium Comes to Terms with Human Zoos of its Colonial Past,” and “New find reveals grim truth of colonial Belgium’s ‘human zoos’“
#De_Wever takes up arms for contested Antwerp Hands
Bart De Wever is the president of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, as well as the mayor of Antwerp, but that doesn’t mean he has no time to take to social media to defend confectionery.
The issue concerns the Antwerps Handjes, or Antwerp Hands, sold in all bakery and souvenir shops in the port city, and consisting of a bite-sized representation in pastry or chocolate of a human hand.
The confectionery traces its origins back to 1934, but only now has it become the target of a campaign on Twitter, accusing it of being a reminder of the horrors perpetrated in the Congo under Belgian rule. In that period, slaves would have their hands – sometimes both hands – amputated for the slightest offence. Women and children were not excused.
The issue has been picked up by the group Africa Archives, and the link made between the pastry and the atrocity. The group posted a tweet earlier this week (warning: contains a shocking image of a double amputee) describing the link as ‘diabolical’.
“Totally unjustified,” responded Bruno Kuylen, director of the trade union for makers of bread, pastry, chocolate and ice cream in De Morgen.
“Long before the A of Antwerp functioned as a logo and signboard for the city, the hand was used as a symbol by both the province and the city itself. A direct reference to the myth of how Antwerp originated.”
As far as Antwerp’s origin is concerned, the story goes as follows.
“The villain and giant Druoon Antigoon took a heavy toll on the skippers using the river, and whoever refused had their hand cut off. As everyone knows, the giant was outwitted by the Roman Silvius Brabo. He in turn cut off Antigoon’s hand and threw it into the Scheldt. According to legend, ‘hand werpen’ (hand throwing) became ‘Antwerpen,’ and the hand became the symbol of hospitality and friendship.”
The confectionery came about as the result of a contest held in 1934 by the Royal Association of Master Patissiers, for something that could represent the city. Six chose to turn to the hand, and the prize went to Jos Hakker.
Hakker, De Wever posted on Facebook, was Jewish, from a Dutch background.
“He narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust. Last year he received a memorial plaque in Provinciestraat. Or how the victim of one genocide is now linked to another genocide. The step from woke to witless is quickly taken. This shameful fabrication couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Uitvinder van de Antwerpse Handjes werd vervolgd tijdens WO II
De crème de la crème van de Antwerpse zoetigheden zijn ongetwijfeld de #Antwerpse_Handjes. Toch was er tot voor kort maar weinig geweten over de maker van deze koekjes. Het is bakker Jos Hakker, een Joodse Amsterdammer, die deze specialiteit bedenkt in 1934. Een minder gekende verdienste van Hakker is zijn getuigenis over de Kazerne Dossin tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog pakt de bezetter Hakker op voor deportatie naar Auschwitz-Birkenau. Onderweg weet hij te ontsnappen.
Jos Hakker (°1887) groeit met zijn twee broers op in een weeshuis in Amsterdam. Daar krijgt hij een opleiding banketbakkerij. Wanneer deze afgerond is, verhuist hij in 1903 naar Antwerpen waar hij in de bakkerij van verre familie, het gezin Simons-Kahn, mag werken. Hier leert hij zijn vrouw kennen, de Nederlandse Rachel Simons, met wie hij later een zoon krijgt, Simon. Het koppel opent een eigen bakkerij in de Provinciestraat.
Hoewel Jos en Rachel beiden Joods zijn, is de bakkerij niet koosjer. Hakker maakt typische Nederlandse zoetigheden en voorziet ook in Belgische tradities zoals chocolade bij Sinterklaas. In 1934 organiseert de Antwerpse Meesterbanketbakkersvereniging een wedstrijd op zoek naar een nieuwe Antwerpse specialiteit. Jos Hakker wint de eerste prijs met zijn creatie, de Antwerpse Handjes.
Verraden tijdens de vlucht
Wanneer in mei 1940 de oorlog uitbreekt, maakt Jos Hakker zich aanvankelijk geen grote zorgen. Pas wanneer hij in de nacht van 15 op 16 augustus 1942 getuige is van de eerste grote razzia in Antwerpen, dringt de ernst van de situatie pijnlijk door. Ondertussen is zijn vrouw ernstig ziek opgenomen in het Sint-Erasmusziekenhuis. Wanneer zij overlijdt, beslist Hakker om uit Antwerpen weg te vluchten. Hij probeert clandestien naar het neutrale Zwitserland te reizen, waar zijn zoon en diens verloofde verblijven. Maar onderweg verraden twee collaborateurs hem. Jos Hakker valt in handen van de bezetter.
Uniek relaas van de Jodenvervolging
Na twee weken gevangenschap in de Antwerpse Begijnenstraat wordt Hakker naar de Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen gevoerd. Hij houdt nauwgezet bij wat hij hier meemaakt. Na de oorlog is hij een van de eersten die getuigt over het gevangenschap in de kazerne.
Op 15 januari 1943 vertrekken Transport XVIII en XIX vanuit Mechelen richting het concentratie- en vernietigingskamp Auschwitz-Birkenau, met Jos Hakker aan boord. Van de 1.623 inzittenden komen er slechts 1.557 aan in Auschwitz. Tientallen mensen kunnen onderweg uit de wagons springen. Van hen kunnen er 40 definitief ontsnappen aan de greep van de nazi’s, zo ook Jos Hakker. Hij gaat terug naar België, duikt onder en sluit zich aan bij het Luikse verzet.
In 1943 en 1944 schrijft Jos Hakker de eerste teksten over de Kazerne Dossin in het clandestiene blad Le Coq Victorieux. Meteen na de bevrijding publiceert hij zijn boek De Geheimzinnige Kazerne Dossin – Deportatiekamp der Joden. Het is tot op vandaag een uniek document over de Jodenvervolging in België.
Wereldberoemd in Antwerpen
Na de oorlog heropent Jos Hakker samen met zijn zoon Simon de bakkerij in de Provinciestraat. De door hem bedachte Antwerpse handjes kennen nog veel succes. Tot op vandaag zijn ze wereldberoemd in Antwerpen en daarbuiten. Tegelijk bewaren ze ook het bijzondere verhaal van hun maker.