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



Chapter II : Stanley, and King Leopold II.'s Conception of the Congo Free State (pp.13-22 )


In every case the National Committees of the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa displayed extraordinary activity; but, as was to be expected, their rate of progress was measured by the Belgian Committee, which met, for the first time, on the 6th of November, 1876, in Brussels, just six weeks after the close of the Brussels Geographical Conference which had decreed it's existence. As was fitting in the circumstances, King Leopold was present at the meeting, and delivered upon that occasion a speech which may be regarded as an amplification of his Majesty's previous pronouncements on the situation, now in some measure become political, in Central Africa.

"Gentlemen", said King Leopold, "the slave trade, which still exists over a large part of the African Continent, is a plague-spot that every friend of civilisation would desire to see disappear.
The horrors of that traffic, the thousands of victims massacred each year through the dlave trade, the still greater number of perfectly innocent beings who, brutally reduced to captivity, are condemned en masse to forced labour in perpetuity, have deeply moved all those who have even partially studied this deplorable situation, and concerting, in a word, for the founding of an International Association to put an end to an odious traffic which makes our epoch blush, and to tear aside the veil of darkness which still enshrouds Central Africa. The discoveries due to daring explorers permit us to say from this day that it is one of the most beautiful and the richest countries created by God.
The Conference of Brussels has nominated an Executive Committee to carry into execution it's declaration and resolutions.
The Conference has wished, in order to place itself in closer relationship with the public, whose sympathy will constitute our force, to found, in each State, National Committees. These Committees, after delegating two members from each of them to form part of the International Committee, will popularise in their respective countries the adopted programme.
The work has already obtained in France and Belgium important subscriptions, which make us indebted to the donors. These acts of charity, so honourable to those who have rendered them, stimulate our zeal in the mission we have undertaken. Our first task should be to touch the hearts of the masses, and, while increasing our numbers, to gather in a fraternal union, little onerous for each member but powerful and fruitful by the accumulation of individual efforts and their results.
The International Association does not pretend to reserve for itself all the good that could or ought to be done in Africa. It ought, especially at the commencement, to forbid itself a too extensive programme. Sustained by public sympathy, we hold the conviction that, if we accomplish the opening of the routes, if we succeed in establishing stations along the routes followed by the slave merchants, this odious traffic will be wiped out, and that these routes and these stations, while serving as fulcrums for travellers, will powerfully contribute towards the evangelisation of the blacks, and towards the introduction among them of commerce and modern industry.
We boldly affirm that all those who desire the enfranchisement of the black races are interested in our success.
The Belgian Committee, emanating from the International Committee, and it's representative in Belgium, will exert means to procure for the work the greatest number of adherents. It will assist my countrymen to prove once more that Belgium is not only a hospitable soil, but that she is also a generous nation, among whom the cause of humanity finds as many champions as she has citizens.
I discharge a very agreeable duty in thanking this assembly, and in warmly congratulating it for having imposed on itself a task the accomplishment of which will gain for our country another brilliant page in the annals of charity and progress.


We have here, in his Majesty's own words, a very lucid and reiterated exposition of King Leopold's main object in concerning himself with Central African affairs - the suppression of the slave trade, with consequent moral and material advancement of it's peoples. But let it not be lost sight of that, subsidiary to this lofty mission, King Leopold has never disavowed - nay; his Majesty had more than once expressly declared it - his desire to find in Africa new markets for Belgian manufactures, and a wide field for the surplus population of overcrowded little Belgium, where his people might live and where their peculiar genius in the arts and sciences might flourish unfettered by alien laws.
The experience of recent travellers, and particularly of Livingstone and Stanley, had demonstrated the truth of what had hitherto always been disbelieved, viz., that it was possible for the white man to live and maintain his health in Central Africa. This fact alone was of vast importance; but when was added to it proof that the country was fertile, with immense natural sources of wealth, needing only the brain and hand of civilised man to tap them, a prosperous future for the country was assured. England, France, and Portugal, but notably England, had already claimed large sections of Africa for their own, and Italy and Germany - especially Germany - were feverishly anxious to follow suit. But it is doubtful if among all the students of the African problem - and they numbered among them the ablest of every nation - there was at this period another man with prescience to foresee, as we now know King Leopold must have foreseen, the illimitable possibilities of Central Africa. Indeed it is tolerably certain that had the great nations realised the potential value of this region, their cupidity would never have permitted them to allow it's sovereignty to become vested in any single individual with claim to it based upon anything except irresistible material force. King Leopold's claim, as we have already partly seen, and as will presently be fully demonstrated, had for it's foundation a long-cherished and active philanthropic interest in the welfare of it's natives, chiefly in the form of the suppression of slavery; the expenditure, out of his Majesty's private purse, of large sums of money for exploration, establishment of route stations etc.; and generally for calling the attention of the civilised world to a little-known and less-cared-for region commonly thought to be worthless.
Bacon asserts, in his Advancement of Learning, that "States are great engines moving slowly", and from the beginning of the world until long past the English philosopher's time, the axiom was true; but we of the twentieth century inhabit a world as unlike the world that Bacon lived in as modern New York is unlike the city that Washington Irving described under that name. The teeming millions of Europe are ever more and more perplexed by the problem of how to live, and not a day passes but the cruel competition of life waxes fiercer and hotter. New lands, new markets, must be found - the social pressure in the older nations demands it as a prime necessity. Therefore comes it that States are no longer "engines moving slowly". On the contrary, they move very rapidly; and as all the fat lands of the earth have already been appropriated, future trouble seems not improbable. John Bull, early in the field, worked hard painting the map red, and now it is not possible to get far away from one or other of his frontiers. The British colossus has many imitators; but these started in the game late, when most of the prizes had been won.
No sooner was it perceived that the Congo region of Central Africa is a valuable possession, than France set up her flag on the Congo, at Brazzaville. The Portuguese, rummaging in their musty archives for traces of their past glory, set up a claim to the Congo River because one of her navigators had discovered the mouth of it five hundred years ago. Germany, too, now exhibited her desire for huge territories in East Africa, and did not betray any marked scrupulousness as to whose rights were invaded in obtaining them. With such neighbours pressing closely upon him, it was no more than natural that King Leopold should cast about him how best he might preserve inviolate the great country to which he had so lavishly devoted his time and money; and he finally conceived the idea of a Congo Free State, with himself as it's Sovereign ruler. Without some clear recognition of Congo territory, and of his own personal rights in respect of it, it was abundantly clear that the first would be filched and the second ignored. For King Leopold to proclaim himself Sovereign ruler of the Congo region was, of course, not sufficient. It would be necessary to secure the assebt to that course of all the great Powers interested.
It was a momentous time. While the French were establishing themselves on Stanley Pool, Stanley the man was working in the interest of King Leopold, travelling through the Congo country, buying land here and there, establishing stations, and making treaties in the King's name with native chiefs.
The French regarded Stanley's proceedings with jealous distrust, and in France the question was raised whether the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa ought to be permitted to exercise sovereign rights. That history furnished examples of corporate bodies exercising sovereign authority was acknowledged, but there was a large party in France which insistently asserted that no such right pertained to the International Association.
The situation was very complicated. If King Leopold recognised the preposterous claim of Portugal over the mouth of the Congo river, the entire region in which he was interested would be without a free way to the sea, a fatal bar to it's proper development.
To deal with Portugal in this matter, even supposing her alleged right to be well founded, would have presented no insuperable difficulty; poor nations like poor individuals being ever open to sell their commodities at something more than their market value. But just at this juncture an unexpected act on the part of Great Britain added enormously to the difficulty. Lord Granville, at that time British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, after having refused to recognise any right by Portugal over the mouth of the Congo, in return for concessions granted by Portugal to Britain elsewhere, now recognised those claims in an extended form.
This Anglo-Portuguese Convention, made on the 26th of February, 1884, had it been carried out, would have killed at one blow the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa, and all King Leopold's cherished dreams would have evaporated like mists before the sun.
But the good work done by King Leopold was not fated to be so ignominously extinguished. France and Germany combined to denounce the convention; and even with the British public it was very unpopular, as hard things being said of it in the British Parliament and press as any uttered in Belgium. King Leopold appealed to the British Government to suspend the ratification of the convention, urging the despatch of a British mission to the west coast to examine the validity of the treaties made between his Majesty's representatives and native chiefs in that part of the Congo country which the convention proposed to acknowledge as Portuguese territory. The British government granted the King's request, and despatched General Sir Frederic Goldsmid to the Congo. The result was a complete triumph for King Leopold, General Goldsmid reporting to his Government that the treaties were in perfect order and that the allegations of the Portuguese were baseless. That was the end of the Anglo-Portuguese Convention.
Though the Anglo-Portuiguese Convention was dead, and nothing remained to fear from it, the incident served to emphasize the great and growing necessity for endowing the Congo region with a clearer and more definite political status than it yet possessed. There were not wanting other, and happier, incidents pointing the same moral. On April 22, 1884, the United States officially recognised the flag of the International Association as that of a friendly Government, in which course it was soon after followed by France, though the latter country made it a condition of it's acknowledgement that the Association would never alienate any of it's territory without France having the right of pre-emption. Germany, entering upon joint action with France for the first time since the war of 1870, concurred in recognising the International Association as an independent and friendly State; and on the very day that she gave her adherence to it, she invited, through Prince Bismarck, all the Powers interested in the future of Africa to confer in Berlin with the object of regulating African affairs. The invitation was accepted by fourteen nations, whose representatives met under circumstances to be presently described, and gave reality to the grand idea, conceived long before by Henry Morton Stanley and Leopold II., King of the Belgians, of a Congo Free State.








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