Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
That this Association, founded in March 1904 with the object of restoring to the natives of the Congo the rights guaranteed them under the Berlin and Brussels Acts, of which they had been deprived by their European rulers, and of putting an end to the barbarities inflicted upon them ... records the belief that its main purposes have now been secured and that its labours may be honourably brought to a conclusion.— resolution passed unanimously at the Congo Reform Association’s final meeting, 16 June 1913
The chief gauge of the movement’s effectiveness should be on its own terms: the degree to which it achieved its goals in improving the lives of millions of Congolese people. However, the understanding of effectiveness has become confused. Questions that appeared settled in 1913 are now open, in many cases not as new areas of inquiry, but instead as assertions about the movement’s success or failure.
Wuliger observes that the world was “more intent upon the appearance of poetic justice” than in real reform and argues that CRA’s goals were as unmet in 1953 as they were in 1911. Citing “reports of misgovernment,” Grant describes a movement that dissolved before its work was done because public interest had dissipated and the Foreign Office was about to recognize the annexation for unspecified reasons. These interpretations imply that the reformers’ resolutions, speeches, letters, and telegrams at the June 1913 meeting were uniformly products of hypocrisy, unleavened by honest acknowledgement of unfinished work. For Hochschild, the CRA failed “to save millions of lives,” possibly because it took years to accomplish its work or possibly because the reforms were incomplete; there is no explanation for this estimate. After assessing the post-reform years, Hochschild concludes that the reform effort missed its mark because forced labor never disappeared and subsequently expanded. Sliwinski, drawing on Grant and Hochschild, says that the movement ended, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Ewans paints a more nuanced picture of the post-reform years and eschews judgments on effectiveness. Didier Gondola’s survey of Congolese history stresses the continuity of the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo, without acknowledging that any reforms occurred at all from 1909-12. In his view, reformers succeeded only in accelerating the takeover of the Congo by a rapacious Belgium he characterizes inexplicably as “poor.” (Belgium, routinely described as rich by Belgians and foreigners alike, had Europe’s 3rd highest per capita GDP in 1913, after the UK and Switzerland, and ahead of France, Italy, and the Netherlands.) Of course, even a prosperous Belgium could find the riches of the Congo intriguing; this was not the least of King Leopold’s legacies.
In sharp contrast to these assessments, Louis, Osborne, Cookey, and Echenberg consider the movement a success, without making much of a study of the post-reform Congo. Stengers, a specialist in the Belgian Congo, writes that the reforms of the first years of Belgian rule genuinely improved the conditions of life. Renton, Seddon, and Zelig grant that after 1913 things changed significantly even if the change was not completely liberating. Using the observations of contemporaries and scholars of Congo history, this chapter will evaluate the movement’s impact by comparing its goals to the post-reform situation and identifying what actions and methods led to this outcome.
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