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The Servitude of Rubber and Cocoa - The Congo page 3


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The Commissioners themselves state that 'it is certain that a great proportion of the population must have disappeared.... Where the impositions, unevenly divided, weigh too heavily,... anxiety and consequent depression have resulted in depopulation... on the least alarm they (the natives) fled to the bush and the islands of the river, whence a considerable mortality has resulted.'

Sir H. M. Stanley estimated that the population of the Congo at the founding of the Free State was about 40,000,000. It is probable that Stanley over-estimated its density. But if Stanley's estimate is halved and the figure taken at 20,000,000, which would be the density of neighbouring territories, the admitted decrease in the population would be 12,000,000!

The following figures of decline in population were given by the British Consul in the Lukolela district: a population of 5,000 in 1887 was reduced in 1903 to 600. Near Lake Tumba, fourteen villages with 12,320 inhabitants in 1893 had only 1,610 inhabitants in 1903. Three towns with a population estimated formerly at between 4,000 and 5,000 had disappeared altogether. The villages that remained were overgrown with weeds. The 'serfs,' as Father Vermeersch called them, had no time to cultivate their gardens.

The system was as wasteful of the fruits of nature as of the lives of men. Was it cynicism that caused King Leopold to write: 'Our refined society attaches to human life, and with reason, a value unknown to barbarous communities'? His attitude and that of his officials to the native was expressed in the oft-repeated dictum that the native 'only respects the law of force, knows no other persuasion than terror.' (President of the Appeal Court of the Lower Congo.) The Prime Minister, M. de Smet de Nayer, asked rhetorically in the Belgian Chamber: 'Can civilisation be founded without, as its basis, the Christian law of work?' And when Emile Vandervelde, the courageous opponent of the Congo System, interjected: 'Leave Christianity out of this business!' M. de Smet de Nayer asked him 'Would you allow the negro to wallow in idleness and sloth?' forgetting that in seven years these 'idle' natives had produced 11,000,000 worth of rubber from their own forests for the King and his associates!

The ghastly truth took long to penetrate the public conscience. The Congo was remote and the civilised world had accepted at its face value King Leopold's declaration regarding the 'humane and beneficent purposes' for which the Congo Free State had been founded. Although a handful of British and American missionaries had for some years been protesting vainly to the Congo authorities regarding the abominable treatment of the natives, for Europe the veil was first lifted by the publication (after his death in 1895) of the Diary of Stanley's young lieutenant, E. J. Glave.

At a meeting in London in 1897, called by the Aborigines Protection Society, whose Secretary, Mr. H. R. Fox-Bourne, had commenced at an earlier date to expose the Congo crime, a Swedish missionary, the Rev. E. V. Sjoblom, lately returned in broken health, described the mutilations and all the other horrors of the system. He had himself been threatened by the Governor-General, Baron Wahis, with five years' penal servitude for daring to protest. In 1899 a Frenchman, Baron de Mandat Grance, who with M. Pierre Mille had visited the Congo, wrote that 'the race which has survived three centuries of the slave trade will be destroyed by fifty years of philanthropy.'

Truth was on the march. In this country the spiritual forces which Wilberforce and Buxton had created still lived and it was not long before they became convinced that, in the words of Archbishop Davidson, 'Negro slavery had been resuscitated in perhaps its darkest and reddest form in the Congo.' In due course many of the actual descendants and relatives of Buxton, Wilberforce, Hodgkin, Sturge and Fox were busily engaged in rousing public opinion in protest against a more extensive and atrocious system of slavery than that which their forefathers had fought so tenaciously.

The Free Churches responded to the cry of slavery with all their old ardour, the more fervently that from their ranks came most of the Congo missionaries.

The Congo Reform Association was formed with E. D. Morel, a doughty fighter, as its very able Secretary. Large numbers of public meetings were held and addressed by lately returned missionaries, by bishops, clergy, social reformers, political leaders, African travellers and colonial administrators.

The responsibility of Great Britain, as one of the signatories to the Berlin Act, was urged upon the Government by the reformers in Parliament. No less than fourteen debates took place, in which Sir Charles Dilke, Mr. (later Sir) Herbert Samuel, Mr. Alfred (later Lord) Emmott, and Mr. (later Sir) Ernest Bennett took leading parts. This country had no axe of her own to grind. First and foremost she wanted to secure decent treatment for the natives, as guaranteed by the Berlin Act, Lord Lansdowne, who was at the Foreign Office during the earlier years, summarised Congo misrule as 'bondage under the most barbarous and inhuman conditions, and maintained for mercenary motives of the most selfish character.' Sir Edward Grey, speaking also as Foreign Secretary, said in 1904 that 'Our position as an Imperial Power in Africa made us unable to tolerate with safety a vampire slave state on our immediate borders.' At a later period, not long before the Congo Free State was annexed by the Belgian Government, he trusted that the change would produce, 'not a list of reforms, but an entire change of the system.' Throughout the British campaign for reform, he combined moderation of language with a patience which to the reformers appeared at times excessive. Speaking in 1908, a few months before Belgian annexation took place, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald (then Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the Congo Reform Association) said: 'Patience is a virtue up to a point. It then becomes one of the most abominable vices with which humanity is afflicted.' Lord Cromer's condemnation was crushing; speaking in the House of Lords, in March, 1908, he declared that 'never in my experience have I seen or heard of misrule comparable to the abuses that have grown up in the Congo State.'

In this country the demand for reform was powerful, but the position in Belgium was very different and the heroic Belgian reformers are well worthy of a place beside Wilberforce and Buxton. First in honour come Emile Vandervelde, leader of the Socialist Party; Georges Lorand, the Liberal leader; Father Vermeersch, of the Society of Jesus; and Professor Cattier, of the University of Brussels. This handful had to face the unscrupulous opposition of King Leopold, supremely powerful, able and rich, supported by ministers entirely obedient to his wishes and policy and by a Parliament most of whose members were either subservient or indifferent.

The Belgian people, with whom one has great sympathy, were without colonial experience or tradition, and took no real interest in the Congo, and when the prospect of annexing that unhappy and misgoverned country was forced upon their attention, were not unreasonably apprehensive that the cost of reform would come out of their pockets, as, indeed, it did.

The Belgian Press, with two honourable exceptions, was subserviently pro-Congo, and to a large extent in the pay of the King. The leaders of the Church had been inspired by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1889 to support the Congo Free State as a Christian undertaking which was to stamp out Arab slavery. The Catholic missions on the spot were in a dependent position and it was difficult for them to speak out, but some, like Father Vermeersch, played a noble part. His book on the Congo atrocities came, in his own words, from 'the contemplation of an immeasurable misery,' and he declared boldly that 'the rubber belongs to the natives' and that they were 'the slaves or serfs of the public authority.' The Jesuits, to their everlasting honour, repudiated grants of land made to them by the Congo administration. 'No one can compel us to co-operate in an injustice,' wrote Father Cas to the King's Minister, M. de Cuvelier.

When the Report of the Commission of Enquiry was allowed, at last, to be made public in October, 1905, opinion in Belgium began to change. Professor Cattier followed up an earlier exposure of the Congo Free State with his 'Etude sur la situation de 1'Etat Independant du Congo,' in which he revealed not only its gross maladministration and oppression, but also the interesting fact that its Sovereign and his associates had made personal profits of 3,000,000 during the ten years 1896 to 1905, although the published accounts of the State had been so manipulated as to show a loss of 1,085,519.

Gradually' the truth gained strength, but King Leopold continued to defy public opinion, and in writing to the three principal secretaries of the Congo State in June, 1906, he proclaimed majestically his own personal responsibility: 'My rights on the Congo are indivisible, they are the result of my toil.... No one was called upon to participate in my efforts. The Congo has thus been and can only have been a personal work.' He said that the Congo State had put an end to the slave trade and must now concentrate upon conquering sleeping-sickness. 'If God gives me that satisfaction I shall be able to present myself before His tribunal with the credit of having performed one of the finest acts of the century, and a legion of rescued beings will call down upon me his grace.'

The main battleground was by force of circumstances in the Belgian Chamber, and in debate after debate Vandervelde and Lorand fought against heavy odds for the oppressed natives of the Congo. Vandervelde saw clearly that, as he wrote in March, 1907, 'The King's policy is to delay as much as possible the time when Congolese absolutism will have to give way before Belgian constitutionalism.' Vandervelde realised that it would be impossible to combine reform with a balanced budget, at least until the exhausted country had recovered, but he believed it to be Belgium's duty to foot the bill. Early in 1908 he went himself to the Congo, his last utterance before setting out being a noble appeal to the Chamber to 'have pity upon the Congo natives.'

Annexation took place in August, 1908, but the King's ministers continued to fight a rearguard action in defence of forced labour, which M. Renkin, Minister of Justice, declared to be 'necessary, or civilisation is arrested.'

In April, 1909, the heir to the Belgian throne, now King Albert, took a courageous course and set sail for the Congo to see for himself. What he reported on his return has never been published, but it can be safely assumed that it was a powerful aid in the task of reforming the Administration.

Even after annexation reform was slow in coming, for as Mr. Ramsay MacDonald said in the House of Commons in February, 1909, 'the Belgian Government had taken over practically en bloc the old laws, practically the whole of the objectionable officials of the Congo Free State, introduced a Congo budget based on slave labour and adopted a system of forced labour on public works.'

The more extreme cruelties were checked, but not abolished, and still continued in the Concession areas, while the great problems of the natives' rights to the products and ownership of the land and to the free; disposal of their labour cannot be said to have reached a satisfactory solution even to-day.

Meanwhile King Leopold's attitude of majestic and unshaken defiance remained unabated. At the great colonial festivities held at Antwerp in June, 1909, he -said: 'The greatest satisfaction of my life has been to give the Congo to Belgium. The Congo is richer than you think. The duty of a sovereign is to enrich the nation.'

How different this language of 1909 from that at the founding of the Congo Free State. Then, his 'only programme, I am anxious to repeat, is the moral and material regeneration of the natives'; now, it had become the sordid objective of the enrichment of the European speculator!

During twenty years he had inoculated the Belgian mind with the poisonous idea that a tropical dependency exists for the sole purpose of enriching metropolitan interests. But he left to Belgium a legacy of debt, a country with its natural resources squandered, its population reduced, broken and embittered. Belgium entered indeed upon a damnosa heritas and it may be that the Government delayed first annexation, and then reform, because they realised that to clean out the Augean stable would be an almost superhuman task so long as the King remained to obstruct. Speaking in London in May, 1911, not long after the King's death, M. Vandervelde was able to say: This work of emancipation is now going well ahead. Leopold II is dead and, sad to say, his death in itself sufficed, even before all the reforms had been accomplished, to lighten the miserable lot of the unhappy natives. Belgium has assumed responsibility for the administration of the Congo.... Reforms have been decreed which are tending to the establishment therein of a normal rule. But for us, nothing will have been done while there remains something to be accomplished. The great Concessions are not yet abolished. Forced labour persists with, it is true, modifications, in one half of Congo.... Nevertheless, the most difficult task is done.

M. Vandervelde has never relaxed his noble efforts on behalf of the Congo natives. He has continued to watch over their interests, and only last summer initiated a debate in the Belgian Chamber on the question of forced labour. Recent reports made to the Slavery Committee of the League of Nations by the Belgian Government acknowledge the persistence of slavery in some parts of the Congo and of forced labour for food production and other purposes.

Owing to her limited experience as a Colonial Power, Belgium has still too few men possessing the necessary knowledge and tradition. But it is one of time's most welcome revenges that a distinguished Belgian, Dr. Gohr, the value of whose work in abolishing slavery is universally acknowledged, has been twice Chairman of the Slavery Commission of the League of Nations.

Lord Cromer pointed out one of the principal lessons to be learned from the unhappy past of the Congo Free State when he said that 'Any attempt to combine in the same hands the powers of administration and commercial exploitation can only result in maladministration on the one hand and in commercial disappointment on the other.' In the world to-day there are still territories where the exploitation of the weaker races is in direct conflict with the League principle of Trusteeship.

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