Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The CRA set out to unite the worlds of philanthropy, religion, and commerce. Despite the efforts of Morel and Holt, the third leg was never as strong as the other two.
Within the business world, two groups had direct stakes in the outcome: rubber manufacturers and African merchants. Comparing the rubber companies to the chocolate firms is instructive. After years of investigation, the chocolate firms boycotted cocoa from the islands, but rubber firms stood aloof from the Congo question. George Cadbury made the connection, writing “I have often longed that some great india-rubber manufacturer would take the same course that my nephew, Mr W.A. Cadbury, adopted, and it might have had years ago some influence in bringing public opinion in Belgium to bear on the awful conditions existing in the Congo.” There were numerous rubber companies, however, and they did not have the close relationships or moral compass that led the big three chocolate firms to concern themselves with the issue of their suppliers’ labor, however slowly.
The rubber industry’s evolving attitude appeared in their chief organs of opinion, the biweekly India-Rubber Journal of London and the monthly India Rubber World of New York. In 1900-03, both papers came to believe the evidence of misrule. The Journal took a strongly reformist position that led to some hostile Congophile correspondence, while the World took a longer view, worrying that the reckless, forced exploitation was going to exhaust the Congo’s rubber. By fall 1904, both publications retreated from their positions. At the end of Morel’s US visit, the World became agnostic: “Comment upon the purely political aspects of the Congo controversy is beyond the scope of the India Rubber World. We do not even know whether there is, or is not, a basis for the charge that commercial rather than humane motives have inspired ... [the reform campaign].” The Journal reversed its position completely. It had criticized May French Sheldon when she embarked for the Congo in 1904 as the tool of the Congo Free State, but on her return it approved of her favorable reports about the Congo administration. The paper reproduced a book that argued that forced labor was a philanthropic way to teach Africans how to work. The changes at both journals suggest that Leopold’s Press Bureau had paid them for favorable coverage. Although the Journal continued to challenge “Mr Morel and his friends” for the next few years, the arrival of a new editor in 1907 caused the paper to embrace neutrality. At about the same time the World again began treating the reformers’ allegations as fact. However, like Morel, neither journal at any time advocated that the rubber manufacturers do anything different.
The African merchants, except for Holt and Deuss, were lukewarm donors to the CRA. When the Belgian government began opening the country to free trade in 1910, not a single British company made a move to begin trading in the Congo. Far from operating a conspiracy to get their hands on the riches of the Congo, the Liverpool merchants had little interest in this region. Although the sources are silent on the reasons for this, it would appear that the brutality of the regime had damaged the Congo as a land of opportunity for trading. The main British interest in the Congo in these years came from William Lever, a manufacturer. His scheme involved palm-oil plantations, not trading—the plan we have seen Guinness praising in speeches in Chapter 3.
Morel had rested his greatest hopes on the Chambers of Commerce, particularly Liverpool, Manchester, and London. In 1901, he had convinced them to support a resolution against the French Congo for obstructing John Holt’s trade. The Congo Free State evil was even more egregious but with the key difference that it had not harmed British companies directly, which dampened interest at the Chambers.
The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce should have been a natural ally. In the 1890s, it had supported humanitarian causes such as ending slavery in Morocco, Uganda, and Zanzibar. John Holt for many years was Vice-Chairman of its African Trade Section and held positions on its governing bodies. Morel had made many contacts that could be useful to the CRA as an honorary member of the Section and served on its Committee starting in 1902, thanks to Alfred Jones, who had not given up trying to woo the younger man and even invested ?500 in the West African Mail at its founding to this end. However, when it came to rallying the Chamber on the Congo, Holt and Morel had to deal with his active opposition. Now Sir Alfred Jones, he was the African Trade Section’s Chairman, the President of the Chamber, and the Congo Free State’s Consul in Liverpool. The man who had been Morel’s mentor in the 1890s and who had supported him in 1900-1903 to dull his Congo advocacy had become his opponent.
Although the African Trade section’s members included several CRA donors, such as James Irvine, Hahnemann Stuart, G.A. Moore, and Joseph Crewdson, Jones was able to quash any discussion of the Congo at the Chamber. Morel refused to run for re-election to the African Trade Section’s Committee in 1904, claiming that the leader of the CRA could not serve with the Congo Free State’s most effective advocate in Britain. Holt decided against formally challenging Jones on the grounds of conflict of interest because his presidency had otherwise been successful. Caught between Holt and Jones, the Liverpool Chamber could not take a stand on the Congo, a victory for Jones.
After Jones hired May French Sheldon, Lord Mountmorres, and Marcus Dorman as supposedly independent investigators at an expense far exceeding the CRA’s annual revenue and distributed literature attacking the reformers, Morel became obsessed with him. When Jones told the Belgian press in 1906 that the CRA was fading away, unsupported by the British public, Morel attacked Jones personally in the press. The next year, Jones put the cocoa scandals on the Section’s agenda to focus attention on British complicity in slavery, prompting Holt to publicly question Jones’s humanitarian credentials. After some jousting in the press, Morel turned a 4,000-person Congo meeting at Sun Hall, Liverpool, into a forum for denouncing Jones. The Chamber steered a middle ground, voting Jones a message of support and sending a resolution drafted by the African Trade Section to endorse Belgian annexation of the Congo Free State subject to the Berlin Act and Britain’s treaty rights, without mentioning the rights of the natives. At long last the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce had, however reluctantly, made a statement in favor of Congo reform. This was their last Congo action, because Grey’s policy satisfied them. Holt apologized publicly to Jones, at the same time deploring the Chamber’s long silence. Morel’s final observation on the matter, “What a miserable body the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce is!” was much the same as Kingsley and Holt’s conclusion a decade before. Jones and Leopold had won most of the rounds. The long struggle to get even a tepid endorsement from the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce highlighted how little support the cause had among the Liverpool commercial community.
The situations in London and Manchester were similar. CRA Executive Committee member Francis Swanzy, a prominent merchant, was Chairman of the West African Trade Section of the London Chamber of Commerce. But just as in Liverpool, a prominent Congophile held a position of great influence: Sir Albert Rollit, MP, Knight Commander of the Order of Leopold and a member of the Supreme Council of the Congo Free State, had been President of the London Chamber from 1893-98 and served as President of the Association of Chambers of Commerce in 1894-98 and 1901-02. He stifled the Congo question in the London Chamber right through 1913. Unlike Jones, Rollitt had no role in the West African Trade Section, so Swanzy could and did convince the Section to act independently several times. In Manchester, the Chamber worried that endorsing reform might jeopardize the Congo market for its manufactures. Arthur Hutton of the African Trade Section occasionally attended Congo events, but only informally.
In November 1907, the Antwerp Chamber of Commerce asked the British Chambers of Commerce to help end the Congo reform campaign. Morel riposted by asking the Chambers to pass resolutions calling for the restoration of Congo treaty rights in commerce for merchants and natives. He succeeded in ten cities but was stymied by Rollit at the national association. This spurred the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce to action; for the next two years, Herbert Shaw (Secretary) and Lord Joicey (President) publicized the Congo reform message. In 1909, assisted by John Harris, they led a deputation representing several Chambers to Grey to convey their support for his policy of not recognizing the annexation until Belgium instituted commercial and humanitarian reforms. In their greatest triumph, Shaw and Joicey obtained the support of 21 chambers for a Congo resolution at the 1910 Associated Chambers meeting over the objections of London, Liverpool and four others. After this, the alliance with the Chambers withered; Grey and Belgium seemed to be on the right track. They had served the cause of reform, but not as well nor as consistently as Morel had hoped. It is easy to blame the machinations of Jones and Rollit. However, Morel’s focus on the three most important Chambers where the opposition was strongest blinded him to the possibilities of cultivating the smaller chambers. The 1907 resolutions, 1909 deputation, and 1910 coup at the Associated Chambers meeting showed what was possible with sustained effort from the CRA in partnership with sympathetic men at the Chambers.
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