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The Servitude of Rubber and Cocoa - The Congo

The Inception of the Congo Free State - The 'Personal State' - Its Rubber and its Tragedy - The Brussels Conference - The Basis of the System - What 'Force' Meant - The Commission of Enquiry - Women Hostages - Destruction of both People and Rubber Vines - Flogging and Mutilation - The Public Conscience in Britain and Belgium - Emile Vandervelde - The Reformers - Reduction of Population - King Leopold's Profits - Belgian Annexation and the End of 'Congo Atrocities.'
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'The contemplation of an immeasurable misery has caused us to publish this book.' (A. Vermeersch, S.J., La Question Congolaise, 1906.) rev. Father Vermeersch, S.J.

'A monstrous anomaly - monstrous as much from the economic as from the human standpoint.' Emile Vandervelde.

The story of the Congo Free State is full of grim paradoxes. Founded by King Leopold II of Belgium 'for the purpose of promoting the civilisation and commerce of Africa and for other human and benevolent purposes, it became the cruel and cold-blooded exploitation of people inhabiting a territory half as large as Europe.' At an early date its Sovereign declared that its 'only programme, I am anxious to repeat, is the work of moral and material regeneration.' Yet if reliance can be placed upon published figures, the population in twenty-five years was reduced from at least 20,000,000 to about 8,000,000. One of the main reasons advanced for creating the Free State was to abolish Arab slavery, but it soon riveted on the necks of the unhappy negroes a slavery far more cruel, far more destructive of human life, than Arab slavery, and from which none could escape. This State, which undertook to give free and equal opportunities to the trade of all countries, developed into a rigid monopoly for the State and a few privileged and State-authorised concessionaires.

Even now the world has not fully realised the disastrous nature of the Congo experiment in colonial administration. But its horrors stand for all governments as such a warning against confusing the functions of commerce and administration, that it may be hoped the world will never again witness such an attempt to exploit the weaker races for the sake of profit.

The Congo experiment is now seen to have been not only one of the cruellest crimes, but one of the most colossal mistakes in the history of the world. Religious persecutions have had behind them the sanctions of religion. International wars have based justification on the plea of national defence or national expansion. The Congo crime had no extenuating circumstances, no palliative and no excuse. It was just a sordid exploitation of human beings for personal gain.

The Belgian Government and people were at no time responsible for the creation of the Congo Free State, nor for its system of exploitation. Individual Belgians shared in the colossal profits made out of rubber, individual Belgians served under King Leopold's Congo Administration, but so did Italian, Scandinavian, American and even British subjects. The founding of the Congo Free State, the development of its system of exploitation, the crudeness of its administration, the demoralisation and suffering of its population, were as King Leopold himself declared, his personal creation - 'the result of my labour.'

The Congo Free State (to-day Belgian Congo) is a vast equatorial territory, covering over 900,000 square miles. King Leopold's wide imagination had for years played with the idea of developing this great region. Stanley's famous expedition in 1874 to 1877, through the Dark Continent, gave the King the information which he had long sought regarding the native population, the course of the Congo River, and the natural resources of the country. When Stanley, on his return, landed at Marseilles in January, 1878, he was met on behalf of the King by General Sanford (Secretary of the International African Association, already formed by the King). Stanley was told that 'his discoveries had given birth to a grand project, for the realisation of which his experience and active assistance were needed.' In the succeeding years Stanley, acting as Agent for the future Congo State already conceived by the King, was employed to negotiate treaties with a large number of native chiefs, and, in general, to open up the Congo Basin. Stanley himself described his task as the novel mission of sowing along its banks civilised settlements to peacefully conquer and subdue it, to remould it in harmony with modern ideas into National States, within whose limits the European merchant shall go hand in hand with the dark African trader, and justice, law and order shall prevail and murder and lawlessness and the cruel barter of slaves shall for ever cease. It is one amongst the many Congo tragedies that Stanley-should have lived long enough to see the 'philanthropic State, (which he had helped to create, grow up into a monster of oppression.)

The realisation of King Leopold's African ambitions was impossible without international recognition, and to obtain this his endeavours were directed for several years. Those who had inherited the emancipation fervour of Wilberforce and Buxton were sought out and their support solicited for what appeared to be a great and noble ideal. They were given the most explicit assurances by the King of his good intentions towards the natives. They were even royally entertained in Brussels - but some doubted!

Finally, as the result of the Berlin Conference of Fourteen Powers, held during 1884 and 1885, the Congo Free State was created for the regeneration of Africa and the development of trade, and received the tacit approval of the civilised world. The new-born State was placed under the personal sovereignty of King Leopold, not unconditionally, but under certain definite conditions laid down in the Berlin Act: these included complete freedom of trade, the open door, no monopolies, and the fullest consideration for the protection and welfare of the natives. 'All the Powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the aforesaid territories bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes - to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being.' They bound themselves also 'to help in suppressing slavery and especially the slave trade.'

In 1889 and 1890 a second Conference was held, this time at Brussels, which reaffirmed the benevolent intentions of the Powers towards the natives, and gave King Leopold what he wanted from the Powers, permission to impose limited import duties for the ostensible purpose of putting down the Arab slave trade. But it did one thing more, it provided King Leopold with the means to create and arm a native force, and on the other hand gave him the power to disarm the people of the Congo, who were thus rendered defenceless and helpless for the first stage of the Congo system of exploitation. In the course of a few years the Arab power was indeed, after heavy fighting, completely broken. But the enslavement of the whole population took the place of the local and incidental Arab slavery, whilst the limited import duties grew into a prohibition of all trade except by the State and a few favoured concessionaire companies.

In the early years after the creation of the Congo Free State the conditions laid down by the Berlin Act were not grossly infringed. The earlier arrivals in the Congo traded honestly and without more than comparatively isolated incidents of cruelty and oppression.

But in 1889 the cloven hoof began to show itself in ordinances which took from the natives their hitherto undisputed right to collect or trade in ivory and rubber, gum-copal, wax and other natural products from the recesses of their own forests.

The years 1890-93 saw the commencement, and before long the establishment, of the principle that the natives had no right to the land (outside their own gardens and villages) nor to its products. These years saw also the virtual ending of the freedom of trade promised by the Berlin Act to all countries, and the beginnings of forced labour in the 'prestations' (forced levies) introduced by Captain Dhanis, who became later Baron Dhanis, Governor-General of the State.

If man invented motor cars for our comfort, then the devil inspired the machinery for squeezing rubber out of the miserable Congo natives. If the opening up of the Congo had not coincided with the vastly increased European demand for rubber, resulting from the development of motor cars and bicycles, it is possible that the history of the Congo Free State would not be one of which Europe must for ever be ashamed. But with increasing demand came soaring prices. Rubber to-day stands at less than 4d. per lb. In 1897 Congo rubber sold at 3s. 7d., in 1910 at 8s. 7d. (with plantation rubber at 12s. 5d.). The temptation was too great. 'Haste, haste, get what rubber you can,' was the frantic urge from Brussels. The result was not merely colossal loss of human life, but widespread destruction of the wild rubber vines of the forest.

By about the year 1897 the 'system' was nearly full grown. It is necessary that the fundamental principles of that system should be well understood, in order that the colossal cruelty to which it gave rise should not be regarded merely as 'regrettable incidents.' The basis of the Congo system was that all the wealth in the country, all the means of distribution, control and marketing belonged to the State.

If this appears to resemble the doctrines of nineteenth-century Socialism, the fact must not be over-looked that it was being applied in an uncivilised land under an absolutism which could truly say 'L'Etat c'est moi.' And that the only interest of this unique State was the extraction of wealth. The natives had no voice, and at that time no defenders, and their social and economic life were alike blasted.

From time immemorial 'the keen, enterprising, high-spirited peoples' (as Stanley described them) had shown vigour, enterprise and marked aptitude for trading. Yet it was decreed that they possessed nothing, and that everything belonged to the State. Their position was summed up in a remarkable phrase used by M. Smet de Nayer, Prime Minister of Belgium: 'The native is entitled to nothing. What is given to him is a mere gratuity.' Another speaker remarked of that phrase: ' A man has been found to make of that phrase "the native is entitled to nothing" - a system!'

The 'system' struck at the roots of native social life, it robbed the people of all initiative and enterprise and condemned them to the position of hewers of wood and drawers of water, 'entitled to nothing.' Having robbed them of all incentive to gather the natural wealth of the country, the Congo administration was compelled to substitute the only alternative to commerce, namely, force.

What did force spell?

The answer to this question is to be found in a mass of reports from consular officers and merchants of all nations, missionaries of all denominations, commercial agents, travellers, naval and military officers. Their evidence would fill many volumes, but for the purpose of this book only the most authoritative and unchallengeable is reproduced, principally that of the Commission of Enquiry, which an outraged public opinion compelled the Sovereign of the Congo Free State to send out in 1904-5, a Commission composed of three judges, Belgian, Swiss and Italian. This Commission reported to the King, and upon him alone rested responsibility for publication.

During the enquiry Foreign Secretaries of other countries had been officially assured that the evidence would be published. Men on the spot who were daily witnesses of the atrocities were convinced that the ghastly nature of the evidence would so horrify the civilised world that the King would never dare to publish it. They said so publicly, and the men on the spot proved right. King Leopold would only allow, and that after a year's delay and conflict with the President of the Commission, the issue of the General Report. Critics who tendered the evidence have always maintained that this royal suppression of their evidence taken on the spot is in itself a sufficient confirmation of the truth of their testimony.

But the Report, restrained though it was, proved up to the hilt the truth of all the horrible evidence which missionaries, consuls, merchants and others had given to the world during the years 1892-1904, and rendered supremely ridiculous the efforts made by the King's friends to dismiss all this evidence as the vapourings of 'worthy souls whose reserves of sentimentalism are often injudiciously employed.' (Speech in the Belgian Chamber by M. Carton de Wiart.)

The system, as we have seen, was based upon the appropriation of all the natural wealth of the land. In order to induce the natives to collect it for 'nothing' (vide M. de Smet de Nayer), force was inevitable. The machinery of force was crudely simple. At Boma, the capital, dwelt the Governor-General. Under him, scattered over the country, were some 2,000 white agents, each in control of a given number of villages, under whose command were native soldiers, recruited mainly from the most savage tribes of the interior, often cannibals. They alone were armed with rifles, for all importation of firearms for the use of the natives had been prohibited by the Treaty of Berlin. But how in practice was this force to be used to collect the rubber? The density of the forest made it impracticable to put a gun behind every collector of rubber, or to commandeer the men of the villages and send them in gangs to gather rubber, as in the plantation system. What better plan - or indeed what other plan was possible - than to drive the men folk to gather rubber (or copal, as the case might be) by making hostages of their wives and children? This, in the main, was the plan adopted. In practice - true, it was a devilish invention - it worked! A village was ordered to provide, say, 50 or 100 baskets of rubber a week. If it failed to produce the full amount, native soldiers, or 'sentinels' as they were sometimes called in the territories of the concessionaire companies - were sent armed with rifles into the villages to capture the women, children and very old men. The veriest tyro in colonial affairs can depict the result - the feeble defence of the unarmed husbands and sons, the rape of women, the cries of little children, the burning and pillage of the huts, the unnameable atrocities. As the native proverb had it: 'Rubber is death.'

The white agents, who included not Belgians alone, but the failures of other nationalities also, were often, indeed, to be pitied, for they arrived in debt for passage and outfit, and could not break away from the machine that had caught them in its wheels. A few committed suicide, overwhelmed by the loneliness, climate and the inevitable and appalling cruelty of the system which they were forced to administer. The greater number accepted the system with seared consciences, and at the day of judgment some will have to answer for atrocities almost beyond belief. They were wretchedly paid, but the famous Bonus Proclamation issued from Brussels on June 20, 1892, permitted and indeed invited them to increase their earnings by a diabolically calculated system of bonuses. Thus for every kilo of rubber or copal screwed out of the natives at a cost of 5 centimes or less, the agent received a bonus of 15 centimes. But if through laxity or sense of justice he paid the native 6 or 7 centimes a kilo, his bonus was reduced to 10 centimes, and so on. Thus was a premium placed on criminal extortion.

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