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The Servitude of Rubber and Cocoa - The Congo page 2

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The actual executive instruments of extortion in the Congo of the Sovereign will in Brussels were the soldiers of the 'Force Publique' or the 'Sentinels' who were billeted upon the villages, and of whom the Commission reported to King Leopold: 'Of how many abuses [atrocities] the native sentinels have been guilty, it would be impossible to say.' And in another passage: 'they kill without pity.' But the ultimate responsibility for unimaginable cruelties rests not with these savages, liable to be flogged themselves if the supply of rubber was short, not altogether with the degraded white agents ordered at all costs to increase the supply of rubber and broken if they failed, (Speak as follows to the owner thereof: 'Go to the forest at once and if in a week you have not returned with 10 lbs. of rubber, I shall set fire to your hut and you will burn.' - Extract from Official Order.

'Everywhere on the Congo the native only collects rubber under the influence of force.' - Report of Commission.) not even with the Governor-General at Boma, who was there with definite orders, but with the system which existed for the purpose of making vast profits for the royal shareholder and his creatures in Brussels. The natives fled from their villages in thousands. Refugees, trying to escape from this 'Free State' in which liberty could only be found in death, told the British Consul that they were 'going where there is no rubber.' Rubber was literally death to large numbers of the unhappy collectors. A British Consul writes that 'of every 50 sent into the forest to gather rubber not more than 25 or 30 returned. The rest had fallen from trees or died of disease, hardship, hunger or the attacks of wild beasts.'

As the rubber vines became exhausted, the unfortunate native had to go many miles into the forest to find it. King Leopold's Commission of Enquiry stated that: When once he (the native) has collected the rubber he must bring it to the State station or to that of the Company and only then can he return to his village, where he can sojourn for barely more than 2 or 3 days, because the next demand is upon him.

Meanwhile their wives were left in the villages at the mercy of the agent and the native soldiers, whom it was one of their tasks to feed. Each woman had to furnish every 4, 8 or 10 days a given quantity of Kwanga or native bread. The Commissioners remark: There is an unanimous testimony to the heavy burden imposed on the women in some villages by the incessancy of the demand.... The most painful side of the task is its continuity. As chikanwe (another name for native bread) keeps badly, the task is never done and haunts the woman continually, making her life a perfect drudgery.

A subsidiary principle of the Congo exploitation was that 'the administration must live on the country'!

Making and supplying bread was not the only drudgery. There were other imposts of food. Fish, fresh from lake or river, had to be supplied in very large quantities. The Commission noted that the quantity demanded is often out of proportion to the diminished population on which it is imposed... People... are compelled to convey their fish (dried) every fortnight, by canoe, 70 or 80 kilometres to New Antwerp, and have often suffered imprisonment when behindhand through no fault of their own.

There were also impositions in fresh food destined exclusively for the white man. The Commission has witnessed for itself the growing scarcity and consequent dearness of sheep, goats, fowls and ducks, and accounts for it by the fact that instead of being an object of trade, they are demanded as an impost, sometimes without adequate payment.

The Commission pointed out that 'Apart from the taxes on victuals, the natives are required to furnish to the State a certain amount of labour: wood-cutting, work at stations, canoeing and portage,' and that 'The 80 steamers that sail on the waters of the Congo and its affluents are dependent upon a supply of wood for fuel.' The Commissioners' restrained comment is that 'this tax is sometimes excessive.'

The demand for porters was yet another exaction. The Commissioners state that: 'The quantity of goods transported is enormous, while the population is scanty, and, as a consequence, the same individuals are regularly charged with the labour. Moreover, provisions are rare, and almost always unequal to the victualling of the caravans of carriers. Magistrates have testified to the sad consequences of porterage, which crushes the unhappy populations subjected to it and threatens them with partial destruction.' Or, as Sir Charles Dilke expressed it in Parliament with greater vividness but perfect accuracy: 'These miserable savages were used and allowed to die in the same way in which some inhuman companies worked their omnibus horses, simply working them till they died, because it was cheaper.'

The Commissioners reserve what is perhaps their most severe condemnation for the system of black overseers in the villages: 'According to the witnesses, they abuse their authority and become despots, demanding women and victuals, not only for themselves, but for the following of vagabond parasites whom the love of rapine attaches to them like a regular bodyguard. They kill without pity all who offer resistance to their demands or caprices....' And again, in the Lulonga district, 'the capitas or black overseers are veritable despots. The abuses of the system are so grave that the Commissioners are forced to the conclusion that it ought to be suppressed wherever possible.'

The British Consul, Mr. Nightingale, who knew the Congo as few men did, said that the natives were worked '304 days a year for 6s. 4d. If the quantities [of food or rubber] are deficient, the penalties are whipping or imprisonment. The natives are unanimously of opinion that they were better off under the Arabs.' The penalties for failure to comply with any of these ceaseless and exorbitant demands recall the Conquest of Mexico in their almost incredible cruelty. The excesses of cannibalism, mutilations, tortures and unnameable atrocities reported by missionaries, merchants and native chiefs have never been refuted; moreover, if they were not carried out by direct orders they were frequently committed with the knowledge of and sometimes the actual participation of the white agents. The punishments formally approved by the Administration were those of the slaver; punishments not for crime, but for failure to provide sufficient rubber, food or labour. Flogging with the chicotte was an everyday occurrence. It is thus described by an experienced English traveller who had witnessed it only too often: 'The chicotte of raw hippo hide, trimmed like a corkscrew, with edges like knife-blades, is a terrible instrument, and a few blows bring blood.... It needs an extraordinary constitution to withstand the terrible punishment of 100 blows.'

He goes on to say: It is bad enough the flogging of men, but far worse is the punishment inflicted on women and children. Small boys of ten or twelve, with excitable hot-tempered masters, are often most harshly treated.... Five women who had deserted were in chains at Riba-Riba; all were cut very badly, having been most severely chicotted or flogged.

The Commission noted that on the Lulonga 'the whip was habitually employed,' and the flogging of 'collectors who have not furnished their full impositions' was usual.

Probably the maximum amount of suffering was caused by the hostage system, to which reference has already been made. To put the women and girls in the hostage house, working them in the chain gang by day, was an effective method of bringing pressure to bear upon their husbands and fathers.

These hostage houses (Maisons d'otage) were veritable charnel houses, usually constructed of 'wattle and daub' walls with grass roof. They were without ventilation or sanitary arrangements and their capacity of say thirty persons was choked with three times its number. All ages of both sexes were crowded into them - children were conceived and children were born in them side by side with the dying, for when the door was opened in the morning one of the first tasks was usually that of bringing out the dead. Appeals to separate the sexes were met with ribald refusals.

There is no doubt that the 'system' brutalised every human agency connected with the supreme objective of producing rubber. The judiciary itself was contaminated. How otherwise can the following statement in the Commissioners' Report be explained?

'Distinguished magistrates, who have been most helpful to the Commission in their search for the truth, have affirmed that, in their opinion, the retention of women as hostages is the gentlest, most humane and most efficacious means of coercion.'

The assertion that this was the 'most humane' method throws lurid light on the less humane methods. That it was efficacious none would deny, but what can be said of the mentality that devised a system of rubber production based upon hitting men through their wives and daughters?

When it is realised that the savage soldiery had the women hostages at their mercy at all times of day or night the anxiety of their husbands, far away in the forests collecting rubber, can be understood. A missionary, the Rev. Somerville Gilchrist, wrote: I shall never forget the impression left on my mind by one of these horrible Houses of Detention. It was a small, low-roofed circular building, with the only entrance to it through another building of the same type. The latter was occupied by a number of sentries with Albini rifles. Inside the other were herded a large number of women, girls and boys - a mass of bones held together by black skin. I addressed myself to one poor skeleton of a woman lying in front of me where I stood. I asked her if she was sick. 'Two days ago,' she answered, 'I gave birth to a child and oh, white man, I am dying of hunger. I've had nothing to eat.' She was so weak that it was with difficulty she could articulate her words - And oh, the faces of those others! The horror of it! Outside the building there was a row of those skeleton women on the chain, followed by a sentry with an Albini and a chicotte, going back and forward from the garden to the river.

That rape, murder and outrage were common is not surprising in view of the barbarous and savage human agents who were employed.

The destruction of the authority of the chiefs was another part of the deliberate policy of the Administration. Heartrending passages in the evidence given by missionaries describe how the chiefs came to them, utterly broken in body and mind. One of the more important chiefs, whose evidence is quoted by the Commission, brought 120 twigs, each representing a murder in his village by sentinels. He told King Leopold's Commission how his beard of many years' growth had been chopped off, how he had been chicotted, imprisoned, and put to the most menial labour by the agent of the Concession. The mutilated wife of another chief showed her footless leg and hernia, the price she had paid for being faithful to her husband, who, protesting, was cruelly flogged.

Irrespective of the abominable cruelty to the chiefs, the gross impolicy of undermining the age-long native foundations of law and order without attempting to supply any just or effective substitute is one more proof that the Congo Free State was not in any true sense of the word a Government, but a vampire which preyed upon human life and upon the natural wealth of the country whilst giving nothing in return.

The Commission merely confirmed all that missionaries and other independent witnesses had been saying for years when they stated, in referring to one of the Concessions, that 'the imprisonment of female hostages, the subjection of chiefs to servile labour, the humiliations inflicted on them, the flogging of india-rubber hands and brutalities by black prison guards were habitually practised.'

The Commission referred sternly to the punitive expeditions against villages: It is not astonishing that sometimes the most murderous consequences have followed. The expedition may easily degenerate into massacre, accompanied by fire and pillage, the punishment being in flagrant disproportion to the fault and the innocent suffering with the guilty.

Guilty of what? Guilt connotes crime, and the only crime of the simple Congo natives was the defence of their women; their only offence, if offence it be, inability to gather enough rubber to satisfy the rapacity of their white overlords. They had no legal means of redress. Many districts as large as Belgium had never seen or even heard of a magistrate, who might be a thousand miles away. He, in turn, was dependent for his very bread upon the local agent or concessionaire. The Commissioners advised that it is the moral enfranchisement of the magistrate from his dependence upon the administrative authority that is most urgent.

This was indeed very diplomatic phrasing!

The Commissioners write very frankly with regard to the hardships suffered by native witnesses required to give evidence at Boma, the capital, nearly three weeks' journey from most of the rubber areas: All the magistrates testify that a large number of black witnesses forced to travel from the Haut Congo to Boma, never see their village again, but die on the journey... the mortality is increased by the fact that on their journey and at their destination they are often badly lodged and insufficiently fed. The very name of 'Boma ' frightens the native.... The inhabitant of the Upper Congo, cited as a witness, flees to the forest or the bush. He must be treated as a prisoner, hunted, perhaps chained, or at any rate, constraint must be used.

The Report paid a remarkable tribute to the Evangelical missionaries: 'They acquire ascendancy, not only over the natives subjected to their religious teaching, but over all the villages whose griefs they hear. The missionary becomes, for the native of a district, the sole representative of equity and justice. He adds to the ascendancy acquired by his religious zeal the prestige which, in the interests of the State, should belong to the magistrate' (of whom there were none in most missionary regions!).

The result of twenty-five years of misrule was depopulation such as might have been caused by the ravages of the Black Death. The grand aggregate of destruction - a native population of between 20 and 30 millions reduced to about 8 millions, was given at the beginning of this chapter. As early as 1899, after only seven years of the 'system.' Mr. Grogan, an experienced English traveller, wrote that 'A country apparently well populated, and responsive to just treatment in Lugard's time, is now practically a howling wilderness: the scattered inhabitants, living almost without cultivation in the marshes, thickets and reeds, madly fleeing even from their own shadows.'

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