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The Internationalist Congo Reform Movement

No pains will be spared in endeavouring to bring about international action for the suppression of abominations against which the Society has been protesting for the past six years or more.[1]—Fox Bourne, 1903

It is possible for men differing in politics, creed, class, and even nationality to combine in common and effective action against systematic wrong-doing.[2]—Morel, 1913


To succeed, the reform movement had to affect events outside the United Kingdom, beginning with international diplomacy. However, the reform agitation had elements better understood as internationalism or what historians call transnationalism. The nineteenth century, when nationalism spread through Europe, also saw the development of internationalism based on national organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, that reached across borders to build bonds, taking form as international institutions, conferences, and exhibitions. This generated ongoing cross-border connections between individuals from different countries to share knowledge, coordinate practices, and seek solutions to problems.[3] Its prosaic side included practical efforts such as post offices coordinating shipping and trade organizations keeping up with recent developments. Scientists collaborated to advance their fields and activists of every variety internationalized their causes. Internationalism also meant the union of political movements, such as the socialist internationals. At the highest level, internationalism aimed to set up bodies and mechanisms to regulate interstate cooperation and warfare.

Internationalism seemed to offer stability and progress, and this ideological foundation made it, as Daniel Laqua describes it, “a movement, a process, and an outlook.”[4] The convening of the first World’s Congress of International Associations in May 1910 was its epitome: an institution to determine how international associations could cooperate and to formulate a standard legal framework for their governance.[5]

Among humanitarians, cross-border cooperation had a long history. Amanda Moniz has observed that eighteenth-century philanthropists in American and British voluntary associations saw themselves as an international community of activists.[6] By the late nineteenth century, this form of humanitarian mobilization had spread to other European countries and indeed around the world. Internationalism gave humanitarians additional opportunities. For instance, the Congo reformers considered referring the issue to the International Court of Arbitration and attended the international conferences of other groups.[7]

Whereas internationalism was an idea of the time, transnationalism is a present-day concept that can connote aspects of internationalism or indicate the scholar’s construction of a phenomenon transcending national boundaries. Grant, Levine, and Trentmann have pointed out the imperial contribution to transnationalism in developing international law, managing the movement of people and ideas, and generating issues that went beyond the nation-state. Transnational analysis covers phenomena such as diasporas, multiple identities, and cultural hybridization due to dislocation. Most importantly for the present work, transnational communities, connections, and ideas subvert the sovereignty of the nation-state in ways more complex than the application of state-to-state power alone.[8]

From its earliest days, the Congo reform movement had transnational qualities. This study dates the first widespread questions about Leopold’s Congo to the advocacy of Williams, an American, and pegs the start of the campaign to the moment when an Englishman, Fox Bourne, publicized the evidence of a Swedish Baptist from an American missionary society. The movement paradoxically succeeded so well as a national movement in Britain in part because it concerned itself with problems external to the British Empire, offering a point of unity after the internal divisions of the Boer War. But notwithstanding occasional fantasies of using unilateral British military pressure to solve the problem, activists and Foreign Secretaries alike generally believed that British action alone would be insufficient to change Leopold’s system.

Many of the era’s international humanitarian causes had their origins in situations internal to empires that became internationalized when foreigners became interested. In contrast, the Congo Free State’s gestation occurred in the burgeoning internationalist trend of the late 1800s. The internationalist spirit was apparent among those interested in Africa. The Societe Geographique de Paris called an international conference in 1875 to discuss Africa. Savorgnan de Brazza had advocated international cooperation in exploration. A German scientific explorer, Georg Schweinfurth, called for setting up free states ruled by Africans under European protection to end the African slave trade. Drawing on these precedents and ideas, Leopold convened the Geographical Conference of Brussels in 1876 to discuss his proposal to set up African scientific and medical posts in part to end the slave trade. They also endorsed his idea for a permanent central organization, the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA), to direct these activities, with national bodies responsible for local publicity, fundraising, and communication with the AIA. Leopold’s vision of a strong center and subordinate national bodies went against the dominant model, in which national groups came together to create and direct an international secretariat. Centralization allowed Leopold to play the shell game that ended with his personal vehicle, the Association International du Congo (AIC), in control of the Congo, retaining the flag and the aura of the genuinely international AIA. Leopold’s new state took concrete form in the world of international relations when, following the examples of the US and Germany, every country attending the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85 recognized the AIC as sovereign. The Conference confirmed these expressions of bilateral legitimacy with a multilateral vote of confidence by allowing the AIC to accede to its culminating treaty. Within months, Leopold renamed the AIC’s realm the Congo Free State. Internationalism was a tool Leopold used to achieve his colonial ambitions.

With its origins in the sea foam of internationalism, the Congo Free State initially appeared to be the most attractive international creation of Europe in Africa. Its initial administration, military leadership, and missionaries came from Britain, the US, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, as well as Belgium, with workers and soldiers recruited from British colonies. This multinational presence became increasingly Belgian during the existence of the Free State, but never exclusively so.

Agitation for Congo reform took the inverse trajectory, becoming increasingly international. Dennett and Price brought their concerns to Britain in the 1880s and early 1890s. Belgian commercial interests agitated briefly against Leopold’s monopolization of trade in the early 1890s without involving other countries. George Washington Williams was the first critic to have a multinational audience. Sjoblom’s revelations stirred opinion in Sweden, Belgium, and elsewhere, but sparked a real movement only in Britain. In 1900, Morrison and Sheppard had provided fuel for the British movement and set the stage for a similar one in the United States. Fox Bourne started the movement’s transnational nexus through Lorand and Vandervelde.

The first official effort to build bridges between governments occurred in 1903, when Parliament directed the Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, to confer with the signatories of the Berlin Act. Neither the resulting Note nor the distribution of the Casement Report to the same countries in 1904 led to international cooperation. As described in Chapter 8, this strategy’s ineffectiveness was a failure of government internationalism. If the movement was going to express the resolve of the civilized world, then activists would have to create an international consensus of public opinion that governments would follow.

The lessons of the International Union and of Lansdowne’s Note were not lost on Morel. Like Fox Bourne, he had tried to stimulate interest in other countries, particularly France and the US. Fully half of his initial plan for the CRA involved building a multinational consensus.[9] Yet this plan, and all subsequent activity, was a country by country process, with different trajectories reflecting each country’s character, practices, and interests. The British CRA was essential to the transnational movement in distributing evidence, in spreading the word, and in the advice Morel could provide, but it could not direct events or conjure up functioning affiliates abroad the way it could in Britain.

In today’s parlance, Congo reform went viral by 1906, a reflection of the ever-denser network of global connection from faster travel, transport, and communications. The British Empire’s Dominions of Canada and Australia, and its future Dominions of New Zealand and South Africa all reverberated with echoes of the British movement. For example, a Congo Balolo Mission representative visiting New Zealand organized meetings and Protestant ministers in Canada prepared a petition.[10] However, no Congo Reform Associations formed in these places, and their governments, lacking authority in foreign affairs, did not act. There were other countries notably absent in the discussions of reform. The government of Sweden-Norway believed that the Congo troubles were the inevitable results of colonial conquest and therefore unremarkable.[11] A few individuals from Russia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal made their concerns known to Morel or in their own countries, but there was no sign of anything that could be called a campaign on the part of civil society or governments in these countries. The Balkan nations were more quiescent still. Much of Europe did not participate in the international movement, and those parts that did were uneven.

  • [1] Aborigines’ Friend, April 1903, 339-40.
  • [2] Organ, July 1913, 980.
  • [3] Martin Geyer and Johannes Paulmann, introduction to The Mechanics of Internationalism, eds Geyer and Paulmann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1-16.
  • [4] Daniel Laqua, The Age of Internationalism and Belgium, 1880-1930 (New York:Manchester University Press, 2013), 5.
  • [5] Brit. Emp. s.18, C85/32.
  • [6] Amanda Bowie Moniz, “‘Labours in the Cause of Humanity in Every Part of theGlobe’: Transatlantic Philanthropic Collaboration and the Cosmopolitan Ideal, 1760-1815,”PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2008), 240-41.
  • [7] Stead to Morel, 21 May 1903, F4/1.
  • [8] Kevin Grant, Philippa Levine, and Frank Trentmann, “Introduction,” BeyondSovereignty: Britain, Empire, and Transnationalism, c. 1880-1950 (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 2-8.
  • [9] CRA Plan of Campaign, 31 March 1904, F10/9:764-74.
  • [10] Organ, April 1906, 13.
  • [11] Liane Ranieri, Les Relations entre I’Etat Independant du Congo et 1’Italie (Brussels:Academie Royale des Sciences Coloniales, 1959), 151.
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