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Grey’s Arrival at the Foreign Office

Sir Edward Grey brought an active commitment to Congo reform, true to his speech in the Commons in June 1904, where he said that the Congo Free State had failed as “the mandatory and trustee of the other European Powers” to promote philanthropy and free trade, for which “the European Powers had a responsibility” because “the European good name was in question.” In his view, the mistake of 1884-85 was to recognize a “private irresponsible Government”; therefore, the Congo government should be responsible to a representative European parliament. With the other Berlin signatories silent, the situation required the British to interfere alone, however reluctantly, with the country’s support, by appointing more consuls and threatening consular jurisdiction to increase the pressure on Leopold, followed by an international conference to revise the Berlin Act. Noting the “gruesome unanimity” of the House of Commons, he cautioned MPs not to tie the government’s hands by dictating specific actions. This speech marked him as a reformer and set the broad outlines of his approach when he became Foreign Secretary 18 months later.[1]

With Grey at the Foreign Office, Belgian annexation became Britain’s preferred solution. Histories generally credit Sir Harry Johnston for this remedy; in 1904, he floated the idea in The Times on 2 June and at the 7 June APS Congo meeting.[2] When Casement organized the Holborn Town Hall meeting of 7 June 1905, Johnston worked with him to get Morel to agree to a resolution advocating annexation. This resolution, by itself, did not make annexation the CRA’s official policy because it had not been endorsed by the Executive Committee; indeed, Johnston was still trying to convince Morel it was the best approach in 1908.[3] Nonetheless, after that point, it was the only serious option on the table.

The idea predated Johnston’s involvement. Several Belgians had argued for annexation, beginning with Beernaert in 1900, followed by Wauters and Cattier.[4] Morel had argued for Belgian annexation in 1900 and 1902, but against it in 1903 because he feared Leopold’s continued influence and Belgian unwillingness or inability to change his system.[5] Given his belief in parliamentary oversight, Grey settled on Belgium as the best country to annex the Congo.[6] What changed British foreign policy was not Holborn Town Hall but Grey’s arrival at the Foreign Office.

After Balfour and the Conservatives fell from power in December 1905, six reformers took high office. Emmott, Samuels, and Beauchamp resigned from the CRA Executive Committee to ascend to the Cabinet, joined by John Morley and John Burns, while Lord Aberdeen became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. But most important was the new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. As a Liberal Imperialist, Grey had supported the Boer War and for a time opposed Campbell-Bannerman’s leadership of the party. After Campbell-Bannerman’s first choice for Foreign Secretary, Lord Cromer, declined, he asked Grey as part of his strategic embrace of the Liberal Imperialists, which helped reunite the party and enabled it to capitalize on concern about free trade and ethical issues to win a sweeping election victory in January 1906.[7]

This pleased most reformers, with Gertie Emmott’s comment typical: “I really am hopeful that a Liberal Government may do something more to push things—men like Edward Grey ... are keen I think that there should be reform.”[8] Casement, who thought Lansdowne “honest but weak,” saw Grey’s appointment more pessimistically: “I am sorry Grey has gone to FO—he will be, more or less, a friend of Leopold, I fear. These Imperialists are not to my heart!”[9] Events proved that Emmott’s assessment more accurate than Casement’s, but Grey’s methods were to try the reformers’ patience.

Like his idol Gladstone and Morel himself, Grey brought an earnest moral sense to politics, with a similar inability to see facts that might contradict his self-image. Ambitious, with a strong sense of public responsibility, he was also a deeply private man. After his wife died in a freak accident two months into his tenure as Foreign Secretary, he dedicated himself more fully to his government work, while still escaping to the country when he could. Friends and critics alike honored him for honesty, moral rectitude, sincerity, and loyalty. Yet he was not always straightforward, and never less so than when withholding information from Parliament and the Cabinet; Harry Johnston called him “wedded to secrecy.”[10] Because he gathered the thoughts of his permanent officials before making a decision, some worried that he deferred to their judgments. These traits determined his approach to his job, his relationships with Morel and the CRA, and his Congo initiatives.

Grey’s relationship to reform has seen multiple interpretations. The research conducted for this study supports Osborne’s conception of Grey as a willing reformer, bolstered by the CRA but not driven by it. The reformers did not intimidate him, and, contrary to Morel’s arguments, his missteps were not the result of fear, weakness, and vacillation, but misjudgments about the main actors in Belgium.

Grey described the Foreign Secretary’s work as falling into four areas: preventing threatening political changes, preventing further expansion of the Empire, promoting commerce and peace, and using Britain’s influence “to promote humanitarian objects in the world.”[11] He admired Gladstone’s policies, which inflected political calculation with moral considerations.[12] The Congo was not a sideshow or distraction, but an important concern. Europe remained the Foreign Office’s main preoccupation, but he would not forget or set aside the Congo. Grey’s negotiations and Cabinet briefings show that his drive for Congo reform was as sincere as Morel’s and his position was similar to the CRA’s, consistent with his previous statements.

Contemporaries, historians, and Grey himself emphasized how much his policies carried forward Lansdowne’s. As Parliamentary Undersecretary, Grey chose Lansdowne’s brother Lord Fitzmaurice, like Grey a known reformer. Seven months later, Fitzmaurice could say, “I am glad ... we are able to look back with complete agreement upon the policy of our predecessors.”[13] Yet Grey’s policies were different in emphasis and execution.[14] Grey quickly went well beyond his predecessor’s weak Congo policy.

The reformers’ unhappiness with Phipps had increased; Dilke excoriated him for saying that the deficiencies in the Commission for the Protection of the Natives were not the Congo government’s fault.[15] In September 1905, Sir Arthur Rollitt, MP, referenced in Chapter 5 as an apologist with influence in the Chambers of Commerce, made a speech at Liege that reassured his Belgian hosts that the British public considered reports of Congo misrule to be “a calumny,” a remark he later repudiated but which seems to have earned him promotion to Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold.[16] Reuters reported that Phipps led the applause after Rollitt spoke, which he fruitlessly denied.[17] The Liege incident irredeemably tarnished him as an apologist.[18] Grey would not find reassurance in the Foreign Office files, where his dispatches called for greater understanding of the Congo Free State’s problems. As of 21 January 1906, Grey replaced him with a more astute diplomat: Sir Arthur Hardinge, cousin of Charles Hardinge, Grey’s Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office.

Humanitarians mistrusted Arthur Hardinge because he had countenanced the continuation of slavery as Britain’s representative in Zanzibar. He reciprocated, thinking the humanitarians unrealistic and extreme in their demands. He also felt that the new Liberal Cabinet was prone to sentimentalism concerning slavery and other local customs of Africans that offended European sensibilities.[19] However, Grey found him an able partner. He was superior to Phipps in perceptiveness, creativity, and subtlety. He had earned first-class honors at Oxford, spoke at least eight languages and learned Flemish while in Brussels—unlike Leopold.[20] He took a hand in policy development through carefully argued suggestions to Grey.[21] Once Grey made a decision, Hardinge would carry it out.[22] When Cuvelier asked him why the Congo Free State received so much more scrutiny than the French Congo or other colonies, Hardinge answered as Grey would have: systematic abuses in the Congo Free State provoked much more complaint than the merely local abuses elsewhere, and without a legislature through which public opinion could act, the administration was “absolute and irresponsible.”[23]

The Foreign Office staff generally agreed on the Congo’s problems, but had many opinions regarding policy choices. Grey’s secrecy, caution, and independence led many reformers to fret that the staff influenced him with their hostility. Stead published such an analysis in 1907, entitled “The Eclipse of Sir Edward Grey,” illustrated with a cosmology that showed Permanent Undersecretary Charles Hardinge obscuring his chief’s face, “throwing the firmament into darkness.”[24] Foreign Office documents show a different picture. Though interested in his staff’s opinions, Grey chose alternatives that fit his overall policy and priorities most closely. On the Congo question, the Foreign Office papers show senior staff increasingly making proposals intended to further Grey’s policy goals.

During the Lansdowne years, a few Foreign Office staffers had unofficially talked with the reformers. From 1906-08, those contacts grew as similarity of purpose brought greater cooperation. Foreign Office officials, including

Fitzmaurice, passed confidential information on to Morel.[25] The Foreign Office acted on Morel-supplied information and often posed questions the CRA suggested to the Congo government. Morel helped shape Foreign Office thinking on many questions.

The Congo government suspected undue influence. When Phipps relayed Grey’s criticisms to Cuvelier, the Congo Foreign Minister understandably wondered if Morel had written it, especially as its substance had already appeared in the Organ.[26] When Grey asked Cuvelier for the Commission’s proceedings, Cuvelier refused, imagining some sinister CRA design.[27] Like Phipps, Hardinge brought Cuvelier problems that Morel had publicized.[28]

Grey viewed the Belgian solution more optimistically than the CRA; Belgian annexation would help the Congolese with minimal repercussions to international relations.[29] The CRA worried that Belgium lacked colonial experience, its legislature and public seemed uninterested, Leopold’s political influence and his subsidies seemed limitless, and Belgium had no broad-based movement for reform.[30] Leopold had taught the Belgians that colonies should contribute to the public purse, contrary to the usual colonial practice. Cromer and Nightingale agreed with many Belgian Socialists that Europe should internationalize the Congo, while others urged assigning the Congo to France, Germany, and/or, more controversially, Britain.[31] The Africa Department’s E.A.W. Clarke agreed with Morel’s concerns but endorsed Grey’s position that “the control of the Powers will be much stronger after the annexation.”[32] Morel believed Belgium would be more difficult to pressure than Leopold, due to the potential for international complications and prickly Belgian nationalism. He and Grey were both correct. Belgium wanted reform more than Leopold did, but getting satisfactory reforms would require a heavier hand than Grey imagined.

  • [1] 1 35 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1904) 1287-90.
  • [2] Louis, Ends of British Imperialism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 165-7; The Times, 2June 1904, 4 and 8 June 1904, 3.
  • [3] Fox Bourne to Morel, 22 October 1905, F4/6:37; Dilke to Morel, 6 February 1908,Add. 43897:210; Johnston to Dilke, 13 February 1908, Add. 43920:26; Johnston to Morel,13 June 1908, F8/93:161; Resolution in Morel, Evidence Laid before the Congo Commissionof Inquiry (Liverpool: Richardson, 1905), 90.
  • [4] The Times, 6 May 1901, 13; Cattier to Morel, 1906, F9/3:54.
  • [5] “Belgium and the Congo,” Speaker, 24 March 1900, 668-9; Morel to Guinness, 24.November 1903, F10/1:281-90; Morel to Fox Bourne, 25 June 1903, F10/7.
  • [6] Grey in Commons, 3 May 1906, FO 881/8786:71.
  • [7] Biagini, British Democracy, 3-4.
  • [8] Gertie Emmott to Morel, December 1905, F8/54:119.
  • [9] Casement to Morel, 8 September 1905, F8/20:252; Casement to Morel, 14December 1905, F8/20:289.
  • [10] Johnston to Morel, 10 April 1913, F8/92:196.
  • [11] Speech upon receiving the freedom of the city of Newcastle, ASR&AF, October1913, 146.
  • [12] Edward Grey, Twenty-Five Years: 1892-1916 (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1925),xxvii.
  • [13] FO 881/8923:3.
  • [14] Keith Robbins, Sir Edward Grey: A Biography of Lord Grey of Fallodon (London:Cassell, 1971), 135, 144; Steiner, Foreign Office, 87-8.
  • [15] 135 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1904), 1237.
  • [16] “Virtue Rewarded,” WAM, 27 October 1905.
  • [17] “King Leopold’s New Recruit,” WAM, 8 September 1905, 569.
  • [18] “Liege Pantomime,” WAM, 29 September 1905.
  • [19] Osborne, “Grey,” 99; Arthur Hardinge, A Diplomatist in Europe (London: JonathanCape, 1927), 194.
  • [20] Henry Lane Wilson, Diplomatic Episodes in Mexico, Belgium, and Chile (New York:Doubleday, 1927), 126; Emerson, Leopold, 7.
  • [21] Hardinge to Grey, 7 June 1906, FO 403/373, 100.
  • [22] Louis, “The Philosophical Diplomatist: Sir Arthur Hardinge and King Leopold’sCongo, 1906-1911,” Bulletin of A.R.S.O.M. (Academie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer) for1968, 1402-30.
  • [23] Hardinge to Grey, 29 March 1906, FO Africa No. 1 (1906). Cd 3002.
  • [24] “The Tchinovnik ofthe Foreign Office,” Review ofReviews 36, no. 216 (December 1907):566-75.
  • [25] Fitzmaurice to Morel, 19 May 1906, F8/59:96.
  • [26] Phipps to Grey, 11 January 1906, FO 881/8715:7.
  • [27] Hardinge to Grey, 29 March 1906, FO 881/8786:1-2.
  • [28] Hardinge to Grey, 6 April 1906, FO 881/8786:10.
  • [29] Grey in Commons, 3 May 1906, FO 881/8786:71; Law to Morel, 20 June 1907,F8/98 13; Grey, Twenty-five Years, 190-93.
  • [30] For example, Morel to Emmott, 15/16 April 1907, F10/15:456.
  • [31] Cromer/Harris interview, 25 January 1908, F8/35:5; Nightingale to Morel, 6January 1907, F8/119:26; FO 881/9854:184-5.
  • [32] Clarke memorandum, 22 January 1907, FO 881/8996.
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