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



Chapter XVII : The Suppression of Slavery (pp.197-206 )


It is an old world-truth, supported by countless historical instances, that the way of the reformer is hard. When his progress is not opposed by vested interests, his enthusiasm is regarded with chilling indifference. However just his cause, he may safely count upon numerous opponents, every one a giant. Even when he has succeeded in establishing a clear case for reform, he is merely set free from one set of difficulties in order to confront other, and generally more formidable, obstacles.
When it first became known to the world that his Majesty Leopold II., King of the Belgians, had seriously determined to suppress the slave trade in Central Africa, the news provoked but little comment. "Is there any slave trade carried on in Central Africa ?" people asked one another - for notwithstanding the wide dissemination of records of travel by Livingstone and Stanley, and the numerous reports from missionaries belonging o every religious sect, all affirming it, the great bulk of civilised mankind, too busy to regard them, rested content in the delusion that the iniquitous traffic was a thing of the past.
This apathy, if apathy it may be called to be indifferent where the facts are not properly known, had to be fought and overcome by King Leopold, first among his own countrymen, and afterwards in the other countries of Europe and in America. By many the King's enterprise was regarded as quixotic, impossible of achievement; some continued indifferent, and yet others commended the King warmly, and lent their moral support in furtherance of his scheme. The material support, however, which was proffered to amplify his Majesty's own huge outlay, came almost entirely from Belgians. On the whole, it was an uphill fight; but King Leopold won all along the line. As we have seen, his Majesty, by his wise initiative, patient labour, and lavish expenditure, first created the Congo State, and afterwards obtained from the great powers their recognition of the State so created, and of his own sovereignty of that State, accompanied by their hearty approval of what had from the first been King Leopold's main object in the founding of the Congo State, viz., the suppression of slavery.

It will be noted that an important epoch had now been reached. King Leopold's mandate was clear and irrevocable. If it had been an arduous struggle to win that mandate, the effort counted for little when compared with what was needed for the accomplishment of the task now opening out before him. The King of a small State, and with a depleted fortune, Leopold II. had, as materials for his task, his own natural ability, the righteousness of his cause, and the unswerving loyalty of his people - three grand factors, it is true, but hardly commensurate with it's magnitude. The suppression of slavery in a region a third as large as the United States, populated by diverse and hostile tribes, among whom slavery and cannibalism had prevailed from time immemorial, would have been no light undertaking for a missionary Croesus with a huge army at his back. King Leopold was no such Croesus, and his pioneers were few in number. But what they lacked in numbers they made up in geographical knowledge, in bravery, and in tact in their dealings both with the Negro and his oppressor, the Arab. Being human, some few mistakes were made; but they were very few - fewer than has frequently marked the establishment of a European colony in countries where there has been no question of slavery awaiting solution, no cannibalism to stamp out, no climatic dangers to encounter. When the time comes for King Leopold to be assigned his place in history as an empire builder, the future historian will probably designate as his Majesty's most brilliant work his solution of the problem of the suppression of the slave trade in Central Africa.

A wrong may be persevered in until it's perpetrator comes to believe it is right. The Arab had for so many centuries harried the Negro race - and, taking advantage of their tribal disputes, plundered, enslaved, and sold them, under circumstances of revolting cruelty - that he had long ago grown to regard the Negro as his natural prey, and was seriously alarmed at the appearance in Congoland of the white-faced strangers with their unwelcome creed of liberty for all men, which they dreaded even more than their weapons of precision. To the Arabs this was a strange doctrine, inimical, they conceived, to their vital interests, and it behoved them to resist it to the death. That their alarm was well founded the sequel will show.
One of the first acts of the newly recognized Congo Free State was to forbid trade in firearms, gunpowder and other explosives. Another act defined contracts of service between natives and foreigners, affording the former special protection. A third act created a volunteer corps whose chief business it was to protect individual liberty. Before any aggressive action, however, could be taken by this corps, the consent of the sovereign's delegate was necessary.
Concurrent with these three acts, the Belgian Anti-Slavery Society raised another, and quite distinct volunteer corps for similar work, but restricted to the neighbourhood of Lake Tanganyika. In addition, about this period the same Society despatched to Congoland, in rapid succession, three expeditions of a missionary and civilising character. In such circumstances, collisions between the Belgians and Arabs were inevitable. During the first few years of the existence of the Congo Free State these collisions occurred chiefly on the Upper Congo and it's tributaries, the currents of the interior slave trade, particularly those from the eastern and southern provinces, being checked by fixed military posts and flying columns. For two years - from 1892 to 1894 - a continuous campaign was in progress, having for it's object the interception of the slave caravans accustomed to come from the south and east, which was entirely successful. In the vast territory known by the name of Lualaba-Kassai, at a time when the resources of the State were unequal to the expense of maintaining a line of posts, it was usual, up to so recently as 1902, on the appearance of a gang of slave-dealers to despatch a detachment of troops from Lusambo or Luluabourg to intercept them. Many engagements were thus brought about between the State volunteers and the slave-dealers. Now military posts are established on all the principal roads formerly used by the slave-traders, and the barrier is complete.
In the north, Commandant Chaltin struck a damaging blow to the Dervishes in February, 1897. After traversing with his force the whole of the Uelle territory, he encountered the Dervishes at Redjaf on the Nile. The place was strongly held by four thousand soldiers, more than half of whom were armed with modern rifles. A severe battle ensued, lasting nearly all day. Victory lay with the Belgians, the Dervishes being forced to evacuate Redjaf. They accepted their beating badly, making several attempts to retake the place, but without success.
Thus we have seen that it was in the districts of the Lower Congo that the slave trade was first stamped out; that it was next eradicated from the Middle Congo; and finally extinguished on the Upper Congo, where Belgian bravery and military skill succeeded in effectually crushing the last vestige of Arab power.

The Negro was quick to respond to the revivifying influence of security for life and property, and his rapid progress in civilisation may be said to date from the day when this essential primary condition was established. From a report to King Leopold made by Baron van Eetvelde, Secretary of State for the Independent State of the Congo, the following passage is extracted :

Slowly but surely the black is being transformed, his intellectual horizon is being enlarged, his sentiments are being refined. A thousand facts, in appearance insignificant, mark the halting-place left behind. The black today has his place marked out where ten years ago no one thought of using him. He is to be seen, according to his aptitude, as a clerk in the Administration, as a postman, as a warehouseman, as a pilot or sailor on the river boats; also as a smith, mechanic, sawyer or brickmaker. Porter in the region of the Cataracts, navvy on the railway, he offers his arms and his labour when the remuneration satisfies the new needs that have taken birth in him. Trader above all, he becomes of a more delicate taste in the acceptance of merchandise in exchange; the stuffs, the tissues of striking colours but mediocre quality, formerly sought for, have today no demand, and must give place to articles of a superior kind. He accepts money; he is even acquainted with paper money, for many purchases are effected by means of bonds, which are then cashed at the European revenue offices. He is conscious of his own personality - claims loudly the redress of any wrong which he conceives himself to have suffered. Grown more sociable, he receives, without distrust in his house, the stranger and the traveller. He begins to repudiate his old primitive customs, such as the casque, or the proof of poison. He sends his children to the missionary schools; and, to encourage him in this, the State has started a system of colonies of schools, the pupils of which are rapidly increasing. Fetishism is beginning to lose adherents, and religious proselytism proceeds not without success. The legend of the Negro opposed to all improvement can no longer be maintained in face of this experience. We may consider it as certain that the native, well conducted and well directed, is fit to be assimilated with civilisation. Guarding ourselves against optimism, we do not disguise that there remains much to be done in order to introduce by successive stages that civilisation to the farthest frontiers of the State. But the facts warrant our believing in the possibility of such a result, which is the final object of the enterprise of your Majesty. The Congo State in the few years which have elapsed since it's creation, has not failed in it's task. Time and perseverance will crown the work, and it will be to Belgium, if she wishes it, that it's accomplishment will belong.

In a later report - the last from which it will be necessary to quote - Baron van Eetvelde reviews the complete work of the Congo Free State from it's creation to the date of his writing (1897), and very ably sums up the situation then existing :

The Congo Sate inherited from it's birth the heaviest, and most perilous task in the anti-slavery work. The territories which fell to it had the sad privilege of being in their greater part handed over to the razzias, and of including the principal slave centres and the most important markets of human flesh. However willing were the Powers, who in the Berlin Act solemnly condemned the slave trade, the most optimistic only dared to hope for the disappearance of the abominable practices, like those Stanley had witnessed on the banks of the Upper Congo, in a distant future.
In truth, the crusade against the slave trade, in some measure ordered by the Berlin Conference, remained in the following years a mere vow; and the Congo Government, which on it's own account had then already organised a chain of posts of defence against the invasion of the slave-hunters, was condemned to deplore that, despite some partial successes, a great part of it's provinces still remained in their power. Such were at that epoch the horrors and cruelties denounced to the civilised world, such was the depolrable situation in which the people of Central Africa decimated and massacred by their oppressors, passed an agonising existence, that, struck by sentiment of legitimate indignation, the Powers again decided by the Act of Brussels (1890) to deal a decisive blow at the slave trade.
The Brussels Conference characterised the part reserved to the Congo State in the anti-slavery campaign, the importance of the undertakings which devolved upon it, the difficulties of the task which assigned it the perilous honour of being the advance guard on the battle-field. The number of enemies to be fought, the organisation of their bands, their installation from a remote date in the regions which they terrorised, their supply in firearms and munitions, the subjection even of the natives, were so many grounds of apprehension and disquietude as to the final issue of the struggle undertaken, and as to the fate ultimately reserved for the African populations. It really seemed, in that encounter between civilisation and slavery, of which the stake was the life and liberty of millions of human beings, as if failure would dispel forever the hope of a better future. Thus it was that circumstances had placed in the hands of the Congo State the destiny of Central Africa and it's tribes, and the situation was tersely defined by an English missionary when, with the experience acquired during a long residence in Africa, he wrote in 1893, during the progress of the military campaign : "I am convinced that, unless the Arabs are annihilated, a general massacre will ensue. This is the moment for the Europeans to play their last card against the Arabs. Whether they will carry the day or not, I cannot say."
Civilisation did carry the day. And has not history to register that this victory for the Congo State, due to the bravery of Belgian officers, entitled it to merit well of those interested in the fate of the native populations ? If today there opens for them a new era of liberty and regeneration, if the amelioration of their material and moral condition can now be pursued, they owe it to the annihilation of the promoters of slavery.
Elsewhere has been told at the price of what sacrifices of men and money, at the price of what valour in every case, these results have been attained. The facts are there to attest that these sacrifices have not been in vain. The men-hunters, reduced to impotence, their bands dispersed, their chiefs disappeared, the fortresses of slavery laid level with the ground, the natives rebuilding their villages under the shadow of the posts of the State, giving themselves up to the peaceful pursuits of cultivation of the soil - an era of tranquility succeeding the sombre and sanguinary episodes of the old regime. Every mail from Africa brings proof of the progress of this period of pacification, and shows the natives, delivered from an odious yoke, recovering confidence, and living peacably in their own abodes.


That the problem of the suppression of slavery in Central Africa had now been solved, we have had abundant incontrovertible evidence. That it's solution was effected with a minimum of bloodshed, and in a marvellously short period of time for the accomplishment of so gigantic a task, we have also seen. The first and greatest of the objects for which King Leopold had so long laboured was at length realised. The applause of all civilised peoples had been justly earned, and was ungrudgingly given, and substantial reward was soon to follow.








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