Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The British Humanitarian Context
The British Congo reform movement began late in Victoria’s reign, flourished under a sympathetic Edward VII, and concluded under George V. This “long Edwardian” period is a useful timeframe for analyzing both Britain and Europe. Philipp Blom has referred to this period as the “vertigo years,” emphasizing the uncertainty that permeated European culture.
The movement for reform began in Britain long before it had a foothold anywhere else, and the British movement was the centerpiece even after the movement became transnational. Other countries developed reform movements because of the inspiration and prodding of the CRA, and those movements, except in America, never developed a large popular following, and no country’s reformers, except in America and Belgium, had any influence on government policies. Britain’s centrality sprang in part from a combination of cultural factors that had no parallel elsewhere, with the exception of the sense of uncertainty referred to by Blom. In Britain, a long relative economic decline during a period of economic growth triggered this anxiety while naval competition spawned fears of war and invasion. The Congo reformers responded to the uncertainty with the hope that the old British confidence could be renewed if they could resurrect the will, vigor, and moral compass required. To do so, they expressed, used, and wrestled with Edwardian assumptions about Britain’s role in the world, imperialism, national honor, and economics.
Another special factor was evangelical religious feeling, a potent political force for the last time in British history. For over a century, moderate British evangelicals relied on free will and individual initiative to save others, body and soul, because they believed that God would not otherwise intervene in human affairs and that their faith would be demonstrated by their efforts to redeem wrongs in the world. Among other demands it made on its adherents, evangelicalism called for atonement for sin through positive action and for conversion of the heathen. Because helping the Congo promised both, the reform movement attracted churchgoing Nonconformists and evangelical Anglicans. This spirit energized even the Quakers in the mid-nineteenth century and, with an infusion of liberal thought, set the stage for an unparalleled Quaker engagement with the problems of Britain and the world during the vertigo years, in what Thomas Kennedy has called the “Quaker Renaissance.”
This emphasis on atonement, saving, and action in the world had spread beyond the evangelicals. Less devout persons like Morel and secularists like Fox Bourne used language that echoed evangelical themes, including the will of God, without overtly doctrinal content. All evidenced a strong responsibility toward the unprivileged, which some analysts have seen as connected with the value the evangelicals placed on the human soul and thus, the individual. Indeed, a commitment to humanity bridged many divides in British society in what historians Georgios Varouxakis and Eugene Biagini have called “enlightened patriotism,” which could unite evangelicals, positivists, and secularists in campaigns against cruel practices, just as it did in the Congo reform movement. John Halstead traces the roots of this sensibility to the blending of Enlightenment philosophies with evangelicalism in the late eighteenth century that, a century later, had thoroughly permeated nearly every institution of
British society with some level of concern for the underdog. Likewise, religious atonement and secular notions of honor came together in the Congo reform movement, building on the argument that Britain had enabled the formation of the misgoverned Congo Free State. This sense of national honor reflected widely held beliefs that Britain’s role in the world was fundamentally a force for good: a beacon of freedom, the guarantor of the PaxBritannica, the suppressor of the slave trade, and the home of enlightened colonial administration. In this view, countervailing examples of British greed, perfidy, cruelty, or immorality were exceptions, or better yet, exceptions that proved the rule, because Britain was more self-critical than its rivals.
Most of the British public and political elite accepted the inherent virtues of competition and free trade; Campbell-Bannerman observed that questioning free trade was like arguing about the law of gravity. The electorate rejected Joseph Chamberlain’s advocacy for protection in the 1906 election, giving the Liberals a tremendous victory; free trade was the chief plank in the party’s platform. The Congo Free State’s trading monopolies violated not only the 1885 Berlin treaty but also free-trade principles that were more pervasive in Britain than in her major rivals.
Britain’s humanitarian tradition had more depth than any other country’s. Since the late seventeenth century, Britain had been the leading country in philanthropy conducted by formally organized voluntary associations, a part of the expansion of its public sphere. The United States was the only country in the same league. An 1803 survey counted almost 10,000 British societies, while by mid-century France had 2,000, Italy 443, and Russia only six. The associations did not rely on state, church, or aristocratic authority to set goals, obtain funding, or operate, shifting control to members of the middle class who were the associations’ officers, committee members, and donors. Nonconforming Protestants, who had limited political rights until the nineteenth century, found outlets for their energies and political dissatisfaction in these associations. Just as the joint-stock company led to larger and better-capitalized commercial ventures, the parallel development of similarly organized associations improved access to funding, quality of governance, and ability to grow and even incorporate. Subscriptions from a large number ofpeople meant independence from individual donors and enabled larger budgets while encouraging wider involvement and better oversight. In a parallel development, philanthropists broadened their purview from local to regional and national causes, and some began casting their eyes overseas. Multiple causes used British philanthropic modes of organization to pursue a cause of redemption by using the force of public opinion to influence Parliament and thus government policy.
Beatrice Webb called late Victorian humanitarianism a secular religion, but religious motivations remained important for many. Traditional Anglican and Catholic charity was a religious duty to comfort a suffering recipient while benefiting the giver in the hereafter. However, since the late seventeenth century, duty increasingly called dissenting Protestants and evangelical Anglicans to identify moral wrongs and to try to redeem society. British Positivists blended secular morality and religious fervor to create their vision of an improved world. Gregory Claeys has shown that their ideas influenced ways of thinking far beyond the few formal adherents of their “religion of humanity” where there were “no distinctions of skin or race, of sect or creed” according to Positivist leader Frederic Harrison.
Humanitarianism reflected other cultural values. Enlightenment ideas about fighting injustice and solving problems through reason lived on in philanthropic institutions of all kinds. For some, involvement provided an opportunity for social climbing, perhaps simply to make contacts in higher classes or else to stake a claim to a higher-class status. Humanitarian relief sometimes served economic interests, as when British slaveholders wished to see others similarly deprived of slave imports after 1807.
Pride in British morality reinforced the arrogance of British power. The British sense of superiority as the world’s leader in liberty accorded with their view of themselves as uniquely benevolent among nations. This self-regarding aura became strongest after 1815 when the coincidence of power (the defeat of Napoleon) and virtue (the ending of the slave trade) suggested a connection that no evidence of British colonial oppression could challenge thereafter. At best, these incidents became betrayals of the mythic British national character. For 60 years, the British used their power to bring other European states into conformity with their own recent revulsion against the slave trade, acculturating the people and government to a new practice in statecraft, in which Britain wheedled and bullied other countries to achieve humanitarian objectives.
While other overseas humanitarian organizations came and went during the Victorian era to address famines, oppression, and injustices around the world, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (Anti-Slavery) and the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) carried the legacy of abolition through the nineteenth century. They saw downtrodden aboriginal peoples and slaves as having little agency in an imperial world save violent rebellion and therefore needing British government intervention to help them. With overlapping membership and similar tactics, they often worked together. The Anti-Slavery Society endured despite dwindling public interest and a stubbornly persistent slave trade. Its income in 1899-1908 fluctuated greatly from a high of ?3467 in 1901 to a low of ?625 in 1907, with the number of donors falling steadily from 469 in 1901 to 240 in 1908. The Aborigines’ Protection Society argued for native rights with less success. It had fewer than 200 donors, subscribers, and life members in 1841. In 1897, as it began its Congo agitation, donations hit a low point of ?242 from 166 people though they did rebound to ?677 from 201 donors by 1903.
The two societies’ inability to grow led to pessimistic assessments. One historian notes an ebbing of evangelical fervor and the subsidence of British self-confidence, factors not conducive to sympathy for the troubles of distant strangers. Fox Bourne, the last APS Secretary, believed that Britain’s humanitarian spirit had decayed. This sentiment should not be taken at face value. For example, when Fox Bourne was writing, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was able to mobilize 6,000 female collectors to explain the work of this society and raise money. Similarly, British interest in overseas humanitarianism rebounded in the 1890s. In the decade before 1904, a new band of humanitarian organizations had arisen, including, among others, the Society for the Recognition for the Brotherhood of Man against lynching and segregation in the US, the Armenian Relief Fund, the Friends of Russian Freedom, the Native Races Aid Association and Society of Universal Brotherhood, the Macedonian Relief Fund, and the Balkan Committee. Expanded concern for faraway peoples coincided with the spread of imperialist sentiment in the 1890s, though interest in their souls was more widespread than concern about oppression, rights, and ill-treatment. Each major missionary society had an annual cash flow more than 100 times greater than the APS or Anti-Slavery.
Although overseas humanitarianism found new energy, a relatively small group of humanitarians kept these flames burning, including members of families with strong philanthropic traditions, such as Buxtons and Wilberforces, and some manufacturing, retailing, and merchant magnates, such as William A. Albright, whose company made the igniting chemicals for matches. Notable Quakers such as the lawyer Joseph G. Alexander, Anglican clergymen such as Canon Scott Holland, and crusading editors such as John St Loe Strachey had links to these causes as well. The CRA’s London Committee boasted Richard Cobden’s daughter, Jane Cobden Unwin, who was a leader of the Friends of Russian Freedom, a notable suffragist, and the first woman to serve on the Committee of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. The CRA brought some new blood into overseas humanitarianism, but it largely relied on the same networks of leaders and donors as the societies that preceded it.
Methods of organization, information-gathering, publicity, fundraising, and influencing government were much the same for all overseas humanitarian societies, with variations for groups actually sending people overseas as missionaries or famine relief workers. Each had a president or chairman, a treasurer, and a secretary. At the Anti-Slavery Society before 1910, the president led the organization, while the Secretary filled this role at the APS, backed by a largely ceremonial president. Occasionally a vice-president or vice-chairman had executive duties, but in most cases these were non-executive positions handed out to influential or generous sympathizers as an honor to flatter the individual and boost the organization’s prestige. A Committee or Executive Committee represented the membership, provided oversight, and in many cases determined policy and strategy. Many organizations used local auxiliaries or branches to get the word out, raise funds, and organize lectures. The Peace Society was particularly vigorous in this regard. The APS was not organized this way in the late 1800s, despite founding a short-lived Liverpool branch and a similarly ephemeral “Native Races” group in Manchester in 1898.
Overseas humanitarian organizations sought international connections where possible to lend weight to their entreaties at home, abroad, and at international conferences. The Aborigines’ Protection Society had honorary foreign members and correspondents, and the Anti-Slavery Society collaborated with similar groups in Belfast, America, France, Germany, Italy, and even Malta. In addition, both groups received information from overseas missionaries. The Congo Reform Association adapted these practices for its own purposes.
Humanitarian organizations used public meetings, the press, pamphlets, and books to publicize their causes. Public meetings entertained, informed, and advocated in this era before broadcast radio and television. Often public meetings culminated in passing resolutions to influence politicians or government officials. Missionary and humanitarian societies frequently used illuminated images from magic lanterns to attract people to meetings and reinforce their emotional attachment to the cause. Sometimes the entire audience paid to attend, while at other times admission was free for the gallery, with a fee for reserved seating, with most funds coming from a collection taken after the speakers had inspired the audience. Any money remaining after paying for room rental, travel expenses, and refreshments would go to the sponsoring organization. However, humanitarian organizations raised much more money through annual mailings, special appeals, and, for larger donors, personal contact. They tried to lure people as subscribers who would receive publications, attend annual members’ meetings, and donate year after year.
Newsletters, often called official organs, let organizations communicate relevant news, official positions, and financial needs to subscribers and influential non-subscribers in the press, in political life, or at other societies. Most overseas humanitarian societies aimed to influence the British government to take action in the colonies or exert pressure on foreign countries. In addition to public meetings and resolutions, they worked with friendly MPs to raise questions in Parliament or sponsor legislation, met privately or in formal delegations with government ministers, wrote letters and memoranda to officials, and used influential people to advocate with government ministers. The Congo Reform Association drew on all these methods.
When the Aborigines’ Protection Society took up the cause of Congo reform in 1896, the society had over 50 years’ experience arguing for the humane treatment of colonized peoples. Its actively Christian motivation and close ties to missionaries had become more secular over time. In its middle years, the society espoused an imperial humanitarianism: the best solution for an abridgement of aboriginal rights was British annexation. Annexationist sentiment ebbed in the APS when the New Imperialism was in its heyday, but an imperial mindset continued to color the society’s attitude towards human rights and prevented it from working with educated Africans interested in self- government. The society continued to believe that European powers had a right and even an obligation to rule societies that were weaker, non-Christian, and less civilized. Advocating imperial trusteeship rather than independence, the APS for the most part saw Africans not as partners but as objects of their attention.
Lack ofpopular support meant that the APS addressed injustices by lobbying. Using information from correspondents, its Secretary asked the Colonial Office, Foreign Office, and/or Parliament for remediation. The Colonial Office was sometimes grateful to the society for acting as its eyes and ears, but during Fox Bourne’s tenure as Secretary (1889-1909), the Colonial Office became more skeptical about the quality of the society’s information, suspecting that he was too gullible to detect his correspondents’ errors, mendacity, or self-interest. This skepticism was to impede the APS’s Congo advocacy in the late 1890s.
Scholars have disputed some of the society’s successes; sometimes others, such as missionaries, could take credit. This raises the question of how to measure relative influence in a campaign where each element may have been necessary but not sufficient, a question relevant for the Congo Reform Association. Because the APS seemed to be inadequate to the Congo question, many reform advocates sought another organizational vehicle by 1903, ending with the 1904 formation of the CRA.
The CRA’s leadership emphasized the uniqueness of the Congo problem and the CRA, a theme that helped them influence the public, the press, and the Foreign Office. However, the CRA used technologies of humanitarianism common to other organizations. Similarly, colonial misrule on the Congo was not as unusual as Morel claimed. Imperial powers mistreated and slaughtered people on a large scale in Africa, Asia, and even Europe. Some Congo reformers publicized and condemned other imperial excesses. Mark Twain campaigned against the brutal American war in the Philippines, W.T. Stead and others had been active Pro-Boers, groups condemned lynching in the United States, and Fox Bourne publicized Portuguese cocoa slavery in Sao Tome and Principe as well as the Angolan slave trade that fed it. Roger Casement, in alliance with John Harris, later tried to remedy rubber atrocities in the Peruvian Putumayo. Although (or perhaps because) his close allies played a leading role in these exposes, Morel took care to emphasize that the scale of the Congo problems exceeded these situations. Even when he publicly called for action on Portuguese cocoa slavery in 1906, he told his readers that it was “mild in comparison with the horrors of the rubber slavery of the Congo State.”  Regarding the Putomayo, Morel stressed its limited extent:
For devilish ingenuity in torture, the [Congo] comparison may stand. In the numbers affected, the area concerned, and the cumulative effects comparison is absurd. Where the Putumayo Indians have perished in thousands, the Congolese have perished in millions ... Modern history has no parallel to this.78
This rhetoric of uniqueness had many uses. It reassured Morel and the Harrises that the cause to which they had devoted years of their lives was worth their sacrifices. It spurred donors to continue their financial support year after year. And finally, it helped draw attention from MPs and Foreign Office personnel with a multitude of other calls on their time. Nonetheless, the Congo reform movement, despite its claims of uniqueness, was firmly embedded in the humanitarian tradition.
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