Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
When he worried about international complications, Grey consulted with the Cabinet. In preparation for a February 1908 Commons debate, he told the Cabinet that British and American consuls reported that Congo conditions had worsened while annexation was under discussion. He would soon announce that Britain would find Belgian annexation satisfactory only if the government and legislature had power and responsibility. The Cabinet concurred and the House of Commons passed a resolution supporting the government’s Congo policy without a division.
On 28 May 1908, Grey informed the Cabinet that Belgium had responded to his diplomatic initiative with a commitment to reform. He also brought a 31-page memo based primarily on Thesiger’s work on taxation and currency, the first major memorandum that did not rely on CRA information. Grey was reducing his dependence on reform advocates in favor of growing Foreign Office expertise. He recommended, and the Cabinet adopted, the policy of “reserving our definite recognition of the annexation until it is seen how it is proposed by the Belgian Government to put their reassurances into practice.” The Cabinet reaffirmed its position when it approved Grey’s firm communication with the Belgian government that October.
When annexation occurred without a reform program, Grey called publicly on Belgium to thoroughly reform Leopold’s system and announced that Britain and the US had jointly refused to recognize the annexation. On 25 February 1909, Grey told the House of Commons that Britain would recognize the annexation only when Parliament had the chance to discuss a Belgian reform plan, publicly stating what he had privately committed to White and Morel the preceding year. For the next four years, Grey applied judicious pressure while waiting to bring the issue before the Commons until he was sure of support. Some reformers believed Grey would recognize the annexation when it suited him without telling anyone beforehand. But Grey kept his word. It may have been the only major foreign policy question he voluntarily brought before the House of Commons for approval, partly because the undivided Commons had set government policy in 1903 and endorsed it in 1908, and partly because he recognized the breadth and depth of public feeling on the issue.
On 14 March 1909, he informed the Cabinet that the system of administration and forced labor remained, but “the systematic cruelty and wholesale atrocities, that created such indignation in the time of King Leopold, have come to an end.” It seemed that the long-awaited reform plan was imminent. However, the next day’s Belgian reply repeated the same vague assurances to adhere to the Berlin and Brussels treaties. To make matters worse, the United States, which had been an effective partner for Grey for two years, became increasingly distant after President Taft’s inauguration.
Grey’s optimism turned to frustration. He decided to pursue arbitration of commercial questions, where the US still had an interest. In May he told the Cabinet that the CRA believed that Belgium acted in bad faith, suggesting he had some sympathy with this idea. He feared that progress would be slower than anyone would find satisfactory, perhaps requiring strong measures to speed things up. After Morel’s input, Grey notified the Cabinet on 9 June that he had decided against arbitration. He told the Belgian Foreign Minister on 11 June, the same day a CRA-sponsored religious delegation led by the Archbishop of Canterbury came to argue against arbitration. For Morel, “Grey with another of his volte faces has, as a result of pressure (mark that!) thrown arbitration over board,” showing “the indefiniteness and looseness which characterises our diplomacy in the matter.” This was unfair; Morel’s 21 May arguments had led Grey to drop arbitration, not the religious deputation. Confronted with Belgian intransigence, Grey kept the pressure on and contemplated more forceful measures.
The religious leaders had considered telling Grey they would back a war for reform, but calmer heads prevailed. Advocacy of war was not new. Guinness had suggested seizing Boma in 1906. In 1907, Holt wrote, “If we had the spirit of our ancestors we should long ago have finished this iniquity by the mouth of the Cannon and the rifle.” Even Brooks, a Quaker, endorsed using gunboats to stop rubber shipments, consoling his pacifist conscience by believing this would not lead to war.
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