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

Chapter XXV : Science, Agriculture, Civilising Measures (pp.264-273)

Within the lifetime of men who may still be accounted young, the words that stand at the head of this chapter had no application to ant part of Central Africa. Science, in all it's forms, was utterly unknown there; agriculture can hardly be said to have existed, though a few of the tribes raised scanty crops of a nature that needed little or no attention; while of civilising measures there were absolutely none. These concomitants of long-established civilisation followed naturally the advent of the Belgians; and they have ever since, year by year, taken root, and spread until there are no two countries in the world more dissimilar than the Central Africa of thirty years ago and the Central Africa of today.
Realising to the full that complete success in any undertaking is only possible where all the conditions affecting it are thoroughly understood, the Congo State, early in it's career, established nineteen scientific stations, at various points throughout it's territories, for the collection of data relating to anthropology, botany, ethnography, geology, philology, pisciculture, mineralogy, zoology, etc., and for trigonometrical and astronomical surveys. Each of these stations is in charge of an expert, with properly qualified assistants. They have transmitted to Europe a whole literature of monographs, of greatest interest and value, upon all sorts of subjects, and their field of work is still far from being exhausted. The study of the Congo climate by these savants has proved especially valuable, their recommendations as to regimen, dress, habitation, etc., for travellers and settlers, having reduced the death rate of the whites to six per cent., thus dispelling for ever the old notion of the deadliness of Central Africa, and showing it to be at least as healthful as India, and healthier than either German East Africa, the Cameroons, the Niger Territory, or Cochin China. A small, but continual and increasing, influx of Europeans and Americans demonstrates the gradual abandonment of fear of the Congo Climate, and faith in the hygienic system inaugurated by the Belgians, - a system which maintains sixteen State doctors to watch over and report upon the health of the various stations, and a permanent Hygienic Commission, which sits at Boma.
At the royal palace of Tervueren, near Brussels, now used as a public museum, are exhibited nearly eight thousand objects illustrating industry and art among the primitive peoples of Central Africa, such as costumes, dwellings, musical instruments, and implements of hunting, fishing, agriculture, river navigation, and war. The museum also contains several thousand geological, mineralogical, and zoological specimens, and a very comprehensive herbarium, all collected within the borders of the Congo Free State. The latter is of particular interest, containing specimens of more than four hundred new species.
From the first it has been the unswerving policy of the Congo Free State to promote, by every means at it's disposal, the advancement of science as it affects, and as it is affected by, conditions prevailing within it's territories. Until the Belgians came among them, smallpox from time to time decimated the natives, and was as great an evil as the slave trade or their own internecine wars. They had no conception of it's prevention or cure, and submitted to it's ravages with unintelligent dumb passivity as a providential visitation impossible to resist. The white man with his vaccine was a revelation to them; and though they at first refused to believe in it's efficacy, and would not accept vaccination, they soon perceived the error of their disbelief; and now they voluntarily come to the Belgian medical officers asking to be vaccinated. Both Boma and New Antwerp have vaccine producing institutions, and vaccine is also distributed from Coquilhatville and Stanleyville. The results are most gratifying, for although, unfortunately, smallpox is by no means stamped out of the Congo State it is far less prevalent and less virulent than formerly, so that it is not unreasonable to look for it's practical extinction in the near future.
To the present, Science has proved powerless to cope with that strange malady, the sleeping-sickness. The ablest physicians, not only of Belgium, but of England, France, and Germany, have studied the disease exhaustively. Though much valuable data relating to it's cause and effect have been collected, the discovery of it's antidote seems as far off today as ever. The prevalence of this fatal sickness among it's people makes it a subject of vital concern to the Congo Government, which is unceasingly vigilant in seeking to discover the means for it's extinction or alleviation. In it's pursuit of this object, all possible facilities have been afforded to foreign doctors visiting the Congo State. Be request of the English medical faculty, three Congolese patients, suffering from sleeping sickness, were recently sent to the School of Tropical Medicine at Liverpool. On another occasion two others were sent to Charing Cross Hospital in London. Animals have been infected with the germs of the disease, and it's every symptom, from inception to climax, noted with minute accuracy. The disease, which is invariably fatal, appears to be on the increase, and there have been many victims of it on the Gold Coast as well as in the Congo State. For some obscure reason this dreadful malady has been strictly confined to individuals of the black race. Nothwithstanding it's want of success in combating the evil, the Congo Government may congratulate itself that it has neglected to precaution, and spared no expense, in it's effort to mitigate what may conceivably develop into a veritable plague.
In numerous ways has the Congo Government applied modern science to the uplifting and general betterment of the people over whom it rules, without distinction of colour or creed. Twenty-seven medical men, holders of European diplomas, twenty Health Committees scattered throughout the country, a Bacteriological Institute, and a Hospital for Natives at Boma not only labour for the cure of disease, but disseminate as widely as possible among the natives knowledge of the laws of health. On the whole, the work has been marvellously productive of good results, and the native is now incomparably more healthful, cleaner, better fed, and better housed than at any previous period of his history.
Thirty years ago what is now the Congo Free State was a wild tangle of luxuriant tropical growth through which hordes of black savages roamed, fought, and practised their unspeakable barbarities, living almost entirely upon the spontaneous products of Nature. The white magician has waves his wand and the scene has transformed. In, and far around, each of the numerous governmental stations or posts, life and property are as secure now as in any part of Europe or America. The spade and the hoe have displaced the throwing-spear and poisoned arrow in the hands of the native. Where the shy antelope or spring-bok browsed, remote from human intrusion, the soil is now turned up by the plough, and devoted to the growing of coffee, cocoa, tea (of the Assam variety) and various condiments, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmegs, cloves, vanilla, etc. The establishments for the breeding of cattle, horses, and donkeys, particularly in the Enclave of Lado, in Ruzizi-Kivu, Equateur, Bangala, and Lualaba-Kassai, are numerous and increasing. Latest accounts to hand state that they exceed seventy. Many of the natives display considerable aptitude in learning how to tend herds of cattle. Great expense has been incurred by the State and by various companies in the purchase and importation of pedigree horses and cattle. The animals have been selected from the best European stocks by experts, and assigned to various breeding establishments throughout the country. The enterprise has proved extremely successful, the number of cattle of European origin now in the State being no fewer than 4,500, with sixty horses, and nearly as many donkeys.
In following agricultural employments the natives receive liberal encouragement from the Government. The State offers rewards for the cultivation of coffee and cocoa. At att suitable stations is a coffee and cocoa nursery, established by the State; that is to say, the State has supplied the necessary seeds, and contracts to allow an indemnity for each shrub on it's attaining two feet in height, and to pay the native half the value of it's produce less the cost of transport to Europe.
Coffee has been found to flourish most in the districts of Equateur and Aruwimi, and in the zone of Stanley Falls. Liberica, Arabian, and Guadaloupe are the varieties which have been selected as suited to the Congo soil and climate. The number of coffee plants has increased from 61,517 in 1894 to 1,996,200 in 1902. Cocoa plants numbered no fewer than 298,003 in 1902, an increase of 284,136 in ten years !
In 1899 the State erected a factory for the preparation of coffee at Kinshassa, and adopted several new methods, improvements upon the practise in vogue in countries where coffee has been cultivated for generations. After being dried at the plantations, the coffee is placed in sacks and sent in State steamers to Stanley Pool, and thence to the Kinshassa factory. So good is the quality of Congo coffee that in 1894 it realised no less than 100 francs per 100 kilogrammes in the open market at Antwerp.
Caoutchouc (rubber), for countless ages wholly a spontaneous product of the forests, every year becomes more and more an object of cultivation. By decree dated January 5, 1899, it is provided that in all the forests of the domain caoutchouc trees shall be planted in the proportion of 150 feet to the ton of caoutchouc collected during the same period. By a subsequent decree, dated six months later, the number of caoutchouc trees to be planted for each ton of caoutchouc collected was raised from 150 feet to 500 feet. The enforcement of these decrees is attended to by a staff of foresters, consisting of eight controllers and twelve sub-controllers, working under a chief inspector.
Until prohibited by State decree, the method of collecting caoutchouc practised by the natives was to make an incision in the plant (liana), and allow the fluid to run into a jar. Sometimes they allowed it to run into their hands, and afterwards smeared it over their bodies, and in that manner it was conveyed to market, where it was rubbed off with sand. It was an exceedingly wasteful method, or rather want of method, for the plant thus drawn from was necessarily killed. Only the prodigious quantity of plants existing on the Upper Congo and it's tributaries has saved it from extinction. Now caoutchouc is harvested by extracting the fluid from the stem of the plant in a way that does it no injury, a scientific yet simple operation easily performed by women and children. The industry has assumed enormous proportions. The number of caoutchouc plants put into the ground by companies and by the State are valued at five million francs. The rubber annually produced in the world amounts at present to something over 30,000 tons, of which the Congo Free State exports 5000 tons.
In the African forests the caoutchouc or rubber-bearing plant grows to a great height, often exceeding 100 feet. It is commonly about six inches in diameter at it's base, and shoots upward to the light through a dense mass of tropical growth until, failing to find further support, it falls upon the branches of the tallest trees, and spreads itself over them. There are numerous other plants of the same genus which closely resemble it, but their sap lacks the qualities of true rubber. For several years past the State has experimented with these plants, and has sent specimens of them to the authorities at the Botanical Gardens at Brussels, Kew, Berlin, and Paris, for investigation. The ever-increasing demand for rubber for use in the industries stimulates the inquiry as to whether or not it is possible to so treat what is now regarded as "false rubber" that it shall serve all the purposes of "true rubber".
Amongst the true rubber lianas in which the Congo Basin abounds are the following : Ficus altissima, ficus eetveldiana, ficus elastica, ficus nekbuda, ficus religiosa, manihot glazovii (French name, ceara), clitandra Arnoldiana (native name, mondongo), funtumia elastica (French name, Ireh), landolphia gentillii, and the landolphia owariensis (native name, matofe mengo).
Constant experiments are being made, privately and by the State, in the production of copal, sugar, tobacco, and cotton, with results that justify the confident expectation that at no distant date they will be profitably exported. The cultivation of the vine, and of numerous fruits and grasses, receives also much attention, and is full of promise.
African ivory is everywhere esteemed for it's superiority in colour and hardness to the Indian variety. The large herds of elephants inhabiting the forests of the Congo State provide, at present, an enormous supply; but the Government wisely takes into account the possibility of it's exhaustion, and has prohibited the shooting of elephants. Wise laws also regulate the cutting and export of lumber; and the folly of denuding vast regions of trees, such as we have been guilty of in America, will not be repeated in the Congo.
In every way the State has exerted it's utmost influence to effect the moral improvement of the native race, and it's efforts have met with much success. Their liberty and property are very carefully guarded. Polygamy is not only discountenanced, it is penalised, no polygamist being eligible for employment, whether military or civil, by the State. Christian marriages between natives, which ten years ago numbered eighty-four, now take place by thousands every year.
Alcohol is prohibited over 2,337,500 square kilometres of Congo territory, the zone within which it's sale is tolerated extending to only 12,500 square kilometres, where it's abuse is guarded against by carefully devised restrictions, rigidly enforced. The sale of absinthe is absolutely forbidden in every part of the Congo Free State.
It thus appears that, as the guardian of the welfare of it's people, the Congo Free State has nothing to learn, either in theory or practise, from the most enlightened governments of the world.

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Last revised on February 14th 2002

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