Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
The Impact of Reforms
In 1912, Morel wrote to Rene Claparede, “There is no doubt that the condition of affairs in the Congo is infinitely better; and we ought to rejoice that it is so.” The CRA’s leadership believed the movement had succeeded, with three major caveats. First, the Belgian government had not granted Africans land rights according to customary collective ownership. Although Parker felt this goal was not only unimportant but misguided, others saw land rights as the reformed Congo’s chief flaw. Second, the Colonial Minister could revoke the reforms as easily as he had promulgated them; the reformers would have preferred parliamentary action to make the changes more permanent. Finally, Belgian intentions to encourage plantations, if implemented, would require large numbers of wage laborers who could be obtained only by compulsion. Subsequent events validated these concerns.
Apart from these issues, Morel and the other reformers repeatedly said they had largely achieved what they set out to do, and the Foreign Office agreed. The reports from the Congo tracked overall improvement. Within a year of annexation, atrocities diminished, suggesting improved accountability and control under Belgian rule. The reform program announced in late 1909 began to go into effect in July 1910. Just a few months later, Acting Consul Gerald Campbell, hitherto a severe critic of Belgian rule, reported a rapid improvement in conditions:
With a few exceptions missionaries and traders alike report that the treatment which the natives in the interior are receiving at the hands of the State officials has perceptibly improved. These reports have been received since the reform decrees came into force on the 1st July last ... enquiries are, moreover, being held into such occurrences as have come to the knowledge of the Government. There are signs that the former regime ... is undergoing a radical change, and that it is the wish of the Government that the new decrees which aim at the betterment of the condition of the natives shall be sincerely interpreted.
By May 1911, Consul Mackie observed that the reforms had gone better than the consuls expected, noting, “there is substantial ground for the belief that crime and oppression are now the exception and not the rule” and the government showed determination in investigating and punishing those responsible for the now unusual cases of oppression. The following month, he said local officials had become much more hesitant to use lethal force because of the administration’s constant admonitions and King Albert’s well-known interest in the welfare of the Congolese people. A year after the Kasai Company lost its monopoly, Morrison penned his most positive assessment to date: “I believe the new Government is making an honest effort to improve conditions. Things are far from what they ought to be, but we hope that more time will see further improvement.” The new Commission pour la Protection des Indigenes reported in 1911 that the reforms had made an enormous difference.
In 1912, after visiting the Congo, John Harris told the CRA Executive Committee, “To be able to say to-day that that we could find nowhere in the Congo any atrocities committed upon the natives with the toleration of the Government, is, I think, an extremely satisfactory situation.” He also gave voice to the caveats noted above and observed that the people of the Congo were still the most impoverished and oppressed in Africa. Later that year, Morel expressed the same general sentiments to Vandervelde. Vandervelde was of like mind, writing that the Belgian reformers’ chief task now was to ensure that the reforms became permanent.
Six months after the last wave of reforms, the Foreign Office observed “immense improvement in the condition of the country, which has resulted from the application of the reform decrees. Complaints were seldom heard, and those responsible for isolated cases of ill-treatment of the natives received proper punishment.” Morel’s final letter to the Foreign Office listed the three caveats but concluded, “The Association fully and gladly recognises that the contents of [the last two white books] show the state of affairs in the Congo has undergone an immense change for the better.” Though noting “much that is regrettable,” the CRA concluded that the post-reform Congo was nothing like Leopold’s Congo Free State.
To understand this change in affairs and measure the CRA’s effectiveness, specific reforms matter—not only their content but also how well they curtailed practices that the reformers saw as crimes against humanity. Grey, like the CRA, understood that misrule was inherent in the system. His first dispatches as Foreign Secretary called for the Congo Free State to end the abuses that “are constantly being brought to my attention,” and condemned the combining of administrative and commercial functions, whereby the state acted like a private company and concession companies had state powers. His goals in 1906 fell under the general rubric of achieving the Berlin Act’s provisions for free trade and amelioration of the moral and material conditions of the indigenous population. The means was to be Belgian annexation, which had been mooted by Morel in 1900, alluded to by Grey in 1904, recommended by Johnston in the same year, and advocated by the CRA’s Holborn Town Hall meeting in June
1905. It became the official Foreign Office objective when Grey came into office in December 1905. Morel and others were skeptical of Belgium’s willingness and ability to put things right, but Grey’s vision trumped all others, and the CRA accommodated itself to Belgian annexation.
For over a year after Belgium announced the impending annexation in late
Grey’s 1908 objectives were identical to the 1904 Programme of the Congo Reform Association, plus the demand, also added by the CRA, for the introduction of currency. Both the Foreign Office and the CRA supplemented these core conditions with ancillary changes, such as judicial independence and putting Protestant and Catholic missions on equal footing. The CRA and Foreign Office never adopted the broader hopes of some reformers for a new standard for African rule. The CRA and the government worked to ensure that the Congo became more like other colonies, not superior to them.
In gauging the movement’s success by reviewing each requirement, there are two considerations to keep in mind. First, the Congo’s size was a barrier to uniform results; a reform effective in some districts might be ineffective in others, interpreted as a success or a failure according to one’s perspective. Second, the resurgence of some practices complicated the story in subsequent years.
Relief from excessive taxation came as the reforms reached each region. The new rules replaced all labor and in-kind taxes (including rubber, wood, and food) with a head tax that the administration intended to increase as currency became more common. In the Lower Congo and Stanley Pool areas, where annual head taxes already existed at the level of 12 francs and 9 francs, respectively, the government reduced the taxes. Taxes in newly reformed areas began at 5 or 6 francs per adult male, plus 1-2 francs for every wife beyond the first, with the intent to increase these to 12 francs. Mackie observed that the new tax policy quickly had beneficial effects:
The dispirited people, released from the burden of excessive taxation in kind, are growing more reassured and contented, many natives who migrated to French territory are returning to their former homes, the birthrate is already on the increase, sleeping sickness shows signs of abatement, and the tax in currency in many of the wealthier districts cheerfully and willingly paid.
Vice-Consul Campbell reported similar benefits. Before the reforms, when Campbell went into a village, nearly all the men would come forward to complain about the injustice of the taxes. On his 1911 tour of the lands reformed in 1910, this did not happen at all:
Natives who, little more than a year ago, were spending from ten to twenty days monthly in an exhausted forest searching for rubber, and inhabitants of riverine towns, compelled to labour five and six days weekly in supplying State posts with fish, are now left in peace to gain in their own way the money for the payment of the tax which is levied by the government.
The initial post-reform taxation levels had uneven impacts. In some copal- producing areas, a person could earn his year’s taxes with a single day’s work. At the other extreme, it was almost impossible for local people to earn enough to pay taxes in the newly opened Kivu region, which was not yet a part of the colonial economy. According to Acting US Consul-General John W. Dye, a tax payment of 12 francs in poorer districts would require about three to five days each month. While this compared favorably to the pre-reform taxation levels that forced people to work 10-22 days per month, this exceeded what was reasonable and customary elsewhere, and little of what was collected paid for activities that directly benefited the inhabitants. He also heard reports in
1911 of tax collectors exceeding their authority by flogging men and women without cause and extorting food and animals. This problem occurred even in the Lower Congo, where money taxation was longstanding: “The collection of taxes has ever been attended with abuses, such as pillage, extortion, and cruelty, usually perpetrated by black subordinates but winked at by white officials. In this there has been little change for many years.” The administration responded to taxation concerns on an ad hoc basis, in some places negotiating collective payments by village, and in others granting temporary reductions in taxation levels, while trying to root out abusive tax collectors. In July 1914, the colonial government addressed concerns with inequity by authorizing local officials to assess taxes at their discretion between 2 and 24 francs annually, depending on local resources.
By 1912, the tax regime represented a substantial improvement over previous practices. Though still higher than in many other African colonies, taxes no longer destroyed the fabric of most people’s lives. Because it took years to expand taxation to cover even half the eligible taxpayers, most people did not pay the head tax for much of the decade after the reforms took effect.
The pressures of war altered taxation. During the First World War, the government, now completely dependent on the Congo for revenue, doubled taxes. In addition, new laws promulgated in 1917 increased penalties for nonpayment, authorizing forced labor to compensate for nonpayment of taxes.
Congo taxation policy met the goals of Grey and the CRA by ending the previous regime that had required the Congolese to spend one-third to two- thirds of their existence working to fulfill tax obligations. Even when taxation levels doubled during the war, they did not reach this level. Regarding taxes, the reformers could boast that they had successfully transformed the Leopoldian system to something far less oppressive.
Currency introduction, which took longer than expected, was otherwise a success. The government injected currency into the economy by paying for food and labor in coin. Within a few years, there was enough coin circulating in most areas to make paying taxes in currency possible.
The verdict on forced labor cannot be so clear. Grey and the CRA had called for an end to forced labor for commercial purposes. Many reformers hoped for an end to all forced labor, but this did not square with the objective of a Congo colony run on the same basis as other African colonies. Many African colonies, including most British colonies, used forced labor for purposes defined by authorities as being of public utility, such as road-building, though not all Africans would have agreed that they benefited from these projects.
Renkin’s reform program ended forced labor for commercial purposes, at least on paper, and reduced government forced labor contracts to three years. In 1910, Renkin declared that the government would no longer use forced labor even for works of public utility, such as the new railroad line being constructed in the Great Lakes territory, where 5,000 laborers found themselves free to go or stay. Renkin was at his least sincere on this issue. Later that year, Vandervelde complained that forced labor continued. Furthermore, some government rubber and cocoa plantations were using forced labor, as Morel and Harris had feared. When the new British Minister to Belgium, Francis Villiers, asked Renkin about the use of forced labor in 1911, the Colonial Minister replied that forced labor did not exist on plantations or elsewhere. This appears to have been a lie. In 1912, Morel highlighted the discrepancy between the repudiation of forced labor and its continuation in three areas: government activities such as the military, government-controlled commercial work such as state-run plantations, and private company work with broader benefits such as railroad labor. In the same year, the American Consul praised the ending of commercial forced labor almost everywhere but similarly noted continued forced labor at government mines and plantations.
Analyzing the persistence of forced labor for state-run commercial purposes, David Northrup identifies the cause: the government’s rejection of field officers’ proposals to make wage levels competitive with private firms, thus undermining the free labor market. Because workers opted for better-paying commercial employment, government mines and plantations could not find workers at substandard wages, and the state turned to compulsion rather than increasing wages. This had ripple effects. Wage-earners short of money could not support the food markets essential to a proletariat, so the state began coercing local people to bring products to the markets near state-run enterprises.
The limited geographic scope of these enterprises does not refute the charge that the government, in these places, continued to force people to work.
Privately owned companies raised wages to attract workers, and sometimes could not attract all the workers they needed. The Forminiere mines moved from forced labor in 1912 to methods that included both free labor and coerced labor in 1913. When forced labor had legally ended, many mines and plantations turned to private labor recruiters, obliged by the terms of their government licenses to attract men with practices consistent with a free labor market. In practice the authorities did little to constrain the recruiters’ zeal. Also, even after the 1910-12 reforms, government officials required that chiefs provide men to work on mines and plantations.
The First World War brought about a notable setback in the implementation of a free labor ideology. With Belgium erased from the map of Europe, its exiled government could wage total war only by demanding sacrifices from its African colony. Authorities regarded mining, particularly gold mining, as sufficiently vital that they set aside the 1910-12 reforms when they deemed it necessary. The same was true for forced labor for porterage, which returned on a huge scale during the war, as it did in Britain’s East African colonies. Restraints on labor recruiters vanished; during and immediately after the war, the authorities tolerated hostage-taking and manhunts. Complaints from state inspectors and the laborers themselves eventually led to a burst of government action in the mid-1920s to curb the worst abuses. Belgian inspectors, able to get their voices heard after the war, made headway in reducing, but not eliminating, forced labor practices that had revived during the war. It was not until the late 1920s that wages for Africans finally began to rise sufficiently to keep pace with inflation, thanks to three government actions: government monitoring of labor recruiters, ending the requirement that chiefs provide labor, and construction of sufficient roads (ironically conducted with forced labor) to make porterage largely unnecessary.
For all his prevarication (in both senses of the word), Renkin significantly reduced the scope of forced labor, apparently believing that it was an undesirable practice with a certain utility that made its complete elimination impractical. In agriculture, he attempted to reap its benefits while avoiding the abuses of the Leopoldian forced labor regime by reinventing the practice as compulsory cultivation. In 1917, he replaced village obligations to the government with a program in which the villagers would grow cash crops under the stern eye of colonial officials. The villagers would then sell the resulting cotton, coffee, foodstuffs, and so on, at prices fixed by the state. After the war’s end, his successors expanded this program.
Once again merging taxation and forced labor after a 20-year respite, new rules in 1933 formalized the practice of requiring all male villagers without paying jobs elsewhere to work 60 days a year, or five days a month, on work of importance to the local community. During the Second World War, this labor tax doubled to 120 days, and expanded to once again include porterage and wild rubber collection, reviving for the war’s duration two activities that the Congolese people loathed. Though rubber collection ended in 1945, some other requirements lingered for years.
Under the guise of paternalism, the Belgians developed new forms of compulsion. For example, officials might force the inhabitants of an area afflicted by cold weather to make blankets, or compel people short of food to expand their area of cultivation. Historian Roger Anstey calls this “paternalist coercion” because officials saw it for the inhabitants’ own good. Belgian administrators resorted to compulsion more often than officials in other colonies, with the effect on local people depending heavily on whether the officials were what Anstey called “good paternalists.” Whether or not there was a net physical benefit, compulsion robbed people of agency and led to threats, imprisonment, beatings, and other forms of punishment for failure to obey orders.
The reforms failed to eliminate commercial forced labor. After a significant decline, it had expanded, albeit less lethally and less extensively than in the Congo Free State. Renton, Seddon, and Zelig describe the post-1913 exploitative relationships in the Congo as changing from largely master/slave to largely boss/worker, a significant improvement though still oppressive. The reformers achieved a salutary change that failed to meet their goal.
The fourth objective, granting the Congolese sufficient land to let them freely trade the products of the soil, contained two closely linked changes to solve a single problem. Under Leopold’s system, all the products of the soil beyond village garden plots belonged to the government, which collected them through taxes in kind or in labor. The old regime treated any trade in these products as theft of state property. The reformers’ twofold remedy was to restore traditional land rights and to legalize trading, but Renkin focused on the latter. With the reform program, the government surrendered its claim to the products of the soil, allowing the local people to gather them freely and sell them to private traders. This single change broke the back of Leopold’s system. However, Renkin refused to re-establish Congolese collective land rights, reserving for the colonial government the right to grant any European or African the legal title to what he persisted in calling “vacant lands” (in reality land traditionally under the control of nearby villages). Although Morel had earlier ranked land ownership as less vital than land access, it was an important goal. Hardinge, like Morel, found this to be the least satisfactory part of Renkin’s reforms. The US Vice-Consul-General urged without success that the state should at least compensate the local people when it took so-called vacant land for its own purposes or to sell to companies. The reformers were uneasy with good reason. In the decades that followed, the colonial government granted vacant lands and even inhabited areas to plantations owned by the state and private firms. For its palm-oil concession, Lever Brothers obtained rights to parcels collectively one-fourth the size of Belgium. This practice affected a much smaller fraction of the Congo than Leopold’s concessions, but could pose real hardship for any Congolese directly affected.
The right of the Congo people to freely buy and sell generated benefits quite quickly. As the number of private traders grew from 2 in 1910 to over 1,000 in 1917, competition forced prices up for forest products, food, and fish. Some traders were rogues, but the colonial government dealt with these cases as they came to its attention. Even with wartime constraints, the free-trade regime was largely beneficial to those Congolese able to take advantage of it by virtue of location, accessible products, and personal initiative. Renkin’s commitment to free trade was sincere; he rebuffed requests from large companies to limit the activity of small traders and to cap prices.
However, after Renkin’s departure in 1918, large firms found a more sympathetic ear. Renkin’s successor replaced free trade with a managed-trade regime that benefited the large companies at the expense of the Congo people and the small traders. The Congolese confronted prices fixed by the firms or the state and no longer subject to supply and demand. Private traders found themselves hampered by new regulations. By the end of the First World War, five companies controlled 70 percent of the business of the Congo. They took on some civic functions, such as provision of housing, medical care, and education, though not tax-collecting. The reformers had largely achieved what they wanted in the period 1912-18, but the state impeded the market’s operation after 1917 and eroded its beneficial effects.
Renkin made free trade available to Europeans on the same 1910-12 schedule as his other reforms. He replaced the prohibitive 5,000-franc fee for opening a trading station with moderate taxes on rubber, while limiting land purchases by individual Europeans. He also put in severe restrictions on ivory sales to protect government revenue and preserve the elephants. Europeans paid an upfront ivory fee, but they could keep all the ivory if it was properly documented; indigenous people had no fee but they had to give the government half of the ivory they collected.
The free-trade regime of the 1910-18 period, accompanied by a partially free labor market, brought significant material benefits to many Congolese, as the reformers had predicted. This regime began to erode under the pressure of war and then more quickly after Renkin’s departure as the larger firms gained privileges, limited competition, and reduced wages and producer prices. Real wages fell by two-thirds by 1920, not regaining the levels that they had achieved in the free-trade period until the 1940s. Although this trend was not unique to the Congo, the reformers’ almost-complete success in this regard gradually became a partial success.
Leopold’s 1906 reforms had made only a small dent in the entanglement of commerce and administration, but Renkin went much further. He replaced the old monopoly concessions with much smaller freeholds of more limited powers for fixed terms that he could revoke if they failed to meet certain standards. New concessions, such as Lever’s palm-oil concession, had to pay a minimum wage of at least .25 francs per day, maintain schools and medical facilities, and meet food, housing, and sanitation requirements. Dispatches from headquarters in the old Abir territory “were always enjoining moderation in all dealings with the natives and so constantly dwelling on the serious responsibility the officials would incur by recourse to any measure of severity.” This did not guarantee improvement. In late 1912 the US Consul advised that the reform of the concessions was not complete; some companies retained some municipal duties, and with them, the right to use forced labor. However, maintaining a concession now required minimally acceptable treatment of the local people. The reconfigured Lomami concession treated the Congolese so badly even after the reforms that the state shut it down in 1915. Also, under free labor, employees could show their discontent by leaving. In one of Lever’s concession areas, Elizabetha, when laborers left over poor conditions, employment fell from 4,000 in 1915 to 1,500 in 1918, leading to better treatment as well as tighter control over movement.
Renkin undertook ancillary reforms as well. The hiring of Belgian colonial inspectors helped ferret out problems, though metropolitan authorities often disregarded their advice about policy. Despite inspectors’ warnings, metropolitan misunderstandings about African authority patterns, land use conventions, and religious beliefs led colonial authorities to unnecessarily disrupt local society. Renkin increased the pay of the colonial civil service, reducing their incentive to enrich themselves by other means. Appointed chiefs, called medal chiefs, frequently abused their authority, leading to waves of reforms of mixed efficacy. However, these considerations are only tangentially relevant to unwinding what Hardinge called “a great fabric of oppression” in the six areas discussed above.
The reformers were neither liars nor hypocrites when they proclaimed that the reform movement had largely succeeded in 1913. The excessive taxation of the past was gone, never to return. Belgium had introduced currency to facilitate markets and money taxes. Forced labor for commercial purposes had ended in theory and diminished significantly in practice until its resurgence during and after the war. Although they did not have title to their traditional lands, the Congolese enjoyed the benefits of access to land and free trade that eroded but did not disappear after 1918. Free trade for non-African individuals and companies similarly flourished in full force for a few years; even the more restrictive practices of the 1920s provided far more commercial liberty than Leopold’s regime had. The old concession companies lost most of their lands and powers; many fizzled out. Concessions henceforth operated at a higher standard of responsibility. The reformers could claim that their programs appeared largely successful in 1913. By the 1920s, the picture was muddier, but, whether we call it a flawed triumph or a partial success, conditions were superior to those of the red rubber regime.
In general, the reforms softened the colonial rule over the Congo by ending the most violent and oppressive features of the Congo Free State, but many underlying attitudes and even structures had remained, facilitating the return of forced labor, the introduction of paternalist coercion, and the weakening of the free-trade regime. Renkin’s priorities, state-promoted economic development and untrammeled free markets, were in conflict. It was free markets, and thus the people’s prosperity, which later colonial secretaries sacrificed to speed development. In terms of taxation and forced labor, the effect of the reforms was to replace the brutal oppression of a large portion of the population with less vicious forms of oppression. Northrup suggests that the total burden may have been the same, just spread out to a larger number of people. His calculus of comparative suffering fails to account for differential impact. Although precise calculations are impossible, it is clear that the gap between a flogging and a public humiliation is wide, and the gap between murder and flogging is wider still. Sadistic punishments that end in death may be worse than simple murder, while forced labor, compulsory agriculture, or other forms of oppression, for all their deplorable effects, have far lower costs. By ending the old system, with its extreme violence and societal disruption leading to starvation, epidemics, and population decline, the reforms and thus the reformers reduced the toll on the people of the Congo. The economic burden may have been similar, but the toll of human suffering had become less.
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