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

Chapter XXXIV : Testimony of Travellers and Thinkers (Concluded) (pp.424-445)

Among the denunciators of the Congo Administration a prominent place must be assigned to :


a part medical, part missionary, wholly illogical perverter of facts. The plunges made by this eccentric individual into the depths of human credulity would certainly receive no attention in this place but for the strange circumstance that some people have actually so far believed their intelligence as to accept them without investigation. Strange to relate, Mr. Booker Washington (a singular lapse of sagacity in a man so generally intelligent) is among those whose credulity has been abused by stories of strings of Negroes' hands being set to dry in the sun, the said hands having been cut off from natives by wicked European officials of the Congo Administration as a punishment for failure to collect a sufficiency of rubber, etc.
In the course of a recent lecture in Scotland, Dr. Guiness said : "To our knowledge the natives never mutilated their victims by cutting off their hands. The wild Ngombe never practised the mutilation referred to. It was reserved for civilisation to introduce this certificate of death".
Now it is a matter of history, quite outside the realms of argument, that punishment by bodily mutilation has been practised by natives of Central Africa from the earliest times of which we have any record. Here is a sentence taken from a book entitled The First Christian Mission on the Congo, written by Mrs. H. Grattan Guiness :

From half a million to a million of lives are annually sacrificed in the slave trade, and as many more in all probability in inter-tribal wars and contests. Physically a land of sunshine and beauty and redundant life, it is spiritually a land of darkness, deformity and death.

This evidence, given by the wife of Dr. Grattan Guiness in 1882, is a strange foundation for Dr. Guiness to erect his 1904 statement upon. Let us hear what other people have to say upon this subject.


In Ouroua only two punishments are known, mutilation and the penalty of death. Both are much in use, but especially the former. For the least offence the chief and his lieutenants cut off a finger, a lip, a portion of the ear or of the nose. For more serious offences, they cut off the hands, etc.


Mazindeh wished to punish the man according to A-Zandeh law by cutting off a finger .... I saw a man who had been punished by the loss of his finger and another important member. A Malingdeh told me he knew about twenty men who had been similarly punished.


If slavery were abolished, all criminals would probably be put to death or mutilated.


King Wembe, near Tanganyika, finding the wooden drumsticks too harsh for his ears, cut off the hands of his slaves so that they might beat the drums with their stumps.

MR. J.A. MALONEY (English)

The offender was lucky if he escaped with instant death, for Msiri delighted in diabolical refinements of cruelty. Quite minor crimes were punished by the lopping off of a hand or the docking of an ear. In fact Msiri practised mutilation almost as extensively as Kasongo.


Mr. Giraud noticed some men whose noses or ears had been cut off. Mkewe's six drummers had a thumb on each hand but no fingers ... Mr. Giraud says that everywhere the Bemba people practise these barbarous customs. First the fingers and toes are cut off.

These quotations will surely prove that bodily mutilation is essentially an African barbarity that prevailed more or less among all the tribes of the Congo region, but is now almost entirely suppressed, thanks to Belgian civilisation. The charge brought by Dr. Grattan Guiness against that civilisation, that it introduced and practices this certificate of death, is a libel so monstrous that it carries with it it's own refutation.

MR. GRENFELL (English Missionary)

The welcome that I have received and the facilities accorded me everywhere in the course of my journey through the Eastern Province have made this journey very agreeable. This is now the third day that I have received the hospitality of this post, and before leaving it, which I expect to do tomorrow morning, I consider that I must write and tell you how happy I have been to have had the opportunity of making this most interesting journey. In the course of my tour I have been much struck by the order which has been established, and by the real progress accomplished. When the position of the country under the Arab domination is recalled, and when the relatively brief number of years since the termination of the military operations rendered necessary by the revolts is taken into account, the progress that has been made is nothing less than marvellous. If in spite of such numerous difficulties so much has been done, I am sure that when the railway towards Ponthierville has been completed the progress will prove more rapid still. - May 31, 1903.

MR. WILLIAM FORFEIT (English Baptist Missionary)

We arrived today at New Antwerp in order to take our farewell before leaving for England. I much regret that we are not able to see you. I desire to thank you for the kind interest and consideration for the mission at Upoto which you have always displayed.
The condition of the natives is much improved, all the villages of the district can be visited in absolute safety, and I beg to congratulate you on the tranquility of the district of which you are the Commissary-General. - March 14, 1903


The dwellings for soldiers and labourers are numerous in Kabinda. They are symmetrically arranged and separated from one another by wide alleys from 10 to 15 metres across. Each black family has a separate house sufficiently large, divided into two rooms. Each dwelling is raised half a metre (nearly 20 inches) above the ground, and surrounded by a verandah one metre broad. The soil has been well beaten down, and the walls are whitened with lime. The roofing is without a ceiling, with a large opening admitting ventilation; each man sleeps on a bed raised one metre. The ground surrounding the post is formed into separate small gardens in which each soldier cultivates maize, manioc, etc.
All the villages around Kabinda are united to the post by wide and long avenues, well kept up and bordered by trees and pineapples. The natives greatly feel the effects of the neighbourhood of the white man, and make every effort to rival him in the maintenance, cleanliness, and prettiness of their villages. The houses are placed on an elevation, and are built in the same way as those of the soldiers with truly remarkable care and propriety. Each house has two or three rooms containing from 12 to 15 cubic metres, with good verandahs, and meets the prescribed hygienic conditions.
Large free intervals separate the dwellings from one another, and in them are the vegetable plantations.
A detail worthy of being pointed out is the great cleanliness of the natives of this region. During the course of my journey from the West Coast of Africa to Kabinda I remarked many things, and I ascertained that at Kabinda all the natives, in place of sleeping on the ground, have a raised bed, formed by means of flexible canes with coverlets, stuffs and mosquito nets. There are houses that contain magnificent sarcophagi of truly artistic work.
Everywhere there are small pieces of furniture coarsely sculptured, but which reveal the artistic taste of this people and their progressive march towards civilisation. It must also be said that they have a marked desire to dress decently. In conclusion, they are, in my opinion, the first people I met in Africa who, without being spolit by money, possess a relatively advanced degree of civilisation, and a hygienic system beyond dispute.
The fertility of the soil and the abundance of provisions of all kinds allow of changing the food of the soldier and the native. Their food generally consists of chickens, goats, wild animals, manioc, maize, vegetables, and various fruits. They feel the effect of this good nourishment. They are strong, robust, support fatigue well, and consequently give little hold to sickness.
On a hill close to the post a hospital has been constructed by the natives. It contains three large rooms separated from each other and containing 100 cubic metres. - February 21, 1904

MR. MAGUIRE (English Missionary)

Though I have travelled by boat and on foot from Boma to Amadi and higher up to Surunga, calling at all the State stations; though I have visited many establishments, both Catholic and non-Catholic, as well as some stations of independent companies; though I have passed nights and days in my tent in the forest and in villages of natives; though I have had ample opportunities of seeing much in my journeys as to how the native was treated, I have never seen or heard of any of the atrocities with which the agents of the Free State are charged. On the contrary, one cannot but admire the wonderful progress that has been made in so short a time, the commendable way in which the natives are treated, the little work that is exacted of them, and the manner in which they are punctually paid for every service rendered or work done. The little work which is occasionally exacted of them by way of tax in porterage or otherwise is as nothing when compared with the immense benefits conferred upon them by the State. In fact the methods of Belgian officers drew a highly complimentary eulogium from the Sirdar during his recent visit to the Enclave of Lado - methods which he stated, might be followed with advantage by our English officers : "Messieurs", said the Sirdar, "nous avons d'excellentes lecons devant nos yeux". - March 31, 1904

DR. CHRISTY (English Physician)

I went to the Congo last September as a member of an expedition of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which was despatched especially to investigate sleeping sickness in the Congo, the same disease which so recently, as the public know, broke out in such virulent epidemic form in Uganda. For a considerable time I was in Leopoldville, which is the Bombay of the Congo - that is, everybody throughout the whole of the Congo goes through Leopoldville in order to reach Europe and the outer world. Hence you can quite understand that any one, like myself, for instance, stationed for a time, must, if he take any trouble at all, come across all the officials from the whole of the Congo, who, from various causes, are bound at intervals to be in or passing through Leopoldville. Thus, whilst there I had excellent opportunities of finding out exactly what happens in that country, particularly as these men - that is, the officials of the Congo - are extremely ready to talk. Besides opportunities of acquiring information in that way, I have travelled on foot in the Belgian Congo State, and personally observed the condition of things which prevails there. I assure you that if I were to tell you all I know against the Congo Administration it would amount to a very little indeed compared with what I know in it's favour. The credulousness of the British Government in respect of the Casement report is something marvellous. Casement travelled up the river in a missionary steamer, arm in arm with missionaries practically all the time, and obtained all his information from the river bank instead of personally investigating the various stories of outrage and mutilation which he received. It is the most astonishing thing that the British Government have given the Casement report so much credence.
The agitation now going on woth respect to atrocities in the Congo is based on things that happened a long time ago. There is no doubt that in times gone by atrocities have occurred; but, thanks to the altered methods and conditions of administration, such things are not likely to recur. The basin of the Congo, mainly the Belgian Congo, is practically the sole rubber-producing area of the world. This territory also contains the lowest class of natives in the whole of Africa. The natives all over the East Coast - the Masai, the Nandi, the Kaverondo, the Bukedi, the Baris, the Madis, the Dinkas, the Shiluks, and others - stretching right away up the Soudan, are all a magnificent class of Negro, a fighting people, a manly upstanding people, who impressed me immensely. I have been through parts of all their territories, and they are indeed a magnificent set of people. Then you go towards the West Coast - the basin of the Niger, where I was for nearly two years, and you see a lower class of natives. On the Benue, where the present punitive expedition is operating in Niaiger, you have again a distinctly lower class of natives. Then, as you go farther South, and get into the Congo watershed, you come upon a still lower class of natives. The natives over large areas in the Congo are cannibals to the present day. They are a very low class of native indeed. That is the territory which the Belgians have so successfully opened up for the rubber trade. In that opening-up process they have had, as I say, to contend with absolutely the lowest class of natives in Africa at the present day. As you travel through the Congo you cannot help feeling - at all events any one like myself, who has been through the British tropical colonies - that the amount of general advancement and civilisation in the Congo Free State is far ahead as compared with our own. This is doubtless owing to the fact that the Belgians have made the natives work. The Belgians have gone on the principle, to begin with, that the native must be participating element in the development and civilisation of the country - that is, that he must work with and for the white man, and thereby benefit not only the white man but himself. I was immensely impressed with the state of government and the advancement and general opening-up of the Congo, the more so as I can compare it with other districts under British control in which I have been. We do not attempt to make the native work, with the result that we do not get the benefit we should from our Protectorates. Uganda and British East Africa are far behind the Congo Free State. Not more than a third of Uganda is opened up to administrative control. I once spent ten months in Uganda, and visited every station in it, walking 2300 miles and returning down the Nile. The Belgians have got stations everywhere in the Congo practically, and most of the natives, except in one or two areas, are entirely under control. The Uganda native is a fat, lazy chap, who will do no work. There is no industry in Uganda. The Belgians pay the Congo natives for their labour. They realise that the native is a valuable asset in the country, and treat him accordingly. It is surely obvious that it is not the interest of the Congo administrators to maim the native.
All the mutilations and cruelties which have been spoken of took place in the early days of the opening-up process to which the country has been subjected and before the railway was constructed. The men who have been guilty of the atrocities have not been Belgians in all cases. In many instances they have been Italians who have been appointed to the smaller outlying posts, the better and higher positions being kept for the Belgians. These Italians and other foreigners who have been given the charge of outlying stations have in some cases perpetrated cruelties in times gone by. These men were not accustomed to exercise power, and this led them to ill-use the natives. That is how the atrocities such as these were originated. I have seen nineteen such men, chiefly Italians, in prison at Boma on charges of cruelty, which proves that the Belgians are doing their best to put a stop to the kind of things complained of. The agitation that is now going on about atrocities is exaggerated out of all proportion to the amount of the atrocities that happened at any time. The Belgians are doing everything they can to supersede the men who have acted improperly in the past; they have appointed inspectors for different districts, and they have allowed inspectors appointed by the Italian Government and the Scandinavian Government to go out into the Congo for the purpose of keeping an eye on those of their own nationality in positions of responsibility and control in the Congo Free State. Things in the Congo now are very different to what they were even two or three years ago. The King of the Belgians has sent out Baron Dhanis - who had more to do with opening up the Congo in the early days than anybody else - to reorganise the whole military system of the Congo Free State. There are to be two or three large military centres in the Congo, and the soldiers will be much more highly trained and be more under control. Hitherto the small posts have recruited men from the surrounding villages, and given them a bit of uniform and a rifle, and they have gone about, supposed to be doing their duty, instead of which they have probably been ill-treating the natives. The whole thing will be changed now, however, for they will have a much more highly organised army and a much higher class of officer. It has been these unscrupulous foreigners - Italians, etc. - who have been guilty of the cruelties reported. Another proof of the endeavours to stop any existing abuses of administration is the fact that a Belgian officer who for many years held a high post in the Congo has recently been sent out by the King as Royal High Commissioner, to investigate all questions of maladministration and, particularly, payment of State employees and the natives for labour, with power there and then to rectify or alter any existing rules which he thinks might be amended in any part of the Congo, the territories of concessionary companies included. With regard to the mutilations in the Congo, described by Mr. Casement, I may tell you that only last year in Uganda I saw similar mutilations, which, it is well known, were done by the natives in Uganda, notably in King Mtesa's day. In walking through Toro and Unyoro, I have seen men without noses, ears, and frequently, without hands.
With regard to Lord Cromer's assertion that in the Lado Enclave the natives have left the banks of the river and the immediate regions of the Belgian posts, - well, I have walked along the Nile from the Albert Nyanza into the Soudan, and visited the Belgian stations on the river, besides having seen a good deal of natives on both banks. I feel sure that Lord Cromer is wrong when he states that the natives are leaving the Belgian side and going over to the Uganda side. The natives certainly had nothing to complain of, and are certainly not migrating across the river. As for there being no villages round Lado Enclave, the explanation is that there is for several months of the year absolutely no water and, therefore, necessarily no villages. But at many other places along the banks in the Lado Enclave there are large villages. I saw several thousand natives at Wadelai, employed by the Belgians in rebuilding the old fort of Emin Pasha, preparatory to making a large station there, and they seemed quite contented and happy, and worked like a hive of bees. The conclusion to which I am irresistibly driven as a disinterested observer is that the present administration of the Congo is not only free from cruelties, but of the most complete and efficient description, and counts for the fullest commercial and industrial development of the Free State. I am sure that that administration is doing it's level best in every way, from the highest to the lowest officer, to make the country prosperous, and the native happy and useful. - June 23, 1904.

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

Impressum · Datenschutz