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



Chapter XXI : Displacement of the Population (pp.223-227 )


The instinct of the nomad largely prevails in all savage races, but in none does it prevail to a greater extent than among the black tribes of Central Africa. It is one of their market characteristics, and a fruitful source of trouble.
Central African tribes are greatly influenced by their superstitions. Like the North American Indians, they have their medicine men who conjure up all sorts of occult prognostications of imminent and mysterious phenomena. With them the fetish doctor is little less than a god. If this wise man asserts that a village has suffered ill-luck because the new moon dips to the left or right, his deluded followers collect their effects, devastate the village, and move into some region which he may indicate is free from that curse. If rain has not fallen in sufficient quantity, and the crops surrounding the village have withered, or if the rain has been too abundant, the fetish doctor may forthwith present an explanation based upon some new superstition. Indeed, there are thousands of tribal beliefs in the Congo Free State which are for ever disturbing the settlement of the population. Implacable enemies of the Congo Free State, not wholly ignorant of these tribal beliefs and customs, pretend to regard the migratory nature of the Central African savage as evidence of his fear of the State's government, arising from a feeling of insecurity. Such persons point to the native's incorrigible habit of moving his abode as an unmistakable sign of his desire to escape from the barbarities practised upon him by officers and soldiers of the Congo Government. In this way it is sought to deceive those who are unacquainted with the habits of the black man - the man who, a few years ago, ate his brother with a relish which civilised white men can hardly conceive.
The State, however, fully cognisant of the natural habits of it's black subjects, has often considered the question of how to deal effectually with these displacements of the population. There are times when neither superstition nor tribal custom causes a large exodus from a well-established village. Sometimes the fertility and luxuriant grass of another region attracts the more enterprising black, who has learned to cultivate his own land. Allured by glowing accounts of such a nature he gathers about him his friends and family, and makes off to what he considers to be a new Eldorado. In a short time, the diablerie of the fetish doctor has again unsettled him.
Then, again, there have been occasions when the natives have migrated to avoid payment of the taxes imposed upon them by their own chief on behalf of the State, taxes which are infinitesimal in value as compared with the benefits of civilisation which the State confers. To deal generally qith the displacement of the population of the Congo Free State has been a matter of much concern to the Government. A case of sleeping-sickness or smallpox has occurred, and away goes the whole village pell-mell into another region. The movements of the native tribes are often inscrutable, and afford the State no clue as to how they may be prevented. Like some species of wild animals which instinctively avoid certain districts of the forest at particular seasons, or on account of some unusual phenomena, the black man will sometimes quit his residence for no apparent reason at all. Nine times out of ten, however, he migrates on account of things entirely unconnected with any administrative act of the State. Entire villages have been removed because a death has occurred there the cause of which was inexplicable to the black man. Occasionally the fetish doctor, inspired by some unexplained caprice, will decree that the tribe shall move - he knows not where. Ignorance and superstition invariably follow a leader whose pretence is some occult power. The tribe moves; and another tribe, moving from a similar or other impulse, may occupy the very village which the first tribe had abandoned a few weeks before.
These removals along the banks of the river have sometimes created the impression on a superficial observer that the population of the Congo Free State has diminished or disappeared. Rgeardless of the impression these deserted villages have made upon those who seek to find opportunity for vilifying the Congo Government, the inconvenience resulting from the constant removals has been very great. There is often at one point an aggregation of people too numerous for their subsistence, and public order and tranquility are disturbed, with disastrous results. More strife between village and village and tribe and tribe has been occasioned by this migratory habit than by any bloodthirsty instinct inherent in the Congolese black. This is notoriously true; and it has had a gravely adverse effect, too, upon the population of the Soudan, with regard to which the statements in Lord Cromer's report of 1893 are conclusive.
Vice Governor-General Fuchs, always seeking to improve the governmental machinery of the Congo Free State, has recently made the following suggestions, which, if adopted, he believes would tend to control the migratory nature of the subjects over whom he so intelligently rules :

I think that it would be opportune to pass the necessary legislative measures, so that an end may be put to this collective kind of vagabondage. The administrative authority finds itself at present unarmed, the Congo Courts having declared the absolute right of the native to move about and to dwell where he likes. But it appears to me that public order is directly interested in having these emigrations in a mass, from region to region in the interior of the country, regulated by law. This regulation would also result in assured stability for a fair distribution of native taxes. It would also facilitate the establishment of definite and permanent means of communication throughout the country.
There is, however, still a special case to be taken into consideration. Some natives on removing this way are ready to establish themselves on the territory of one or other of those Sultans whose native authority extends beyond, as well as within, the political frontiers of the State. The determination of the sovereign power such individuals may wield might, owing to the silence of our laws, not be without future difficulty, when, for instance, Sultans, established on foreign territory and dependent themselves for it on foreign power, are concerned. It would be well if all doubtful elements were removed by a decree which in a general manner might establish the principle that every native of Congolese origin who, by naturalisation or otherwise, shall endeavour to modify his national status, will be considered as a subject of the Congo State, and remain amenable to Congolese law, so long as he shall reside, in fact, within the limits of the State territory.


From this it will be observed that in addition to the numerous other difficulties with which the new State has to contend, it is now called upon to legislate for the solution of a problem which the State's detractors have distorted and misrepresented as a result of the State's cruel system of government.
The importance of this question cannot be overstated, as it forms a great hindrance to the proper organisation of so vast a territory as the Congo Basin. That the potentialities of King Leopold's beneficient rule in Central Africa will eventually legislate wisely, and permanently abolish this native inconsistency, no one who has observed the intelligent governmental genius of the State can doubt.








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