Henry Wellington Wack
The Story of the Congo Free State
New York & London : Putnam 1905



Chapter I : Genesis of Mid-African Civilisation (pp.1-13 )


Chapter 1 : pp.1-13

The decline and fall of great empires has ever been a fascinating subject of study, congenial alike to students of widely diverse opinions and pursuits; yet it must be clear to all that in human interest the breaking up of an empire is nothing when compared with it's founding. The reason is, probably, that so little is known of the origin of great national communities. The United States is almost alone among nations in respect that it's growth, from it's inception to it's mature ultimate triumph, has been watched by keenly observant eyes, and every particular of it's perilous progress carefully recorded. But when the future historian, with comprehensive appreciation impossible in a contemporary, reviews the events of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, one fact will stand out before him, a unique and very potent fact, fraught with vast possibilities for the future - none other than the founding, by the wisdom of a kingly philanthropist, of a humanitarian, civilising, free political state in the very heart of savage and cannibalistic Africa.
Consider for a moment how the Great Congo Free State has been evolved out of a group of warring tribes (in part cannibal), and inquire what manner of man is Leopold II., King of the Belgians, alone responsible for this wondrous transformation; and who even now, when weight of years and record of achievement might well entitle him to repose, works on bravely, through good and through ill report, for the prosperity and happiness of the twenty-odd million Africans who acknowledge him for their Sovereign.
Thirty-six years ago, when the present Sovereign of the Congo Free State succeeded his father as King of the Belgians, and became known to the world as Leopold II., Africa was generally referred to as the "Dark Continent". At that period, and for long after, even the most optimistic of statesmen failed to perceive in those vast regions any promising outlet for the congested populations of the Old World, or possible markets for their manufactures. Diamonds, small in quantity and of indifferent quality, had, it is true, been discovered in the southernmost part of that continent, in a region already appropriated by the British. Gold, also, was thought to exist there, but not in paying quantities; while the deadliness of the African climate to Europeans, in all save a few favoured sections, was an universally accepted article of faith.
Foremost among the small band of thinkers who totally dissented from this view was Leopold II., King of the Belgians. A young man of extraordinarily fine physique, an accomplished linguist, widely read and travelled, and holding advanced liberal views in all matters pertaining to statecraft and social science, King Leopold had early the prescience to perceive in Africa the means to uplift some twenty or more millions of the Negro race from debased savagery to peaceful civilisation, and at the same time and by the same means - the latter a necessarily accompanying incident of the former - found a colony for the surplus population of the small State of which he is King; Belgium being then, as now, the most densely populated of European countries, it's people almost entirely dependent on the sale abroad of the products of their industry.
Bold and original ideas rarely find much favour when first presented to the world. The bulk of mankind is conservative; it thinks of yesterday, is oppressed by the troubles of today, and lets tomorrow take care of itself. At first, where King Leopold's ideas for the regeneration of Africa attracted any attention at all, they were regarded with bland smiles as utopian visions, more creditable to the heart than to the head of the princely visionary. But true genius, though it may be hampered and delayed in it's onward march, is not to be extinguished either by active opposition or cold indifference. Of such calibre is King Leopold, or there would today be no Congo Free State, nor what some past-masters in the obscuration of the ovious are sometimes pleased to call "the Congo Question".

So long ago as 1860, King Leopold, then Duke of Brabant, in a speech delivered before the Belgian Senate, said : "I claim for Belgium her share of the sea", - apparently a plain and colourless utterance, but really the expression of a vital interest for his country, for which no market spells extinction, and no political power but on Belgian soil means no market for Belgian goods. In 1860 the attention of mankind was just beginning to turn to Africa. Two years before, Sir Richard Burton and Captain Speke had startled geographers by discovering Lake Tanganyika, a revelation to be soon afterwards eclipsed by the further discovery of the sources of the Nile and Lake Victoria, by Speke and Grant. About the same time Sir Samuel Baker, then in the service of the Khedive of Egypt, discovered Lake Albert. The travellers whose fortune it was to make these important discoveries had been preceded by the intrepid Dr. Livingstone, whose marvellous energies on behalf of civilisation and christianity were, however, chiefly confined to the Zambesi Valley until the year 1866, when he first entered the Congo region and further enhanced his already great reputation by discovering the Lakes Moero and Bangweolo.
Then came the discovery of Livingstone - himself so long lost to his anxious countrymen - by Henry M. Stanley. That was in 1871, when the armed hosts of France and Germany were engaged in a death struggle, and led Mr. Gladstone remark :

The eyes of the world are bent toward the bloody battlefields of France; but I prefer to regard those almost impenetrable African wilds where a small band of men, whose numbers may be counted on the fingers of one hand, add year by year to our knowledge of those little-known regions, carrying with them the blessings of civilisation and of truth, heralding the extinction of what for so many ages has been the world's curse - slavery."

Gladstone was right. To all civilised peoples, but specially to men of Anglo-Saxon speech - Englishmen, who had given lavishly of their millions to free the slaves held in their colonies; Americans, who had poured out their blood like water in a similar cause - the accounts given by explorers and missionaries of the horrors of the slave trade, rampant in Central Africa, were as the smell of powder to the war-horse. Only a few people are interested in geography as a science. A vastly greater number are affected by a widening of the area for trade. But the effectual suppression of slavery is a question that comes home to everybody. No one can stand aside, indifferent to it. The ghastly horrors of the murderous raids made by the remorseless Arab slave-traders upon defenseless Central African villages, so graphically described by travellers, thrilled the civilised world. No effort was needed now to direct public attention to Africa. Africa loomed large in men's minds; and the question of slavery, fondly thought to be for ever laid at rest by the tremendous conflict in America in the early sixties, again became a vital problem.
Of the numerous activities which distinguish the character of Leopold Ii., philanthropy has the greater force. Much that is incontrovertible might be urged in support of this statement; but this is neither the place nor time to argue that matter. Suffice it to say here that upon no one did the revelations as to the methods of capture and subsequent treatment of Central African slaves make a deeper impression than upon King Leopold. As a lifelong student of Africa, and a geographer of rare attainments, in personal touch with all the authorities on the subject, his information was as accurate and complete as it was possible for it to be. Though the great European governments had compelled the Khedive of Egypt to exert himself to the utmost to repress slave-trading on the Upper Nile, and the complaisant Egyptian ruler had appointed first one Englishman and then another (Sir Samuel Baker and Charles Gordon, the latter being the ill-fated General of that name) to administer the government of the Soudan, and some good resulted, it was well known to King Leopold that south of the Equator to the Zambesi the slave trade continued to be prosecuted as vigorously as it had ever been in the remote past. How might the evil be stamped out ? Or, if such consummation were too much to hope for within the immediate future, how best might evil be checked ? In considering threse questions, King Leopold very rightly concluded that the more thorough the knowledge of Central Africa possessed by Europeans the greater the possibility of success in their efforts to ameliorate the awful misery of it's people.

Imbued with these views, King Leopold in 1876 called the attention of the principal geographical societies throughout the world to the conditions then prevailing in Central Africa, and invited all exoert geographers of international reputation to confer in Brussels. The circular letter of King Leopold convening this Conference, though perfectly explicit in it's terms, has, in light of subsequent events, been so distorted to serve personal interests, that no excuse is necessary for reproducing it's exacy words :

In almost every country [wrote King Leopold], a lively interest is taken in the geographical discoveries recently made in Central Africa. The English, the Americans, the Germans, the Italians, and the French have taken part in their different degrees in this generous movement. These expeditions are the response to an idea eminently civilising and christian : to abolish slavery in Africa, to pierce the darkness that still envelops that part of the world, while recognising the resources which appear immense - in a word, to pour into it the treasures of civilisation; such is the object of this modern crusade. Hitherto the efforts made have been without accord, and this has given rise to the opinion, held especially in England, that those who pursue a common object should confer together to regulate their march, to establish some landmarks, to delimit the regions to be explored, so that no enterprise may be done twice over. I have recently ascertained in England that the principal members of the Geographical Society of London are very willing to meet at Brussels the Presidents of the Geographical Societies of the Continent, and those other persons who, by their travels, studies, philanthropic tastes, and charitable instincts, are the most closely identified with the efforts to introduce civilisation into Africa. This reunion will give rise to a sort of conference, the object of which would be to discuss in common the actual situation in Africa, to establish the results attained, to define those which have to be attained.

In cordially accepting King Leopold's invitation, the six great nations of Europe selected their most distinguished geographers and travellers to represent them. Great Britain sent five delegates, all men of distinction in African affairs, Germany sent four, France three, Austria two, Russia one, and Italy one. Belgium had eleven representatives, among them the accomplished Baron Lambermont The Conference, which lasted three days, was convened in the royal palace at Brussels on September 12, 1876. It was opened by King Leopold in person. The speech made by his Majesty on that occasion follows so naturally his invitation to the assembled gentlemen that it might almost be mistaken for a continuation of that document. The reason for quoting the former now applies to the following exact translation of the King's speech :

"Gentlemen", said his Majesty, "permit me to thank you warmly for the amiable promptness with which you have been kind enough to come here at my invitation. Besides the satisfaction that I shall have in hearing you discuss here the problems in the solution of which we are interested, I experience the liveliest sense of pleasure in meeting the distinguished men whose works are valorous efforts on behalf of civilisation I have followed for many years.
The subject which brings us together today is one that deserves in the highest degree to engage the attention of the friends of humanity. To open to civilisation the only part of the globe where it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness enshrouding entire populations, that is, if I may venture to say so, a crusade worthy of this century of progress; and I am happy to discover how much public sentiment is in favour of it's accomplishment. The current is with us.
Gentlemen, among those who have most closely studied Africa, a good many have been led to think that there would be advantage to the common object they pursue if they should be brought together for the purpose of conference with the object of regulating the march, combining the efforts, deriving some profit from all circumstances, and from all resources, and finally, in order to avoid doing the same work twice over.
It has appeared to me that Belgium, a central and a neutral state, would be a spot well chosen for such a reunion, and it is this view which has emboldened me to call you all here, to my home, for the little conference that I have the great satisfaction of opening today. Is it necessary for me to say to you that in inviting you I have not been guided by egotistic views ? No, gentlemen; if Belgium is small, she is happy and satisfied with her lot. I have no other ambition but to serve her well. But I will not go so far as to declare that I should be insensible to the honour which would result for my country if an important forward movement in a question which will mark our epoch should be dated from Brussels. I should be happy that Brussels should become in some way the headquarters of this civilising movement.
I have, then, allowed myself to believe that it would be convenient to you to come together to discuss and to specify, with the authority belonging to you, the means to be employed in order to plant definitely the standard of civilisation on the soil of Central Africa, to agree as to what should be done to interest the public in your noble enterprise, and to induce it to support you with it's money. For, gentlemen, in works of this kind it is the concurrence of the greater number that makes success; it is the sympathy of the masses which it is necessary to solicit, and to know how to obtain.
With what resources should we not, in fact, be endowed if every one for whom a franc is little or nothing consented to throw it into the coffers destined for the suppression of the slave trade in the interior of Africa !
Great progress has already been accomplished; the unknown has been attacked from many sides; and if those here preseny, who have enriched science with such important discoveries, would describe for us the principal points, their exposition would afford us all a powerful encouragement.
Among the questions which have still to be examined have been cited :
1. The precise designation of the basis of operation to be acquired on the coast of Zanzibar, and near the mouth of the Congo, either by conventions with the chiefs, or by purchase or leases from private persons.
2. Designation of the routes to be opened in their order towards the interior, and of the stations - hospitable, scientific, and pacifying - to be organised, as the means of abolishing slavery, of establishing concord among the chiefs, of procuring for them just and distinguished judges, etc.
3. The creation - the work being well defined - of an International and Central Committee, and of National Committees to prosecute the execution, each in what will directly concern it, by placing the object before the people of all countries, and by making an appeal to the charitable that no good cause has ever addressed in vain.
Such are, gentlemen, the different points which seem to merit your attention. If there are others, they will appear in the course of your discussions, and you will not fail to throw light on them.
My desire is to serve, as you shall point out to me, the great cause for which you have already done so much. I place myself at your disposal for this purpose, and offer you a cordial welcome. "


The object of the conference, thus clearly outlined by the King, was loyally adhered to by the delegates, their discussions being strictly confined to geography and philanthropy, nothing political or personal obtruding itself upon their deliberations. At the close of it's three days' session the conference submitted to King Leopold the following declaration upon it's labours :

In order to attain the object of the International Conference of Brussels - that is to say, to explore scientifically the unknown parts of Africa, to facilitate the opening of the routes which shall enable civilisation to penetrate into the interior of the African continent, to discover the means for the suppression of the slave trade among the Negro race in Africa - it is necessary :
(1) To organise on common international plan the exploration of the unknown parts of Africa, by limiting the regions to be explored - on the east and on the west by the two oceans, on the south the basin of the Zambesi, on the north by the frontiers of the new Egyptian territory and the independent Soudan. The most appropriate mode of effecting this exploration will be the employment of a sufficient number of detached travellers, starting from different bases of operation.
(2) To establish, as bases for these operations, a certain number of scientific and hospitable stations both on the coasts and in the interior of Africa - for example, at Bagamoyo and Loanda, as well as at Ujiji, Nyangwe, and other points already known, which it would be necessary to connect by intermediate stations.


In accordance with the recommendation contained in this declaration of the Brussels Geographical Conference, The International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa was formed, consisting of an International Commission sitting in Brussels, assisted by dependent National Committees in each country. The executive power of the International Association was vested in an Executive Committee, of which King Leopold was appointed president. When the British Government selected Sir Bartle Frere for the Governorship of the Cape, it became necessary for him to resign his position as a member of the Executive Committee, the vacancy thus created being filled by an American, General Sanford, for many years United States Minister at Brussels.
The idea of an International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa, to which the Brussels Geographical Conference had given birth, at once began to grow, and flourished amazingly. Not only were influential committees formed in those countries which had sent delegates to the Conference, but in other countries as well, the United States among them.
To show how keen general interest in the civilisation of Central Africa had now become, it is only necessary to cite a few instances of the powerful support given to the National Committees. In Spain, the King; in Austria, the Archduke Rudolph, heir to the Austrian throne; in Holland, Prince Henry of the Netherlands; in Belgium, the Count of Flanders, brother of the King; all became presidents of their respective national committees. Philanthropists, men of science, all who were in any way interested in the world's progress towards better things, accorded ungrudging support to the work set in motion by King Leopold.
The civilisation of Central Africa had now begun in earnest.








This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on February 14th 2002

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics