Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The Battle in the Press
Much of the rhetorical war took place in the press. The stakes were high because of the British press’s pivotal role from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, peaking in 1905-10. W.T. Stead may have exaggerated when he wrote that the press had displaced the House of Commons to become “the Chamber of Initiative,” but the fourth estate had become a political force to be reckoned with. The press was the conduit bringing the reformers’ rhetoric to the reading public, the politically influential, and the politicians and bureaucrats on whom the cause depended. Reformers held two related though apparently contradictory goals; they hoped to shape public opinion and at the same time show decision-makers that public opinion backed their cause. In this age before polling, what appeared in the papers defined public opinion.
This hinged on underlying ideas about the press as a leader or follower of public opinion. Most proprietors and editors believed in their ability to lead public opinion, but the way events unfolded in practice caused recurrent crises of faith. On some issues, the press appeared to sway the public mood while at other times public opinion was impervious to press leadership. This problem was an opportunity, thought Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid, who had been founding president of the national journalists’ association and president of the Society of Newspaper Proprietors and Managers. Gilzean Reid believed the press had come to reflect public opinion rather than lead it, a position not consistent with his efforts to boost the Congo Free State in the press. Reflecting the opinion of the public, not just that of the editor and proprietor, gave newspapers more influence with decision-makers. It is this influence that the reformers sought. Morel had no illusions that rallying editors would by itself be sufficient. He pointed this out to Dilke in early 1904: “You say that Parliament and Press in this country are unanimous. Yes, that is so; nevertheless the country is dead as yet. People don’t know about the thing and don’t understand it even if they have heard of it ... the British Government will get disheartened and throw up the sponge if we cannot stir up Public Opinion in a more wide-spread form.” This mirrored Casement’s own argument for the CRA’s main objective: “to enlighten, systematically and continuously, public opinion in this country, and abroad, upon the actual condition of the Congo people ... Sporadic meetings and occasional lectures and articles in the press from time to time are not sufficient.” A flood of articles, letters, and public meetings were necessary to stimulate interest and convince politicians and bureaucrats that the reformers’ position represented public opinion.
Britain teemed with newspapers, with 231 daily papers published in the British Isles and another 2,230 of lesser frequency, most tied to particular political philosophies and parties. When the CRA formed, there were 21 daily newspapers in London alone, which Stead conceptualized in four categories. In the first rank came The Times and the Westminster Gazette with their limited circulation, reputation for authority, and multi-partisan readership despite their political allegiances. The next group boasted editorial excellence and/ or good parliamentary connections and a wider readership, such as the Daily News, Morning Post, Daily Chronicle, and Pall Mall Gazette. A third group had little influence but the biggest share of advertising, while a fourth group had no influence. Some provincial dailies aspired to the second group, especially the Manchester Guardian and the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury. The provincial press included hosts of daily and weekly papers; in Manchester, seven competed with the Guardian for readers’ attention. In addition, there were weekly, biweekly, and monthly journals of all kinds, such as the New Age, Nineteenth Century and After, Athenaeum, Economist, Spectator, and Speaker. Politicians preferred the press over noisy meetings as an indicator of public opinion.
Morel believed in the power of the press to stir up interest. In 1897, he wrote his Pall Mall Gazette article “to urge upon public opinion in this country the need of a little generosity towards the first colonization attempts of a small power,” that is, to be less harsh on King Leopold’s colonial venture, which, following proper apologist practice, he conflated with Belgium. Within three years, he was writing to educate the public in the opposite perspective. Casement shared his hope that a concerted press campaign would enlighten the public. Casement, though, at times saw failure where Morel saw continued reasons for hope. When the CRA was but nine months old, he was already near despair:
So with the general public—I find only what I have long been preaching to you, that interest in the Congo question is practically dead. No one cares a d-n about it—and it is quite useless—nay worse than useless to keep on flogging a dead horse. That is my conviction forced upon me. The press paragraphs in favour of our Congo views are only being inserted with ever increasing difficulty by the few friends the movement has: they find growing repugnance to touch the question—or find room for it. I fear you have made some even turn their backs on it ... simply thro’ a natural revulsion which many human beings feel to being lectured. That’s their view, not mine, but it exists ... You for your part must, my dear Morel, go slower and not bombard them.
Although the “practically dead” sentence has been quoted to show that Casement was ready to give up or that he wanted to intensify the campaign, this letter is a plea to Morel to slow down, because editors’ complaints about too many articles and letters worried Casement. However, his fears were groundless. Though they expressed occasional frustrations with Morel’s bombardment, as Sir Edward Russell at the Liverpool Daily Post did in 1907, the CRA’s press penetration only increased for the next four years as a broader public embraced the movement and newspapers both led and followed public opinion.
As an organization that relied on the press to extend its reach to many readers who might never attend an atrocity meeting, the CRA had an extensive and varied relationship with the press. Mary Kingsley had expanded Morel’s circle of press contacts and shepherded his first anti-Congo article to Nineteenth Century and then to Speaker despite her worries that it would jeopardize his position at Elder Dempster.117 Fortunately for Morel, the press had long been skeptical of the Congo. As he noted in 1894, the Congo Free State had been “the butt of very unfriendly criticism” from the English press since its founding, or, as the British ambassador reported in 1897, “M. van Eetvelde [Congo chief minister] complains that that during the past ten years he has never seen anything complimentary said of the Congo in the English press.”118 It is not surprising that the press was generally receptive to Morel and the CRA. The conservative Morning Post was a stalwart CRA ally, burnishing the campaign’s nonpartisan nature, until the paper’s ownership changed in 1908.119 George Cadbury’s Daily News was less reliable, despite his support for the CRA, because he exerted less editorial control than most owners.120 The Times was the major holdout among the dailies until Morel won over Valentine Chirol, the foreign editor, in 1906, by providing information, even scoops, in dozens of letters over a six-month period.121 In consequence, Chirol fired his Brussels correspondent, who for years tilted The Times against reform under the influence of Leopold’s Press Bureau.122
Converting The Times meant unanimous support for Congo reform among the London dailies and the leading regional papers except the Birmingham Daily Post.123 This consensus broke down after Morel’s 1909 attack on the Foreign Office. The Times was the most important casualty, but others also backed the Foreign Office. This may have affected coverage; only one paper published his 1909 press release that the Duke of Norfolk had joined the CRA, a great coup, because he was the leading Catholic peer.124 The papers continued to support pressure for Congo reform, but many distanced themselves from Morel after this point.
One periodical never deviated: Morel’s West African Mail and its successor, the African Mail, marketed to African merchants and colonial officials. Subsidized by Holt and Cadbury and edited by Morel or, more often, his        
Figure 7.1 West African Mail masthead
Source: West African Mail, from LSE Library’s collections, MOREL/F11/3.
assistant, the weekly paper struggled to increase its small but loyal following of subscribers and advertisers to a level that could bring its finances into the black. Lest anyone forget Morel’s underlying motivation, the paper’s motto proclaimed VeritasInterrita (Truth Undaunted or Fearless Truth). Almost every issue had one or more Congo articles. The WAM included a monthly “Congo Supplement” until Cadbury convinced Morel that the CRA’s organ should be a standalone publication. Being editor of the WAM had the benefit of making Morel a press insider as well as an activist, smoothing his approach to editors at the great national dailies.
The Aborigines’Friend and the Anti-Slavery Reporter had long reported what other papers said about their activities and causes, and in turn tried to lure the newspapers to amplify their words by reprinting them. Morel intensified these practices, starting with the first issue of the WAM, where he included a page of press testimonials for Affairs of West Africa} After a CRA deputation met with Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office, Morel made sure that the British Press Association sent a full account of the proceedings to all its subscribers. The next month’s Organ featured the reactions from over 60 periodicals, most of which he gleaned from a clipping service that sent him Congo articles that appeared in other papers. When the CRA put out an “Appeal to the Nation,” the Organ noted that it had appeared in full or in part in eight London dailies and at least 12 provincial dailies, reprinting editorials from 11 of these papers. This self-regarding coverage showed WAM and Organ readers that the CRA’s positions were widely acknowledged, amplified by Morel’s practice of sending hundreds of free copies of the Organ to the editors of British, foreign and colonial newspapers, influential politicians and bishops, the more important London clubs, and key allies of the movement such as Green who would distribute them to their contacts. The Organ grew steadily, with print runs reaching 2,150 by 1910. Even fundraising had its role in influencing public opinion. Morel sent the March 1905 appeal for funds in The Friend to at least 22 other papers. The appeal had weak fundraising results but kept the issue in the public eye.
Congo reform rhetoric did not go unchallenged in the press. Even the most supportive of papers sometimes printed letters from people criticizing the CRA or defending Leopold; the ensuing controversy could be good for circulation.
A typical example, discussed in Chapter 3, was the exchange in the New Age with Catholic MP Hilaire Belloc.
More serious was outright opposition. Leopold’s Press Bureau, which paid Belgian, German, and other papers for friendly coverage, found the large British papers less susceptible to its financial inducements, but the Congo had supporters among smaller newspapers and journals, paid or not. Cutcliffe Hyne notified Morel that a “big newspaper editor here in the north” refused to review King Leopold’s Rule in Africa because the other side paid better. The unnamed paper might have been one of Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid’s. The Liverpool Journal of Commerce was for the most part Jones’s mouthpiece. Jones’s reach went much farther, however. Just after the CRA began, he planted an attack on Morel in the Liverpool Daily Post, bought 10,000 copies of the paper, put piles of them on African steamships, and sent them to everyone he could think of, including every MP.
The South African-born editor of African World and Cape-Cairo Express, Leo Weinthal, was hostile to Congo reform because he opposed the African rights advocated by Morel’s West African Mail. He was sure from his own experience that Africans were like children who needed to be compelled to work. The initially civil debate between Weinthal and Morel deteriorated as Weinthal began to call the CRA the tool of West African merchants and Morel accused Weinthal of taking (and twisting) WAM articles without attribution. Finally, Weinthal wrote that “further correspondence between us—private or otherwise—is out of the question,” suggesting that Morel, in a missing letter, had accused him of being on Leopold’s payroll.
Charles Diamond’s Catholic Herald was the most passionately hostile paper, attacking the CRA and Morel as the morally bankrupt tools of sinister interests who would do anything to hurt Catholicism and destroy Leopold’s creation. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade or bully other papers into cutting their links to Morel. His chief impact seems to have been to make British Catholics wary of the reform movement. Their suspicion was understandable, because relations with Protestants were not peaceful. Liverpool had anti-Catholic marches, meetings, and even rioting in 1906 and 1909, the latter leaving one person dead and driving 157 Catholic families (and, in retaliation, 110 Protestant families) from their homes.
The reformers found that their rhetoric, even when exemplary, brought with it certain risks in the marketplace of ideas. When opponents attacked Morel or the CRA in the press, Morel would usually respond with guns blazing, sometimes jumping to conclusions and often overreacting to statements that he might better have left unanswered. In the CRA’s early months, Cutcliffe Hyne, who had been to the Congo, lectured for the Association, wrote for the WAM, and wrote a Congo novel, complained, “You give too much prominence to missionary evidence. No doubt all the missionaries whose evidence you print are excellent men; but beyond doubt also there are a lot of missionaries on the Congo who are extremely bad eggs and the Powers that be and the public here know it and when they see ‘letter from the Rev. Blank of the Particular Baptist Methodist Mission of Botato’ they either don’t read or don’t swallow it.” Relying on an alliance of humanitarianism, commerce, and religion meant three points of vulnerability rather than one. Some attacked humanitarians (as Morel had previously done) as ineffectual do-gooders. The involvement of businessmen triggered speculations about a hidden profit motive. The agitation’s religious backers could become too fervent. Socialists could find both commercial and religious activism problematic. Ramsay Macdonald noted in 1908, “I find that a great many are under the impression that it is a mere Non-Conformist hubbub,” illustrating that the Nonconformist conscience was not necessarily a strength.
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