Chapter 9

The Story of the Congo Free State

Botofi bo le iwo -- "Rubber is death" (a native proverb current in the Upper Congo when the atrocities were at their height).

I do not propose to narrate here the European history of the Congo Free State. There is an abundant literature on that subject. I shall confine myself as far as practicable to describing the system of exploitation set up in the Congo basin and maintained therein from 1891 to 1911; and its effects upon native life. I am conscious of the difficulty of the task. It is no easy matter to compress in a few pages in such a way as to leave an indelible impression upon the reader's mind, the record of twenty years' continuous warfare upon native peoples. Nor is it easy to convey a sense of the immensity of the drama of which the Congo has been the scene.


The Extent of the Tragedy:


The Congo Free State -- known since August, 1908, as the Belgian Congo -- is roughly one million square miles in extent. When Stanley discovered the course of the Congo and observed its densely-populated river banks, he formed the, doubtless very much exaggerated, estimate that the total population amounted to forty millions. In the years that followed, when the country had been explored in every direction by travelers of divers nationalities, estimates varied between twenty and thirty millions. No estimate fell below twenty millions. In 1911 an official census was taken. It was not published in Belgium, but was reported in one of the British Consular dispatches. It revealed that only eight and a half million people were left. The Congo system lasted for the best part of twenty years. The loss of life can never be known with even approximate exactitude. But data, extending over successive periods, are procurable in respect of a number of regions, and a careful study of these suggests that a figure of ten million victims would be a very conservative estimate.


In considering the story which follows, it should be borne in mind that the facts concerning the Congo methods of administration took many years to establish, and still longer to become known and appreciated. The truth was cleverly concealed, and much laborious effort was required to tear aside one by one the wrappings which veiled it from the gaze of men. It must also be remembered that direct evidence from the Congo -- in an accessible form -- was rare and spasmodic for a considerable time. It only became abundant after 1903.


The Berlin Conference (1884)


In 1884, Leopold II, King of the Belgians , "for the purpose of promoting the civilization and commerce of Africa and for other human and benevolent purposes," the Congo was recognized as a friendly Government by the Powers assembled at the Great West African Conference held at Berlin. Its claim to recognition, as such, was based upon treaties of amity and friendship which its agents had contracted with native rulers in the Congo. Foreigners would be guaranteed the free exercise of their religion, and freedom of commerce, industry and navigation. Everything possible would be done to prevent the slave trade and slavery. [JS1]Formal and collective recognition was granted on these assurances, and the Congo "Act" of the Conference laid down that the trade of all nations should enjoy "complete freedom"; that no power exercising sovereign rights in the Congo basin should grant therein "a monopoly or favor of any kind in matters of trade," and that powers exercising such rights should "bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes." The International African Association blossomed out into the "Congo Free State." King Leopold declared himself its Sovereign, having obtained the consent of the Belgian Chamber to the "fusion of the two crowns." He thus fulfilled in his person two distinct functions, viz.: that of constitutional Monarch of Belgium, and that of Sovereign of the Congo Free State, unfettered in his latter capacity save by the limitations of the Congo "Act" and the separate agreements concluded between the International African Association and the signatory Powers, among them Great Britain.

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Realization of a great human tragedy is vivid and historically enduring in the measure in which we are able to conjure up a mental vision of its victims, their circumstances and surroundings. This is especially required when the victims belong to a race whose skin is not white. We Europeans do not find it easy to understand that despite differences of color, climate, and environment, the main channels along which travel the twin emotions of suffering and joy, are much the same in all races and peoples. Emotions are deeper, more sensitized with civilized man than is the case with uncivilized man but the difference is only one of degree.


The Congo Region Prior to Imperialism


Roughly speaking, the region drained by the Congo and its affluents is, except in the extreme south-east, one huge forest bisected by innumerable waterways, and broken here and there with open spaces. Before the main river flings itself into the sea after traversing half Africa, its course is interrupted by a long series of cataracts, rendering navigation impossible. This natural obstacle had always hindered communication between the lower Congo and the vast regions of the interior, until Belgian enterprise turned it by constructing a railway round them. Nevertheless, a brisk commercial intercourse between the upper Congo and the outer world had grown up since the disappearance of the oversea slave trade. There were three principal intermediary agents to this trade: the European merchant settled in the lower river; the Ba-Congo (i.e., lower Congo) people, who acted as go-betweens, and the Batekes, settled about Stanley Pool at the head of the cataracts, who acted as middlemen for all the up-river tribes. [JS2] The Ba-Congo carried goods up the line of cataracts from the lower river to Stanley Pool, and brought down the produce from the Batekes. The ramifications of this commercial intercourse penetrated to great distances, and native tribes as far inland as the Aruwimi -- -over 2,000 miles from the sea -- were eager purchasers of the white man's goods before they had ever seen a white man's face. The chief article of import was cloth, which was ardently coveted; after cloth came satin strips, kettles, red baize, umbrellas, brass rods, iron cooking pots, pipes, looking glasses, rough knives, beads, snuff boxes, muskets, and powder. In exchange for these articles, the natives bartered red-wood, camwood powder (a crimson cosmetic), wax, ivory, tin, copper, lead, and palm oil -- to which, in latter years, was added india-rubber, when the demand for that article developed in Europe, and when, in an evil hour, it was discovered that the Congo was a great natural rubber preserve.


The Crime Against Humanity


I have emphasized this early commercial intercourse between the peoples of the Congo and their European clients because it is, in a measure, the keynote of the story. M. A. J. Wauters, the foremost Belgian historian of the Congo, wrote about that time:

Trade is the dominant characteristic of all these peoples. They are warriors only for defense, agriculturists only for their own needs. They are not pastoral. They are one and all traders, and it is trade that will redeem them. They welcome and invite those who promise them protection in order to trade freely and in safety.

It is very difficult for anyone who has not experienced in his person the sensations of the tropical African forest to realize the tremendous handicaps which man has to contend against whose lot is cast beneath its somber shades; the extent to which nature, there seen in her most titanic and ruthless moods, presses upon man; the intellectual disabilities against which man must needs constantly struggle not to sink to the level of the brute; the incessant combat to preserve life and secure nourishment. Communities living in this environment who prove themselves capable of systematic agriculture and of industry; who are found to be possessed of keen commercial instincts; who are quick at learning, deft at working iron and copper, able to weave cloths of real artistic design; these are communities full of promise in which the divine spark burns brightly. To destroy these activities; to reduce all the varied, and picturesque, and stimulating episodes in savage life to a dull routine of endless toil for incomprehensible ends; to dislocate social ties and disrupt social institutions; to stifle nascent desires and crush mental development; to graft upon primitive passions the annihilating evils of scientific slavery, and the bestial imaginings of civilized man, unrestrained by convention or law; in fine, to kill the soul in a people -- this is a crime which transcends physical murder. And this crime it was, which, for twenty dreadful years, white men perpetrated upon the Congo natives.[JS3] 



The Congo man, whom Stanley and the explorers of his epoch revealed to Europe, was "natural man," with natural man's vices and virtues. Europe heard much of the latter and comparatively little of the former until Leopold II., forced to defend the character of his administration before the bar of public opinion, found a convenient weapon in the shortcomings, real and alleged, of the peoples he was oppressing. Cannibalism and human sacrifice were endemic in some parts of the Congo basin, as in other parts of Africa. They were made much of by the defenders of the Leopoldian System. Probably no branch of the human family has not indulged at some time or another in these practices, and, not infrequently, after attaining a degree of culture to which the terribly handicapped dwellers in the forest belt of equatorial Africa never attained. The policy of the Congo Free State Government, at any rate in the earlier years, tended rather to encourage cannibalism than otherwise. A comparison of the literature which preceded the creation of the "Congo Free State" and which followed it until its sovereign patented his "red-rubber" slavery, with the literature which from that time onwards professed to give a veracious picture of the inhabitants of the country, forms instructive matter for reflection. When there was no object in painting a false picture, we find travelers and residents of all nationalities laying stress upon the physical vigor, the commercial aptitude, and the numerical importance of the aboriginal peoples. Undesirable traits were not ignored, but they retained their proper perspective in the general presentation.


Particular emphasis was laid upon the keen commercial proclivities of the Congo peoples, which were rightly regarded as indicating a high standard of intelligence. Stanley was particularly eloquent on this theme. Here is one of the many striking passages in which he describes their acuteness of perception in handling European merchandise:

This was the populous district of Irebu, the home of the champion traders on the Upper Congo, rivalled only in enterprise by Ubanghi on the right bank.... It was, in fact, a Venice of the Congo[JS4] , seated in the pride of its great numbers between the dark waters of the Lukangu and the deep, brown channels of the parent stream.... These people were really acquainted with many lands and tribes on the Upper Congo. From Stanley Pool to Upoto, a distance of 6,000 miles, they knew every landing place on the river banks. All the ups and downs of savage life, all the profits and losses derived from barter, all the diplomatic arts used by tactful savages, were as well-known to them as the Roman alphabet to us. They knew the varied length of "sina" ("long" of cloth), the number of "matakos" (brass rods) they were worth, whether of Savelish, Florentine, unbleached domestic, twill, stripe, ticking, blue and white baft; the value of beads per 1,000 strings, as compared with the uncut pieces of sheeting, or kegs of gunpowder, or flint-lock muskets, short and long. They could tell, by poising on the arm, what profit on an ivory tusk purchased at Langa-Langa, would be derived by sale at Stanley Pool. No wonder that all this commercial knowledge had left its traces on their faces; indeed it is the same as in your own cities in Europe.... It is the same in Africa, more especially on the Congo, where the people are so devoted to trade.

The "Venice of the Congo" has long since disappeared, and the "champion traders of the Congo" have perished miserably.


Economic Life Prior to the Arrival of the Europeans


But this European trade was, after all, but a very small affair in the lives of the Congo peoples as a whole. Their own internal trade, industries, and avocations filled up most of their time. Their external trade intercourse, through a whole series of intermediaries, with the working classes of Europe, only affected a microscopic portion of the vast territory in which they dwelt. There is a copious literature enabling us to form an accurate estimate of the daily life of these promising races. We read of innumerable centres of population varying from 5,000 to 40,000; of settlements extending for hundreds of miles along the river banks; of communities of professional fishermen; others making a speciality of canoe building and fashioning brass-bound paddles; others proficient in pottery, basket-making, net-weaving, cane-splitting, carving wooden handles for hoes. We are shown a busy people manufacturing salt from the ashes of certain river reeds, and beer made from malted maize; making rat-traps and twine; digging and smelting iron; repairing thatch-roofed dwellings; turning out weapons for hunting and for war, often of singularly beautiful shape, the handles of battleaxes and knives tastefully and richly ornamented; weaving the fibres of various plants into mats and handsome clothes of raised pile, dyed and designed with remarkable artistic instinct. The village forge is everywhere to be seen; sometimes the tannery. We are shown towns and villages, surrounded with plantations -- on land hardly won from the forest -- of sugar-cane, maize, ground nuts, bananas, plantains, and maniocs in variety; tobacco, many species of vegetables such as sweet potatoes tomatoes, vegetable marrows, "as finely kept as in Flanders," writes one enthusiastic Belgian explorer. "If civilization," exclaims a French expert observer, "were measured by the number of vegetable conquests, these people would rank amongst the most advanced in Africa." Agriculturists, artisans, fishermen, merchants, all plying their various trades, interchanging their products, traveling long distances. "The natives must be imbued with great enterprise," writes another Belgian traveler, "to explain their lengthy business travels and their opening of relations with distant tribes. The inhabitants of the Upper Congo have never seen the Coast. The trading tribes travel 120 to 150 miles north and south of their homes and exchange their produce with other tribes, who, in turn, sell it to others."


The prevalence of well defined customs in the tenure of land, of established institutions and forms of government among the Congo peoples was not only never questioned, it was repeatedly and emphatically affirmed. Indeed, the existence of an indigenous polity all over the Congo formed the basis of justification on which King Leopold relied in claiming recognition for his Congo enterprise from the great Powers. The "450 Treaties" which were flourished in the face of the world were treaties with "legitimate" rulers, holding land in trust for their respective communities, by undisturbed occupation, by "long ages of succession." Early explorers of the Congo: Catholic and Protestant missionaries with long years of experience in different parts of the territory; British consuls, indeed, a whole host of witnesses could be cited in support of the jealous regard of the native population for their rights in land.


It was only after the royal decrees had swept away these rights that the Congo natives were presented to the world by the official defenders of the Congo Free State and by the Belgian Ministers who made themselves its accomplices, as little better than animals, with no conception of land tenure or tribal government, no commercial instincts, no industrial pursuits, "entitled," as a Belgian Premier felt no shame in declaring, "to nothing."


Such in brief was the country in which, such the people among whom, modern capitalistic finance in the hands of a European King and his bodyguard of satellites attained the climax of its destructive potency.

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European Mass Exploitation


From 1891 until 1912, the paramount object of European rule in the Congo was the pillaging of its natural wealth to enrich private interests in Belgium. [JS5] To achieve this end a specific, well-defined System was thought out in Brussels and applied on the Congo. Its essential features were known to the Belgian Government from 1898 onwards. They were defended in principle, and their effects denied, by successive Belgian Ministries, some of whose members were actively concerned in the working of the System, and even personal beneficiaries, from it, for twelve years; although the Belgian Government did not govern the Congo, and, while apologizing for and acclaiming the methods of administration there pursued, washed its hands of responsibility for the actions of what it termed "a foreign State." The System had its European side and its African side. In Europe -- the formulation of a Policy which should base itself upon the claim of sovereign right and be expounded in decrees, promulgations, and pièces justificatives; in whose support should be enlisted the constitutional machinery of Belgium, including the diplomatic and consular representatives of Belgium in foreign countries, buttressed by a body of international legal authorities well remunerated for the purpose. In Africa -- the execution of that Policy.


The Policy was quite simple. Native rights in land were deemed to be confined to the actual sites of the town or village, and the areas under food cultivation around them. Beyond those areas no such rights would be admitted. The land was "vacant," i.e., without owners. Consequently the "State" was owner. The "State" was Leopold II., not in his capacity of constitutional Monarch of Belgium, but as Sovereign of the "Congo Free State." Native rights in nine-tenths of the Congo territory being thus declared non-existent, it followed that the native population had no proprietary right in the plants and trees growing upon that territory, and which yielded rubber, resins, oils, dyes, etc.: no right, in short, to anything animal, vegetable, or mineral which the land contained. In making use of the produce of the land, either for internal or external trade or internal industry and social requirements, the native population would thus obviously be making use of that which did not belong to it, but which belonged to the "State," i.e., Leopold II. It followed logically that any third person -- European or other -- acquiring, or attempting to acquire, such produce from the native population by purchase, in exchange for corresponding goods or services, would be guilty of robbery, or attempted robbery, of "State property." A "State" required revenue. Revenue implied taxation. The only articles in the Congo territory capable of producing revenue were the ivory, the rubber, the resinous gums and oils; which had become the property of the "State." The only medium through which these articles could be gathered, prepared and exported to Europe -- where they would be sold and converted into revenue -- was native labour. Native labour would be called upon to furnish those articles in the name of "taxation." Richard Harding Davis, the American traveller, has given colloquial expression to this Policy, whose effects on the spot he had the opportunity of studying in 1908:

To me the fact of greatest interest about the Congo is that it is owned, and the twenty millions of people who inhabit it are owned, by one man. The land and its people are his private property. I am not trying to say that he governs the Congo. He does govern it, but that in itself would not be of interest. His claim is that he owns it.... It does not sound like anything we have heard since the days and the ways of Pharoah.... That in the Congo he has killed trade and made the produce of the land his own; that of the natives he did not kill he has made slaves is what to-day gives the Congo its chief interest.

The Role of the Agents in Executing Imperialist Exploitation


In the nature of the case, the execution of this policy took some years before it could become really effective and systematic. The process called for some ingenuity and a certain breadth of vision, for a good many issues were involved. In the first place, the notion that an economic relationship existed between the European and the Congo native, that the native had anything to sell, must be thoroughly stamped out. Regulations were issued forbidding the natives to sell rubber or ivory to European merchants, and threatening the latter with prosecution if they bought these articles from the natives. In the second place, every official in the country had to be made a partner in the business of getting rubber and ivory out of the natives in the guise of "taxation." Circulars, which remained secret for many years, were sent out, to the effect that the paramount duty of officials was to make their districts yield the greatest possible quantity of these articles; promotion would be reckoned on that basis. As a further stimulus to "energetic action" a system of sliding-scale bonuses was elaborated, whereby the less the native was "paid" for his labor in producing these articles of "taxation," i.e., the lower the outlay in obtaining them, the higher was the official's commission. Thus if the outlay amounted to 70 centimes per kilo (2 lbs.) of rubber, the official got 4 centimes commission per kilo; but he got 15 centimes per kilo if the outlay was only 30 centimes. In the third place, outside financiers had to be called in to share in the loot, otherwise the new policy would be unable to weather the storm. "Concessionaire" Companies were created to which the King farmed out a large proportion of the total territory, retaining half the shares in each venture. These privileges were granted to business men, bankers, and others with whom the King thought it necessary to compound. They floated their companies on the stock exchange. The shares rose rapidly, so rapidly that they became negotiable in tenths of a share, and were largely taken up by the Belgian public. The "tip" was passed round among influential Belgian public men and journalists. By these means a public vested interest of a somewhat extensive character was created throughout Belgium which could be relied upon to support the King's "System" should it ever be challenged by "pestilent philanthropists." The more lucrative the profits and dividends -- and both attained in due course to fabulous dimensions -- the louder, it might be assumed, would an outraged patriotism protest against any agitation directed to reducing them. The network of corruption thus spread over Belgium was not confined to that country. Financiers, journalists, politicians, even Ministers in some other countries were placed from time to time in the position of benefiting by inside knowledge of the Congo share-markets. Their favor was thus purchased, and was not negligible as a diplomatic asset.


The Use of Terror


These various measures at the European end were comparatively easy. The problem of dealing with the natives themselves was more complex. A native army was the pre-requisite. The five years which preceded the Edicts of 1891-2 were employed in raising the nucleus of a force of 5,000. It was successively increased to nearly 20,000 apart from the many thousands of "irregulars" employed by the Concessionaire Companies. This force was amply sufficient for the purpose, for a single native soldier armed with a rifle and with a plentiful supply of ball cartridge can terrorize a whole village. The same system of promotion and reward would apply to the native soldier as to the official -- the more rubber from the village, the greater the prospect of having a completely free hand to loot and rape. A systematic warfare upon the women and children would prove an excellent means of pressure. They would be converted into "hostages" for the good behavior, in rubber collecting, of the men. "Hostage houses" would become an institution in the Congo. But in certain parts of the Congo the rubber-vine did not grow. This peculiarity of nature was, in one way, all to the good. For the army of officials and native soldiers, with their wives, and concubines, and camp-followers generally, required feeding. The non-rubber producing districts should feed them. Fishing tribes would be "taxed" in fish; agricultural tribes in foodstuffs. In this case; too, the women and children would answer for the men. Frequent military expeditions would probably be an unfortunate necessity. Such expeditions would demand in every case hundreds of carriers for the transport of loads, ammunition, and general impediments. Here, again, was an excellent school in which this idle people could learn the dignity of labor. The whole territory would thus become a busy hive of human activities, continuously and usefully engaged for the benefit of the "owners" of the soil thousands of miles away, and their crowned Head, whose intention, proclaimed on repeated occasions to an admiring world, was the "moral and material regeneration" of the natives of the Congo. 


Such was the Leopoldian "System," briefly epitomized. It was conceived by a master brain.

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Fighting began with the riverain tribes on the main river, which the merchants abandoned after a struggle with the King, not without placing on record a weighty protest, supported by several leading Belgian statesmen, including the Belgian representative at the Berlin Conference of 1884, and by the Governor-General, who resigned:

To deny to the natives the right to sell ivory and rubber produced by the forests and plains belonging to their tribes, which forests and plains form part of their hereditary natal soil, and in which they have traded from time immemorial, is a veritable violation of natural rights.

Native Resistance


The natives naturally refused to yield up their ivory stocks; to indulge in the perils of hunting the elephant: to carry out the arduous task of tapping the rubber vines, gathering the flowing latex in calabashes, drying it, preparing it, reducing it generally to a marketable condition, and transporting it either by land or water, often for long distances; unless they received, as before, the value of their produce at current market rates. To be suddenly told that this labor must no longer be regarded as a voluntary act on their part, but was required of them, and would be periodically required of them; to be further told that its yield must be handed over as a "tax" or tribute; that they would get no value for the produce itself because their property in it was not recognized, and only such "payment" for their labor as the recipients of the "tax" might arbitrarily determine: this was tantamount to informing the native population inhabiting the part of the Congo which had been in trade relationship with Europeans, either directly or indirectly, from time immemorial, that it was in future to be robbed and enslaved. It refused to submit to the process. Nor could similar demands fail to meet with a similar resistance, where European trade had not penetrated. In every part of the Congo, the natives were perfectly well aware that ivory had an intrinsic value. In such parts of the Congo where the natives had not become acquainted with the fact that rubber was a marketable commodity, the people appear to have acquiesced, unwillingly enough, with the requisitions when first imposed, hoping that the white man would presently go away and leave them in peace. But when they saw that the white man was insatiable, that they could only carry out his orders by neglecting their farms and dislocating their whole social life, when they found men of strange tribes armed with guns permanently stationed in their villages, interfering with their women and usurping the position and functions of their own chiefs and elders -- they, too, rose.




Evidence of the atrocious incidents which characterized the enforcement of the "System" would fill many volumes. The earliest in date, but not in time of publication, are in reports of the Belgian and other merchants from the main river, describing the period immediately following the edicts inaugurating the new "System." In less than twelve months the whole country was transformed. It was as though a tornado had torn across it and destroyed everything in its passage. But the effects were much more lasting than any natural phenomenon. Thriving communities had been transformed into scattered groups of panic-stricken folk: precipitated from active commercial prosperity and industrial life into utter barbarism.

There is not an inhabited village left in four days' steaming through a country formerly so rich: to-day entirely ruined.... The villages are compelled to furnish so many kilos of rubber every week.... The soldiers sent out to get rubber and ivory are depopulating the country. They find that the quickest and cheapest method is to raid villages, seize prisoners, and have them redeemed afterwards for ivory.

The system thus inaugurated on the river banks was methodically pursued inland. For twenty years fighting became endemic all over the Congo.

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The judicial murder of an English trader by one of King Leopold's officials, the revelations in Captain Hinde's book of the feeding of King Leopold's armed auxiliaries with human flesh, and Glave's diary published in the Century Magazine, first called attention to what was going on. Sir Charles Dilke raised the matter in the House of Commons (1897). The appalling revelations of the Swedish missionary Sjoblöm followed shortly afterwards. He was the first to disclose the practice (which seemed incredible at the time, but was later confirmed from many sources, and conclusively established) started by certain officials, requiring the native soldiers whom they sent out to "punish" recalcitrant villages, to bring in trophies of hands and the sexual organs of males to prove that they had duly performed their work. This mutilation of the dead as a system of check and tally rapidly spread through the rubber districts and developed, as it naturally would do, into the mutilation of the living.


Here are short extracts on this particular theme from a series of letters by the American missionary Mr. Clark, referring to the district in which he laboured:

It is blood-curdling to see them (the soldiers) returning with hands of the slain, and to find the hands of young children amongst the bigger ones evidencing their bravery.... The rubber from this district has cost hundreds of lives, and the scenes I have witnessed, while unable to help the oppressed, have been almost enough to make me wish I were dead.... This rubber traffic is steeped in blood, and if the natives were to rise and sweep every white person on the Upper Congo into eternity, there would still be left a fearful balance to their credit.

Some of the wretched Europeans employed by the Concessionaire Companies wrote home boasting of their exploits. Their letters found their way into the papers. One such "agent" confessed to have "killed 150 men, cut off 60 hands, crucified women and children," and hung the remains of mutilated men on the village fence. A simulachre of judicial repression followed these embarrassing disclosures, and the Congo courts condemned the culprits to long terms of imprisonment which, of course they never served. In each case the defense was the same. They had acted under instructions from their superiors to get rubber by any and every means. Needless to say their "superiors" were not proceeded against.


While these abominations were taking place in the Congo, some of us were engaged in unraveling the mysteries of the Congo "System" at the European end. Investigation revealed such depths of infamy that it was difficult sometimes to believe that one was living in the opening years of the 20th Century. Finally, after three years sustained public effort, the whole question was brought before the House of Commons (May 1, 1903). All political parties united in demanding that the British Government should invite the signatory Powers of the Berlin Act to another International Conference. This the Government did. The chief cause of its failure to secure such a conference is given in the next chapter.


From that date onwards evidence from the Congo accumulated in ever-increasing volume. The era of the publication of the British consular reports (the earlier ones had been suppressed) began with Sir Roger Casement's detailed narrative, bracketed in the same White Book with Lord Cromer's scathing comments confined, however, to the centers of Congo Free State influence on the Nile. Sir Roger Casement, whose inquiries had not extended beyond the vicinity of the banks of a part of the main river, did not return to the Congo. His work of exposure was carried on over a long term of years, and prosecuted into almost every part of the Congo by his successors, Consuls Thesiger, Beak, Mitchell, Armstrong, etc.; by the Consular staff appointed by the American Government; by the Commission which King Leopold was himself forced by public opinion to send out and whose evidence, but not whose report, damning even its whitewashing attenuations, be suppressed (1); by the King of Italy's envoy, Dr. Baccari, who was dispatched on a special mission to the Congo owing to the bitter complaints and protests of Italian officers who had been induced to take up commissions in the King's African armies; by Protestant and Catholic missionaries, and by one or two Belgian officials like the courageous magistrate Lefranc.


European Profits/African Decimation


The "Crown domain," the portion of the territory whose revenue (i.e., whose ivory and rubber) the King kept for his own private uses, produced in the ten years 1896-1905, 11,354 tons of india-rubber, the profit upon which, at the comparatively low prices prevailing over that period of years and after deducting expenses, yielded £3,179,120. This leaves out of account the ivory, the particulars of which remained inaccessible. In this region fighting was incessant for years and the loss of life was immense. It was reckoned that in one district alone 6,000 natives were killed and mutilated every six months. The rubber was eventually worked out and the wretched remnants of the population were constrained to gather copal (gum exuding from certain trees) the whole year round. In the early nineties the territories of the "Crown domain" included some of the most densely populated regions of the Congo, with many large and flourishing towns. The early travelers -- Belgian, British and others -- along the rivers which bisect it, spoke of the "dense masses" of natives who crowded its river banks, the prosperous, well-cared villages, the abundance of live-stock. In fifteen years it was reduced to a desert. Scrivener, who traveled through a considerable portion of it in 1903, and Murdoch four years later by another route, pursued their way for weeks on end without encountering a single human being, passing on every hand vestiges of a once abundant population, long miles of ruined, moldering villages thickly strewn with skeletons, plantations merging again into "bush," bananas rotting in erstwhile groves that supplied the wants of these vanished communities, the silence of the tropical forest broken only by the occasional trampling of the elephant and buffalo, the chatter of the white-maned monkeys, the scream of the grey parrot.


The Abir Concessionaire Company, whose managing council included the "Grand Master" of King Leopold's Belgian Court, made a net profit in six years of £720,000 on a paid-up capital of £9,280; and each share of a paid-up value of £4 6s. 6d. received in that period £335 in dividends. This company's shares were at one time freely speculated in at £900 to £1,000 per share. In this area the atrocities, incidental to the "system," attained proportions of Dantesque horror. The company enrolled thousands of natives, armed with rifles and cap-guns, to force the rubber output upon the general population. It kept some 10,000 natives continually at work all the year round collecting rubber, and some 10,000 men, women and children passed every year through its "hostage-houses." All the chiefs were gradually killed off, either outright or by the slower processes of confinement and starvation in the "houses of detention," or by tortures which rival those inflicted upon the plantation slaves in the West Indies. When certain areas became denuded of rubber, the remaining male population was carried off wholesale under escort and flung into another area not yet exhausted, their women handed over to the soldiers. This is but the bald framework of the picture.


The Concessionaire Company working the Kasai region, whose native peoples, once renowned above any other in the Congo for their "moral and physical beauty" (to quote a Belgian explorer) made a profit of £736,680 in four years on a paid-up capital of £40,200. The value of a single £10 share stood at one time as high as £640. At the time of the annexation (1908) the Kasai was producing 50 per cent. of the rubber from the Congo. Apart altogether from the "atrocities" -- murder, mutilation, starvation in hostage houses, floggings to death, and all the horrible concomitants of the "System" -- the general condition of the natives in that year, may be estimated from the following extracts from Consul Thesiger's report:

The rubber tax was so heavy that the villages had no time to attend even to the necessities of life ... the capitas (the Company's armed soldiers stationed in the villages) told me they had orders not to allow the natives to clear the ground for cultivation, to hunt, or to fish, as it took up time which should be spent in making rubber. Even so, in many cases the natives can only comply with the demands made on them for rubber by utilising the labour of the women and children. In consequence their huts are falling to ruin, their fields are uncultivated, and the people are short of food ... and dying off.... This district was formerly rich in corn, millet, and other foodstuffs ... now it is almost a desert.

This passage -- and hundreds of others of a similar kind could be quoted from every part of the Congo -- illustrates what has been, perhaps, the most fertile cause of depopulation, both in the Congo Free State, and in the French Congo (see next chapter): i.e., depopulation by starvation. That, and the colossal infant mortality induced by the well-nigh inconceivable conditions to which native life was reduced in the Congo, far exceeded the actual massacres as determining factors in the disappearance of these people.




The above are but a few examples selected, more or less haphazard, of the Leopoldian "System" in its actual working. A similar system must yield similar results wherever it is enforced. If, for instance, the desires openly expressed by certain influential persons in this country were acceded to, viz.: that the oil-palm forests of Nigeria, which are of infinitely greater value than were the rubber forests of the Congo, should be declared the property of the British State; that the native population should be dispossessed of its ownership in those forests and of the oil and kernels which its labor produces from them, should be forbidden to sell their products to the European at their market value as it does at present and has for generations, and should be required to gather and prepare them as a "tax" demanded by the usurping and expropriating alien Government; precisely the same results would ensue. Nigeria would become another Congo. You cannot steal the land of the natives of tropical Africa, degrade them from the position of agriculturists and arboriculturists in their own right, lay claim to possession of their actual and potential wealth, destroy their purchasing power, deny them the right to buy and sell by denying their ownership in the natural or cultivated products of their own country, which their labor alone can make accessible to the outer world, and impose upon them the duty of harvesting their products for you as a "tax." You cannot do this, and thereby convert them into slaves of European capitalism, without the use of armed force, pitilessly, relentlessly and, above all, continuously applied. And the circumstances under which that force must be exercised in tropical Africa are such that its application must involve the destruction of the population, if only because it must be pursued in utter disregard of the natural needs and requirements of the native population, and at the cost of the complete annihilation of African society.


It is impossible to believe that any British Government will be wicked enough and stupid enough to lend ear to these appeals of an insensate egotism. But it is just as well to state with the utmost frankness what the policy that is urged would necessitate, if only that we may take the measure of the men who insult the nation by recommending it.


"White Books" (in particular Nos. 4 and 5, 1885; No. 5, 1894; No. 8, 1896; No. 1 and 7, 1904; No. 1, 1906; No. 1, 1906; No. 1, 1907; Nos . 1, 2, 3 4, and 5, 1908; No. 2, 1909; No. 2, 1911; Nos. 1 and 2, 1912; Nos. 1 and 3, 1913).

"Belgian Parliamentary Debates."

"Congo Free State Bulletins and Budgets."

"Publications of the Congo Reform Association."

"Publications of the American Congo Reform Association."

"Publications of the French League for the Defence of the Congo Natives."

"Publications of the Swiss League " -- for the same.

"Droit et Administration de l'etat Independent du Congo-Cattier."

"Etude sur la Situation de l'etat Independant du Congo-Cattier."

"L'etat Indépendent du Congo." Wauters.

"Le Mouvement Geographique."

"La Belgique et Is Conjo." Vandervelde.

"L'Annexion du Congo." Brunet.

"The Fall of the Congo Arabs." Hinds.

"Affairs of West Africa." E. D. Morel. (Heineman).

"King Leopold's Rule in Africa." Idem. (Heineman).

"Great Britain and the Congo." Idem. (Smith Elder).

"Red Rubber." Idem. (Fisher Unwin; Revised edition: National Labour Press, 1919).

"The Life of Sir Charles Dilke." Gwynne and Tuckwell (Murray).

Citation: Morel, E. D. The Black Man's Burden: The White Man in Africa from the Fifteenth Century to World War I (Manchester: National Labour Press, 1920; BoondocksNet Edition, 2001). (March 21, 2002). (3-22-02).






 [JS1] Observe the unique political maneuvering that went into the creation of the "Congo Free State".  Leopold II personally exercised absolute power in the Congo. He literally owned the country and all of its products. Although slavery was outlawed, he justified forced labor and mass murder as a form of 'taxation'.

 [JS2] The Congo River region featured a developed and far reaching economic system that extended over  thousands of miles and had been in existence for centuries.

 [JS3] Over a twenty to thirty year period, this civilization was decimated: the population halved, tribes set against tribes uprooted, transported to the coast and forced into 'wage slavery', -- all for the personal profit of King Leopold and his agents.

 [JS4] Notice the highly developed culture of these peoples—far from savage.

 [JS5] The Belgian System: legal justification for forced labor and expropriation of the region's raw materials. A beautifully conceived and diabolical plan to quickly and efficiently squeeze this economy for every bit of wealth that it possessed. They quickly used up the people and then discarded them—all completely legally.