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
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:
- "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.
- The land rush led to the drawing of borders in
Africa which persist until today and still follow few traditional,
- "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.
- 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
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
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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 land was "vacant," i.e., without
owners. Consequently, the "State" could claim complete
- 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."
- The native population had no
proprietary right to any of the plants and trees growing anywhere on that
- The native population would be acting illegally in
making use of any produce of the land for any reason including basic sustenance or trade.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- Since the
army of officials and native soldiers who enforced this policy, with
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.
rubber tax was so heavy that the villagers had no time to attend to the
necessities of their own lives.
- A single
native soldier armed with a rifle and supplied with ball cartridges
could terrorize a whole village.
warfare upon women and children proved an excellent method of pressuring
natives into forced labor for Leopold.
- The quickest and cheapest method was
to raid a village, seize hostages, and then redeem them afterwards for
twenty years fighting became endemic all over the Congo.
- 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
- 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
- It was reckoned that in one district alone 6,000
natives were killed and mutilated every six months.
- 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.