Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Grey’s Foreign Office and Congo Reform
The CRA believed Foreign Secretaries would act only when pushed. In March 1906, the CRA Parliamentary Committee increased the pressure by posing five questions in the Commons over four days and sending a delegation led by Ramsay MacDonald to Grey on 19 March. They mistook Grey’s less urgent timetable for inaction. Grey’s belief that Belgium would eventually do the right thing repeatedly led him to give them more time. Morel dissented strongly: “The enlightened Belgian Government theory is all my-eye ... [it] is a rotten concern as at present managed.” Grey also worried that Belgium might respond to pressure with a German alliance.
Critically, the reformers did not know what Grey communicated to Brussels until long afterwards. As a result, many doubted his intentions. But for the time being, most leading reformers, even Casement, were willing to grant Grey’s goodwill, though they believed he needed prodding to overcome his natural caution and the Foreign Office staff’s braking efforts.
Leopold’s June 1906 announcement ofreforms met with public criticism from Cattier and confidential derision from Foreign Office staffer G.S.H. Pearson, who analyzed them for Grey. Based on Pearson’s analysis, Grey spoke disparagingly in Parliament on 5 July, prompting a bizarre letter from Leopold listing 37 grievances with Grey’s speech. Grey, with dignity, replied that it was not usual or desirable for the British Foreign Secretary to have a direct correspondence with the Sovereign of the Congo State.
The 1906 reforms were the first iteration of a pattern of missed deadlines. In July, Grey told Parliament he would wait until autumn before committing to specific actions. To the CRA’s chagrin, Grey’s patience was elastic; autumn passed and Grey continued to wait in the hopes that Belgium “unembarrassed” by British pressure would act to take over the Congo.
One sign that Grey’s patience was not a mask for inaction came at the annual Guildhall banquet inaugurating the new Lord Mayor of London, a traditional venue for presenting Government policies. Lord Ripon, speaking for Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman at the Guildhall on 8 November 1906, said that if Belgium did not do its duty to reform the Congo, Britain would act, reflecting Grey’s policy.
Unconvinced, the CRA prodded Grey with parliamentary questions, press campaigns, a proliferation of meetings and resolutions, agitation in his home constituency, pressure from influential people at home and abroad, and a torrent of memorandums. Morel’s 20 November 1906 tour deforce was a deputation of commercial, religious, press, and philanthropic men, bringing memorials from nine cities, to meet with Grey, Fitzmaurice, Barrington, and Vice-Consul Armstrong, home on leave. Grey concurred with their diagnosis, discussed the parameters of British policy, and concluded, “If the Constitutional Government of Belgium, responsible to a free Parliament as it is, will take the matter in hand ... they will in our judgment provide the best remedy because what they will do will be to produce not a list of reforms for the Congo, but an entire change of the system of government.” He advised the deputation not to offend the Belgian government or people so they could feel free to choose without embarrassment or constraint. If Belgium would not act, then Britain would again approach the signatories before undertaking unilateral action. Thanks to Morel, favorable reports of the deputation appeared in over 50 papers, giving the reformers the publicity they wanted in Britain and abroad.
This was the backdrop for the 13 December 1906 memo by Foreign Office staffer A.W. Clarke regarding Grey’s options under treaty, on the understanding that his superiors had decided that “the time for remonstrance is at an end, and that the moment is approaching for decisive action.” He considered and rejected Morel’s proposals in Red Rubber: cease to recognize the Congo and bring British subjects under consular jurisdiction, refuse to admit ships flying the Congo flag to British ports, and withdraw the exequaturs issued to consuls of the Congo Free State. These actions would annoy Leopold but, “he must by this time be quite aware of what we think of him and the proceeding would otherwise have absolutely no effect.” Clarke considered prohibiting Congo rubber imports but decided this would be too disruptive. He saw four options based on treaty rights: consular jurisdiction, an International Commission for Congo navigation that could close the Congo River, a conference, and arbitration. Of these, only a conference held much hope of creating real change. To convince the signatories to agree to meet, he suggested approaching them privately. If this failed, arbitration would be the last resort. Clarke’s peaceful solutions informed Foreign Office discussions for two years.
Not for the last time, just as Grey was on the verge of taking stronger action, the situation changed and the clock started over again. The Belgian Prime Minister announced on 14 December 1906 (the day after Clarke’s memorandum) that the Belgian cabinet would move quickly to annex the Congo, relieving Grey of the need to proceed with Clarke’s recommendations.
Expectations of a quick annexation came to naught as Belgian politicians embarked on protracted negotiations with each other and a very stubborn Leopold. Grey spent 1907 examining policy options, trying not to interfere. He said in the Commons on 15 May that Belgian annexation had to completely change the system of government to be satisfactory, qualifying this on 2 August by observing that the Belgian legislature’s efforts should proceed, “not complicated by introducing in them the idea that Belgium had to act under the menaces or threats from other parties.” Similarly, Campbell-Bannerman’s 1907 Guildhall address rebuked the Congo government but then backtracked, saying, “The British Government had no intention whatever of interfering with the rights of any power.” J.A. Spender, Westminster Gazette editor and confidant of leading Liberals, interpreted this as “a carefully worded warning to the Belgian people.” The Belgian press did not agree, contrasting Campbell- Bannerman’s courteous tone with the CRA’s menacing “Appeal to the Nation” appearing at the same time.
Then, quite dramatically, the Congo appeared in the King’s Speech opening Parliament on 29 January 1908, when the Government laid out its program for the coming year:
My Government are fully aware of the great anxiety felt with regard to the treatment of the native population in the Congo State. Their sole desire is to see the government of that State humanely administered in accordance with the spirit of the Berlin Act, and I trust that the negotiations now proceeding between the Sovereign of the Congo State and the Belgian Government will secure this object.
Edward VII was in sympathy with this position, reflecting his own feelings expressed to Leopold in 1903: “The King cannot, therefore, feel attracted towards a Sovereign, whether he is a relative or not, who, he considers, has neglected his duty towards humanity.” Responsibility is hard to pin down, but Campbell-Bannerman, recovering from a heart attack, may have approved the insertion on Grey’s recommendation, which itself likely came from a meeting Morel had at the Foreign Office. The King’s Speech reflected the Government’s commitment to Congo reform. It was a far cry from Lansdowne’s tepid request for suggestions in 1903-04.
The November 1906 deputation had inaugurated a personal connection between Morel and Grey from 1906-08, including private meetings, private exchanges of letters, and lengthy memoranda by Morel, interrupted from October 1907 to June 1908 after Morel pushed too hard. Throughout these years, Grey circulated Morel’s letters and reports to Hardinge and other Foreign Office officials. They expressed gratitude for Morel’s analyses and, on Grey’s instructions, continued to share confidential information with him. In October 1908, Grey endorsed the CRA’s decision to continue agitating for reform even after the annexation.
By this time, the Foreign Office and the CRA shared a common vocabulary and set of concepts. Their understanding now perfectly aligned, their chief difference was how quickly Britain should adopt more confrontational strategies. Monkswell observed, “It is curious to note how Grey and Fitzmaurice when out of office were all for action and Lansdowne and Percy when in office for delay, and now their opinions are reversed with their positions.” The responsibility of office swamped good intentions with international complexities and potentially damaging side-effects. For Grey, options such as consular jurisdiction became weapons to hold in reserve, pending a worsening situation. As Walter Langley had written, “we are as anxious as [Morel] can be to remedy the lot of the native, although we differ from him as to the advisability ofmoving at the present time.”
Patience in Europe did not mean idleness in the Congo. In May 1905, Lansdowne had appointed two Vice-Consuls for the upper Congo, Jack Proby
Armstrong in Leopoldville and George Babington Michell in Stanleyville, with instructions to visit surrounding regions and report on conditions. Grey extended their reach, budget, and authority. Within a day of issuing his first diplomatic salvo to Cuvelier, he telegraphed Consul Arthur Nightingale to authorize the Vice-Consuls to embark on tours to gather current information.
In April 1907, Grey replaced Nightingale with Captain Charles Francis Cromie, and added a third Vice-Consul, George Bailey Beak, in Katanga. Both had extensive experience; Cromie had been Consul-General for French West Africa and Beak was a former colonial official and published author. Beak, like other vice-consuls, arrived thinking that Morel and the missionaries exaggerated, but found their stories true “in all particulars.”
Cromie reported that the 1906 reform decrees had been largely ineffective, as predicted. After he died in October 1907, his successor, Sir Wilfred G. Thesiger, became Grey’s star Congo consul. Using the Thesiger family’s private papers and Foreign Office documents, Osborne has established Thesiger’s importance to the reform effort. The Foreign Office chose Thesiger because of his success handling difficult assignments in Belgrade and St Petersburg. During 18 months in the Congo and subsequent time in Britain, he was a key player in Grey’s reforming efforts. He undertook his own journeys—far longer than Casement’s—as well as coordinating the journeys and reports of his ViceConsuls, whose number rose to four on his recommendation. He developed his own opinion of the ineptitude and weakness of the Congo Free State, its officials baffled by the contradictory decrees of the King-Sovereign and, with only 3,913 Europeans resident in January 1908, far too understaffed to administer such a vast country. His reports acknowledged instances of competent administration but confirmed the general misrule.
Grey routinely sent Thesiger’s memos to Hardinge and Hardinge’s to Thesiger for comment as he forged his tactics. The caliber of the men involved led to a productive interchange as they analyzed each other’s ideas in the context of Grey’s overall strategy.
Thesiger was unusual in his distance from the CRA, refusing to correspond with Morel because he considered it inappropriate for an official to deal directly with a lobbyist. (Nightingale, Casement, and some Vice-Consuls corresponded with Morel; Armstrong and Beak donated to the CRA.) Thesiger did, however, analyze several of Morel’s papers for Grey.
During Thesiger’s tenure, Belgium annexed the Congo without announcing any reforms; indeed, Belgian Colonial Minister Jules Renkin claimed nothing was wrong with Leopold’s system. The British government refused to recognize the annexation, a policy that Hardinge had first floated in May 1907. Thesiger concluded that Belgium would need British pressure to move forward because the powerful forces of throne, church, and capital wanted to keep things as they were.
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