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

Chapter VII : Horrors of the Arab Slave Trade (pp.83-91)

Slavery : the absolute, irresponsible ownership of one class of human beings by another class; a contract in which the only factors are might on the one side and helplessness on the other; servitude exacted by force.
Slavery has existed in all countries from the earliest recorded periods. The most enlightened philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were unable to conceive a community of which a section was not enslaved by the rest.
As a system, slavery, by it's long-continued, universal practice, and the simple solution it affords of what in our modern world is referred to as the labour difficulty, appeals to two powerful human instincts : conservatism and cupidity. The ethical unfairness of one man's being made wholly subservient to the will of another; forced to labour for him without reward; his chattel to retain, sell, or slay, as though he were a horse or a dog, was perceived from the ear;liest times. But those most interested in the overthrow of the system, the slaves themselves, being ignorant, and purposely kept in that condition by their taskmasters, suffered on, century after century, finding no champion for their cause until the advent of the Redeemer of Mankind, preaching universal brotherhood and equal rights for all men.
But the greater the wrong the longer it takes to right it, and Christ's words were but the seed from which has sprung our great harvest of freedom. It has been a harvest of slow growth. For ages after the divine words were spoken on behalf of the slave by the first and greatest of his advocates, slavery was still regarded by many nations as indespensable to their existence. Indeed, eighteen centuries elapsed before there was any appreciable awakening to the deep infamy of slavery. It occurred in England, and was the result of the unwearied efforts of a small band of enthusiasts, whose labours, like those of all reformers, were at first derided.
England, though free from the curse of slavery within her own proper borders, had in the course of history done as much as, nay, more than any other nation to enslave the Negro. She had acquired him in Africa by thousands in exchange for guns, knives, alcohol, and dry goods; had transported him across the Atlantic to her American cotton plantations in a manner compared with which a modern steerage emigrant's experience may be regarded as a luxuriant cruise; and had then extracted the utmost amount of work from him by the aid of the lash.
All the vested interests created by this traffic, long persevered in, as well as the callousness engendered by it's brutality, had to be fought against and overthrown by a small band of Liberationists, aided by nothing nut their enthusiasm and a just cause. Nevertheless they daily gathered strength, and finally succeeded in including the British Parliament to vote a hundred million dollars for the purchase and liberation of every slave in every country where the British flag flies. This grand event took place in the year 1830.
Three decades later came that tremendous convulsion in the United States, the like of which the world has not seen. It was resolved by the United States Government to free the slaves, slavery being a system never deliberately adopted by the United States, but inherited, as it were, from the English colonial regime, of which they had by revolution become the successors. The slaveholding Southern States, resisting the new law, sought to withdraw from the Union, and civil war ensued, in which the Abolitionists were entirely successful, but at an appalling cost in men and money.
It has been necessary to refer thus briefly to the history of slavery because of the strangely prevalent opinion that when peace was restored within the United States, and slavery finally abolished there, slavery no longer existed in the world. True, it was known that there was a sort of domestic service, chiefly of women, akin to slavery, practised in China, Persia, and some minor Oriental countries; but that was thought to be all. It came, therefore, as a rude shock to civilised humanity when travellers of unquestionable voracity, such as Dr. Livingstone, Sir Samuel Baker, and Henry M. Stanley, demonstrated that the slave trade not only still existed throughout vast regions in Africa, but was rampant there in it's most atrocious aspect. At first it was hardly realised that the labours of Granville Sharpe, Clarkson, and Wilberforce, the monetary sacrifices of England, and the devastating war in America had, taken together, fallen so far short of complete triumph. But the evidence was overwhelming that such was indeed the case, the Soudan, the Upper Nile, and the basins of the Congo and the great lakes - more than a third of all Africa, exceeding in area the whole of Europe - being still the field of the inequity. The Sultans of petty states in the Soudan were shown to be, for the most part, chiefs of ferocious Arab tribes who thrived by raiding Central African villages and carrying off their inhabitants, whom they sold for slaves. The cruelties attending their marauding operations were too great to admit of exaggeration. "All over Africa", wrote Schweinfurth, a German traveller, "dried human skeletons show where the slave-trader has passed."
Acting under heavy pressure brought to bear upon it by the anti-slavery humanitarians in England the British Government coerced the Khedive of Egypt into signing a convention having for it's object the suppression of slavery within his dominions. In order to carry out the engagement into which he had entered, the Khedive appointed General Gordon Governor of the Soudan, and that remarkable man, during the six years that he held that office, displayed so much energy and skill that he succeeded in utterly eradicating the evil throughout the entire region placed under his control. Nevertheless, the general result was not so good as had been hoped for; the slave-traders, despolied for their hunting grounds in the Egyptian Soudan, pursuing their nefarious occupation with redoubled vigour on Lake Tanganyika and the Upper Congo. With what extremity of horror they conducted their operations has been so graphically described by a Belgian merchanst, M. Hodister, that we make no apology for quoting his account in full.

It is four o'clock in the morning. A great calm prevails, only the soft and melancholy cry of the African owl is to be heard. The village sentinels are either withdrawn, or squatting low, asleep; the houses are closed; every one sleeps; all is repose; the sense of security is absolute. Suddenly the sound of a gun, then cries of terror are raised, breaking the great silence, followed by a fusillade, which seems to come from all sides, piercing the straw walls. The boatmen have fired, leaving their canoes to their women; they have rushed forward, attacking the village in front, while the others are assailing it from the rear. The inhabitants, suddenly roused from their sleep, rush terrified from their houses. They are panic-stricken, and forget wives, children, everything. Their one thought is of flight - to conceal themselves in the wood. The panic is at it's height; rifle shots, horrible cries, resound, mixing with the shrieks of fear from the women and children. Then follow the stifled noise of a struggle at close quarters, of falling bodies, a suppressed groan, sharp cries of agony. The ground shakes under the tread of the combatants and fugitives. Soon afterwards appears a star in the blackness of the night, and a dry, crackling sound is heard. It is a detached hut fired by the enemy to light them in their work without the risk of burning the whole village. Before doing that, they wish to pillage it. Meanwhile, a few of the inhabitants have seized their weapons and attempt some resistance; but in a little time this is overcome by superior numbers. To the noise of the fight succeed the cries of the prisoners, of the wounded and the dying. The horizon lightens; the sun has risen suddenly and illumined this field of carnage and desolation. Then the Arabs kill the wounded, bind their prisoners and begin to plunder the village. Every house is visited and despoiled of it's contents. Where in the evening there had been a pretty village, surrounded by a plantation like a covering of verdure, a gay and happy population, there is now a great black, empty spot; for on the completion of the sack the village has been set on fire and burned to the ground. Men, women, and children, tied together promiscuously, corpses strewing the ground, blood puddles emitting an acrid smell, and the assassins, horrible in their war paint, which during the struggle has run with their sweat and blood, complete the picture.

Bound together in groups by stout cords around their waists and necks, the wretched procession of captives, often two or three thousand in number, was, after an incident such as this, marched to the coast. Generally at least a third of them died by the way. The sick and the lamed, unable to maintain the desired pace, were weeded out at each halting place and ruthlessly butchered by their captors.
It will require no very inventive imagination to appreciate the magnitude of the difficulties confronting the Belgian pioneers in their effort to suppress slavery, carried on with such ferocious brutality over an area so vast as Central Africa. Yet that was but one of several tasks enjoined upon them by their King; but it was first in order and importance, and until it was accomplished little or no progress in other respects could be hoped for. "Crime is not punished as an offence against God, but as prejudicial to society", says the historian Froude. King Leopold saw in the crime of slavery both an offence to God and the prejudice to man, and was prepared to exert his utmost energy and, if necessary, expend the last franc of his private fortune, to stamp out the evil. In this heroic endeavour his Majesty was ably seconded by his minister, the distinguished Baron Lambermont, who has recorded his opinion of slavery in these words : "The slave trade is the very denial of every law, of all social order. Man-hunting constitutes a crime of high treason against humanity. It ought to be repressed wherever it can be reached, on land as well as by sea."

It is not claimed that there is anything original in the sentiment that animates this well-expressed sentence. Similar views to those of Baron Lambermont have been held by all great thinkers since the establishment of the Christian religion; but it is referred to in this place as an additional proof, if any were needed, of the high moral purpose underlying the enterprise of the King of the Belgians, and to show how that moral purpose was sympathised with and shared by his Majesty's ministers and the Belgian people.

That every religious sect without exception has denounced slavery as the blackest spot sullying the fair fame of the nineteenth century need not be reiterated. In logical sequence, every religious sect was prepared to assist, morally and materially, in the removal of a disgrace which was felt to reflect upon every civilised community. In an encyclical, dated 5th of May, 1888, addressed by Pope Leo XIII. to the bishops of Brazil, congratulating them upon the abolition of slavery in their country, his Holiness referred to the deplorable condition of the Negro in Central Africa, and called upon "all who wield power, those who sway empires, those who desire that the rights of nature and humanity be respected, and those who desire the progress of religion, to unite everywhere to secure the abolition of this most shameful and criminal traffic."

This noble appeal touched the hearts of thousands in every nation of Europe and in America. For Cardinal Lavigerie, the Belgian prelate, who had so long laboured on behalf of the oppressed Congolese, it had a special significance, inspiring him with renewed courage and energy in his glorious work. When, for the first time in history, a small band of Christian Negroes from Central Africa was received in audience by the Pope, a few days after the issue of this encyclical, Leo XIII., replying to the address of Cardinal Lavigerie, who had presented them, said :

Since We have been Pope, Our regards have turned towards that disinherited land, Central Africa. Our heart has been touched at the thought of the enormous amount of physical and moral misery that exists there. We have repeatedly urged all those who have power in their hands to put a stop to the hideous traffic called the slave trade, and to use all and every means to secure that end. And, inasmuch as the African continent is the principal scene of this traffic and, as it were, the house of slavery, We recommend all missionaries who there preach the Holy Gospel to devote their whole efforts, their whole life, to this sublime work of redemption. But it is upon you, Cardinal, that We count especially for success.

Cardinal Lavigerie's practical reply to this direct personal appeal from the head of his Church was the formation in Belgium of the Anti-Slavery Society. The agitation on behalf of the Negro was not confined to Catholics. Among the friends of the movement were to be found the best of every creed as of every nation. Great conventions were held in Germany and England having for their object the suppression of slavery in Central Africa, and societies formed in those countries; and France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal quickly followed suit. Though "man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn", it was now shown to be also potent to arouse some of the best instincts of human nature to assure it's suppression. At last the horrors of the African slave trade were adequately realised, and the world applauded Leopold, King of the Belgians, for his arduous labours for it's extinction, and was anxious to strengthen his hands for grappling with the still formidable work that remained to do.

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Last revised on February 14th 2002

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