Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Austria-Hungary and Italy were most concerned with the Congo Free State’s effects on their own nationals. Austrian diplomacy attended to a single case, that of Gustav Maria Rabinek, an Austrian trader who in May 1901 had run afoul of the Katanga Company’s rubber monopoly on the Congo’s southern borders. After Rabinek appealed his sentence—one so severe that the civil judge at the trial protested in his favor—he died on the long journey to the capital in state custody, with all his goods confiscated by the Katanga Company. This affair linked many countries. The officer who arrested Rabinek, Louis Sarolea, was a first cousin of Belgian Consul Dr Charles Sarolea, a professor in Edinburgh, who debated with Morel in Scotland and America in 1904. Teixiero de Mattos, a Dutch merchant with a Portuguese name trading in British territory and one of Rabinek’s creditors, made the affair known by writing to Morel in July 1902. He had issues with the Congo State seizing his goods not long after. Morel’s immediate (and initially inaccurate) account of the Rabinek affair came to the attention of German merchant Ludwig Deuss, who had supplied trade goods to Rabinek. Deuss became one of the most passionate and persistent of the reformers, generously supporting the CRA and agitating continuously in Germany for over six years—the only German to do so. While Morel tried to convince the British Foreign Office to take a stand and sparred in the Morning Post with Gilzean Reid in February 1903, Rabinek’s German connections wrote to The Times, Rabinek’s heirs sued in Belgian and German courts, Deuss tried in vain to get the German Foreign Office interested, and Austrian diplomacy focused on obtaining a settlement, its only confrontation with the Congo Free State.
Italy’s involvement also centered on national concerns. Beginning in 1903, the Italian government agreed to loan Italian army officers to the Congo’s multinational military force on halfpay. The government approved this initiative, which it had previously refused, in conjunction with a proposal to settle tens of thousands of Italian emigrants in northeast Congo near Lake Kivu. An Italian representative, Captain Baccari, a medical doctor as well as a military officer, arrived in Boma on 1July 1903 for a yearlong assessment trip to Lake Kivu. When he returned to Italy in the fall of 1904, he disrupted the Foreign Ministry’s plans by reporting that Lake Kivu was unsuitable for settlement and that the Congo State deployed Italian officers inappropriately, including requiring them to use violence to collect provisions and rubber. Baccari’s sensational accounts ofhaving been poisoned and of the Governor General’s attempt to have him declared insane became notorious on his return. The government, determined to offend neither Britain nor Leopold, withheld the report and briefly imprisoned Baccari, spurring some newspapers not suborned by Leopold’s cash to undertake their own investigations. Baccari ended up fighting a duel with the Congo’s Consul in Genoa on 13 February 1906, which ended with both men lightly wounded. When the government finally released his report, public opinion had become skeptical about Italy’s Congo involvement. The emigration scheme died. King Victor Emmanuel halted military recruitment and forbade serving officers from renewing their contracts, and a later act of the Italian Parliament recalled all remaining officers by year end 1906. Leopold’s attempt to shield the Free State with Italian involvement had failed; the brouhaha served to keep the issue of Congo misrule before international opinion.
With Italian concerns addressed, the country’s interest faded quickly, as the Congo’s representative in Italy reported with relief in 1908. The press turned mostly to reprinting Belgian and English Congo articles without taking an editorial stand. In the Italian Parliament, only one delegate continued to bring up the Congo. No organization in Italy pushed Congo reform. The Italian government favored Belgian annexation subject to the terms of the Berlin Act to offend neither Britain nor Belgium. It promptly recognized the annexation.
In Switzerland and France, public interest in the Congo question went much deeper. Dr Rene Claparede, a public intellectual and journalist in Geneva, began to correspond with Morel as early as 1905 about the Congo. Determined to get Swiss newspapers to enter the controversy and awaken public opinion, he allied with the botanist Dr Hermann Christ-Socin of Basel. They were able propagandists and effective collaborators for the British and the French. He and Christ-Socin wrote books, pamphlets, and letters to the editor. They also held public meetings, including speakers Alice Harris and Morel. On 1 July 1908, Claparede founded the Swiss League for the Defense of the Natives of the Conventional Basin of the Congo (Ligue Suisse pour la defense des indigenes dans le bassin conventionnel du Congo) with 136 members. The membership reached 400 a year later, smaller than the CRA’s, but larger in proportion to the country’s population. Nobody could accuse Switzerland of commercial or colonial designs, and Claparede emphasized its small size and neutrality. This was also a weakness; Leopold and Belgium regarded Swiss opinion as background noise, especially without Swiss government involvement. Swiss activism helped keep the issue alive and neutralized the accusation that it was all about Liverpool merchant interests, but it had no impact on the decisions made about the Congo.
With the French Congo their primary concern, French activists brought passion and energy to the issue. The leaders of the French League for the Defense of the Natives of the Conventional Basin of the Congo (Ligue Frangaise pour la defense des indigenes dans le bassin conventionnel du Congo) included the “Kipling of Africa" Pierre Mille, Brazza’s former assistant Felicien Challaye, the elderly legal historian Paul Viollet, and the journalist-politician Gustave Rouanet. They had the sympathy of the famous writer Anatole France. However, these men found themselves scarcely able to affect public opinion, which did not distinguish the French Congo from other French colonies, and unable to influence the government. The French government’s priority was French Congo. The concession regime there resembled Leopold’s, though without the state’s direct investment or the same access to military force. The refusal of successive French governments to substantially reform this system prevented them from criticizing Leopold’s Congo. The radical editor-politician Georges Clemenceau, who had denounced the Congo Free State in 1896, paid no attention to reformers during his 1906-09 term as prime minister. A personal meeting with Charles Dilke in December 1906 failed to enlist his support. Clemenceau’s government recognized the 1908 Belgian annexation without conditions, unlike Britain, Germany, and even Italy.
Coordination among the national movements was difficult. The CRA’s British allies had representation on its Executive Committee, but the links to reformers in other countries were personal, usually through Morel. One answer, urged by the Swiss and attempted by the French, was an international organization to coordinate them under an International League for the Defense of the Natives in the Conventional Basin of the Congo (Ligue Internationale pour la defense des indigenes dans le bassin conventionnel du Congo), headquartered in Paris, in early
1908.  The Norwegian Nobel laureate author and political activist Bjornstjerne Bjornson, who had early lent his name to the cause, became its president d’honneur, but French men dominated the organization, comprising three- quarters of its initial Committee. It went to work with a will, calling for public support without regard to nationality and issuing pamphlets and a triennial journal, addressing both Congos. The international league lasted about a year. By early 1909, the others had accepted Morel’s suggestion to replace it with a consultative committee representing (not overseeing) national organizations, the International Committee for the Defense of the Congo Natives. The French failed to create a truly international Congo reform organization because of the need to operate through national governments. In the end, what mattered to the course of events were the actions of the British, Belgian, American, and German governments.
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