Notes on Morel, "The Story of the Congo Free State" from The Black Man's Burden (1920)

The Extent of the Tragedy: 

Out of a total of twenty to thirty million who had lived on the banks of the Congo during the 1880's, only eight
and a half million people were left in 1911.

The Berlin Conference (1884)

The treaty established ground rules among the Europeans for the partition and exploitation of Africa according to liberal principles of conduct:

  1. "Spheres of influence" were established based on the "first come, first serve" rule. The land rush which ensued encouraged use of the most aggressive techniques to secure control of an African territory as a colony.
  2. The land rush led to the drawing of borders in Africa which persist until today and still follow few traditional, tribal lines.
  3. "Slavery is forbidden", but the agents, traders and military personnel quickly found methods of circumventing this rule so that the natives' property and labor could be exploited.
  4. The territory of the Congo became the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium: it did not belong to the Belgian people; the land and everything on it belonged to him. 


The Congo Region Prior to Imperialism

There was no one people living in the Congo region, a land mass larger than Western Europe. A myriad number of tribes speaking hundreds of different languages lived along the river. They had traded with each other, made war on each other, and lived with each other for thousnds of years. 

They traded commodities including fish, wood work, canoes, pottery, baskets and nets, beautifully hand woven clothes and mats, sugar cane, salt, beer, palm wine, animal pelts, iron tools and weapons for hunting and war. There was also trade in ornamented wooden handles for battleaxes and knives. On river side plantations, land hardly won from the jungle, natives raised sugar-cane, maize, ground nuts, bananas, plantains, manioc, tobacco, and many species of vegetables such as sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

European Trade with the Congo employed three principal intermediary agents:

  • the European merchants who settled in the lower river;
  • the Ba-Congo (i.e., lower Congo) people, who acted as go-betweens,
  • and the Batekes, who had settled about Stanley Pool at the head of the cataracts and acted as middlemen
    for all the up-river tribes.

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The Congo tribes exported: red-wood, camwood powder (a crimson cosmetic), wax, ivory, tin, copper, lead, and palm oil -- to which, in later years, was added india-rubber.

The Congo tribes imported: cloth, satin strips, kettles, red baize, umbrellas, brass rods, iron cooking pots, pipes, looking glasses, rough knives, beads, snuff boxes, muskets, and gunpowder. 

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Caryatid Stool, 19th century; Luba Buli Master (Democratic Republic of the Congo, fl. ca. 1850–1900)

Crimes Against Humanity:

The Belgian System justified forced labor and expropriation of the region's raw materials with a beautifully conceived yet wholly 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.

The System: 

  1. The land was "vacant," i.e., without owners. Consequently, the "State" could claim complete ownership.
  2. The "State" was Leopold II, not in his capacity as the constitutional Monarch of Belgium, but as the sole Sovereign of the "Congo Free State."
  3. The native population had no proprietary right to any of the plants and trees growing anywhere on that territory.
  4. The native population would be acting illegally in making use of any produce of the land for any reason including basic sustenance or trade.
  5. The only articles in the Congo territory capable of producing revenue in Leopold's eyes were the ivory, and then, more importantly, rubber which had become his personal property.
  6. Consequently, native labor would be required to repay their debt to Leopold for living on his land and eating his food in the name of "taxation." Since the native Africans had no money in the European sense, they had to pay for the living through labor. Regulations forbid the natives to sell rubber or ivory to European merchants and threatened agents with prosecution if they bought these articles from the natives. 
  7. Every European agent working in the country was a partner in the business of getting rubber and ivory out of the natives in the guise of "taxation."
  8. The paramount duty of the European agents was to force their districts to yield the greatest possible quantity of these articles; promotion within the company was reckoned on that basis. As a further stimulus to "energetic action," a system of sliding-scale bonuses was conceived, whereby the less the native was "paid" for his labor, the higher the official's commission.
  9. Since the army of officials and native soldiers who enforced this policy, with their wives,  concubines and camp-followers, required feeding, the natives in non-rubber producing districts were required to feed them in payment for the taxes owed King Leopold.
  10. The rubber tax was so heavy that the villagers had no time to attend to the necessities of their own lives.

Implementation with Terror

  1. A single native soldier armed with a rifle and supplied with ball cartridges could terrorize a whole village.
  2. "Hostage houses": Systematic warfare upon women and children proved an excellent method of pressuring natives into forced labor for Leopold.
  3. The quickest and cheapest method was to raid a village, seize hostages, and then redeem them afterwards for ivory.
  4. For twenty years fighting became endemic all over the Congo.
  5. 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. (the hands of young children)

European Profits/Native Decimation

  1. The "Crown domain," i.e. King Leopold's personal gross income in the ten years from 1896-1905, totaled 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
  2. It was reckoned that in one district alone 6,000 natives were killed and mutilated every six months.
  3. The early travelers, Belgian, British and others, along the great river which bisects the Congo, 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 this civilization was reduced to a desert through violence as well as depopulation by starvation and colossal infant mortality.