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The Reform Movement’s Effectiveness

If the reformers did not argue for self-determination for the colonized or for an end to colonial rule, we cannot then deem their cause to have failed because colonial rule continued. Most Congo reformers found colonialism acceptable and even desirable as long as it was administered well. It was not obvious to Holt and Morel that colonial rule necessitated coercion and violence; they imagined that the right kind of colonialism could respect and leave intact local cultures while peacefully suppressing their most repugnant practices. The old liberal proposition that full legal equality and self-determination was only for those who were ready for it had faded in Europe, but it continued in colonial theory. Morel’s language of rights distinguished between civilized nations, where the full panoply of rights should apply, and subject races, who should be entitled to a much smaller set of rights. Nonetheless, though many of the movement’s adherents wanted nothing more than to end the murders, rapes, and mutilations of Leopold’s regime, the CRA’s leadership had a radical agenda. Its radicalism lay not in its program, which aspired to make the Congo like other colonies, but in applying the principle formalized a century later by the UN General Assembly as the Responsibility to Protect: if a state fails in its responsibilities by committing crimes against humanity, other countries have an obligation “to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means ... to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity,” with military action as a last resort.[1] This wording resonates with the sentiments of the CRA and Grey. Like the UN today, neither Grey nor Morel contemplated ending all violence, exploitation, or oppression, but sought to overturn the administrative and economic basis of the system Leopold created. Had the reforms completely succeeded, the resulting colony would nonetheless have shared the racist traits of all African colonial regimes, using implicit and explicit violence to maintain imperial rule.

Those who deem that the reformers failed are arguing that they should have pursued different goals, such as the end of colonial rule or transforming the Congo into a model colonial state. This is an inappropriate standard. Condemning the Congo reform movement because it was not anticolonial or because the Belgian colony was not a paragon has little to do with the question of whether the CRA was effective in achieving its ends. The Belgian Congo of 1913 justified British recognition and the end of the CRA; the less-than- satisfactory aspects, such as the land question, were not amenable to further pressure as they had been partially satisfied. Overall, the result appeared to be better than passing marks for the reformers.

In 1913, the reformers could fear but not predict that conditions would erode in the future. If the reforms in 1913 looked like an incomplete success, the later years emphasized the incompleteness. After 1915 and especially 1918, Belgium adulterated or even reversed reforms because of pressure for development, perceived needs of total war, and oppressive paternalism. New problems arose. The Belgian Congo from the 1920s was one of the more oppressive colonies in Africa. This was nonetheless an improvement. The situation in 1922 and 1944 was worse than in 1913, but these three points in time were all far better than anything between 1890-1909. The governance of the Belgian Congo did not lapse back into the systemic, widespread horrors of the Congo Free State. The success of Grey and the Congo Reform Association had ended the years of hell, but it had not made a paradise.

The reformers had made this possible. The years of their biggest impact were 1900-05, when the Belgian reformers were powerless and the British Foreign Office would not take up the question on its own. It is in these years, particularly 1903, when the activists rallied educated public opinion and deployed parliamentary allies to tap the powers inherent in the House of Commons to force the British government to act against its inclination in exposing the Congo question to international scrutiny and take actions toward securing reform.

Under Grey the Foreign Office became an advocate of Congo reform. The CRA supported and educated him for the next few years until Morel’s break with the Foreign Office damaged those connections. Thereafter the CRA reminded the Foreign Office and the world of Britain’s ongoing popular interest in the question, but it no longer determined or decisively influenced events.

  • [1] United Nations, “2005 World Summit Outcome,” 31,
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