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



Chapter XXXVI : The Attitude of Europe and the United States (pp.446-471)


The Congolese kaleidoscope has revolved so swiftly since 1896, that it is with difficulty the European attitude towards the Congo Free State notoriety can bee completely indicated. It would be unfair to the English people - that great, sane mass of them which sits imperturbably serene and looks on - to say that the British attitude towards the Congo is of that bitter hostility which a few hysterical Liverpool merchants and writers wish the outside world to believe. Indeed, it would appear to be part of their plan to make sufficient noise to induce the Germans, French, and Americans to attribute the agitation to the entire British public. The fact is that the severest condemnation of the anti-Congo campaign is being uttered by Britons against the clique which is striving to entangle British ministers in an affair that may some day redound to England's humiliation. The shifts have been many to which certain Liverpool merchants and their chief crier have been put to maintain a hubbub which they hope will, by accident or the logic of events, create an opening for their ulterior commercial plans.
In 1897, the services of Sir Charles Dilke were first enlisted against the Congo State. In that year it was evident to those who had previously erred in their estimate of the value of the Congo as a commercial and political asset, that the Free State would more than fulfill the early expectations of Leopold II. and Henry M. Stanley. The awakening to this fact is the genesis of the envy which enlivens Congolese history today. So long as Stanley sat in Parliament and avowed his confidence in the Belgians who are erecting a State upon the ruins of the slave trade, and so long as he reiterated to his colleagues on the benches there the truth of the practical difficulties in Central Africa, the campaign against the Congo State in England made little serious progress. When Stanley died, when his voice in defence of the great work which he had shared with the King of the Belgians could no longer expose the fallacies and the true motive of the despoiler, the Congophobe epidemic spread to America and became more virulent than ever.
Early in 1903, a number of British merchants expressed their grievance against the French Congo in a volume by the author (E.D. Morel) whose active hostility against the Belgian Congo has given currency to many false statements and unjust beliefs. In the oreface to the story of the British Case in the French Congo, this writer states that :

The British merchants in the French Congo have been sacrificed to save the face of certain French politicians - to stave off for a while the inevitable exposure of a deplorable error of colonial policy. In the French Congo, rather than admit the overwhelming body of proof pointing to the Concessions Decree of 1899 being framed in ignorance, unworkable in practice, monstrously unjust in it's effects upon the merchant and native alike, successive Colonial Ministers have endeavoured to square the circle, and, of course, they have lamentably failed. An existing trade has been destroyed, the colony is practically bankrupt, the revenue is steadily falling, the natives are either in open rebellion or thoroughlu disaffected, the military expenditure has largely increased, and the Concessionaires will only last as long as they are allowed to maintain themselves by the ingenious system of fining the British firms - that is to say, until a way is graciously found for the latter to sell their factory depots and their merchandise (which, of course, is deteriorating steadily); or until, despairing finally of effectual home support, our merchants themselves destroy or embark all that remains of their actual possessions, and leave the country in a body.

The purely commercial considerations upon which this complaint against the French Congo is founded are quite apparent and need not form the subject of argument. It may be enlightening, however, to note the fact that since this impassioned book was hurled at the heads of Frenchmen across the English Channel, the Anglo-French rapprochement has been effected, and the entente cordiale of King Edward's visit to Paris has likewise intervened to divert the merchant wrath from the French Congo to the Congo Free State. French Deputies have visited London and enjoyed that bounteous hospitality which none can gainsay of a British household; members of Parliament have gone to Paris and dignified the gaiety of the quai d'Orsai. Not a vestige of the British complaint against the French Congo now freights the air. Instead, there prevails a friendly persiflage between the two great powers.
Inasmuch as the concessionaire system adopted in the French Congo gave new impetus to the British campaign against the Belgian Congo, it may be profitable to examine what precipitated matters.
The occasion was the organisation in the French Congo of the system known as the regime des concessions. A decree of the President of the French Republic, dated March 28, 1899, divided the whole territory of the French Congo Colony between about forty concessionaire companies, which were to develop it under various conditions imposed upon them. The companies were granted all the rights of ownership over the ceded areas.
In 1901, several of these companies prohibited certain English merchants, who had been established in the country upward of twenty-five years, from buying rubber direct from the natives, alleging that all natural produce belonged to the owner of the soil. Goods were even seized on their way to the English factories.
The injured traders complained that such action was not in accordance with the General Act of Berlin, the terms of which insure freedom of trade in the Congo Basin. They appealed to the French Congo courts, whose decision was in favour of the companies. Many judgments were pronounced, all of which held that the agricultural exploitation of the forests was an exclusive right of the concessionaire companies, and did not run counter to the provisions of the Berlin Act.
These judgments were rendered by the Council of Appeal at Libreville, on November 27, 1901, the petitioner being John Holt & Company (Liverpool) and the defendants the Compagnie Francaise du Congo Occidental.
In spite of these judgments, British commercial circles persisted in the view that the concessions system was a violation of the free-trade-clause of the Berlin Act. The Chamber of Commerce of Liverpool took the lead in a movement based upon this view. On September 30, 1901, a memorial was presented to the British Foreign Office protesting against the concessionaire regime in the French Congo, petitioning for an inquiry into it's legality under the Berlin and Brussels Act, and urging the British Government to insist on these Acts being respected by the French.
A similar memorial was presented on October 22, 1901, by the Manchester and Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, and in December of the same year delegates from ten British Chambers of Commerce were received in audience by Lord Lansdowne, who, according to the Paris Temps, acknowledged that their grievances were well-founded and promised to do all in his power for those interested in the question.
At that time West Africa, the journal of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, renewed it's campaign against the Congo Free State, accusing the administrators of being the principal sinners, inasmuch as the Free State's land system had been copied in the French Congo and German East Africa. In it's issue of Ocrober 26, 1901, West Africa called the Congo State fons et origo mali, and declared that it was the Belgian clique which had drawn France into the economic errors of it's present system.
This campaign quickly assumed large proportions. West Africa continued to wage war against the French system of concessions and against the Congo Free State, the latter being bitterly denounced as the evil genius who conceived a land system which supported the State without the assistance of large revenue from the liquor trade or the presence of intriguing foreign merchants.
In the hope of putting an end to the Anglo-French difficulties in the Congo without raising questions of principle, the Temps of December 29, 1901, suggested that an amicable settlement be arranged between the French Government and the British traders affected by the concessionaire system in it's West African Colony. By such arrangement, these traders would have received compensation for their loss. But, in a letter dated January 7, 1902, the Temps' special correspondent in Liverpool warned the French that such an expedient would not put a stop to the agitation, and endeavoured to show in it's true light the campaign which was going on in England.
Meantime the Aborigines' Protection Society pursued its old course of agitating something, anything, so long as its secretary, freedom of speech, and the attention of a Foreign Office combined to afford opportunity. The purely commercial grievances of British traders who had been made to conform to Congolese law required new elements of support. What could be of greater assistance to their commercial schemes than the tearful work of the Aborigines'Protection Society of England, the new Congo Reform Association of Liverpool, and their peculiar methods of playing upon the credulity, sentimentality, and the sympathies of susceptible and deluded persons whose leisure sought occupation and new interests ? While the brigade of the anti-Congo campaign sought to enlist the aid of the German Chambers of Commerce, the humanitarian scouts developed the atrocity theme - not so much against the French Power as against the Belgian pigmy. Belgium and the Congo Free State cannot resort to the arbitrament of that force which as a last resort decides the contests of all nations.
The opportunity for attracting the cooperation of commercial factions in Germany was greatly propitiated by the unfortunate Stokes incident. Stokes, a British subject, once a missionary, had become an itinerant trader, and came into the Congo State from German East Africa, where he had established headquarters. His caravan was largely composed of natives from German territory, and the goods they carried for the purpose of barter were to a large extent of German manufacture. When Stokes was caught, red-handed, bartering guns and ammunition with the native enemies of the Free State for ivory which they had unlawfully acquired, he was tried and executed. This summary disposal of a trader who had been undermining Belgian and native security in the Congo met with vehement protests in Germany as well as in England. Other factors began to operate in favour of an Anglo-German alliance against the Free State, not the least of which was the apprehension felt in Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin over the remarkable progress the Belgians were making with their transport facilities, whereby the trade of German East Africa was being diverted to the Free State. For a time, therefore, the German press joined the British in decrying the Belgian Government in Central Africa. German attacks upon the Congo State economic policy have, however, been largely confined to interested merchants or enlisted politicians. Herr von Bornhaupt, Prince F. d'Arenberg, and Consul Vohsen have been actively identified with German criticism of the Congo State's policy, notwithstanding that Germany, as shown in a previous chapter, has inaugurated a land policy founded upon precisely the same principles as those which prevail in the Belgian Congo. The statement of Consul Vohsen that "the Congo State's methods were diverting trade from the German East African colonies", betrays, perhaps, the only pretext upon which the criticism of German merchants may rest.
Until recently the political attitude of certain German statesmen toward the Belgian Congo has been to bring about a revision of the Berlin Act of 1885. In announcing a desire to form an international league, Consul Vohsen said that its object should be to induce the Powers party "to revise the Berlin Act and to force the Congo State to respect its provisions". Europeans suggest that the gentleman probably means, by this contradiction in terms, that the real aim of England, Germany, and France, working in secret combination against the energetic little fellow with the biggest part of Central Africa, is to come to an understanding which will on the part of England realise the prophetic utterance of Mr. Cecil Rhodes {In a speech delivered by Mr. Rhodes, in which he outlines his scheme for linking Egypt with the Cape, he said his measures, if adopted, "will give to England Africa, the whole of it". (Boulger, p.373)} and the ambitions of Lord Cromer and Sir Reginald Wingate in the Cape to Cairo schemes; on the part of Germany, establish a new western frontier for German East Africa; and on the part of France, the final adoption of definite settlements in the Soudan and on the east and south banks of the Congo River. In short, the million square miles of immensely rich territory lying within the borders of the Congo Free State can, when rudely wrested from the heroic pioneers of little Belgium, be used by the three European Powers dominant in Africa to enlarge the gouty, the bilious, and the apoplectic tints of the African continent. That such views are abundant throughout Europe, and that the humanitarian pretext on the part of the Congo enemies is regarded with derision, is all too evident from the column of leading continental journals. European editors have referred to the Congo debate in the British Parliament, on May 20, 1903, as a "Parliamentary Raid", and likened it to the Jameson Raid in the Transvaal, which acted on the principle of violating first, negotiating afterwards, but in the end bringing the whole subject within the pale of dispute, speculation, and bargain.
As long ago as 1897, Belgian statesmen were convinced that certain English statesmen, of whom Sir Charles Dilke was foremost, had espoused the cause of commercial men of Liverpool and Manchester with intent to settle upon a purpose of hostility towards the Congo State. Whatever there may have been lacking to justify the Belgians in harbouring this belief at that time, intervening events have unfortunately confirmed them in their impression. Belgians connected with the Congo administration in Brussels still maintain what they said in 1897, that "there was a set purpose to create for the Congo State difficulties both in Africa and in Europe, to discredit it by magnifying isolated facts, and by preparing, under the colour of philanthropy, the moment when there could be produced the territorial and financial designs concealed behind that campaign. The plan is clearly traced. At the commencement a feint is made that the sacrificed interests of the native populations of the whole of Africa is the cause they have at heart, and the idea of a new conference is put forward. As soon as this idea has appeared to germinate and public opinion has been baited, it becomes a question of the Congo State alone, and the division of it's territories is boldly spoken of".
On March 2, 1903, Sir Charles Dilke asked the British Government in the House of Commons whether it intended taking steps to procure the cooperation of the principal signatories to the Berlin Act with a view to suppressing abuses in the Congo Free State. In reply the British Government stated that it did not then contemplate taking steps in that direction. On March 3rd, the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain met and resolved to press their grievances against the Congo State upon the British Government. On the 11th of the same month Viscount Cranbourne declared that no action would be taken to interfere with the Congo State, as the British Government had no reason to believe that slavery was tolerated by that State. Then the Baptist Union threw in its weight on April 30th, and at a meeting held in London, denounced the concessionaire system of the Free State and attributed to that system all the cruelties alleged against the State. Meantime the British press, which reeked with stories of atrocities in the Belgian Congo, had not a word to say against the French Congo and that concessionaire system therein which was the Belgian system carried to extreme. At a meeting held in London on May 6, 1903, by the Aborigines' Protection society, W.H. Morrison, an American Congo missionary, from Lexington, Virginia, having returned from a visit to Brussels, where he had asked for and been refused land concessions to which special advantages should attach, delivered a series of complaints against the administration of the Congo Free State, and caused his charges to be telegraphed to the press of Europe and America. While in Brussels seeking extraordinary land concessions, Mr. Morrison did not utter one word of complaint against the local administration of the Congo. On May 7th, a member of the House of Commons again inquired whether a petition had been presented from British Chambers of Commerce or traders complaining that trading rights on the Congo under the Berlin Act were not respected, and what, if anything, the British Government intended doing in regard to the matter. Finally on May 20, 1903, the House of Commons, pressed by organised British commercial interests, passed the following resolution :

Resolved, That the Government of the Congo Free State having, at it's inception, guaranteed to the Powers that its Native subjects should be governed with humanity, and that no trading monopoly or privilege should be permitted within its dominions, this House requests His Majesty's Government to confer with other Powers, signatories of the Berlin General Act by virtue of which the Congo Free State exists, in order that measures may be adopted to abate the evils prevalent in that State. On August 8, 1903, Lord Lansdowne addressed a dispatch to the Powers signatory to the Berlin Act, setting forth the grievances which had been brought to the attention of his Government, and suggesting that :

In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government consider that the time has come when the Powers parties to the Berlin Act should consider whether the system of trade now prevailing in the Independent State is in harmony with the provisions of the Act; and, in particular, whether the system of making grants of vast areas of territory is permissible under the Act if the effect of such grants is in practice to create a monopoly of trade by excluding all persons other than the concession-holder from trading with the natives in that area. Such a result is inevitable if the grants are made in favour of persons or Companies who cannot themselves use the land or collect its produce, but must depend for obtaining it upon the natives, who are allowed to deal only with the grantees.
His Majesty's Government will be glad to receive any siggestions which the Governments of the Signatory Powers may be disposed to make in reference to this important question, which might perhaps constitute, wholly or in part, the subject of a reference to the Tribunal at The Hague.


Three of the Powers, the United States, Italy, and Turkey, formally acknowledged receipt of the British dispatch; all maintained silence in respect of it.
On September 17, 1903, the Government of the Congo Free State delivered its reply and, pursuing the same course as the British Government had followed, sent it to all the interested Powers. The attitude of Europe concerning this issue thus joined may be gathered from the silence of the Powers signatory to the Berlin Act, and the press comment which the two dispatches evoked. The Morning Advertiser, London, a conservative organ, referring to the British dispatch, said :

A weaker official document we do not ever remember to have read. ... The use of the word "alleged" in the title of the document gives the key to its whole tone. The note sets forth various "alleged" shortcomings of the Congo Government, and then says, lamely :
"His Majesty's Government do not know to what extent these accusations may be true."
Surely this is a very serious matter - to accuse the Administration of a friendly State of inhumanity and "systematic oppression", and then to admit that we do not know whether the accusations are true.


The leading article in the Times (London) of the same day described the Congo State's reply as "weak, inconclusive, and confused". While Lord Lansdowne's note has been published in its entirety, the longer reply on behalf of the Congo Free State was accorded scant space in the British press.
From Black and White (London), November 21, 1903 :

To pile Pelion on Ossa in the way of accusation only to encounter a rebuff by being non-suited, scarcely recommends itself to the judgment as a course either dignified or statesmanlike. Yet in the present instance the fact that the English Note remains without a single answer from the twelve States to whom it was addressed three months after it was despatched, shows beyond question the trend of Continental opinion.

In the Standard (London) of October 24, 1903, the following utterance would imply a threat :

The Belgian Administration objects to submitting questions of internal government to arbitration, but it would do well to remember that there is an alternative of still more unpleasant character.

On September 19th the Morning Advertiser (London) has the following to say by way of insight into British desires in Congoland :

Nearly twenty years have passed since a great Englishman came through the Dark Continent and down the Congo, and it has always seemed a strange thing to other Englishmen that the great river of Central Africa should have remained ever since under the domination of the smallest country in Europe.








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