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

Chapter XXIX : The Nemesis of Libel (pp.340-365)

On Friday, the 25th of March, 1904, in the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, London, the case of Captain Henri Joseph Leon de Keyser, and his colleagues-in-arms, Commandants Chaltin and Dubreucq, against Captain Guy Burrows, an Englishman, one time in the service of the Congo Free State, and his publishers, Messrs. R.A. Everett & Co., London, came on for trial before Mr. Justice Ridley and a special jury.
The trial of this action for libel is the first which has, so far, been determined against those who are charged with traducing the men whose courage in, and devotion to, the Congo cause has erected a prosperous State in the heart of savage Africa. The case irradiates much that has veen long proceeding in Great Britain, and that has recently received significant impetus in the United States through the action of certain persons operating from the city of Boston.
The author has no acquaintance with any of the parties to this case, but deems it incumbent upon one who essays to write a full history of the Congo Free State to include an account of litigation which in it's proceedings and result reveals and explains many things with which the present work will not otherwise specifically deal.
Belgian officers brought this action against an English officer, whom they charged with libel and attempted blackmail, before a British jury. Captain Guy Burrows, the defendant, had published a book containing false statements of atrocities in the Congo. He had followed the Liverpool and Boston custom of attributing villainy to the officers of the Congo State Government. But unlike the Liverpool and Boston general allegiations, Captain Burrows attributed the wrongful acts to Captain de Keyser and Commandants Chaltin and Dubreucq. What the Court thought of the case as it sensationally unfolded itself may be gleaned from the observations and summing up of Mr. Justice Ridley. What the jury felt is indicated in it's verdict for damages against the defendants in all the cases.
To ensure the fairest statement of this interesting and informing suit, the following quotations, verbatim et literatim, are taken from a stenographic report of the trial.
There was a fine array of learned counsel on both sides, among whom Sir Edward Clarke, K.C., Mr. J. Eldon Bankes, K.C., and Mr. Lewis Thomas (instructed by Messrs. Bird, Strode & Bird, solicitors) appeared for the plaintiffs; Mr. Crispe, K.C. and Mr. Swanton for the defendant Burrows; and Mr. Germaine, K.C., and Mr. G.A. Scott for the defendants Messrs. R.A. Everett & Co.
Defendants' counsel opened the case by asking leave of the Court to withdraw his clients' plea of justification, by which, in popular terms, he stated that Captain Burrows was unable to prove any of the monstrous accusations he had made against Captain de Keyser and his colleagues, in the book which contained the libels complained of. After this dramatic collapse of previous pretence, Sir Edward Clarke proceeded with the case as follows :

May it please your Lordship. - Gentlemen of the Jury, I feel bound to preface the observations that I have to make to you upon this case by just a very short reference to what has taken place this morning. A very sudden transformation has occurred in the condition of the case, and in the issues which are to be put before you. In February last year Captain de Keyser, a gentleman who has served in the Belgian Army, and who has been employed in the Congo Free State, found himself compelled, by circumstances which I shall explain to you in a few minutes, to take the opportunity of bringing this action against Captain Burrows and against some London publishers in respect of accusations against him of the gravest possible kind - accusations dishonouring to his character as a man of honour and as a man of humanity, and dishonouring to him as an officer in the Belgian Army; and he brought his action in February last year. Thereupon, in the course of the year, Captain Burrows puts on a defence in the month of April or May, and Messrs. Everett & Company put on a defence in the month of August, in which they say that those accusations against Captain de Keyser were true; and what were called particulars, to which, however, I need not now refer, were put in, in which it was alleged that Captain de Keyser had been guilty of infamous conduct as a servant of the Government of the Congo Free State. This case has gone on month after month. There have been questions as to the time when it should be tried, and those who were advising Captain de Keyser and those who are interested in this matter have had the anxious duty of taking care that it never could possibly be said that the Defendants did not have a fair opportunity of trial. The case stood over for a considerable time, and even so lately as when it was before the Lord Chief Justice there was a practical assent on the part of the Plaintiffs to the postponement of the case in order that no one should ever say that the Defendants had not the fullest opportunity of putting their case before you; and now, at this moment, when we come into Court today, suddenly, the statement that the accusations are true is absolutely struck out. Not only do the Defendants say that they are not prepared to call witnesses to support the allegiation that those allegiations are true, but they appear not to be prepared even to challenge Captain de Keyser himself, or to ask him any questions as to his conduct in the Congo Free State. I do not know how far I may be allowed to go - how far it may be possible in the present state of the Pleadings for me to get any absolute vindication of Captain de Keyser in this Court. I dare say my Lord will be indulgent with me with regard to that, looking at the very cruel position in which this gallant officer has been placed by accusations made against him which might affect, and, I believe, have affected him, very seriously in private life - accusations which have come to be known and to be talked about - accusations, as he was prepared to show, which were absolutely untrue, and accusations at the very last moment withdrawn, struck away from the Record, when not only he has been prepared to give his evidence, but when we have tried to get, and succeeded in getting, as many of those as could be possibly called here who were associated with him in his responsible work in the Congo Free State to carry to a demonstration the proof that he could give that there was not a tittle of foundation for the injurious statements that have been made about him. Now, at the last moment, it comes to a question of publication, and my learned friends have taken the position that if I can prove against them that there was a publication of these libels, then they are without a defence, and are not able to say that there is any truth in the statements that they have made, and must submit to such verdict as you may give in that matter. As to the verdict, I do not know whether, in the ultimate results the amount of it will matter very much, but you may think, when you hear the statement I have to make to you with regard to the publication of these accusations, that it is a case in which, whether there is ever any possibility of recovering the money or not, at all the events there should be a very definite expression of your view with regard to the conduct that these parties have pursued. I shall prove not only a publication, but I shall prove an attempt to blackmail the Belgian authorities, and the authorities of the Congo Free State, by these people in conjunction, Captain Burrows and Everett & Co. I believe I shall prove it up to hilt, and then it will be for you to say, by your verdict, what you think of the conduct of which they have been guilty.
Gentlemen, I must limit very closely the observations which I was going to make to you. My learned friend and I had somewhat laboriously prepared ourselves for dealing with all the possible issues of fact that might be raised in this case that were suggested by the accusations against Captain de Keyser. That has passed out of the case, and I must treat very shortly the questions with which I should otherwise have had at some length to deal. It is essential when you are considering the persons against whom, if I prove the publication, your verdict must go, for you to consider who those persons are. The accusations which were made have been made by Captain Burrows and published by the Everetts, and were accusations which concerned the course of government in the Congo Free State, a matter which has attracted great attention from time to time and with regard to which certain very strong statements have been made in this country and elsewhere.
Now, Gentlemen, the Congo Free State is a State which, as a separate and independent State, has not existed very long. It was in the year 1884 or 1885 that the State was constituted under the Government of the King of the Belgians, who is called the King Sovereign of the State, and it has from that time been administered by Belgian authorities as the authority of the Free state. It has been a Government in process of construction, and it was not, perhaps, until the year 1891 that it can be said that there was an organised system of government extending over the Congo Free State. It is an enormous area of over 800,000 square miles. It is an area scantily populated, but populated by savages of almost the lowest type of existence, savages among whom the practice of cannibalism, the practice of mutilation of enemies who have been killed in battle, and of violent punishments as between one tribe and another, had reigned without check until the representatives of civilisation came, in the officers of the Congo Free State, and established some sort of organisation and government throughout that country. The difficulties have been enormous. The difficulty of dealing with an area of more than 800,000 square miles with only a very few hundred white men who were in command of black troops, drawn from the very tribes whose habits I just now referred to, has been enormous. It has been one of the most anxious and difficult tasks that a civilised country ever undertook. That task has been fulfilled - on the whole with signal success. No set of men are absolutely free from reproach. The position of the representatives of the Congo Free State has been an extremely difficult one. At the time when Captain de Keyser went out, a captain and seventy-five men had been killed a few weeks before, very near to the place where he was sent to carry on his work. Every white man is surrounded by hundreds or thousands of black men, and is in a position not only of great responsibility but of great personal danger and of great difficulty; and there may have been here and there a default on the part of now one and now another of the officers in the employ of the Congo Free State. It has not been the fault of the State, for from time to time orders have been issued to the officers of the Free State, by which it has been attempted to prevent any sort of misconduct, and there have been administrative orders by which severe punishments have been inflicted on the natives for cannibalism or for the mutilation of persons who have been killed in battle, and this amelioration of the condition of the people has been going on with great success. Captain Burrows, who wrote against Captain de Keyser these most atrocious libels, has been on two occasions in the employment of the Congo Free State. He was employed there from June, 1894, until September, 1897. He never had an opportunity of seeing or knowing the character of the work which Captain de Keyser did, for they were together only fourteen days in the year 1897. But from 1894 to 1897 Captain Burrows was out in the Congo Free State. He came back to Europe in 1897, and the first interesting circumstance about him is that he became at once the champion of the Congo Free State against allegiations made by Captain Salusbury. In 1896 Captain Salusbury had made accusations against certain officials of the Congo Free State, and one of his allegiations had been that there were mutilations - hand-cuttings and the like. Captain Burrows made himself the defender of the Congo Free State and of it's administration. He had had four years' experience, and he sought an interview with the Etoile Belge, and had a conversation with the representative of that newspaper, which was published; and you will find in a letter from Captain Burrows that he takes to himself the credit for what he had done in getting rid of, or answering, the accusations of Captain Salusbury. I will read a line or two from this statement : "As for his accusations", - that is, Captain Salusbury's accusations against the Congo State and the Belgian officers who employ him, - "they fail from the outset. It is without any compulsion that the natives enlist in the public forces. The harvest of ivory and caoutchouc gives rise to no atrocity. I have witnessed none of the odious deeds related by Captain Salusbury, and they certainly would have come to my knowledge if they had been real. I say this for the simple reason that it is true." Then at the end he says as to the action of the Government : "With such accounts one is silent instead of becoming an accuser. I do not pretend that all is perfect at Congo. It certainly commits errors sometimes, but truth compels me to punish those who have been guilty of it. The Belgian officers do not use their men brutally at will as Captain Salusbury has affirmed. Indeed, the soldiers are much attached to the greater number of their white chiefs, and the latter can confidently count on their courage and devotion in time of war".
The close of it all was - and this you will find extremely important when you see what Captain Burrows was saying later : "The tales that have been told of cut hands are all pure legend. I have never seen a living native mutilated. As for the cannibal customs of certain tribes of the Congo, they should not be charged to the whites, who do what they can to modify them, but who can only succeed in doing it after lapse of time". That was as explicit as it was possible to be. That was published in the year 1898. He came back in 1897. You will find a reference in the letter which I am going to read. He published a book. I will read the letter first. The letter is the 20th November, 1897. "Dear Mr. Liebrechts, - I send you the last article of Mr. Salusbury .... I do not like asking anything for myself, but if it were possible to obtain for me the order of the "Lion", and that I should be named the Captain Commandant of the first class, Salusbury would know it, and this would be an absolute denial of his exposures ... I have an idea of writing a book entitled The Truth about the Congo. It should be dedicated (I do not know if that is the word) to the King, and an introduction written by Stanley. What do you think of the idea ? Yours always, Burrows". M. Liebrechts is the Secretary General of the Congo Free State, resident in Brussels. He has had the administration of the Congo under the King for years past. He himself served six years in the Congo, came back and has been Under Secretary for the Congo Free State since 1889. He has been Secretary General for the State, and has had the responsibility for the administration of the place, and is present here in Court.
In that letter he refers to an introduction written by Stanley - that is, Sir Henry M. Stanley. Here is the book that was published. It was not called The Truth about Central Africa; it was called The Land of the Pigmies. It is dedicated to the King of the Belgians by permission, and it does contain an introduction by Stanley. It purports to give a full account of the Congo State, and I need hardly say there is not the smallest reference in it as to any sort of atrocity. At one page there is a statement of a man being caught, who had been guilty of inhuman conduct, and of his being most severely punished, but that is given as an instance of the untruth of the stories that inhumanity was allowed. This was the position in 1898. Captain Burrows went back in June, 1898, and was at Basoko from 1898 till February, 1901. Then he came back to Europe on the 21st of May, 1901. He wrote a letter to Mr. Liebrechts. You will be interested to note the attitude he takes with regard to his treatment by the Congo Free State. "Sir, I have the honour to ask you to have the goodness to request the Government to permit me to convert into capital (i.e. sell) my allotment of the public debt 4 per cent Congo Free State, granted by your letter dated the 19th April, 1901". The explanation is that when an officer has served in the Congo for a certain time and retires from the service there is allotted to him a certain income from the Public Debt, and he is allowed to take that as a lump sum, instead of receiving the interest from year to year upon the proportion which is allotted to him. "The motives which have decided me to make this request are as follows : It is more than probable that I shall not return any more to the Congo. I shall in all probability go to the Transvaal, and in that case the stock granted to me would be almost useless. It would indeed be difficult for me to again enter into service with the State after having been four times passed over for promotion by officers of shorter terms of service. Moreover, I have never received any increase of pay during the two years and six months of my last term of service as Commissioner of the district of Aruwimi. In spite of services rendered since my arrival in the Congo in July, 1898, I was the object of unrelenting suspicion on the part of several functionaries of the State, and I am informed that many of these gentlemen disparage me to the State. Amongst the services which I have rendered I can remind you that it was I who silenced Captain Salusbury. I wrote and published a book distinctly favourable to the State, for which Sir Henru Morton Stanley was pleased to write the introduction. I regret, Sir, that such circumstances oblige me to quit the service of the State ... I have the honour to remain, District Commissioner Burrows".
You see by that that he was leaving the service. He eas stating his grievances : that his pay had not been properly raised, and that he had not received sufficient distinction. The next thing that happens is on the 15th of November 1901 - a note which is the beginning, as you watch from this point, of the scheme by which it was attempted to blackmail the Government of the Congo Free State, or anybody else, by the combination of Captain Burrows and Messrs. Everett, publishers of his second book. On the 15th of November 1901, this very curious note was written " "Dear Monsieur Liebrechts. I should be very grateful if you would have the kindness to tell me if the State wishes to employ me again. If so, will you let me know the conditions ? Mr. Canisius is here. He says that he is engaged in writing a book on the Congo." That is a very interesting bit of information. Monsieur Canisius was a gentleman who had been in the employment of the Congo Free State, and had left that employment to get into the employment of a private Company, and then had desired to come back into the employment of the Congo Free State. He had been refused. It is a rule, I think, with the Congo Free State not to take back into the State service those who have left to serve in private companies. Captain Burrows says : "Canisius is here. He is engaged in writing a book on the Congo." M. Canisius was not there; M. Canisius at that time was on the Gold Coast ! It was a very curious notification to send : "Are you going to have me back into the State service ? There is somebody here who is writing a book." On the 23rd of November he was answered by Commandant Liebrechts : "I have duly received your letter of the 15th of November and hasten to thank you for the communication you have been good enough to make me. I heard Monsieur Canisius was spreading certain calumnies about the State." On the 16th December Captain Burrows writes again : "I presume that your letter is a refusal on the part of the Free State to reengage me for a third term of service. I beg you to enlighten me on this point, then I shall know whether I am free or not to do what I wish" - another very interesting suggestion; it is enlightened very much by what you will hear shortly. On the 21st of December M. Liebrechts writes thus : "I quite understood at the time of our last conversations, that you no longer wished to resume service at the Congo, and we seemed to be agreed that a post suitable to your capabilities would be very difficult to find in Africa. You must not, however, conclude that we shall no longer be able to make use of your services should an occasion arise, for special missions, such as may arise at any moment in other regions. If you were inclined to hold yourself at our disposal, I should be obliged if you would let me know". On the 31st December Captain Burrows wrote : "I do not remember the conversation alluded to in your letter of the 21st December, in which I said quite plainly that I no longer wished to resume service at the Congo. I understood that it was a question of the conditions under which it would be impossible to resume such service. You ask me if I am disposed to hold myself at the disposal of the State with a view of being employed for special missions which may arise at any moment in other regions. Am I to understand that I am still in the service of the State or not ? And, if so, under what conditions of remuneration, etc. ?" On the 2nd of January, 1902, Commandant Liebrechts writes : "In reply to your letter of 31st December 1901, I hasten to inform you that your agreement ended with your return to Europe, and that since then you have, according to our laws and regulations, ceased to be a member of our staff. It is precisely for this reason that I asked you in my last letter if it would suit you to hold yourself at our disposal for a certain period - let us say two years. You will have to undertake during that period any mission with which we might entrust you. Of course, if you accepted this proposal, an annual salary would be allowed to you for that period of two years. But before deciding this point I should like to know if, in itself, our proposal commends itself to you. I should be obliged if you would reply as soon as possible".

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