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From Complaint to Campaign

In late 1896, the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) took up the Congo. Its humanitarian ethos had its roots in evangelicalism, anthropology, and the 1837 Parliamentary report endorsing compassionate policies toward colonized peoples. Its governing Committee had a strong Quaker element, including Edward W. Brooks, Francis W. Fox, and Thomas Hodgkin by 1896.[1] Over time, the Society had added the language of native rights to the language of compassion. In the words of its Secretary, Fox Bourne, the APS worked for “the protection of ... rights” for “uncivilised races,” meaning “the fundamental rights of humanity” to justice, property, and fair treatment, not political participation or full equality. The APS supported the “legitimate” extension of British authority over peoples whose condition could be improved in this way. Indeed, every civilized nation had a right to conquer less favored communities as long as they did not rule oppressively.[2]

H.R. Fox Bourne

Figure 2.1 H.R. Fox Bourne

Source: WAM Special Monthly Congo Supplement, July 1904, from LSE Library’s collections, MOREL F1/11/5.

The APS had hesitated for years. Based on Williams’s work, F.W. Fox raised Congo atrocities at its Committee meeting of 11 June 1891, but Fox Bourne concluded that the evidence was insufficient after consulting with Alfred Baynes, the BMS Secretary, and Grenfell, home on leave.[3] In late 1892, William Parminter (Alfred’s uncle), who, as governor of Vivi province, had been the Congo administration’s most highly placed Englishman, submitted a statement to Fox Bourne documenting the government’s attacks on the rights of the local people and European merchants, but the APS did not act on his testimony, in part because Parminter shortly thereafter reconciled with Leopold.[4]

After a few more years of gradually accumulating information, the APS decided to support calls for change. This began as a discreet approach to the Congo government’s chief functionary in Brussels, Edmond Van Eetvelde, but, when this led nowhere, Fox Bourne published a comprehensive statement of the evidence in December 1896, ending, “Our Committee, therefore, earnestly appeals to the Government of the Congo State to institute such changes in the administration as may be necessary to attain the humane objects contemplated and undertaken by it when the State was established.”[5] In March 1897, he followed up with an article titled “The Congo Failure.”[6]

Dilke brought the Congo before the House of Commons on 2 April 1897, calling for the Berlin Conference to reconvene, but his motion failed. Speaking for the Foreign Office, George Curzon stated the government’s position: “it is no part of ... the duty of Her Majesty’s Government to act as guardians of the public trust imposed on the Congo State by the Acts of Brussels and Berlin.”[7] The following week, the APS held a public meeting on the treatment of colonized peoples, with Congo speeches by noted Liberals John Morley and Leonard Courtney covered by at least 19 newspapers.[8]

At this point Sjoblom arrived in Britain, where he convinced Guinness to introduce him to Fox Bourne, who quickly organized a public meeting in St Martin’s Town Hall to review evidence from Sjoblom, Guinness, and Salusbury. Although reporters attended with the stipulation that the witnesses would remain anonymous, Fox Bourne gave Sjoblom’s name in the Aborigines’ Friend

and the Swedish reporter ignored the stipulation altogether.[9] Sjoblom’s account finally appeared in the British press, too late for the parliamentary debate, but used effectively thereafter.

Publicity accelerated due to some factual errors in Dilke’s parliamentary speeches. A response from the Congo Consul General in Britain, Jules Houdret, triggered a volley of at least ten letters in The Times from April to June 1897, with Dilke and Fox Bourne countering Houdret, Gilzean Reid, and Adolphe de Cuvelier, the Congo Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs.

The campaign seemed to be developing momentum. The brutality and stupidity of Congo officials, driven half-mad with illness, isolation, and the demands of their concession company, featured in an 1897 short story by Joseph Conrad published simultaneously in London, Paris, and Berlin.[10] An indictment in the Speaker appeared from poet and African linguist Alice Werner.[11] Century increased the pressure by reproducing the journals of the late British adventurer Edward J. Glave in installments, culminating in “Cruelty in the Congo Free State.” Glave had found the new Congo of the rubber zones to be a dismaying result of his pioneering 1880s work with Stanley.[12] A book by a Belgian traveler, Edmond Picard, was equally critical.[13] Congo defenders (known as Congophiles or apologists) counterattacked, but the uncoordinated campaign was working. By 1897, the notion that “everything must be radically wrong” with the Congo Free State was spreading.

Several forces worked in Leopold’s favor. The British government’s hands-off attitude persisted into 1903. The Foreign Office did not publicize corroborating information from its consular officials, such as the report from Bannister’s successor, Leonard Arthur, that a captain in the Force Publique demanded a severed hand for each expended cartridge.[14] Consul Pickersgill met with missionaries, including Sjoblom, in 1896-97, and documented their damning stories and the intimidating response of the Governor-General of the Congo, Theophile Wahis. Pickersgill summed up, “To my mind the amazing thing about the Congo atrocities is not that they occurred but that they have been so impudently denied.”[15] Worried about public reaction, the Foreign Office issued a bowdlerized report under Pickersgill’s name (1898) that did not mention

Glave, Parminter, Ward, and Casement

Figure 2.2 Glave, Parminter, Ward, and Casement

Source: E.J. Glave, W.G. Parminter, Herbert Ward, and Roger Casement (b/w photo), English Photographer (nineteenth century)/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

atrocities, alluded vaguely to the methods of procuring food and rubber as “open to abuse,” and praised the administration.[16]

In 1899, a report from the new Congo Vice-Consul reiterated that “the methods employed in the collection of rubber are cruel in the extreme,” but this followed Pickersgill’s report into the files.[17] This was the year of the Fashoda crisis, when a French military force reached the Nile via the Congo Free State, almost leading to war. Salisbury’s Foreign Office feared that pressure could provoke Leopold into closer relations with France.

The APS’s lack of focus did not help the campaign. In 1897 alone, the APS addressed no fewer than 24 causes around the world.[18] Financial pressures also took a toll. In 1897, its income fell precipitously, leading to a major fundraising effort in 1898 that provided a higher and more stable cash flow for the next decade, but suspended the Congo agitation.[19] Furthermore, the 1896-97 campaign was exclusively British. Fox Bourne had not yet made connections to the Belgian opposition to Leopold, which included the Radical legislator Georges Lorand, some of the King’s former allies, and the anti-imperial socialists from the Parti Ouvrier Belge (Belgian Labour Party), particularly the party’s future leader, Emile Vandervelde.

In Britain, criticism continued. The journalist Harold Spender, reviewing a book by the adventurer A.B. Lloyd, noted, “Unhappily it is clear from this narrative that throughout the region of the Congo Free State Europe stands for little else but cruelty and extortion.”[20] He might have aptly made the opposite point; in Europe, the Congo Free State was coming to stand for little else than cruelty and extortion. Fox Bourne and the APS renewed the campaign in June 1899, the same year that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appeared. This time, with new allies in Belgium and Britain, the campaign created the possibility that complaint could lead to action.

  • [1] Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (BritishSettlements), Reprinted, with Comments, by the Aborigines’ Protection Society (London:William Ball and Hatchard & Son, 1837).
  • [2] Fox Bourne, The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Its Aims and Methods (London:P.S. King, 1900), 3, 6-8.
  • [3] AF, February 1892, 215.
  • [4] Fox Bourne, Civilisation in Congoland: A Story of International Wrong-doing(London: P.S. King, 1903), 132-9.
  • [5] AF, December 1896, 61-81; The Times, 3 June 1897, 12.
  • [6] Fox Bourne, “The Congo Failure,” New Review 16, no. 94 (March 1897): 342-52.
  • [7] 48 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1897) 425-55.
  • [8] The Times, 8 April 1897, 11; Fox Bourne, Civilisation in Congoland, viii-ix; AF,April 1897, 160.
  • [9] The Times, 13 May 1897, 7; AF, May 1897, 131-7; Stockholm Dagblad, 21 May 1897cited in Lagergren, Mission and State, 207-8.
  • [10] Joseph Conrad, “An Outpost of Progress,” Cosmopolis, June 1897, 609-20, and July1897, 1-15.
  • [11] Alice Werner, “The Civilised World and the Congo State,” Speaker, 5 June 1897, 625.
  • [12] Edward Glave, “Cruelty in the Congo Free State,” Century Magazine, September1897, 699-714.
  • [13] “The Congo State,” Athenaeum, no. 3647 (18 September 1897): 378-9.
  • [14] Cookey, Britain, 38-9.
  • [15] FO 881/7109:45-9.
  • [16] “Report on the Congo Independent State,” 1898, c.8649-30, no. 459 Misc., FO10/731; Jules Marchal, E.D. Morel contre LeopoldII: LHistoire du Congo 1900-1910 (Paris:L’Harmattan, 1996), Vol. 1, 182; Lagergren, Mission and State, 219-20.
  • [17] Pulteney to Foreign Office, 15 September 1899, FO 10/731, no. 5.
  • [18] AF, 1897.
  • [19] The Times, 26 May 1899, 6; AF, June 1899; AF, April 1900, 503-5.
  • [20] Harold Spender, “Review: In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country,” Speaker, 25November 1899, 201-2.
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