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



Chapter XXVIII : State Lands and Concessions (pp.308-339)


The categories into which the lands within the borders of the Congo Free State naturally fall have already been briefly indicated in a previous chapter. The land system includes, first, a reservation of land exclusively for the use of the public. Second, lands sold upon an official scale of prices through a Land Department composed of five members. Third, concessions of land granted for a certain term of years, or as freehold, to companies organised to develop it's productivilty. Fourth grants of use extended to those who, by arrangement with the State, thereby obtain the right to work a prescribed area for india-rubber. Certain zones of rubber-bearing territory are not subject to grants of use, the State reserving therein the exclusive right to work the forests, thereby following the system in force in the Soudan and in other neighbouring colonies. Finally, there are leases of three, six, or nine years, of land for commercial purposes, and leases for twenty to fifty years of lands for agricultural uses and the establishment of missions, schools and churches. The latter possess areas aggregating about six thousand acres.
The principal concessionary companies, operate over approximately one-fourth of the State. The lands conceded to such companies are transmitted under contracts very similar to those employed in the Soudan (Sale of Government Land in the Anglo Egyptian Soudan, Times (London), July 18, 1904), and provide for improvement of the land by the erection of buildings, planting rubber vines, coffee, cocoa, breeding cattle, and collecting rubber in a manner which will not deplete the growing stock. The Congo State law imposes upon the eubber companies the duty of planting at least five hundred feet of rubber vines or trees for every ton of rubber harvested. The forests are safeguarded in respect of wood and other products, and special inspectors see to the rigorous enforcement of the law. There appears to be a different state of things in the rubber-bearing districts of British Lagos, where reckless destruction of the vines, waste, inattention, and lack of intelligent organisation have reduced the rubber yield in 1900 to one-tenth it's harvest in 1896, with the decline still continuing. The same measure of rapid decline is going on in the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. "The decrease in the export of rubber from L 347,721 in 1896 to L 160,315 in 1899 is clearly due to the reckless and unskillful manner in which rubber was collected" (Annual Colonial Report, Lagos, 1899).
This report is corroborated by the statistics of the British Gold Coast, which in 1899 exported rubber to the value of L 555,731, but in 1902 to the value of only L 88,602; Lagos, 1896, L 347,721, in 1901, L 14,749; Sierra Leone, 1895, L 86,940, in 1902, L 8,192. Indeed, the table from which these quotations are made shows that the rubber exports from eight British colonies have greatly decreased since 1898, despite the increased European value of that product. It would seem that the care and skill which during these same years caused the Congo exports to rise from less than a million francs in 1886 to over fifty-four millions in 1903 were at least worth the emulation of the Gold Coast, Lagos, and Sierra Leone muddlers hiding defeat behind the humanitarian pretexts of Liverpool rubber merchants and their agents, whose conscience is as flexible as their trade product.
Concerning the concessionary scheme which prevails in the French Congo, and which the Congo Free State Government has so successfully carried out in it's own territory, M. Eugene Etienne, a distinguished French scholar, Vice-President of the French Chamber of Deputies, and leader of the French colonial group, has said and written some pertinent things. The French Congo, lying on the coast west of the Free State, has been also assailed by the few interested British merchants and their religious and secular agents and reform associations for having been forbidden to trespass upon and despoil Central African territory which has so far escaped the acquisitive proclivities of John Bull. M. Etienne's dissertation contains the following passages as applicable to the Free State as to the French Congo :

I stop in the enumeration of the results obtained by the Independent State of the Congo, and I will not put in the opposite column the balance sheet which gives little enough to rejoice over the progress realised in the neighbouring French colony. Certainly from the point of view of the exploration of the country, and the management of the natives, our officials have obtained what might be called, in a formula borrowed from mechanics, the maximum of result with the minimum of expense ...
The constitution of landed property in the Congo, regulated by the decree of 28th March, 1899, and the attribution of vacant lands by important lots to companies bound by a cahier des charges, form a work carefully thought out and elaborated on the advice of eminent jurists. It does honour to the Minister of the Colonies who took the initiative in the matter, my eminent colleague in the Chamber of Deputies, M. Guillain, as well as to the Councillor of State, M. Cotelle, who gave his active collaboration as President of the Commission of Concessions.
The justification of the large concessions is to substitute a regular and methodical exploitation of the products of the soil for the system of trading which destroys the natural riches, leaving behind it only the exhausted and mutilated bush. Is it a question of the collection of caoutchouc (rubber), the native cuts the lianas, bleeds the producing shrub to complete exhaustion. Is it a question of ivory, - the precious product disappears rapidly with the increase of the price, and the easier destruction of the elephants by means of arms of precision. Left to himself the native destroys, and does not concern himself to ask the earth to restore what he has taken from it. At the most he scratches a little of the soil round the villages he inhabits in order to carry out thereon some cultivation of food stuffs. Thus has it already been recorded in our Congo colony that the caoutchouc lianas have nearly disappeared from the coast, and from the banks of the rivers. It would be the same in the end in the regions further removed from the sea if wise regulations did not put a stop to it.
Quite different would be the value of the soil if new plantations replaced those exhausted by successive harvests, and added new products to those which come without cultivation. Coffee trees and cocoa trees succeed admirably on the Congo. The soil lends itself to all tropical cultivations. As to the collection of caoutchouc, which will long remain one of the principal resources of the country, it demands management and care. It is for this motive that, according to one of the clauses of the cahier des charges annexed to the decrees of concession, the concessionaire companies are bound "to plant and maintain to the termination of the concession, by replacing those which shall have disappeared, at least 500 foot of caoutchouc plants per ton of caoutchouc produced."
The contract signed between the State as the proprietor of vacant lands and the concessionaire is the following : The concessionaire is authorised to establish himself on the lands assigned to him, he exercises there for a period of 30 years all rights of possession and exploitation (under reservation of lands allotted to the natives, and of right of proprietorship previously acquired by third parties); but this lease of 30 years is to be changed into definite proprietorship for all lands which shall have been improved. How is it to be decided whether the lands may be considered as improved ? The cahier des charges answers this question with precision. Shall be considered as improved :
1. Lands occupied over at least one-tenth of their surface by buildings;
2. Lands planted over at least one-twentieth of their surface with rich cultivation such as cocoa, coffee, caoutchouc, vanilla, indigo, tobacco, etc.;
3. Lands cultivated over at least one-tenth of their surface with food cultivation such as rice, millet, manioc, etc.;
4. The pasturage on which shall be maintained during at least five years beasts for breeding and fattening at the rate of two heads of large beasts or four heads of small beasts per 10 hectares;
5. The parts of forests of a superficies of at least 100 hectares of a single tenancy in which caoutchouc shall have been regularly collected for at least five years at the rate of at least 20 feet of trees or lianas as the average per hectare ...
In exchange for these advantages the concessionaire assumes charges which are not defined with less rigour : Fixed annual rents to be paid to the colony, share of the profits, 15 per cent of the company's receipts going to the local budget, obligation to float on the watercourses traversing the concession steamboats of a fixed model, all without prejudice to the payment of a security. ...
The British merchants (two Liverpool firms, Messrs. Hatton & Cookson and John Holt & Co. have alone figured in the cases brought before the Courts of Libreville) complained of being deprived of the rights which they had exercised during many years of sending their contractors to collect the caoutchouc on the lands conceded to the new companies, a dispossession for which they demanded reparation. The Court, after having ascertained that the English firms did not claim any permanent establishment on the domain conceded, non-suited them, objecting with reason that the State as proprietor of free lands in the Congo had the right to dispose of them, and that the long tolerance which the merchants had enjoyed for the collection of the products of the soil could not constitute an acquired right in their favour. Beaten in the French courts, the Liverpool firms lodged an appeal before a tribunal where they were certain of being heard. They set in movement the English Chamber of Commerce, interested the press and public opinion in their cause, and made the British Foreign Office intervene.
I have always admired the ardour and solicitude with which British diplomacy takes part and cause for the grievances of British subjects abroad. The British citizen, as formerly the Roman, is assured of being protected and defended. I know of citizens of other countries who cannot always say as much. The complaints of the Liverpool merchants furnished in their way a fine platform for diplomacy. The Congo with the guarantees stipulated by the Berlin Conference, should it not be the chosen land, the last refuge of commercial freedom ? To the complaints of merchants established in the French colony were added those of English merchants and consuls resident in the Belgian Congo. It was the placing on trial of the Independent State in it's entirety - of it's commercial policy, of it's native policy, which formed the subject of inquiry in the press and before the British Parliament. ... Now in no country of the world has the freedom of commerce been considered as interfering with the rights of property. The proprietor of the soil alone has the right to dispose of the products of the land which belongs to him. Do people in England think that freedom of commerce is violated because the first passer-by of a rich and extensive manorial domain cannot take the fruits and vegetables, kill the bucks and the hinds, and lay the axe to the trees ? Why should it be otherwise in the Congo ? The whole question is, whether the State, which in the French Congo (as in the Independent State) has proclaimed itself the proprietor of vacant and unowned lands, has this right legitimately. If it has, it can in one form or another alienate the lands belonging to it. That this existence of the law of property may inconvenience those who formerly enjoyed the products of the soil, I do not deny. There are countries where hunting is not forbidden, and the game belongs to the killer. A day arrives when the proprietor reserves his rights. He forbids hunting, he institutes suits. It is very disagreeable for those who used to traverse land freely. But it does not follow that they have the right to indemnity. Still that is the strange suit that England wishes to bring before the European Areopagus. The Congo has protected it's hunting grounds; the pouchers exclaim against the injustice and claim damages !
Has the State been right in considering itself the legitimate proprietor of vacant and unowned lands in the Congo ? If any doubt existed on the subject, the luminous opinion given to our concessionaires by Maitre Henri Barboux should suffice to remove it. After having recalled that in all countries, at all periods, the exercise of the right of sovereignty implied the appropriation for the profit of the State of conquered lands, the eminent advocate shows how England has made use of that prerogative; in Lower Canada where a single Governor granted 1,425,000 acres to sixty persons; in Upper Canada where in 1825 out of 17,000,000 measured acres, an extent almost equal to Ireland, 15,000,000 had been given in concession; in Australia where the distribution of lands to colonists in gratuitous concessions or by sale was never considered "as in contempt of the rights of the primitive inhabitants of the country, nor as contrary to the largest principles of commercial freedom". In India, Ceylon, at Hong-Kong, in Africa (Cape Colony, Natal, Bechuanaland), in the Fiji Islands, Great Britain has always admitted that "the whole country falls to the Crown, and that the Crown can attribute to individuals portions of the country, while reserving as it's own domain all which is not given in concession". (Cresay, The Imperial and Colonial Constitutions of the Britannic Empire, p.66). Holland applies the same rules. In Germany the Imperial ordinance of 26th November, 1895, ordains in these terms : "Under reserve of the rights of property or other real rights that individuals or juridical persons, native chiefs or communities, can invoke, as well as of the rights of occupation of third persons resulting from contracts passed with the Imperial Government, all the land of German East Africa is vacant land of the Crown. The proprietorship of it belongs to the Empire."
These very same principles have been applied by the European nations which have shared amongst themselves the Conventional Basin of the Congo. The reservation of the rights acquired by third persons, the reservation of the rights of natives are stipulated for in our contracts of concession with a precision which leaves nothing to be desired. "The society having the concession cannot exercise the rights of enjoyment and exploitation which are accorded to it except outside villages occupied by natives, and the lands reserved to them for purposes of cultivation, pasturage, or as forest. The perimeters of these lands if it is a question of natives with a fixed residence, or the successive perimeters to be occupied or reserved if it is one of natives with a changeable residence, shall be fixed by the decisions of the Governor of the Colony, who shall equally determine the lands over which the natives shall preserve the rights of hunting and fishing. The lands and rights thus reserved shall not be ceded by the natives either to the concessionaire or to third parties except with the authority of the Governor of the Colony". (Art. 10 of the decree of 28th March, 1879, on concessions.) These stipulations are the most liberal that could be carried out in a country where native proprietorship is not regularly constituted, where the land surrounding the villages is alone cultivated, where the villages are shifted about with extreme ease, what was field or plantation one year returning to the state of the bush in the following. As to lands really occupied by Europeans, they have always been left outside the new concessions. What it has not been thought proper to respect is the pretension which some traders have put forward of being masters of what they never possessed, of trading in what did not belong to them ....
Up to the present I have spoken only of the concessions given on French territory. The Independent State has employed the same system. In a part of it's territory it even inaugurated it. All that may be said to defend our administration from having violated on the Congo the principle of commercial liberty is, then, applicable to the Belgian concessions.


The Private Domain (Domaine Prive) of the Congo Free State embraces approximately one-fourth of the unoccupied lands within it's borders. This is the feature of the State's general scheme of physical development which excites it's enemies to make many foolhardy assaults and become voluble with fallacy and hollow argument. It was created by a decree dated December 5, 1892. All the net revenue derived from the Private Domain is placed in the State's treasury and applied to the payment of the cost of it's public improvements and all it's undertakings seeking to improve the condition of the native population, the facilities for their civilisation and the elevation of their moral nature.
The revenue from the Private Domain is derived from the State's direct exploitation of it's lands. Rubber and ivory are it's chief products at the present time. Various kinds of wood abound in it's forests, and cocoa and coffee plantations, experimental farms, live-stock ranches, agricultural areas, all are being developed under the direct supervision of State agents.
The question which is periodically enlivened concerning this governmental scheme for acquiring necessary revenue is : Can the State, in occupation of it's own lands in the Congo Basin, develop the land by direct cultivation, or en regie (by trustees), for the benefit of the State budget, which, in it's integrity, is devoted to increase the power of the State to civilise and elevate it's native people ? There can be no doubt about the State's right to develop territory which for lack of private initiative and capital would produce nothing for the benefit of the society for which the State has been created. This right has been recognised not only by the Powers at the Berlin Conference in reference to Central Africa, but, in varying aspects, by all civilised countries in reference to other parts of the globe. Belgian, French, English, Russian, Swiss, and Italian jurists have considered this question at great length. The opinion of Messrs. vam Berchem, van Maldeghem, de Paepe, John Westlake, K.C., Sir Horace Davey, K.C., de Martens, Barboux, Nys, Pierantoni, and Azcarate, besides the weight of opinion expressed by United States authorities which habe been consulted, all concede the State's right to develop it's territory for the benefit of a treasury devoted to the welfare of it's people. Moreover, this scheme of self-development is not peculiar to the Free State. France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal declared unoccupied land to be the property of the State. The establishment of that principle at once implies the adoption of that other by which the State may improve it's own property and turn it from a wilderness into a productive garden. In addition to innumerable earlier decrees by the Governments surrounding the Congo Free State, many of which are set out in the Bulletin Officiel of the Independent State of the Congo for June, 1903, new ordinances, amplifying and extending the early decrees, have been recently (September 20 and October 23, 1904) put into operation. Their inclusion herein would unduly extend the text of this volume. A brief indication of their provision will be found in the Appendix under the title : Features of the Land System in the African Colonies of Germany, Great Britain, France and Portugal.
From the Neue Hamburgische Boersen Halle, 20 October, 1904, we quote the following comment upon the German decree of the same date, inasmuch as it reveals what, in general, is the European opinion of the British criticism of the Congo State land system :

The decree brings under the designation of forest products the products from all woodlands, whether fenced in or not, and even from isolated plantations, from bush and underbrush, bamboo and elm trees, and from all liquaceous plants, especially the lumber, the bark, the sap, the rubber, the leaves, the flowers, and the fruit. In such part of the territories as have, after effective occupation, been declared forest reservations by a public notice of the government, it is strictly forbidden to gather any kind of forest products, for such harvesting is made an exclusive right of the Treasury.
That decree is interesting in many ways. First, it shows that the German Colonial Office has decided to systematically protect the forest domain of the Colony in order to prevent indiscriminate deforestation, which would rapidly bring disaster upon the country. But it also reminds one of the violent onslaught made by some English people, and especially by the Liverpool rubber dealers, against the Congo Free State.
What England unceasingly argues against the Belgian Congo - for the humanitarian movemrnt is only a pretext - namely, the exploitation by the Government of such parts of the territory as are not private property of individuals, is actually made a rule by the [German] decree just referred to. A previous decree of the Government has still more closely indicated what parts of the territory are assigned to the Treasury as forest reservations. Added to the other Treasury lands of various description they cover more than nine-tenths of the Colony.
The conclusion is that in German East Africa, as well as in the Congo Free State, the rubber harvest, in which the Liverpool merchants take such lively interest, is gathered from crown-lands only, and practically constitutes a State monopoly.
Now, a large part of German East Africa comes under the provisions of the Berlin Act. And, in order to show the extent to which British hypocrisy will go, it is enough to recall that for years, both in British East Africa and in Uganda, which also partly come under the scope of the Berlin Act, the same government rules have been enforced, declaring india-rubber a State monopoly not only on the crown-lands, but even on private estates.
What is lawful for one party must be lawful for the other, and we cannot reproach the Congo Free State for upholding against British would-be interference such rights of the Crown as over governments maintain in their own colonies.









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