Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Lansdowne and Congo Reform
Long before Casement’s report, Salisbury had asked the Foreign Office staff to keep a running catalog of reports of Congo brutalities, envisioning a time when they might be useful. Much of this information came from Edward Bannister (Casement’s aunt’s husband, Vice-Consul 1893-95) and William Pickersgill (Consul 1892-98). Skeptical of Bannister, the Foreign Office asked Pickersgill to review the situation after the April 1897 debate in the House of Commons. Pickersgill substantiated Bannister’s reports and expanded their critique through observation and meetings with missionaries. The unpublished version of his report anticipated almost all of Casement’s 1903 criticisms.
Although Pickersgill convinced the Foreign Office and Salisbury that the Congo administration was brutal and mendacious, Assistant Undersecretary Sir Francis Bertie vetoed the recommendation of Clement Hill, the African
Department head, that Britain should address the issue. Britain wanted to secure the upper Nile, an aim not well-served by provoking Leopold, especially when evidence from missionaries and traders was seldom firsthand and European courts would not accept testimony from natives. Bertie, backed by Salisbury, felt that only the treatment of British subjects was a fit subject for diplomacy; the press would have to see to the general misrule of the Congo. Lord Salisbury refused the subsequent 1900 APS request to intervene, saying the fate of the Congolese people was not Britain’s affair.
However, Salisbury’s Foreign Office made a fateful decision in its waning months. Until late 1900, the Consul for Portuguese West Africa, French Tropical Africa, and the Congo Free State resided in Loanda, with a Vice-Consul in the Congo. Since Pickersgill’s transfer in 1898, the Loanda Consul had been Roger Casement. As Consul and on a special Boer War assignment, Casement had peppered the Foreign Office with analysis and advice about the Congo cruelties. In October 1900, Salisbury reversed the previous arrangement by moving Casement to the Congo with his Vice-Consul in Loanda. The Foreign Office had deliberately put a known critic of the Congo in a more senior position on the spot, suggesting that Salisbury did not intend Leopold’s immunity from criticism to be permanent.
Lansdowne became Foreign Secretary in November 1900, and soon prepared a draft dispatch, approved by King Edward, protesting the awarding of monopoly concessions for extended terms, the “appalling cruelty” of forced rubber collection, and the use of lethal force to compel labor. Fox Bourne had inspired this by arguing that Leopold’s lease of British territory made Britain responsible for his Berlin Act compliance there. However, Lansdowne did not send the dispatch, and then refused requests from Fox Bourne and Dilke to take up the Congo. The Congo Free State did not appear in the Africa Department’s 1902 annual review.
This hesitation came from several factors. Lansdowne believed that only the assembled Berlin Act signatories could address the Congo, but reconvening them could reopen other African issues. The Foreign Office thought that its evidence was legally insufficient; even Casement relayed hearsay about conditions in the interior. In addition, the Foreign Office fretted that
Parliament would complain about the suppression of previous evidence, so it continued suppressing evidence rather than deal with criticism for its inaction during the previous six years. The Foreign Office feared attacks from MPs more than arguments with Leopold. Only public opinion could challenge its refusal to act against the Congo.
Lansdowne’s Foreign Office did defend British interests. A French Congo concession company had confiscated property from two British merchant houses, John Holt Co. Ltd. and Hatton & Cookson. Holt and Morel orchestrated a barrage of newspaper articles and chamber of commerce resolutions that led the Foreign Office to protest formally to France. Morel drew the incorrect conclusion that the method of agitation, not the issue, made the difference. He pursued the same tactics regarding the Congo Free State, creating the public opinion that the Foreign Office had feared. To educate Parliament, MPs posed Congo questions to the Foreign Office’s Parliamentary Undersecretary, Lord Cranborne, on seven of the 42 days the House of Commons was in session before 20 May 1903, including giving notice on 22 April that they intended to place a bill before the House. On 20 May, Samuel put forward the resolution, supported by Dilke, Emmott, and Conservative Sir John Gorst.
Prime Minister Arthur Balfour intervened to soften the resolution, rather than trying to crush it by forcing a division of the House or by arguing for a narrower interpretation of Britain’s responsibilities. He would not have wanted to risk defeat on this peripheral but nonpartisan question, especially when the Foreign Office itself admitted that the evils were real. In taking this middle ground, he and Cranborne encouraged the indictment of the Congo. In consideration of what Cranborne called “public opinion not only in England but throughout Europe,” their action required Lansdowne to act on his sentiments.
The Foreign Office hoped to avoid unilateral action by pushing the matter to the court of arbitration in The Hague. However, Lansdowne undermined this by pursuing incompatible goals: to be cautious while expressing British concerns, and to respond to Parliament but not to intervene. His solution was to place responsibility on the Berlin signatories. Lansdowne signaled this via a Note to the British representatives in each capital on 8 August 1903. Although the three-page document shared concerns about the Congo Free State and its adherence to the Berlin Act, it provided no evidence and softened its tone with statements such as “His Majesty’s Government do not know precisely to what extent these accusations may be true.” After conferring, if they found that the Congo Free State had not fulfilled its obligations, they should “make representations.” However, he did not disclose the information in the Foreign Office files and did not propose any practical means of conferring. He closed by inviting suggestions, which “might” include resorting to the Hague Tribunal.
Lansdowne’s Note was simultaneously a thunderbolt, because no country had so publicly and officially made such broad charges against the Congo Free State, and at the same time a diplomatic trifle, because it recommended nothing and did not require an answer. He hoped that the Berlin signatories would do something without Britain leading the effort.
The Commons resolution forced Lansdowne to turn to Casement. The Congo Consul had proven erratic in his advocacy for the Congolese. He had originally requested and received permission to investigate conditions in the interior in 1902, but canceled the trip so he could improve the consul’s residence in Boma before going to Britain for his health. When Casement returned to the Congo in 1903, Lansdowne refused his renewed request because he wanted “materials for an indictment” about the mistreatment ofBritish subjects, a subject fully within British rights of remonstration. However, the 20 May resolution meant that the Foreign Office needed recent, official, firsthand information, so Lansdowne instructed Casement to begin his trip as soon as possible.
Balfour’s words and Lansdowne’s Note meant that Britain would have to present Casement’s report to foreign governments, Parliament, and, inevitably, the public. The report substantiated with direct testimony and evidence the nature of the Congo system that Casement had harped on since 1900. In February 1904, the Foreign Office released the report to Parliament and the signatories, largely intact with one major change. Lord Cranborne had left the Foreign Office on the death of his father, Lord Salisbury, and Earl Percy had succeeded him as Undersecretary. Percy recommended handling the Casement report privately with Leopold and perhaps an international commission. Lansdowne, mindful of Parliament, opted to make it public, but took the advice of the new Lord Salisbury to substitute coded initials for the names of both perpetrators and victims. Percy also proposed that they keep the report temporarily confidential to use in bargaining with Leopold, but Lansdowne wanted the Berlin signatories to take responsibility for next steps, so there was no initiative to suppress or bowdlerize it, apart from the coded initials.
The success or failure of the report hinged on the quality of the evidence. In transmitting Casement’s report to the Berlin Act signatories on 12 February 1904, Lansdowne said it related the present state of affairs, but again he did not make concrete suggestions, merely asking when he could expect answers to his 8 August 1903 Note. Osborne takes the contrarian position that Lansdowne thought that Casement failed to provide irrefutable evidence, citing a 19 April 1904 dispatch from Lansdowne to the Congo government. Unfortunately, he relies on a truncated extract of this dispatch from a 1959 biography of Casement, shown below with italics indicating the missing words:
With regard to the application, renewed in the Notes, for previous Reports from British Consular officers, it is necessary to explain that these Reports, though forwarding testimony upon which reliance could apparently be placed, were founded on hearsay, and lacked the authority of personal observation, without which His Majesty’s Government were unwilling to come to any definite conclusion unfavourable to the Administration of the Congo State. Moreover, some of the Reports are of old date; the Congo State had admittedly been very active in pushing forward occupation of the country, and it would be unjust to bring forward statements regarding a condition of affairs which may have entirely passed away.
The full text is neither a criticism of the Casement report (Osborne) nor evidence of Lansdowne’s hostility to Casement (Singleton-Gates and Girodias) because it responded to the Congo Free State’s second request for the suppressed consular reports predating Casement. It merely shows that the Foreign Office did not want to release the previously suppressed reports. The omissions, which create a false impression of Lansdowne’s view of Casement’s report, have their explanation in Singleton-Gates’s connection to the intelligence services, identified by Angus Mitchell; the omitted text appears to have been part of the campaign to make Casement’s already controversial reputation into something wholly unsympathetic to justify his 1916 trial and execution.
Although the atrocity stories in Casement’s report garnered the most attention, they were vulnerable because they were sometimes unverifiable and often years old. However, the report contained much more than atrocities. It demonstrated the system’s cruelty in statements from state and company officials, firsthand evidence of hostage-taking, and other illustrations of coercive methods. It was also, as Burroughs observes, a traveler’s account: observations and conversations presented in chronological order about a journey through a small part of the upper Congo. With the exception of the testimony of Epondo, a mutilated boy who recanted his story that State soldiers had wrecked his hand, the Casement report stood up under the deluge of criticism from the apologists and the State. Casement’s descriptions of past atrocities were memorable, while the less sensational, but current, evidence about misrule in the rubber zones was more important.
The impact of Casement’s report on public opinion was profound. It gave the British government’s imprimatur to the charge of pervasive and systematic Congo misrule and was an essential step in the chain of events that led to reform. It also exposed a weakness in British diplomacy.
Britain’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Belgium and the Congo Free State was Sir Edmund Constantine Henry Phipps. At his final posting in a diplomatic career that began in 1858, Constantine Phipps was at his best conveying official views between governments, often with sympathy and understanding. When Lansdowne publicly called the Congo government’s conduct into question in the August 1903 Note, Phipps began to undermine the new policy without Lansdowne’s knowledge, confusing his interlocutors in Belgium and creating the impression that he supported the Congo regime. He told the Italian Minister to Brussels that he did not believe the accusations and that the Note was an insincere attempt to please factions in the Commons. To the Germans, he spoke more plainly; their government need not reply, and the whole affair would soon be “lost in the sands.” Phipps urged Germany and France not to “burn their fingers” by cooperating. He told the Belgian Minister to London that profit-seeking Liverpool merchants were behind Congo criticism, an accusation he duly reported to the Foreign Office when Van Eetvelde relayed it back to him a few months later.
Phipps was steering a complicated course. He had supported Casement’s proposed journey to settle the “bitter controversy” with unimpeachable “practical details as to the system in force” from “so experienced and careful an observer,” and, at the same time, to show Casement the benefits of Leopold’s rule. No simple Congophile, Phipps was cynical about Leopold’s control of the press and his use of money to make friends and buy silence. He warned Gilzean Reid that information generally known in Belgium undermined his advocacy for Leopold. In his last letter to Grey, Phipps wrote that he had never denied Congo maladministration; he disliked being grouped with apologists like Gilzean Reid.
As Phipps tried to find a balance after the Foreign Office had publicly criticized the Congo, he crossed the line into insubordination, contradicting his government’s policy and subverting the will of the House of Commons. He relayed arguments from the Congo administration against Casement’s report plus his own critique. Casement’s dispatches during his journey, which he had found “valuable” at the time, now struck him as too sweeping. Casement responded with energy and some anger. Lansdowne forwarded their letters to each other, reinforcing a growing acrimony that illuminated aspects of the official British approach in 1904. The cornerstone of Lansdowne’s Congo policy was that Britain lacked standing to act alone, and he was “afraid of a snub,” as Dilke put it, from the other signatories. Although he backed Casement’s report, he allowed Phipps free rein against it. This equivocating strategy suited Lansdowne’s sentimental concerns about Congo misrule, his professional belief that there was little Britain could do, and his anxieties about the Congo Free State’s tu quoque arguments.
The responses to Lansdowne’s note and the Casement report were weak. Sweden said that its citizens did not confirm the reports; Russia abstained from any conclusion as an uninterested power; the Netherlands and Portugal did not want to pursue the issue; and the Austrians did not reply at all. France would do nothing and Germany did not reply. Of the three countries willing to consider the Casement report, Italy declined to proceed, the US was not a Berlin Act signatory, and the Ottoman Empire, under international criticism for its actions in Armenia and Macedonia, was an ally of little value.
The international responses proved to be useless, but the Foreign Secretary moved the cause forward through an unforeseen gambit. The Congo Free State’s rebuttal mentioned a new impartial investigation to test Casement’s statements. Inspired by a CRA letter critiquing this Leopold-appointed commission, Lansdowne raised the stakes by welcoming the “announcement that a searching and impartial inquiry will be made against the administration of the Free State, and that if real abuses or the necessity for reform should be thereby disclosed, the central Government will act.” By publishing this, Lansdowne had boxed in the king. Leopold made the commission a foregone conclusion by demanding an unredacted copy of the Casement report for its use; Lansdowne agreed after extracting a promise to protect witnesses from retaliation. Chapter 6 discussed how Cattier and Wauters with Fox Bourne’s help continued Lansdowne’s strategy until the Commission of Inquiry met a standard of effectiveness and impartiality unusual among Leopold’s creations.
As Percy said, “There has never been a policy of which it might be said as truly as of this one that it was the policy not so much of His Majesty’s Government as the policy of the House of Commons.” Lansdowne responded to the House of Commons resolution by taking modest actions of critical importance. By sponsoring and distributing Casement’s report he gave the allegations of misrule international credibility, and by helping to redefine Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry he set in motion the process that would reform the Congo.
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