Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The Break with the Foreign Office
The loose alliance between the Foreign Office and the CRA ended in mid-1909. Morel’s impatience with Grey had grown. In private correspondence, Grey assured Morel that he had always “put the moral and human consideration in front” when dealing with the Congo question. However, several CRA members openly deprecated Grey, particularly Monkswell, who wrote, “It must sooner or later come to a fight with the FO” as early as 1907. He reminded the House of Lords that “Ministers are the servants and not the masters of the people. The people of England are day by day issuing their instructions to Sir Edward Grey with more emphasis.” Casement thought that Grey was insincere. Holt let his righteous indignation direct itself at Grey: “Nightingale told you rubbish when he told you Grey wanted to act ... What crass timidity or weakness stops him?” The eminent lawyer and scholar Sir Francis Channing, MP, was “utterly disheartened and disgusted” by Grey’s “coldness and slackness,” and accused him of staining British honor by waiting for humanitarian issues to sort themselves out. It is no wonder Morel wrote Grey: “Though it may appear strange to you, I am a moderating influence in the councils ofthe Congo Reform Association.” He told Channing that opposing Grey, and thus the government, would be “a fatal tactical mistake.” Grey had “always displayed exceptional courtesy and kindness in my few dealings with him,” and was “anxious to do the right thing, and a man of scrupulous honour.” As he summarized in October 1908, “If I had adopted the views of some of my friends two years ago, the influence which the Association enjoys with the Foreign Office would have disappeared, and we should have been driven into opposition to Sir Edward Grey—a course absolutely fatal to the ends we have in view.” Morel was only half right: attacking the Foreign Office would end the CRA’s influence, but would not be fatal for the cause.
Grey had admirers, friends, and even confidants among the reformers. Cromer, Chirol, Chavasse, Gilmour, St Loe Strachey, and Harold Spender contested the criticism with generally accurate information about Grey’s intentions and actions. Dilke too believed that Grey had moved closer to the CRA’s positions. Harris maintained faith in Grey while Morel’s hostility grew. Parker and Mayo were bellwethers who supported Grey in 1908 but turned on him in 1909.
Morel’s impatience was souring into mistrust; Grey was lukewarm, Morel believed, because Foreign Office officials opposed reform, including both Hardinges. Langley tried to explain: “Sir E. Grey represents and alone represents H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government] and the Foreign Office and it does not matter an atom what other people say or think on the subject. This is not a constitutional fiction: it is a simple fact and I hope that you will dismiss from your mind any theories which do not square with it.” In late 1908, trying to stay positive, Morel orchestrated a “National Manifesto” supporting Grey’s non-recognition policy, though he thought it weak.
By April 1909, Morel was writing in increasingly furious tones about Grey’s slothful Congo policy, which he linked to fear of Germany. He repeated his vow not to attack Grey, but his resolve was ebbing. At the Foreign Office on 21 May, he condemned arbitration, proposed immediate consular jurisdiction, and advocated ending all trade in Congo goods. He said Belgium would quickly come to terms because the appearance of British or American warships would set the whole Congo ablaze with a rebellion that would leave not a single Belgian official alive. Morel also threatened to deal with government inaction by leading a storm of unprecedented protest. Charles Hardinge observed that Morel’s ideas showed him an “honest fanatic” with a “swollen head,” a reasonable conclusion from Morel’s fantasies about the slaughter of Belgians and unprecedented protests. The Foreign Office took Morel’s advice on arbitration and agreed with him on the potential next steps, just not the timing. As Gilmour reported, Grey was not ready to use force—yet. When Grey noted that Morel “was prepared for universal war,” he ordered, “This record of what he proposes must be kept.” Grey was also preparing for war, but at a further remove and as a last resort.
Morel convened the Executive Committee the same day he visited the Foreign Office. No minutes exist, but Harold Spender later apologized to Morel for being unpleasant over the risk of war with Germany, so Morel must have brought it up. It had galled Morel when Grey asked if the CRA was ready for war over the Congo a month before. Then, on 27 May, in the House of Commons, Grey said, “If this question were rashly managed it might make a European question, compared with which those with which we had to deal in the last few months might be child’s play,” and pointed out the absurdity of advocating a “peaceful blockade” when a blockade was an act of war that could have far-reaching consequences, including raising “a European question ... of the gravest kind.”
Morel saw Grey’s speech as the last straw and launched an opening salvo entitled “Is England Turning Craven?” in the Morning Post of 3 June. That Conservative-leaning daily must have gladly printed this attack on the Liberal government. Gilmour visited the Foreign Office on 6 June, where staff expressed concern about Morel’s willingness to risk war, believing that “the public would shrink, as Morel did not, from the logical consequences” of a bellicose policy toward Belgium.
Grey’s 27 May remarks did not say that Britain would never use forceful measures, but, as he later explained, was meant to convey that the government would have to prepare any such measures carefully and use them only if necessary. But Morel reacted as if Grey had said that he would never consider stronger measures. In his fury, he ignored the possibility that a precipitate attack on the Congo would have been a declaration of war against Belgium, an officially neutral country that could call on its other guarantors, France and Germany, to come to its aid, just as it would call on Britain and France in 1914. Morel, the amateur diplomatist, could not imagine either country risking war with Britain over this issue. Most historians notice the June 1909 break with the Foreign Office, when they notice it at all, as Morel’s first major attack on the foreign policy apparatus. It should also be considered a watershed for CRA-Foreign Office relations.
Before launching his attack, Morel sounded out his closest allies. Col. Stopford thought Grey had surrendered to German opinion and suggested sending him a white feather. Parker called Grey “lamentably weak.” Holt agreed, though he did not yet understand how momentous this was for Morel. Others advised restraint. Talbot urged Morel not to “make a definite break between Grey and yourself.” The Edinburgh Auxiliary expressed sympathy with Grey’s speech and Bournemouth trusted that Grey knew his business. Spender reported that Grey’s position had not changed since the CRA Executive Committee voted him its support in November. Harris, temporizing between Morel and Grey, offered to see the Foreign Secretary to “reinforce our position.”
Morel, as usual, favored the responses that backed his anger and ignored the others. Before convening the Executive Committee meeting to endorse his stand, he “cross[ed] the Rubicon” with a diatribe in the Review of Reviews condemning Grey, the Foreign Office, British fear of Germany, and the Anglo- French entente, followed by a similar article in the Organ, where he claimed that Grey’s speech gave “a moral shock to the whole country,” confusing himself with the reading public of Britain. These interlocking concerns outlived the Congo question to form the basis of Morel’s wartime agitation.
Alfred and Gertie Emmott were aghast: “Why have you made a general attack on Foreign policy with which our Association has nothing whatever to do?” Lord Cromer stepped back from the movement to dissociate himself from this new “fire-eating” policy. The attack on Grey had made the German Colonial
Minister “a little shy of us.” Gilmour deplored this “grievous business.” Talbot argued that such a broad attack was unwise. Paget, the Bishop of Oxford and President of that auxiliary, fretted, but, like others, reaffirmed his support for the Congo cause. St Loe Strachey, editor of the Spectator, who supported the use of force, found the article “unfair and wrong-headed,” and its arguments “childish,” “hopelessly amateurish and unwise.” Strachey worried “that it will do terrible mischief to the cause which you have at heart.” As for his attack on Grey, “I can only say that Grey’s opinion must be held to be worth a hundred times more than yours.” He wondered if he could remain a CRA member “when ideas so wild are propagated in its name” and asked if Morel had the authorization of the Executive Committee (of which he was a member). Morel wrote an equally lengthy rebuttal, complaining, “No man could have done more to back Sir Edward Grey than I have,” and accusing Grey of betraying the CRA. He also claimed that “no article I have ever written was written with more deliberation, and with less impulsiveness,” true in the sense that this had been brewing for a long time, but false in that it was a hasty overreaction to Grey’s comments, which most reformers, such as Holt, and most historians have not seen in the same apocalyptic light.
Though thinking Morel had not “done the Congo cause any favors by ... censuring their general control of foreign affairs,” Casement nonetheless wrote, “I don’t like being that abject thing to say ‘I told you so!’ but I have never trusted Grey” and “I feel sure Grey has been a traitor all along. He gulled [the] CRA.” Green joined in, finding Grey to be the “priest of humbug or we may say of hypocrisy” after years of saying he was trustworthy; she, Morel, and Casement had come together on this point as on others. Their reassurances gave Morel strength to carry on his campaign against the Foreign Office.
There is no documentation of the “best-attended” Executive Committee meeting on 7 July 1909. Morel likely received its backing, though it passed no public resolutions, perhaps because Morel’s attack made that temporarily unwise. Morel continued his offensive, publishing Great Britain and the Congo Question in September. Here he called the Foreign Office’s Congo policy
“inconsistent and feeble.” He published letters between himself and Lord Lonsdale, friend of King Edward and Kaiser Wilhelm, to show that Germany would not back Belgium against British pressure. He continued attacking Grey, though Gilmour scolded him for “bad practice,” writing “Do you think, even holding the views you do, that it is really good tactics to hold up the F.O. to public obloquy and scorn as incompetent or ill-informed on the international situation?”  Morel thundered that Grey had forced him into this position, but Gilmour considered Morel the instigator. Morel was fighting a one-sided battle by this time, because Grey had qualified his May statements in a 22 July Commons debate, making them a minor point, not a statement of policy. The damage was done. Many press outlets treated Morel’s letters and articles more cautiously, and he had affected some of his relationships. The Emmotts do not appear to have corresponded with him for the next two years, but Strachey did stay on the CRA Executive Committee. More seriously, Morel had jeopardized the CRA’s ability to affect events and gained nothing for the Congo in return.
The break led to a fateful incident. On 9 June, Harris had proposed that he meet with Grey to bridge the gap. He later informed Morel that he and Spender were to see Grey on 20 July. Morel “forbore” to cancel the meeting though he thought its timing poor. Harris’s failure to brief him for three days after the meeting (at Spender’s misguided suggestion) led Morel to once again spectacularly lose his temper, calling Harris insubordinate and disloyal. At Holt’s urging, Morel superficially reconciled with Harris and Spender the next week, but the affair convinced the Harrises that they had to leave the CRA. It also transferred the Foreign Office link that had once been Morel’s to Harris, which he carried to the Anti-Slavery Society in April 1910.
Grey did not immediately treat the break as permanent, instructing Langley to continue sharing information verbally with Morel. Morel sent letters to Grey with missionary evidence, recommendations, and resolutions. However, the Foreign Office no longer needed Morel because it could rely on its consuls and its in-house expertise. The CRA’s name largely disappeared from the Foreign Office’s Congo reports. Its remaining use to the Foreign Office was to communicate the mood of the country and to convince Belgium that cooperation with the diplomatically worded demands of the Foreign Office was better than the rough justice the CRA espoused.
Unbeknownst to the CRA, Grey’s patience was ending. When Thesiger returned home in mid-1909, Grey had him outline Britain’s options if Belgium did not cooperate. Thesiger advocated that Britain propose a six-part reform scheme: rights of private traders, freedom to establish factories on the upper Congo, native rights to sell forest products, abolition of taxes in produce and labor, a general and moderate currency tax, abolition of the rubber and ivory monopolies, and equal treatment for Catholic and Protestant missions. He recommended coercive steps if Belgium did not respond: consular jurisdiction, occupying Boma and Matadi, and seizing customs. Thesiger’s report quickly became the basis for official British policy.
Thanks to Grey, and not the CRA, Britain came to the brink of an international crisis over the Congo in October/November 1909. Despite Hardinge’s assurance on 5 October that a comprehensive reform announcement was likely, Grey prepared for the worst. Cookey says that the CRA’s renewed campaign changed Grey’s policy, but the Cabinet and Foreign Office records show consistency of tone and purpose, while CRA activity was diminishing.
On October 19, Grey informed the Cabinet, “We are approaching the time when the Cabinet must take a serious decision on the question of the Congo. For the last year this question has been in an irregular and anomalous state, which cannot be prolonged indefinitely, and which circumstances might at any moment make impossible.” Grey presented Thesiger’s memorandum and proposed a year-end deadline, after which he would invoke consular jurisdiction and end even unofficial recognition. If Belgium still refused to cooperate or to call a conference, Britain should prepare to resort to force, because “We cannot sit still and go on watching a system which we have denounced, not only as contrary to humanity, but also as being contrary to our treaty rights. Much less could we countersign the continuance of this system by recognising the annexation.”
The Cabinet discussed the question on 27 October, just after Grey’s speech in Sheffield, his only public Congo speech. The Cabinet adopted his recommendation in full. Ironically, the next day, Renkin announced Belgium’s comprehensive Congo reforms. Britain’s firm stand was obsolete. Morel never knew how close Britain had come to going to war over the Congo.
Coming less than two weeks after the Cabinet meeting and Renkin’s announcement, Asquith’s Guildhall speech of 9 November 1909 reflected the new reality. Asquith had hitherto shown no interest in the Congo, as shown by his correspondence with Grey and his remarks in Parliament. However, his five-minute Congo speech at the Guildhall Banquet of 9 November 1909 was the most extensive made by any Prime Minister. After describing ongoing Congo misgovernment, Asquith abruptly changed tone to welcome Belgium’s reform program. He likely prepared a warlike speech to rally the public behind a tougher approach to Belgium, should one be necessary, then altered it after Renkin’s reform announcement. His welcome was conditional; Britain would need to see reforms in action.
The CRA found the Belgian reforms inadequate in content, because they did not address the concession companies and did not return most of the land to local ownership, and in timing, because reforms phased in geographically through 1912. They guessed, as did the consuls, that Renkin intended to maximize revenue before ending the rubber tax. They also found Renkin’s continued defense of Leopold’s system even while ending it infuriating and a possible mark of insincerity. Because Morel did not trust Grey to address these points, the CRA embarked on a new phase of the campaign, beginning with a resolution from the Executive Committee on 10 November demanding that Belgium enact the whole reform program at once. Large meetings in nine cities climaxed in the Royal Albert Hall “Protest of Christian England” (really Protestant England) on 19 November, the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. It was not officially a Congo Reform Association meeting, though CRA mainstays Harris and Talbot had arranged it. The speakers called on the British government to demand improvements to the reform program.
Morel continued to complain about Grey’s “lamentably bad” performance, telling his correspondents, “He has only done something when kicked.” Yet we have seen that Grey no longer allowed the CRA to affect his path. Morel misinterpreted the relationship between CRA activity and Grey’s actions, mistaking coincidence for causality. The Foreign Office papers show that Grey’s course through 1909 was largely unaffected by Morel.
In April 1910, Morel authored a Parliamentary Memorial signed by 162 MPs asking Asquith for consular jurisdiction by August 1911 if Belgium did not accelerate and improve its program. Asquith demurred, referring them to Grey’s speeches. To Morel’s chagrin, the Parliamentary Committee accepted the government’s strategy of monitoring the pace and effectiveness of reforms. Before the 14 July 1910 Executive Committee meeting, he told Holt, “All I can tell my Committee is that we must hang on, watching events, taking every opportunity we have of pushing forward a pawn on the chess-board.”
He did not know that Hardinge had condemned the use of threats at this juncture as counterproductive and instead recommended “sustained and steady diplomatic pressure. I do not hold with Mr Morel that our refusal to recognise annexation is a brutum fulmen [an inert thunder] at which Belgium scoffs. It is, on the contrary, a real grievance.” Grey concurred and adopted a policy of “benevolent expectancy,” a phrase Morel misinterpreted, announcing that the CRA was “resisting the undisguised attempt of the Foreign Office and those whom it inspires to drop the whole question ... Victory would have been complete but for the sorry performances of the Foreign Office.”
Grey kept his promise to bring papers to Parliament, primarily consular reports. The long-serving Armstrong, Acting Consul in February 1910, had doubted that the imminent reforms would mean much. Grey declined to appoint him Consul and told the Cabinet in March 1910 that the situation was still uncertain. Consul Mackie and his Vice-Consuls reported in 1910-11 how the Belgian reform plan unfolded. Having served as Acting Consul in 1905, Mackie could contrast the new regime with the old. The next Consul, W.J. Lamont, continued to report progress. By early 1913, the consuls deemed the reforms to be largely effective (see Chapter 9). The Cabinet concurred with Grey’s recommendation to recognize the annexation. He brought the question before the House of Commons on 29 May 1913 and notified the Belgian ambassador on 27 June that Britain had recognized the transfer of the Congo to Belgium.
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