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

Chapter XXXII : Testimony of Travellers and Thinkers (pp.397-410)


It will ever be esteemed a fortunate circumstance by all who have regard for historical accuracy, that the late Sir Henry M. Stanley, discoverer of the course of the Congo, who assisted so materially in the creation of the Congo Free State, did not pass away without recording his opinion of the campaign of calumny against the Congo Administration. Incomparably the greatest authority of his time upon this subject, what Stanley had to say about it must be given here in full. It took the form of an interview with a representative of the press, and was first published in the Petit Bleu (Brussels), 13th November, 1903 :

I do not believe [said Sir Henry Stanley] in the charges brought against the Congo, and I do not share the opinions that inspire them. I do not think that any State will be inclined to step in, and to spend the money that Belgium and the King of the Belgians spend to adapt the darkest part of Darkest Africa to the interests of commerce. King Leopold lately assigned L 120,000 a year to the Congo administration. He thereafter gave L 40,000 and Belgium L 80,000. Tell me, what other country would be ready to do as much ?
When I consider the limited number of years which have elapsed since the Congo became a State, I hold that the work which has been accomplished there does great honour to Belgium, and I am certain that not one of the countries who are invited by the newspapers to put itself in it's place would have been able to do better.
You can feel certain that the King of the Belgians interests himself personally in the smallest detail of the administration. I do not pretend that he can superintend the acts of each individual, but what Government, what State could do that ? But the recitals of atrocities, and of bad administration which have of late been spread about are almost all, if not all, pure reports. Naturally, if it is question of seeking cause for a quarrel there is no difficulty in finding it; but if the Congo of 1885 is compared with the Congo of today, it must be allowed that it's progress has been remarkable.
The English Note of the month of August is founded, I am convinced, on reports stamped with partiality. The assertions of a missionary have been reproduced, according to whom the natives flee at the approach of the Congo State officials. They fled before me also when I was there. The mere apparition of a white man, the simple sight of an unusual being or object, puts them to flight. That is part of the animal instinct of self-preservation. Whites and blacks always approach one another for the first time with a general sentiment of distrust. Little by little they learn to know one another and this sentiment disappears.
The Congo was in truth the darkest part of Africa. Today with it's forests pierced and open, it;s routes, it's stations, it is in advance of all other African States. Take the French Congo, German East Africa, Portuguese West Africa, and compare them ! The Congo State prospers in a greater degree than any other part of the black continent.
The Congo State is accused of employing as soldiers cannibal Negroes. When I was on the Congo, and I accused a trive of cannibalism it replied : "We are not cannibals, but our neighbours are". The neighbouring tribe said : "It is not we, it is the next tribe that you will meet"; and that tribe referred us on to the next, and so on continually. They seemed to be ashamed of their cannibalism. They concealed it. Yet there was no doubt as to the existence of this practice. I frequently met with trenches freshly disturbed, from which corpses had been taken to be eaten. It was very seldom that I could discover the guilty. How then in recruiting it's troops was the Congo State to distinguish the black cannibals from those who are not cannibals ?
I am convinced that since I left Africa King Leopold has done his best to prevent all crime on the Congo. But he is no more responsible for the crimes which may be committed there than for those occasionally committed on the soil of Belgium itself. There are on the Congo 300 officials who report to the Governor-General, who in his turn addresses a summary of these reports to the King. They discharge their mission under the most difficult conditions, and I believe that I may assert that from the Governor-General down to the humblest official there is not one of them guilty of cruelty. Moreover, it is for those who speak of atrocities to furnish proof of them.
I know by experience what a large number of stories are put forward, then refuted, and afterwards resuscitated year after year. These are legends for travellers. Use is made of them with every change of the wind in Africa. Those who relate them are often the prey of climatic maladies.
The Congo has not the most enviable climate in the world. The maladies contracted there are often debilitating, and things are seen and things are described through the malady, which distorts the morale and changes the optic.
I had on the Congo under my orders 300 men - English, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Belgians. There were 80 English, but the majority were Belgians. I found no difference between them. All did their best, according to their means. All were, in the course of duty, the object of some charge. I examined the charges minutely, and always found them to be without foundation.. That did not prevent these stories reaching Banana, and from there Europe. Well, that is what happened on the Congo in my time; that is what is happening there today.
The sentiment that inspires the charges against the Congo is jealousy. The Congo is succeeding better than any other State of Africa.
I do not think that the Congo State would be administrated better by France, the United States, or Germany. Under French administration the Congo would retrogress. Germany would comtent itself with fortifying it in a military sense. And commerce does not develop when it is covered with a coat of mail. Germany does not permit and will not permit the English to penetrate into it's territory, except under certain restrictions. England would not have managed the Congo better than King Leopold has done if she had been mistress of it, as she might have become in 1877.
The white man must remain master of the Congo. Drive him out now, and you will see war arise anew between one native village and another, a return to barbarism. It is difficult to govern so vast a country; yet, in a limited number of years, the King of the Belgians has put an end to the horrible Arab slave trade. I do not think there is another sovereign living who has done so much for humanity as Leopold II.


About a year previous to the publication of Stanley's vindication of the Congo Administration, appeared a remarkable book, entitled The Uganda Protectorate, written by the distinguished English traveller, Sir Harry Johnston, from which the following passage is taken :

In spite of an element of Arab civilisation which the slave-trader had certainly implanted in the Congo Forest, he had made himself notorious for his ravages and cruelties. Numbers of natives had been horribly mutilated, hands and feet lopped off, and women's breast cut away. These people explained to me that these mutilations - which as only a Negro could, they had survived - had been the work of the Manyema slave-trader and his gang, done sometimes out of wanton cruelty, sometimes as a punishment for thieving or absconding. May it not be that many of the mutilated people of whom we hear so much in the northern and eastern part of the Congo Free State are also the surviving results of Arab cruelty ? I am aware that it is customary to attribute these outrages to the native soldiery and police employed by the Belgians to maintain order or to collect taxes; and though I am fully aware that these native soldiers and police under imperfect Belgian administration, as under imperfect British control, can commit all sorts of atrocities (as we know they did in Mashonaland and in Uganda), every bad deed of this description is not to be laid to their charge, for many outrages are the work of Arab traders and raiders in these countries, and of their apt pupils the Manyemas. This much I can speak of with certainty and emphasis : that from the British frontier near Fort George to the limit of my journeys into Mbuba country of the Congo Free State, up and down the Semliki, the natives appeared to be prosperous and happy under the excellent administration of the late Lieutenant Meura and his coadjutor Mr. Karl Eriksson. The extent to which they were building their villages and cultivating their plantations within the precincts of Fort Mbeni showed that they had no fear of the Belgians, while the Dwarfs equally asserted the goodness of the local white men.

Great value attaches to the evidence of Sir Harry Johnston, it being impossible to impute to him any particular bias. He travelled independently, visited the Congo on three occasions - 1882-83, 1891-96, and 1900. In a letter published in the Daily Chronicle (London) of 28 September, 1903, he thus further expresses his opinion of the Congo Administration :

I was present in the Congo at the birth of the Congo Free State. In 1882-83 I paid a prolonged visit of eight months to Stanley. During the course of this visit I travelled up the Congo nearly as far as the Equator. I came into continual contact with the Belgian officers and officials who had been sent out on the part of the Comite d'Etudes du Haut-Congo to assist Stanley. I may mention that I was "nobody's" man. I paid my own travelling expenses, and had no reason to espouse any one cause more than another. I conceived, however, the highest admiration for Sir Henry Stanley, personally, and for the work he was doing. I convinced myself over and over again by constant cross-examination of the natives of the Congo, and of Zanzibaris and Somalis, that Sir Henry was always just and never cruel, and that the first interests he had at heart were those of the natives of Africa. His memory still lingers in all the regions from the mouth of the Congo to Zanzibar, and any one who doubts the justice of my opinion has only to do as I have done through many years - question the natives as to their impressions of "Bula Latadi" (the Breaker of Stones). Nor did I at that date see anything to object to in the conduct of the Belgian officers, for many of whom I entertained feelings of warm friendship and esteem. The work of such men as Nilis, van Gele, Hanssens, Coquilhat, Braconnier, Janssen, and Roger, not to mention others, was such as no missionary could or did find fault with.

And again :

Subsequently when I returned to the vicinity of those regions as Commissioner for British Central Africa, I came a good deal into contact with the Belgian officers sent to control those countries. I never received any complaints from natives or Europeans at that time which tended to show that the natives were ill-treated by the Belgians.

Lastly comes this convincing pronouncement :

In 1900, whilst at work in Uganda, I had occasion to visit the adjoining regions of the Congo Free State along and across the Semliki River. In this portion of the Congo Forest (into which my expedition penetrated for about thirty miles west of the Semliki) I questioned many natives - Pigmies, Babira, Bambumba, Lendu, Bakonjo, and Basongora. From none of them did I receive the slightest complaint as regards the treatment they received from the Belgians, and indeed the sight of their villages, plantations, and settlements, the fact that they so freely came and talked to the white man, were sufficient to show that they were perfectly content with their present lot. The Belgian and Swedish officers whom I met in this portion of the territory of the Congo Free State were men of the best character. In short, this portion of Congo territory left little to be desired, and in some respects was better organised than the adjoining districts of the British Protectorate. One Musongora chief complained to me that the native soldiers in Belgian employ had taken away some of his wives. He expressed himself so dissatisfied with this treatment that he asked permission to cross over into British territory. That permission was given him; but when he found that he had to pay the hut tax on Uganda soil he returned to his old quarters. In addition to the foregoing experiences I might say that I took into my employ about this many natives of many districts along the Upper Congo, from the country of Bangala on the west to the mouth of the Aruwimi on the east. I did this with the idea of making studies of their languages, and they lived with me for about a year, accompanying me on all my journeys through the Uganda Protectorate. I did not ask the permission of the Belgians to recruit these people, for the very good reason that, having apparently complete liberty of action, they had walked through the Congo Forest to the British frontier to offer themselves for work. It cannot be said therefore that the Belgians selected people especially to fill my ears with pleasing stories as to Belgian administration. I questioned these natives of villages all along the great northern bend of the Congo. Not one of them had any complaint to make against the Belgians. When I was preparing to leave Uganda to return to England I offered these men (who were accompanied by their wives) plots of land in the Uganda Protectorate; but they were quite decided in wishing to return to their homes on the Upper Congo; and so far as I know they did so, and every facility was given them in that direction. It strikes one that if these particular people were living under a reign of terror they would hardly have been so eager to return to their homes with the wages they had earned.

The absolute impartiality of Sir Harry Johnston's review of the Congo Administration well appears in the few following words; in which it will be noted, that while he claims no immaculate perfection on behalf of every Belgian official, he compares them as a body, and not to their disadvantage, with his own countrymen :

There are, no doubt, bad Belgians, as there have been bad, cruel, and wicked Englishmen and Scotchmen, amongst African pioneers. In the early days of African enterprise I have seen too many misdeeds of my own countrymen in Africa to be very keen about denouncing other nations for similar faults.

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