Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
We must unite in organized association having one clear sole aim—namely to enlighten, systematically and continuously, public opinion in this country, and abroad, upon the actual condition of the Congo people.1—Roger Casement, 1904
Men and women stirred by concern for others may take action, but to make that action constructive they require a common vision. The Britons arguing for Congo reform before the foundation of the Congo Reform Association came from eclectic backgrounds and were not always in agreement about priorities. Traders, philanthropists, businessmen, journalists, diplomats, politicians, and missionaries tried to get government and international attention, sometimes as allies, other times as rivals. An attempt by W.T. Stead to unite the reformers led to acrimony and divergence in late 1903. With the Roger Casement’s intervention, the reformers reunited in a disciplined movement which synthesized their ideas into a coherent program.
Before 1885, Leopold had astutely cultivated humanitarians, missionaries, free-traders, Belgian commercial interests, and foreign statesmen. The reality of the Congo Free State slowly undermined this support, due to the violence of the administrative culture, pursuit of profits by the state and state-granted monopolies, royal favoritism, and exploitation of the people. Increasingly disaffected commercial, humanitarian, and religious constituencies might oppose the regime, if they could be organized and motivated. Support dwindled, but Leopold no longer needed broad public support so long as he did not face outright hostility from Belgium or the more powerful governments that could affect Belgium’s fate or the Congo’s.
Complaints began early from British traders on the lower Congo. In a lantern lecture at the Manchester Geographical Society on 27 October 1886, the trader and anthropologist Richard E. Dennett described conditions in the Congo Free State very much at odds with its philanthropic and scientific claims, emphasizing its “mismanagement and bullying propensities.” The next year he complained of its “arbitrary and despotic” treatment of traders and observed that the Congo government, unlike other colonial governments, “cannot resist the temptation of trading.” In 1889, the Manchester Geographical Society reviewed traders’ evidence to the effect that, “the Belgians’ methods of trade were to employ 100 armed soldiers round each station to terrorise the natives into bringing them produce,” all, as one added bitterly, “in the name of philanthropy.” Traders had begun worrying about their potential customers, the people of the Congo.
George Washington Williams achieved far more publicity than any trader. An African-American pastor, journalist, and historian, he believed that the Congo could be a land of the future for American blacks. Before heading there, he met with Francis W. Fox, a Quaker who served on the Committee of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. This conversation may have led to his first doubts; on his journey to Congo, Williams discussed the injustices of European colonialism with people he met on board ship and at each port. On arrival, he encountered Dennett, who filled his ears with stories of misrule. His journey 1,300 miles up the Congo River convinced him of the government’s “deceit, obtrusiveness, ignorance, and cruelty.”
Although coerced rubber production had not begun in earnest, the Free State’s brutal culture horrified Williams. After reaching Stanley Falls in July 1890, he compiled a comprehensive indictment in An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, and two other reports in the same vein, denouncing state- sponsored slavery, the abuse of military power, trade monopolies, and cruelty. He accused the Congo authorities oflying to the world and criticized the mayhem of Stanley’s last expedition (1886-89). Williams held Leopold responsible, in contrast to other early critics who assumed that problems occurred despite, not because of, the King’s intentions. Williams appealed to the signatories of the Berlin Act, the Belgian people, humanitarians, Christians, and statesmen to act together against Leopold and his Congo regime.
This call reached a wide audience, beginning while Williams was in transit: Stanley read the Open Letter in October 1890, and, in November, it featured in a London meeting of European traders regarding Leopold’s petition at the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference to exempt the Congo from the Berlin Act’s ban on import taxes. Richard Cobden Phillips, a merchant with Congo experience, used the Open Letter to demonstrate that the evils there went far beyond Leopold’s proposed tax. His critique anticipated the reformers’ key arguments: “the aim of the Congo State was a commercial monopoly of the products of the country which they occupied by forged treaties in Africa, false declarations at home, and afterwards maintained by endless violence and extortion.” However, the meeting remained narrowly focused on import taxes. The next month, at an APS public meeting on Stanley’s last expedition, Phillips again brought up the prevalence of atrocities, but the meeting’s tepid resolution did not address this issue.
As newspapers in the United States, Belgium, Britain, and France informed their readers about the Open Letter, Leopold’s allies went into action. Stanley accused Williams of blackmail. Speeches in the Belgian Parliament attacked Williams and praised Leopold. For now, the counterattack succeeded. Williams, gravely ill, returned to Britain and died two months later, on 2 August 1891. He had accomplished this much: the controversy had torn Leopold’s cloak of philanthropy, leaving a general sense that all was not well in the Congo.
This did not translate into action. Leopold had little to fear from Belgium, where most of the press and Parliament were on his side. Decrees in 1891 monopolizing trade elicited complaints from Belgian, Dutch, and British commercial interests, but Leopold mollified them with the opportunity to secure concessions. The APS largely ignored the Congo from 1891-96 and missionaries almost always expressed their concerns in private. Dr Harry Guinness, head of the Congo Balolo Mission (CBM), went silent after publicizing problems in 1890-91. The Foreign Office filed the accounts of cruelty it received without public comment. Williams’s assertion of Leopold’s personal culpability gave way to the view that “Crimes against humanity have been committed,” but were not the King’s fault, because “he is in the hands of his officials.”
The Foreign Office was more interested in British subjects recruited by the Congo authorities as workers and soldiers. These men found themselves used as beasts of burden, imprisoned or killed for complaining, pressed into military service, and kept after their contracts ended. To address these issues, in 1892 the Foreign Office appointed Edward Bannister, a British trader, as Vice-Consul in the Congo under Consul William Clayton Pickersgill in Loanda (now Luanda) in Portuguese Angola. Until his dismissal at the Congo government’s request two years later, Bannister energetically pursued these cases, the first of many British consular officials in the story of Congo reform.
The fate of one British subject particularly aroused the ire of the British public and the Foreign Office, run at this time by Prime Minister Salisbury: Charles Henry Stokes. In August 1895, the British government learned from Germany that the Force Publique had arrested and executed this Irish trader seven months earlier for allegedly selling weapons. The issue became a public and diplomatic sensation. The journalist Lionel Decle argued that his research into the Stokes execution showed that Leopold’s regime was not fit to govern. Again, nothing of substance resulted, but the treatment of British subjects contributed to an understanding of the Congo government as flawed, mendacious, and brutal.
Protestant missionaries had to this point complained to local officials or their home offices, without result. In 1895, two missionaries defied their superiors to come forward in the press: John H. Weeks of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in October and John B. Murphy of the American Baptist Missionary Union (ABMU) in November. The publicity machine went into action; Stanley excused murders as isolated crimes and accused missionaries of mistreating local people and buying slaves to free them as the government did. The furor faded when the missionaries did not reply. Once again, publicity had tarnished the Congo Free State’s armor but not breached it.
The pace of disclosure increased. In April 1896, an English officer formerly in the Force Publique, Captain Philip Salusbury, wrote of Congo “murder, rapine, plunder, and cruelty in the most awful degree ever reached.” Salusbury had less press than Williams, but was more influential because of the Congo Free State’s worsening reputation. Sir Charles Dilke, Radical MP, former cabinet minister, and parliamentary spokesman for the APS, used the dire conditions revealed in Congo official documents to argue that its government violated the Berlin Act and the rights of the Congolese. Guinness returned to the fray, calling for an end to the slaughter resulting from the rubber tax. In July, the APS urged European public opinion and governments to apply pressure to Leopold. In September, Alfred Parminter, who had worked in the Congo for nine years, reported his firsthand knowledge of atrocities and revealed the existence of the bonuses that government employees earned on the rubber they coerced from the local people. The counterattack began immediately, painting Salusbury as an unreliable witness interested in extracting money from Leopold. In The Times, Stanley suggested that Salusbury and Parminter had believed false rumors.
Stanley warned Leopold not to appear to disregard English public opinion: “it only requires a few more incidents from the Congo to confirm her in the opinion that everything must be radically wrong.” The answer came from another diehard British advocate for the Congo, Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid, a former MP, newspaper editor and publisher (President of the Society of Newspaper Proprietors and Managers in 1898-99), and Liberal activist. At his suggestion, Leopold instituted a Commission for the Protection of the Natives in September 1896, comprised of six long-time Congo missionaries. In addition to three Belgian Catholics, Leopold appointed three British Protestants: George Grenfell and William Holman Bentley of the BMS, both distinguished authors who had praised the Congo Free State, and Dr Aaron Sims, a Scotsman in the ABMU. Grenfell correctly predicted that the Commission was likely to become “a mere farce.”
Grenfell’s change of heart occurred in March 1896, while captaining the new BMS mission steamer Goodwill. His passenger, Rev. Edvard Viktor Sjoblom, a Swedish minister at the American Baptist mission, was headed to Europe on furlough. Sjoblom’s eyewitness descriptions of the cruelties in rubber areas convinced Grenfell, the first of his many converts to the cause of reform.
The month before, Sjoblom, frustrated by the indifference of Congo officials, sent an article for publication to his ABMU superiors, to Guinness, and to the Swedish Baptists. The ABMU forwarded it to the Congo government through the US State Department, but not to the American press. It did not reach the English press either, because the Congo Balolo Mission’s Council (hereafter, the Congo Council) directed Guinness to communicate it only to the Congo government in Brussels. The matter might have died, but the Swedish Baptists published Sjoblom’s letter in their journal, the Wecko-Posten (Weekly Post) on 23 July 1896. His accusations rippled through the Swedish press and became internationalized in September thanks to the Swedish correspondent of a Swiss paper. Soon it had appeared in Georges Clemenceau’s paper La Justice in France and Georges Lorand’s La Reforme in Belgium. The story spread across Europe, though not to the UK or USA, the two places Sjoblom most wanted to reach. Sjoblom would find an audience in Britain the next year.
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