Death and Domination in the Congo: The First Global Shout-Out

29 Apr


“Everywhere I hear the same news of the Congo Free State – rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form.” E. J. Glave, Congo Free State administrator, Century Magazine (1897).

On November 15, 1908 Leopold II, King of Belgium formally renounced his personal control of the Congo Free State which immediately was placed under the administration of the Belgian Parliament and renamed the Belgian Congo. Leopold had no intention of surrendering his personal property without a long and arduous fight but changed his mind after he became the object of  such intense hatred and negative publicity that he succumbed to the political pressure and gave in. Even after he had signed away all rights to his possession a host of British and American newspapers continued to post headlines exposing new atrocities reported to have taken place in the Congo. Numerous articles and an outpouring of “Letters to the Editor” called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try him as a criminal and hang him for his “heinous offenses”.   Unfortunately the ICC was a fledgling judicial institution  in the early 1900’s and did not have the legal authority to render an official verdict or impose a sentence but numerous citizens around the world felt that it was time to give the court “some teeth” and allow it to formally try King Leopold II of Belgium and convict him for his “crimes against humanity”.

But how was it that the good citizens of the world came to hear about Leopold and his systemized exploitation of the Congo in the first place?  Reports about the “horrid enslavement of the natives” began to surface in official mission communications handed to a Dr. H. Gratton Guinness and then sent back to the Harley Missionary Training Institute in East London. These were the same missionaries who had been invited into the Congo Free State by Leopold himself to “Christianize the natives.”  Dr Henry Grattan Guinness became particularly outspoken about the horrendous abuses described to him by the missionaries in the region who were outraged by the methods employed by the Force Publique against the villagers especially the use of torture and dismemberment. Although the Belgian authorities challenged the accuracy of Dr. Guinness’ claims, the eye-witness accounts would not be dismissed so easily and were eventually turned over by the Mission Society to British journalists in London. Dr. Guinness was a highly respected physician, missionary, protestant preacher, evangelist, and author who had a large following of supporters both in England and in Ireland. He had spent a full year traveling a 3, 600 mile course on the Congo River and its tributaries charged with investigating the conditions and potential of  missionary service in that region. In his role as Mission Secretary he made visits to all of the missionary stations belonging to the Congo Balold Mission.

In 1877 The Livingstone Inland Mission to the Congo was first envisioned by the Baptist minister Alfred Tilly after he heard about Stanley’s journey into this area of Africa. Henry and his wife were members of the Mission Committee and ran the East London Training Institute for Home and Foreign Missions so they were charged with preparing the first recruits. Fifty missionaries along with Guinness and his wife left for the Congo. In 1878 the Livingston Inland Mission was the first mission to be established in this region. It had originally been planned that the mission would be self-supporting but this failed to happen. The first missionaries suffered from a host of tropical diseases, inadequate equipment, and a lack of support from the Belgian administrators in the area even though Leopold himself  had pledged his support at the beginning of the project. By1884 the lack of resources and the illness of Mrs. Guinness forced Dr. Guinness to hand the mission over to the care of the American Baptist Missionary Union and the Swiss Missionary Fellowship.

 Edmund Dene Morel was the Head of Congo Trade for the Liverpool shipping company, Elder Dempster which had been awarded the shipping contract between Antwerp, Belgian and the port city of Boma located in the Congo Free State. Morel who had been educated in France as a child was fluent in the French language and so the company sent him to  Belgium to serve as Elder Dempster’s  business agent there. Once he had settled into their offices he was able to study the Congo accounts and cargo manifests in detail. After a careful examination of these records he uncovered the exploitative nature behind Leopold’s business practices especially in regards to his collection of rubber and ivory.  While in this position he was also privy to the first –hand accounts told to him by English traders and seamen sent by Elder Dempster to the Congo export stations to collect the shipments. They described in detail the abusive conditions endured by the villagers under the corvee system imposed upon them by Leopold’s business agents. Corvée is an unpaid labor practice used with individuals required to pay taxes but with no cash or coin with which to settle their debts. It was usually imposed upon them by a state or  ruler. It was first used in feudal times where the taxee agreed to work a certain number of days without compensation in order to pay off what was owed to the ruler or administrator. Leopold had amended this system so that  his laborers were required to work non-stop every day of their lives for  no monetary compensation whatsoever. And if they refused to comply with  his demands he killed them off or mutilated members of their families. Not only did he  distort the system but he eventually reshaped it into one of the cruelest forms of enslaved labor ever implemented by a ruler.

 Morel’s outrage over Leopold’s uncontested domination of  the Congolese people eventually led him to begin writing about the injustice of it all. In 1900, Morel repeatedly lashed out against Leopold’s polices in articles published in a weekly magazine called Speaker. By1902, Morel retired from Elder Dempster then dedicated his life to exposing the human rights abuses taking place in the Congo Free State. His articles were so well received that he was soon hired as an editor of a new periodical, called West Africa. In 1903 he founded his own magazine, The West African Mail, an illustrated weekly journal in which he conducted a relentless campaign against Leopold, his Belgian Colonialists, and the actions of the Force Publique. Morel also published several pamphlets and his first book, Affairs of West Africa. He became a passionate watchdog who alerted the British Empire to the extent of Leopold’s inhumanity to his  subjects. His horrendous descriptions so outragesd the citizens of Europe and the United States that they began to  formally petition their governments to intervene on  behalf of these “innocents” to stop the torture and the slaughter.

As certain of his articles were reprinted byAmerican and London dailies Morel became a “Man of Influence” around London. Eventually  he agreed to take part in public lectures speaking out against Leopold in community halls and private homes. He proved to be a gifted and persuasive orator and  became so popular throughout Europe that even King Leopold II was forced to acknowledge his scathing diatribes. The King was so unsettled by Morel’s relentless condemnation of him in the world press that he begged the owners of certain British tabloids to intercede on his behalf and see to it that Morel was “stopped” from defaming “his good name”.

Eventually the Aborigines’ Protection Society acted on the “disturbing news” brought back to them by the surviving members of the Congo missions. This Quaker- initiated Society was the first international human rights organization, founded in 1837 to protect the health and well-being as well as the sovereign, legal, and religious rights of indigenous peoples subjected by the colonial powers. By1832 Britain had formally abolished the slave trade and by the 1880’s there was a large population of Brits and Americans of both sexes firmly devoted to the eradication of any form of slavery around the world. The APS continued until 1909 when it became known as the AntiSlavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. It is currently called Anti- Slavery International and can be accessed at

The APS sponsored the creation of written materials such as tracts, pamphlets, annual reports and a widely- respected journal entitled The Colonial Intelligencer. By 1889 ,the writer Henry Richard Fox-Bourne had been named editor of the Intelligencer and Chair of the Society. Bourne began collecting private testimonies about the atrocities committed in the Congo and in 1902 published his book, Civilization in Congoland: A Story of International Wrongdoing. The book was well accepted in literary circles around London and New York City and went on to further fuel the righteous indignation of more and more of the citizenry living on the Continent. Also in 1902 Joseph Conrad, a Polish-born novelist who had immigrated to England published a three part series called “Heart of Darkness” in Blackwood Magazine causing an uproar of criticism against Leopold’s brutal treatment of the Congolese villagers. In it, his hero arrives  in the Congo and observes the abject poverty and the inhuman conditions imposed on the tribes living along the river by the white colonialists  engaged in trade there. Soon after it was published as a novella and was read by thousands more in Europe and the United States.

In 1903 the British House of Commons passed a resolution in response to the recommendations of some very influential members of Parliament and at the behest of the Aborigines’ Protection Society to investigate the disturbing headlines pasted across the front pages of London newspapers and magazines at the time. The British consul at Boma, a Roger Casement, was assigned the task of investigating the charges of inhumane practices leveled against Leopold and his administrators. This was no easy task. Leopold had spies everywhere and in time all of the white traders in the area had to have been aware of why Casement was making regular visits to the surrounding villages. The Congo was full of natural dangers and the Belgians stationed around Casement had alreadydemonstrated that they were more than comfortable with causing mayhem and murder. Casement must have feared for his own life on many occasions. But in a heroic effort he pushed on and in 1904 submitted his final report which confirmed Morel’s accusations and further inflamed an already exasperated population  of sympathizers in the United States and Europe.

The entire summary was about forty pages long.  He added another twenty pages to the report filled with first-hand testimonials describing in great detail the murders, mutilations, kidnappings, and beatings of the villagers by the Force Publique in their attempt to enforce the policies established by Leopold and his colonial regulators. After the British Parliament received his original report a copy was sent to the Belgian Parliament and to the other 12 nations who were the original signatories at the Berlin Agreement of 1885. The British Parliament along with the United States of America demanded another meeting of the 14 signatory powers right away in order to review the original Berlin Agreement. When the report was made public, the Congo Reform Association headed by Morel and vigorously supported by Casement demanded that the Belgian government take legal action at once. The Belgian officials complied by forcing an outraged Leopold to establish a Belgian Committee of Inquiry. While the world waited this commission reviewed all of the evidence and ultimately agreed with Casement’s findings. In 1905 they ordered the immediate arrest and imprisonment of the colonial official who had been convicted of murdering hundreds of native workers during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903.

Despite the 1904 report and the subsequent investigation in 1905, Leopold retained official control of his Congo Free State for three more years. It took until November 15,1908 for the Parliament of Belgium to annex Leopold’s Congo Free State and assume legal responsibility for all administrative services. Leopold II, King of Belgium died in December of 1909. Several of his household staff testified that he refused to let go of the anger he felt at being made to “give away” his personal property and that he showed no remorse for his actions. Whatever the reason, the man  who had personally engineered the death of so many finally joined the ranks of his victims and by 1912 the members of the Congo Reform Association were able to disband once and for all.

In spite of or maybe because of his humanitarian efforts, Sir Roger Casement, who had been knighted by the King of England for his noble actions on behalf of the Congolese people, was hanged for sabotage and espionage against the Crown on August 3rd, 1916. It was proven  that the Irish Nationalist had met with German officials to elicit their support in a rebellion against the British government in order to free Ireland. The plot behind the revolution called the  Easter Rising was uncovered by British agents in Dublin and Casement was captured then quickly jailed.  He was subsequently tried and convicted of treason. And the British parliament who had so highly praised his actions in the service of humanity branded him a “dirty homosexual” and purposefully released his diaries. Today these are known as  the Black Diaries. Discrete entries from his diaries were released during the trial by British authorities who deliberately used them to seal his fate and ensure that he would receive the death penalty for his crimes. The mercy and respect for all human beings that Casement had worked so hard to establish during his lifetime was withheld from him by the very country he had once served so well.  And in the end Roger Casement, human rights activist,  hung from a rope on the gallows in Pentonville prison for intefering with the course of British rule while Leopold of Belgium, murderer of millions died  peacefully in his bed.

Kat Nickerson   Kingston    USA


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