Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The last quarter of the nineteenth century was the heyday of the so-called New Imperialism, when European powers, the United States, and Japan used their technological and military superiority to expand their colonial empires. Leopold’s Congo Free State was born of the age of the New Imperialism and in many ways exemplified it. The heart of imperial ideology was the belief that it was appropriate to control the people of physically and/or culturally separate territories without regard to their opinions in the matter. The acceptability of colonial rule was widespread, not least in Britain where the symbols, products, and profits of empire pervaded society. Imperial ideas ranged from the aggressive expansionism associated with Rhodes and Milner to reluctant annexationists such as Gladstone who believed that conquest was a tool to use sparingly in dealing with threats to British interests and to others who felt that Britain should be satisfied with the empire it had. Very few argued against empire. The activists of the Congo reform movement were by and large critics of empire but not anti-empire.
Proponents of imperial expansion often justified the New Imperialism in contemporary rhetoric involving race and Social Darwinism. In the midVictorian years, British attitudes towards racial questions had hardened, at the same time that thinking in evolutionary terms had become pervasive, creating a general sense of the unity of the human race that did not include racial equality. The new language of Social Darwinism labeled cultures dynamically: successful societies progressed and expanded, and others degenerated. In this context, conquest of so-called degenerate or primitive peoples appeared to be a law of nature. Even a passionate critic of empire like Roger Casement reflected this line of thinking when he wrote that colonies were necessary outlets for the population and power of leading European countries. This rhetoric merged with commercial self-interest, which increasingly seemed to require territorial domination because Britain’s commercial rivals protected their colonial markets to secure outlets for manufactured goods and sources for raw materials and tropical produce. Social Darwinism could apply to competition among great powers as well as between civilized and primitive peoples, as implied in a 1905 essay by Lady Lugard, who before marrying colonial administrator Sir Frederick
Lugard had achieved fame in her own right as Flora Shaw, the African expert at The Times:
The first fact which we have to face in regard to the tropical Colonies—the fact indeed which has generally determined our acquisition of them—is that if they were not British they would almost of necessity belong to some other Western Power. There is no such thing as the possibility of leaving them neutral and independent. They must by their nature be either for us or against us.
Religion too played a role in imperialism. Many religious people saw the rise of European empires as the work of divine Providence. The missionary movement, though sometimes critical of imperial practice, was at heart an imperialist cultural venture dedicated to converting people’s beliefs and ways of life. Although missionary universalism assumed fundamental racial equality, missionaries reinforced racial stereotypes by publicizing cultural chauvinism. They justified their work with reports of those African practices most likely to shock metropolitan readers. The frequent and selective misrepresentation of African culture by missionaries had the unplanned consequence of stimulating racial and cultural arrogance. Andrew Porter describes this complex interaction of missionary idealism, empire, and race as characterized by expediency and ambiguity, with different responses to specific situations that also reflected the background and outlook of the participants.
Imperialism also coordinated well with national ideology. It was a commonplace belief that Britain’s comparatively free society and its voluntary rejection of slavery and the slave trade made the country particularly well-suited to rule. Both enthusiastic imperialists and critics of empire believed that British moral superiority entitled and obligated it to set an example for others.
These racial, commercial, religious, and moral bases for a colonial empire permeated the discourse of the day. For instance, a British program of tropical development would, of course, use the African “reserve of labour” just as Japan was taking advantage of Chinese labor. This was a racial argument, based on notions of European superiority as much as on African resistance to tropical diseases. Some, like Morel, felt that development would depend on African labor because tropical Africa would never be white man’s country. Others in Britain and elsewhere, taking Social Darwinism to a logical extreme, believed that Africans would disappear altogether in the face of superior Europeans, seeing this as “a law of nature” and “a blessing.”
Whether Africans were surviving or disappearing, there was great interest in using their labor and great concern about their reluctance to work for Europeans under the conditions and for the pay offered to them. A persistent trope was that African men needed to be trained to work. Morel and others believed that Africans needed only free access to markets as free labor to be converted to European notions of work. But others disagreed. Frederick Lugard opined that the work of women in garden plots, the abundance of forest produce, and the absence of population pressure led to abundant leisure for the men, which was “apt to be devoted to indolence, quarrelling, drink, or sensuality.” As two practical men reflected in an article about growing rubber on plantations through a combination of paternalistic philanthropy and forced labor for “only” one eight-hour day per week: “it is against the nature of the negro to work without compulsion; he is lazy and happy-go-lucky.” This current set the tone for Leopold’s Congo: for the foreseeable future, Congolese labor would be procured only by coercion.
The reasons given by Europeans for the necessity of forced labor ranged from the grimly practical to the socially progressive. For example, Africans’ forced labor would pay for the services of European governments, such as suppression of intra-African wars and slave-raids, road-building, and port improvements. Many Europeans also felt that African culture needed to adapt to a world without warfare by adopting a new gender division of labor: forced labor for African men would reduce the slave-like burdens of African women by imposing a European domestic model, where men would be wage-earners and providers, supporting women whose first responsibility would be to raise children and make a home while supplementing male wages by gardening or selling goods at markets. If the current inhabitants could not see this, then compulsory labor would teach them.
Like African labor, African resources were the objects of much European interest. Imperialists often claimed that they were acting as trustees for their subjects, with a legal or even sacred charge to rule them for their own good, in the same way that a bank acts as trustee for those without the ability, knowledge, or inclination to take care of their own assets. In Britain, this argument had a component of atonement for past misdeeds associated with slavery. The tension between ensuring the most profitable use of the assets and ensuring the best outcome for the beneficiaries made trusteeship a flexible concept; most Europeans believed they could use the resources of Africa better than the inhabitants. Whether taking control of resources or altering cultural practices, for European purposes or for the supposed benefit of local people, the result was imperial control.
Only a few people contested the idea that conquest and rule were the natural order ofthings. Recent studies show that the number of anti-imperialists remained small through the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Many were socialists whose overall program marginalized their views on colonialism, but some antiimperialists were in prominent positions and could make themselves heard. Their ideas had roots in the application of theory and in reaction to the realities of imperial rule. The philosopher and social scientist Herbert Spencer focused on the harmful effects on home societies as a necessary byproduct of imperial control. The British Positivists, whose secular religion of humanity combined formal rituals with trust in science to answer questions about both nature and society, rejected colonial rule as a violation of the principles of human equality. For Frederic Harrison, President of the English Positivist Committee, “all are our brothers and fellow-citizens of the world.” The Irish historian Alice Stopford Green came at the question from a more practical perspective: her reflexive anti-imperialism sprang from her sympathy for the plight of her native Ireland.
It is no accident that Spencer, Harrison, and Green all supported the attack on the Congo regime.
The more numerous critics of empire steered a middle path to seek a better sort of imperial rule. J.A. Hobson tied imperialism to flaws in the operation of the capitalist system: unequal distribution of wealth in European societies brought about underconsumption and thus surplus capital, which led financial interests to seek investment opportunities in less advanced countries. For Hobson, the founding and functioning of the Congo Free State sprang from this very problem and served as an object lesson about the need for government control of colonies. Leopold’s Congo Free State existed for the benefit of private economic interests: the concession companies and Leopold’s government itself, which functioned as a commercial enterprise. This illustrated Hobson’s contention that the absence of a proper colonial power such as Britain in a less advanced region would open the floodgates for the unregulated agents of surplus capital to exploit the local people without limitation. 
Most critics—including all the early Congo reformers—accepted the basic fact of imperial rule, arguing for improving its practice based on religious, humanitarian, and commercial ideas that resonated with their society. Morel’s own idealization of empire appeared when he wished that Belgian socialists
could be induced to modify their sweeping condemnation of all colonial enterprise without exception ... It is a thousand pities that the Belgian Socialist leaders do not make it their business to really study the work of Great Britain in Western Central Africa and of France in her West African dependencies proper. They would then realise not only that it is possible for the management of overseas dependencies to be conducted on lines materially advantageous to both Europeans and natives, but they would realize how inextricably interwoven are the economic and humanitarian sides of all such enterprise.38
J. Compton Rickett, MP, captured this spirit when he wrote of “the Imperial idea sanely expressed” in a 1902 letter to Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell- Bannerman asking him to meet with Nonconformist religious leaders, most of whom became active in the Congo reform campaign.
The question of a sane imperialism had divided British public opinion and especially the Liberal party during the Boer War of 1899-1902. The war’s supporters called its opponents pro-Boers and, occasionally, traitors. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Congo regime provided a target that could unite a broader array of the British public, transcending political, confessional, and other boundaries. Critiquing British imperialism in the age of the New Imperialism meant attacking government officials and powerful interests in British society. Concerns about Russia, a great power, and the Ottoman Empire in Bulgaria, Armenia, and Macedonia, a focus of great-power rivalry, similarly could lead to conflict because of the complications of international diplomacy. Leopold’s personal imperialism had few prominent defenders in Britain and much less risk of great-power complications. The Congo campaign restored a sense of unity that the Boer War had jeopardized without aggravating the unhealed wounds of the debates over the war.
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