Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Material Foundations of the Congo Red Rubber Regime
Until the mid-1890s, the brutality evident in the conquest of the Congo had limited impact on European or American public opinion. All colonial powers used violence. Britain’s record had notorious examples, such as the massacres of Australian and Tasmanian aborigines and the treatment of the Xhosa in South Africa. The occupation and early administration of the Congo foreshadowed what was to come; within a few years, material factors transformed the Congo Free State into an ongoing regime of astonishing harshness. Its output became known among reformers as red rubber for its high cost in human suffering.
By 1891, Congo expenditures had swallowed up much of Leopold’s fortune. When selling Congo bonds met with difficulties, he pursued three new ways to raise money: revising the Berlin treaty to allow him to collect import duties, obtaining loans from the Belgian government, and recasting the colonial state as a vast moneymaking enterprise based on ivory, copal (a resin), and most of all, rubber. He succeeded in all three of these initiatives, leading to an immense cash flow as well as the Congo humanitarian outcry that was to prove his nemesis.
Leopold’s secret decree of 29 September 1891 and public decree of 5 December 1892 reserving to the state all trade in ivory, copal, and rubber in most of the country could not have been better timed. World demand for rubber was rising rapidly. In the decades since vulcanization was patented in the 1840s, rubber consumption had grown as its uses expanded to consumer goods such as apparel and industrial purposes such as machinery and insulation for electric wiring. After the 1888 invention of the pneumatic rubber tire, bicycle production exploded in the 1890s to nearly 2,000,000 a year. Automobile tires began to have a material impact on rubber demand after 1900. Worldwide rubber consumption doubled in the decade after 1890 to over 53,000 tons. Leopold rode this wave of demand and the associated price bubble. Under his direction, state agents and concessionary companies made it their top priority to get the local people to collect rubber by persuasion or force; fair payment was not an option, though token payments occurred in most places. The rubber thus collected traveled on the steamers of Liverpool-based Elder Dempster to Antwerp, where it was auctioned. Merchants re-exported much of it via Liverpool to points around the world.
Few reformers advocated a boycott of Congo rubber. Unlike sugar and cocoa, consumer discretionary goods that were the subject of principled boycotts, rubber had become an integral part of all manner of industrial and consumer production. A boycott would have harmed not only the Liverpool shipping and warehousing companies that purchased and resold much of the Congo’s rubber, but also the British manufacturers that used rubber both as an input and in the industrial machinery that kept their plants running.
Spurred by the hunger for rubber, Congo exploitation expanded dramatically after the secret decrees of 1891. As Table 1.1 shows, Congo wild rubber production rose more than fourteenfold from 1891 to 1896 and more than fourfold in the next five years to 1901, when the Congo Free State supplied 12 percent of the world market for rubber, less than Brazil but still a force to be reckoned with. The extraordinary growth in Congo production, averaging 54 percent per year for ten years, was possible only because of coercion. But 1901 was its best year. After this, rubber production slowly declined, shrinking on average 6 percent a year for the next 12 years. Nonetheless, the reformed Belgian Congo of 1913 produced more rubber than the Congo Free State had in 1898, when the red rubber regime was in full swing.
Table 1.1 Congo rubber production in tonnes, 1891-1913
Note: N/A = information not available.
Source: World Production from L&W Van de Velde’s India-Rubber Statistics, in India Rubber World, March 1910, 227; March 1912, 290; March 1913, 290; February 1914, 238. Congo data 1891-1909 from Gann and Duignan, 123 (correlated with Mackie to Grey, 14 June 1910, FO 881/9854:12 and Economist, 3 June 1911, 1180-81); Congo 1910-13 from Antwerp rubber arrivals, India Rubber World, February 1911-14. Pre-1909 Antwerp statistics are slightly lower than Gann & Duignan.
The expansion of rubber plantations in Asia after 1901 transformed the market by 1913. Though plantation rubber was initially of lesser quality than wild rubber, economies of scale made it cheaper to produce, and by 1912 its sheer volume was pulling down prices and eroding profit margins for all producers. Entrepreneurs and speculators frenetically promoted plantation rubber. The India-Rubber Journal reported the formation of 31 new rubber plantation companies in London in 1905, 58 in 1906, and 103 in 1907, the year of the greatest frenzy. Some companies sought to create new plantations, but most bought up existing plantations to combine, expand, or convert from other products to rubber. The new companies operated mostly in Ceylon, Indochina, and the Indonesian archipelago, with a small number in Africa and Latin America. New rubber trees became reliable producers in just a few years. In 1912, a study of 43 Asian companies showed they had planted 13,377,928 trees, of which 12,006,713 were expected to produce rubber by 1915. Not so the Congo rubber vines. With the danger to self, family, or village if they did not meet the rubber quota, the rubber-gatherers had every incentive to kill the vine to get as much rubber as quickly as possible. India Rubber World bemoaned this as early as 1903: “The rubber consumer may or may not be concerned about the cruelty of this system ... he cannot be indifferent long, however, to the exhaustion of rubber which the Congo system is bringing about.” Leopold required new plantings and soon boasted that millions of vines had been planted. Because regulations provided no incentive to care for the new plants, few lived to maturity. For all intents and purposes, there were no functioning rubber plantations in the Congo Free State.
The boom was marked by a rise in prices (Figure 1.1). The peak prices reached in 1900, 1906-07, and 1910-11 may have created incentives for plantations but they also led to greater pressure on the people of the Congo. Daniel Lagergren has showed that the worst abuses existed when the crown or concession companies extended the rubber tax to a new area. Once the locals had been terrorized into submission, with resisters driven away or killed, a comparatively stable situation emerged and abuses declined (though they did not disappear) until there were no rubber vines within many days’ walk. At this point, vicious treatment and atrocities proliferated again as the authorities used brutality in a vain attempt to stave off rapidly declining production. Because the rubber frontier continued to move, the areas reporting the worst abuses shifted also until the end of the rubber tax, notably to areas farther from missionary stations, such as the Ubangi and Kwango regions.16
One reason for the Belgians’ elongated three-year timetable to introduce reforms in the Congo from 1910-12 was their desire to get as much value as possible from the most productive remaining areas before reforming them. As the graph of prices in Figure 1.1 shows, these were important years, with rubber prices at 20-year highs.
Figure 1.1 Average annual crude rubber price per pound (US), for each year ending June 1892-1915
Source: India Rubber World.
Brief falls in 1902 and 1908 did not last, and during the speculative peak of 1910-11, prices briefly reached $2 per pound in New York on 31 March 1910, treble the price of just two years earlier. Because it uses full-year averages, Figure 1.1 understates the speculative peaks that are more visible in Figure 1.2. The Congo concession companies were extremely profitable in their heyday.
Subsequently, prices fell, as shown in stark relief in Figures 1.1 and 1.2. Congo rubber prices had fallen by 1914 to levels not seen since the 1890s due to the long- anticipated explosion in plantation rubber production shown in Table 1.1.
Figure 1.2 Congo rubber prices at Liverpool, 1905-14
Source: West African Mail, African Mail, and India Rubber World.
Jack Proby Armstrong, memorandum, 25 January 1910, FO881/9730:30-39.
High prices led Leopold to emphasize rubber production over all other considerations through 1908 and motivated the Belgian government to introduce reforms by region thereafter. This opens the possibility that the patterns of rubber exploitation may have created the material conditions conducive for reform through exhaustion of supply. Historian Robert Harms, after studying some of the most notorious concession companies, found that ruthless exploitation had largely exterminated the wild rubber vine in the Abir, Anversoise, and Lulonga concessions by 1906, the very year Leopold agreed to surrender the Congo. From 1903-05, rubber production in the three concessions fell by 70 percent. Eradication of rubber vines rendered the rubber tax and the concession itself profitless and obsolete, and thus easy to end. This appears to be a regional story. As production in some concessions fell, it expanded in others. For example, the Kasai Company’s rubber output, which had been similar to the Abir’s in 1903, had risen by 48 percent by 1905. The statistics in Table 1.1 show that rubber production in the Congo as a whole fell 18 percent from 1903 to 1905. This indicates that the decline in coerced rubber production was relatively small because dramatic shrinkage in some areas was largely offset by expansion in others. The fate of the Abir, Anversoise, and Lulonga concessions was years away from affecting the country as a whole.
This pattern continued. From 1905 to Belgian annexation in 1908, Congo rubber production declined slowly, at just 4 percent a year. The new Belgian administration made changes with an immediate impact; in its first year, stories of atrocities largely ended and rubber output fell 18 percent. As other reforms phased in from 1910-12, production held steady at just over 3,000 metric tonnes annually. The first phase, in 1910, applied to depleted areas and areas not suitable for rubber. Reforms went into effect last in areas most recently opened to rubber collection. In 1910-12, British consuls reported coerced rubber labor and associated abuses ending region by region as the Belgian government ended the rubber tax and the trade monopoly. Once the reforms were in place across the country, rubber production dropped another 10 percent, again indicating the less brutal practices meant a lower level of production. Although humanitarian ideals and tradition, representation, and the use of power drove the reform movement, material conditions were at the heart of the problem and changes in these conditions affected the reform movement’s ability to influence events, particularly after 1910.
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