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

Chapter III : Founding of the Congo Free State (pp.23-30)

On the 15th day of November 1884, the International Conference, convened by Prince Bismarck to regulate what that statesmen termed "the African question", held it's first meeting. It took place in Berlin, Prince Bismarck presiding. In briefly outlining the object of the conference, the distinguished president exhibited in no small degree that condensation and lucidity for which his utterances were remarkable.

The Imperial Government [said Prince Bismarck] has been guided by the conviction that all the governments invited here share the desire to associate the natives of Africa with civilisation, by opening up the interior of that continent to commerce, by furnishing the natives with the means of instruction, by encouraging missions and enterprises so that useful knowledge may be disseminated, and by paving the way to the suppression of slavery, and especially of the slave trade among the blacks, the gradual abolition of which was declared to be, as far back as the Vienna Congress in 1814, the sacred duty of all the Powers. The interest which all the civilised nations take in the material development of Africa assures their cooperation in the task of regulation the commercial relations with that part of the world. The course followed for a number of years in the relations of the Western Powers with the countries of Eastern Asia having up to this moment given the best results by restraining commercial rivalry within the limits of legitimate competition, the Government of His Majesty the German Emperor has considered it possible to recommend to the Powers to apply to Africa, in the form appropriate to that continent, the same regimen, founded on the equality of the rights and the solidarity of the interests of all the commercial nations."

Proceeding, Prince Bismarck declared that the main object of the conference was the opening up to all the world of Central Africa. He rejoiced that France was in perfect accord with Germany in this matter. The first thing to be considered in this matter was, he thought, how best to establish freedom of trade at the mouth and in the basin of the Congo. On that subject the German Government had formulated a plan, drawn as a declaration, designed to assure freedom of trade in that region, with equal rights for all nations, - monopolies and preferential duties for none.
Prince Bismarck was followed by the British representative, Sir Edward Malet. No other power in the world, said Sir Edward Malet, had done so much on behalf of the objects that the German Government affected to have at heart as Great Britain; and he went on to point out that the warm support of his country and Government might be relied upon for proposals which had always formed part of their policy. He hoped that the attention of the conference would not be devoted entirely to commerce, and that the welfare of native races would receive attention. Freedom of trade should be restricted to legitimate articles of trade, or the natives would lose more than they gained. He apprehended that the chief difficulty of the conference would be, not to secure it's unanimous adherence to general principles, but to provide means for carrying those principles into effect. It was certainly desirable to establish the validity of effective new occupations on the coasts of Africa.
The Portuguese representative claimed for his country the honour of having introduced the elements of civilisation into Africa, and saw in an increase of commerce in that part of the world the assurance of peace and respect for the rights of humanity. The American representative contented himself by calling attention to the part his country had taken in the opening of Central Africa, and referred with pride to the achievements of Stanley, congratulating his countrymen on being the first to recognise the good work accomplished by that great philanthropist, the King of the Belgians. The practical business, however, of the sitting, was the question, "What territories constitute the basin of the Congo and it's affluents ?" This being a matter less easily disposed of, it was referred to a commission of eight experts selected by the eight powers chiefly interested in it's solution.
The commission of eight reported to the conference at it's third sitting as follows :

The Basin of the Congo is delimited by the crests of the contiguous basins, to wit, the basins in particular of the Niari, the Ogowe, the Schari, and the Nile, on the north; by the Lake Tanganyika, on the east; by the crests of the basins of the Zambesi and the Loge, on the south. It comprises consequently all the territories drained by the Congo and it's affluents, including Lake Tanganyika and it's eastern tributaries.

This report seems as explicit as it well could be, and after much discussion and some slight modifications it was adopted. Baron Lambermont (Belgium) presented a report upon the best means of safeguarding the welfare of the native races, treating with remarkable ability of slavery, the importation of alcohol into the Congo country, and other dangers that threaten uncivilised races at their first contact with civilisation. Count van der Straeten Ponthoz (Belgium) spoke even more vigorously to the same effect, and between them these two Belgian subjects of King Leopold showed themselves more solicitous for the welfare of the Congo native than the representative of any other nationality present.
The International Conference held it's tenth and last sitting on the 26th of February, 1885. As on the occasion of it's first sitting, Prince Bismarck presided. The drafting of the final act of the conference was ably performed by Baron Lambermont. The representatives of the powers assembled at Berlin signed conventions with the International Association, acknowledging it as a friendly and sovereign State whose flag - a golden five-pointed star on a blue banner - they agreed henceforth to recognise.

I am sure I am the interpreter [said the president in announcing the existence of these treaties to the conference] of the unanimous sentiment of the conference in saluting as a happy event the communication made to us on the subject of the almost complete unanimous recognition of the International Association of the Congo. All of us here render justice to the lofty object of the work to which His Majesty the King of the Belgians has attached his name; we all know the efforts and the sacrifices by means of which he has brought it to the point where it is today; we all entertain the wish that the most complete success may crown an enterprise that must so usefully promote the views which have directed the conference.

Thus the great Bismarck. Sir Edward Malet (Great Britain) said :

The part which Queen Victoria's Government has taken in the recognition of the flag of the Association as that of a friendly government warrants me in expressing the satisfaction with which we regard the constitution of this new State, due to the initiative of His Majesty the King of the Belgians. During long years the King, dominated by a purely philanthropic idea, has spared nothing, neither personal effort nor pecuniary sacrifice, which could contribute to the realisation of his object. Yet the world at large regarded these efforts with an eye of almost complete indifference. Here and there his Majesty attracted some sympathy, but it was somehow rather the sympathy of condolence than that of encouragement. People said that the enterprise was beyond his resources, that it was too great for him to achieve success. We now see that the King was right, and that the idea he pursued was not utopian. He has brought it to a happy conclusion, not without difficulties, but the very difficulties have made the success all the more striking. While rendering to his Majesty this homage by recognising all the difficulties that he has surmounted, we salute the new-born State with the greatest cordiality, and we express the sincere desire to see it flourish and grow under his aegis.

Baron de Courcel (France) said : "The new State owes it's origin to the generous aspirations and the enlightened initiation of a prince surrounded by the respect of Europe." Other members of the conference were as warm as the representatives of Great Britain and France in their eulogy of the great work achieved by King Leopold, and their opinions of his Majesty's life-work were admirably summed up by Prince Bismarck in his speech closing the conference, in the course of which he referred to the consolidation of the Congo Free State as a "precious service to the cause of humanity".

Central Africa had now become in all essential respects a State. It had been recognised as such by the United States on April 22, 1884, seven months before the opening, and ten months before the close, of the Berlin Conference, but now it's geographical limits were defined, it's political status fixed, it's neutrality assured. The large part played by Leopold, King of the Belgians, in it's creation had received full and complete acknowledgement from the foremost geographers and statesmen of the world, who had united in lauding the King, not only for his wonderful achievement, but for the high humanitarian motive stimulating his Majesty through all the years of it's difficult accomplishment.
But let no one suppose that it followed, as a necessary consequence of all this, that the future government of Central Africa was to be as plain sailing in smooth water. A new State had been created, it is true, and it had had as it's sponsors the great powers of the world, who had recognised Leopold II., King of the Belgians, as it's Sovereign ruler. But it is beyond the ability of States, just as it is beyond the ability of individuals, to exist without money, and to be entrusted with the government of a territory nearly a million square miles in extent - about a fifth the size of Europe, or a third of the United States - inhabited by twenty millions or so of semi-barbarous tribes, was no light task. The "African Exploration Fund" of the Geographical Society of London contributed L 250, and the Belgian Committee collected among their countrymen 500,000 francs - a generous gift, but utterly inadequate for such a colossal task as the civilisation of Central Africa. Belgians, as a people, were in no degree liable for the expense of the philanthropic colonial enterprise entered upon by Leopold, their King, as an individual. The magnitude of that expense will be apparent to anybody who gives the subject a moment's thought. The payment of explorers, - men of the first rank in intellectual attainment, such as Stanley, - the cost of their equipment (stores, carriers, lake steamers, etc.), the carving out of routes, establishment of stations, purchases of land from native chiefs, conciliatory gifts, and so forth, had seriously depleted the large private fortune of King Leopold.
Though all civilised countries were more or less interested in the opening up of Central Africa, less than twenty thousand dollars was subscribed outside Belgium for that object. It had, therefore, some years before the Berlin Conference, become necessary to raise money for the continuation of the work. On November 25, 1878, the Comite d'Etudes du Haut-Congo was formed in Brussels, with King Leopold as honorary president and Colonel Strauch as president. The Comite was really a company, and it had a capital of a million francs. Thanks no less to it's wise direction than to it's sufficient capital, the operations of the Comite were attended with so much success that it soon usurped the place of the International African Association as principal agent of the civilising crusade undertaken by King Leopold. The work of the Comite was consolidated and greatly accelerated by the General Act of the Berlin Conference, assuring the Sovereignty of the Congo State to King Leopold, it being no more than natural that Belgians should have increased confidence in a State secure under the rule of their own King, and be disposed to invest their money therein more freely than when the form of it's government was matter of doubt. Though much still remained to be done, the Congo Free State had now been founded, and that fact of itself was sufficient to inspire confidence everywhere, but particularly among the Belgian people, whose King was it's founder.

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