Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
E.D. Morel’s Conversion
Morel was the next campaigner to take up the Congo. Although he had been born Georges Edmond Pierre Achille Morel de Ville in France in 1873 to a French father who died when he was three and an English mother, he had come to Britain in his youth and now went by the simpler George Morel de Ville. He joined Liverpool’s Elder Dempster shipping company as a clerk in 1891, and became the head of the new Congo department in 1895 when Elder Dempster started service between Antwerp and the Congo, a service that became a lucrative monopoly in 1901. Elder Dempster’s senior partner, Alfred Jones, became the Consul in Liverpool for the Congo Free State and one of its staunchest defenders.
De Ville had moonlighted as a journalist since 1893, often using the pen name E.D. Morel. Most of his articles in the 1890s covered West African issues, usually taking positions that supported the Liverpool merchants generally and Elder Dempster in particular. The merchants had not hired Morel for this purpose,
Figure 2.3 E.D. Morel
Source: From LSE Library’s collections, MOREL F1/8/5/9.
but by putting himself forward in this way, he made connections among them and made himself more valuable to Alfred Jones, a leading spokesman for the colonial commercial lobby as President of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and the Chairman of its African Trade section. He must have been pleased about Morel’s articles in the influential Pall Mall Gazette defending Leopold’s regime: one responding to press criticism in 1894 and another refuting the APS and Dilke in 1897.
Historians Catherine Cline, Jules Marchal, and Donald Mitchell have traced the young man’s conversion from rising commercial star to humanitarian activist, but it remains a challenge to explain why he was the one who could turn knowledge of the Congo Free State’s misdeeds into leadership of a movement—a movement that had already begun but needed to become more coherent, disciplined, and persistent to be effective. It appears to be the result of his position, his character, and his imperial ideologies. At Elder Dempster, he had an insider’s access while remaining an outsider who had not compromised himself in Leopold’s service. Shipping and financial information showed him the violence and its origins in Leopold’s system of rule. As an Elder Dempster rising star, Jones kept him on and tried to win him over after they had begun to disagree about the Congo, allowing him the space to make a principled resignation. As a journalist, Morel could write quickly and knew editors who could print his Congo articles. Like Williams, he was constitutionally inclined to denounce wrongdoing with little concern for personal risk. Most importantly, his ideas were changing, mostly because of Mary Kingsley, the woman who had burst from obscurity in the mid-1890s with books, articles, and lectures based on African voyages that included exploration, scientific discovery, ethnography, and a new conception of how imperial powers should rule their African subjects.
Mary Kingsley was a different kind of imperialist, contrasting with Flora Shaw (later Lady Lugard). Kingsley observed disparagingly that Shaw was “imbued with this modern form ofjubilee imperialism, it is her religion.” Unlike Shaw, Kingsley saw misguided practices everywhere. She tirelessly advocated for a new African colonial policy, based largely on her own observations.
When Morel began corresponding with Kingsley in 1899, he had already begun to incorporate consideration for Africans into his commercially oriented free-trade ideas. This intellectual stew led Kingsley to first contact the kindred spirit she saw in “E.D.M.,” intrigued by an article supporting her position on colonial expenditure. In his brief correspondence with “Dear Miss Kingsley” (February 1899 to March 1900), Morel honed his ideas and absorbed many of hers. They were of one mind about the flaws of imperial administration. They believed free trade made for a mutually beneficial relationship between Europeans and Africans, economically, culturally, and administratively. This reflected their robust respect for Africans and African culture, including practices such as polygamy that were distasteful to most Europeans. They supported traditional African authority structures in a framework of indirect rule, abhorred most punitive military expeditions, condemned coercion and forced labor, and supported African legal practices. Kingsley’s ideas sprang in part from a backward-looking desire to return to the administrative practices of informal empire, but her respect for African culture marked her also as a progressive. Morel expressed profound gratitude for years to come, writing, “any good ideas that I may have on these subjects, are almost entirely attributable to her influence. I ... propose to the best of my ability to carry on her teachings and the lessons she inculcated.”
The transformation of Elder Dempster’s George de Ville into the activist journalist Edmund Dene Morel paralleled the maturing of his thought. Mary Kingsley always addressed him as Mr Morel, and within two years he was asking his most elevated contacts, Alfred Jones and John Holt, to do the same.
Kingsley wanted her ideas to become the cornerstone of a “Liverpool Sect” or “Liverpool School” uniting business leaders in sustained and coherent lobbying on colonial administration that would grow into true collaboration with the authorities. Although she found a ready welcome, and even friends, among leading men in the Liverpool, Manchester, and London Chambers of Commerce, they disappointed her; they seldom spoke with a single voice and had no staying power on issues that mattered to her. Kingsley’s dream of the Liverpool Sect as a broad alliance of the three great Chambers of Commerce never materialized. To Morel, she identified only one man as a true believer: John Holt, the head of the John Holt Ltd African trading company. Holt used her, as the others did, to advance his commercial interests, but he was in broader harmony with her ideas and willing to say so even when it was inexpedient. Like Kingsley, Holt had harsh words for his fellow African merchants when Morel tried to enlist them in Congo reform activism: “They take too shallow an idea of their lives and duties. They do not think of the basic laws affecting their trade and existence. They do not think below the surface of things.” The Liverpool Sect consisted of what Nworah calls the “family compact” of just three people: Kingsley, Holt, and Morel, with a few sympathizers, such as Dennett, who lectured with Kingsley, the adventurer Ralph Durand, the journalist Stephen Gwynn, and Kingsley’s close friend Alice Stopford Green, but no trade magnate besides Holt, who came to his concern for Africans through long residence among them and a keen appreciation for their value as customers.
After Kingsley’s untimely death in 1900 at the age of 37, the Sect survived because of the growing rapport between Holt and Morel. Kingsley had engineered this connection. After Morel wrote articles against the monopoly held by Sir George Goldie’s Royal Niger Company, Kingsley had commended Morel to Holt’s protection: “E.D.M. is a struggling young man with a family and Goldie is always nagging at Jones to get rid of him and I should be sorry for the family ifJones did.” Holt began working with Morel to seek redress for the confiscation of his goods in French Congo, where authorities had imitated Leopold’s monopoly concession system. From this inauspicious beginning ofpity and self-interest, Holt became Morel’s new mentor and more. Their relationship was both the echo and the culmination of their relationships with Kingsley. Holt found someone who could fight for his ideals as well as his interests, while Morel had an enthusiastic patron. In comparison to his strained relationship with Fox Bourne and his disappointing disagreement with Alfred Jones, it must have been a pleasure for the fatherless young man to have Holt’s effusive praise and nearly unconditional support, sometimes interrupted by paternal scolding.
Holt transmitted and reinforced Kingsley’s principles, leavened with his fundamental sympathy for the colonized. This appears in an 1895 letter to Fox Bourne regarding a briefly shared concern in West Africa:
I am a trader and as such am guilty in your eyes of many things ... but when it comes to protecting the native of the Niger basin I am willing to put selfish considerations and differences aside and to work all I can with you in what may help to advance a human being (to whom I owe so much) in the scale ofcivilisation and protecting him from unfair treatment and cruelty. My heart revolts at the idea of sacrificing human lives to spread trade or to further our humane ideas—I am with you in enforcing gentle and persuasive treatment when dealing with native races. Even on economical grounds I have ever considered it supreme folly to kill our customers as we sometimes do.
When a colonial abuse would seem to benefit an African trader, as in the use of forced labor for highway construction, its effects worried Holt:
If road-making is to be accomplished by injustice or oppression, for heaven’s sake let us have no roads for ever ... It is imperative that we should get rid of this military idea of doing everything by force ... It is a pity that these helpless people who are under our rule are not to be subjects of our care, and should be victims of such an inhuman and unjust system.
Morel’s approach to the Congo question reflected the same sympathy.
In February 1901, Morel left Elder Dempster on good terms and became assistant editor of the journal West Africa, which gave him more time to devote to his writing and freedom to pursue Congo reform. When the Congo apologists accused him of being a merchant lobbyist in 1902, Morel indignantly responded, “That is utterly erroneous. I am subsidized by no one and in no particular interest.” No longer a merchant spokesman, Morel’s vision of what was right for Africa dominated his writing for the next decade.
Morel’s attack on the Congo Free State stressed the rights of the Africans living under colonial rule. Historians have disagreed about the source of this focus. Jules Marchal posits that it came from Mary Kingsley, but she did not use this language in her letters to him or in her books, which talked of preferred methods of administration: what was better, not what was due. Kevin Grant sees a connection with Fox Bourne’s ideas about rights; under his leadership the APS actively promoted aboriginal rights. However, Fox Bourne’s letters to Morel never bring up African rights, and his 1897-1902 writings about the Congo almost never spoke of rights, concentrating on the response required by justice, mercy, and treaty obligations. Goldie observed that Morel’s approach was “a perfectly good one but it was not the point that was usually taken by the Aborigines’ Protection Society.”
Morel’s intellectual guide was John Holt, who urged him to advocate for “more regard for the rights and interests of the people God has called us to rule over” and “protection of their rights and liberties.” Although Kingsley did not talk about rights, Holt attributed to her “a just recognition of human rights among those we govern, no matter what their colour, intelligence, or degree of natural mental evolution.” Rights, God’s will, compassion, and humanitarianism mingled with the benefits of free trade in Holt’s ideology as expressed to Morel. When Morel first publicly criticized Leopold’s regime in 1900, with nine anonymous articles and letters in The Speaker, he referred to treaty obligations but not to rights. Although rhetoric of native rights had been available to Morel from the APS and the Positivists, it is telling that he did not adopt it until after he engaged with Holt.
By this point, the APS’s Congo agitation had revived. Fox Bourne connected with Belgian critics of the Congo, leading to better information flow. The cause benefited from new missionary testimony, most notably that of Rev. William Sheppard of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission (APCM) in the Kasai region, delivered by his superior, Rev. William Morrison. Morel’s vigorous attack on the Congo in The Speaker and other publications contributed to this revival and brought him into contact with Fox Bourne and Dilke. Morel maintained a somewhat tense collaboration with Fox Bourne in 1900-03, punctuated with apologies on both sides for real and imagined slights. Fox Bourne took information from Morel and used him to disseminate testimony that the APS had gathered. In return, he introduced Morel to men such as Lorand and Vandervelde. Morel grumbled that Fox Bourne, “lives ... on my efforts, but, after all the main thing is to get the thing publicly ventilated.” Fox Bourne intended that the APS and Morel should “press away on parallel lines,” which meant keeping Morel at a distance. All the same, they moved the cause along.
Morel’s emphasis on the perverse nature of Leopold’s system of government and its economic underpinning revolutionized the hitherto ineffective movement. As Louis first observed, this conceptualization gave the campaign energy and staying power. Fox Bourne’s previous tropes of poorly supervised officials and badly enforced rules did not attract much interest. After all, every colonial power had miscreant officials. But if the Congo government’s policies and underlying principles were at fault, then change would come only through the use of power to force Leopold to transform or surrender the Congo. Dilke highlighted this as Morel’s chief intellectual contribution: “You showed us that all depended upon the right of the original black inhabitants of the soil to own their property and carry on trade.”
British commercial interests should have been natural allies for this approach, but Fox Bourne had not reached out to them. Morel’s campaign against French Congo monopolies led his contacts at the Chambers of Commerce, such as London’s Francis Swanzy (of the West African trading firm F. & A. Swanzy Co.), to take note of the Congo Free State’s concession system. In 1902 several chambers came out in support of Congo reform.
Both Morel and Fox Bourne were writing books condemning Leopold’s Congo using the language of native rights. In November, Morel’s Affairs of West Africa devoted three scathing chapters to the Congo, followed in January 1903 by Fox Bourne’s more extensive Civilisation in Congoland, detailing Free State history, atrocity reports, and failed attempts to work through Leopold. Both books received wide publicity and contributed to the parliamentary resolution of 20 May 1903 that asked the British government to consult with other powers regarding the Congo Free State’s adherence to the Berlin Act.
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