Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Organizing Congo Reform
In matters like organising a national campaign, many things have to be considered and the thing has to be worked out on business lines and with grim hard labour. I have experience! ... I want to keep this machine rolling with one steady purpose in view, not distracted at all by side winds.—E.D. Morel, 1909
With the creation of the Congo Reform Association, the resilience, resources, and institutional impact of a voluntary association opened avenues for protest that had been previously unavailable. Its structure and activities could enable or hinder efforts to make the most of these opportunities. Within a well-designed structure, the movement could capitalize on the reformers’ energies and talents, but a poorly functioning organization would squander their work. On one hand, the hagiographic tradition sees the CRA as Morel’s tool for a successful campaign, but one historian takes the opposite view, describing it as Morel’s vehicle for “the failed strategies of protest,” becoming successful only after it engaged Quaker financial resources andJohn and Alice Harris’s talents to develop a mass movement. The Association’s organization and finances illuminate this question and provide another way to understand the movement. Its structure affected how the CRA functioned, limiting as well as enhancing possibilities.
Casement, Morel, and their allies formed the Association because they recognized that the battleground had changed. Through agitation in the press and lobbying, loosely affiliated activists had brought about the critical Parliamentary debate of May 1903. The young MP Herbert Samuel, coordinating with Morel, Fox Bourne, and Dilke, put forward a resolution calling on His Majesty’s Government to confer with the Berlin Act signatories regarding the Congo Free State’s treatment of natives and trading monopolies. After amendment at the government’s request to soften the presumption of the Congo Free State’s guilt, the resolution passed without a division, meaning that its passage could be described as unanimous, although not many MPs were present.
The consequences were momentous. Foreign Secretary Lansdowne commissioned Casement’s voyage of inquiry, communicated in August to the 12 European Berlin Act signatories, and published Casement’s report in
Figure 3.1 The first issue of the Official Organ of the CRA
Source: LSE Library’s collections, MOREL F1/11/5.
February 1904. However, a turning point is not victory. The Foreign Office did not convince the other signatories to act even after receiving Casement’s report.
In Britain, Casement’s report created a sensation but, as Casement predicted, it did not lead to the decisive action favored by the reformers. Casement argued that it would take a dedicated organization to keep the flames of indignation alive, which in turn would push the Foreign Office and the government to put pressure on Leopold. This was a conventional approach taken by special-purpose organizations such as the Society for the Suppression ofthe Opium Trade and the Friends of Armenia. Morel, coming from outside this culture, initially planned for not much more than a press campaign in conjunction with Guinness’s public meetings. Casement would provide unofficial guidance behind the scenes; as a Foreign Office official, he could not formally join. Just after the CRA’s inauguration on 23 March 1904, Morel proposed a more sophisticated plan of action, which required a more robust organization, the first of a number of changes put into place as the CRA’s needs evolved.
Morel asserted that the CRA was altogether new: “This Association has been conducted as probably no Association of the kind has ever been conducted, or ever will be.” However, the group organized along lines set down by hundreds of voluntary associations in the previous century. Morel had no formal guide for good governance, but the British Charity Commission since published such a guide, listing common-sense criteria for a well-run association. The organization should be clear about its purpose and direction, have a strong board, be structured appropriately for its purpose, improve its practices, manage its finances prudently, and be financially and operationally transparent. As time went on, the CRA adopted more of the practices that characterized well-run associations then and now.
Morel’s first steps were to assemble an Executive Committee, develop a written program, and recruit an aristocratic president. Overall direction was to be in Morel’s hands, as Casement and Guinness had insisted. Today this role is often called executive director or CEO, but in Morel’s day, the Secretary usually led the organization, as was the case with Fox Bourne at the Aborigines’ Protection Society and at the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade, where Secretary (and Congo activist) Joseph G. Alexander was the group’s leading figure. However, this depended on the Secretary’s character. The AntiSlavery Society’s paid Secretary, Travers Buxton, was, in his own words, not
Figure 3.2 The First Executive Committee of the CRA
Source: West African Mail Special Monthly Congo Supplement, May 1904, from LSE Library’s collections, MOREL F1/11/5.
“strong in initiative.” He handled routine business and published the Society’s journal but otherwise followed the direction of the group’s Committee or its President, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, a distant relation. After John and Alice Harris joined it as Organising Secretaries in 1910, however, John Harris became the chief figure, eclipsing the Buxtons and the Committee. Harris, in this as in many other things, had modeled his practices on Morel’s.
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