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



Chapter VIII : The Berlin Conference (pp.92-103)


A clear view of the position of the State previous to the adoption of the resolutions known as the General Act of the Berlin Conference may be had from a summary of the signal events which had marked it's formative period.
The Congo Free State was born of the Congo International Association founded by his Majesty, Leopold Ii. in 1883, while Stanley was in his service. Prior to the legal foundation of the State, the Association had obtained recognition of it's sovereignty as hereinbefore indicated. By treaties concluded in 1884 and 1885 with the United States and with many of the European Powers, it adhered, on the 25th of February, 1885, to the resolutions of the Berlin Conference, which, embodied in a General Act, established amongst other things, freedom of trade throughout the Congo Basin, and declared free navigation on the Congo River, it's tributaries, and the lakes and canals connected therewith. The text of the General Act of Berlin, so far as it relates to the Congo, is fully set forth in an appendix. The principal subjects contained in the Act which may concern the reader are briefly stated :

1. A Declaration relative to freedom of trade in the Basin of the Congo, it's embouchures and circumjacent regions, with other provisions connected therewith.
2. A Declaration relative to the Slave Trade, and the operations by sea or land which furnish slaves to that trade.
3. A Declaration relative to the neutrality of the territories comprised in the Conventional Basin of the Congo.
4. An Act of Navigation for the Congo, which, while having regard to local circumstances, extends to this river, it's affluents, and the waters in it's system (eaux qui leur sont assimilees), the general principles enunciated in Articles CVIII and CXVI of the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna, and intended to regulate, as between the Signatory Powers of that Act, the free navigation of the waterways separating or traversing several States - these said principles having since then been applied by agreement to certain rivers of Europe and America, but especially the Danube, with the modifications stipulated by the Treaties of Paris (1856), of Berlin (1878), and of London (of 1871 and 1883).
5. An Act of Navigation of the Niger, which, while likewise having regard to local circumstances, extends to this river and it's affluents the same principles as set forth in Articles CVIII and CXVI of the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna.
6. A Declaration introducing into international relations certain uniform rules with reference to future occupations on the coasts of the African Continent.


The treaties which, before the adoption of these resolutions on February 26, 1885, the Congo Free State had concluded with various Powers, were those with the United States of America, dated April 11, 1884; Germany, 8th November; Great Britain, 16th December; Italy, 19th December; Spain, 7th January, 1885; France, 5th February; Russia on the same day; Sweden and Norway, 10th February; Portugal, 14th February; Denmark and Belgium, 23rd February. These treaties were notified to the Conference on the 23rd February, and the neutrality of the State was declared and published on the 1st August in the same year.
At the close of the Berlin Conference on the 26th February, 1885, Prince Bismarck offered his tribute of appreciation for the work which, deriving it's inspiration from the King of the Belgians, had, by the Powers represented, been formulated into an economic code for the guidance of the four nations, which, besides the Congo Free State, occupied the great Congo Basin. Prince Bismarck's address has the effect of oracular utterance in the light of events since the day when he wisely said that the work of the Conference would be, like every human undertaking, susceptible of improvement. The following is the full text of Prince Bismarck's closing speech :

Gentlemen : - Our Conference, after long and laborious deliberations, has reached the end of it's work, and I am happy to state that, thanks to your efforts, and to the spirit of conciliation which has presided at our negotiations, a complete agreement has been established on all the points of the programme which was submitted to us.
The resolutions which we are on the point of sanctioning assure to the commerce of all nations free access to the centre of the African Continent. The guarantees with which commercial liberty in the Basin of the Congo will be surrounded, and all the arrangements made in the Acts of Navigation for the Congo and the Niger, are of a nature to offer to the commerce and the industry of all nations the most favourable conditions for their development and security.
By another series of provisions you have shown your solicitude for the moral and material well-being of the native populations, and there is room to hope that those principles, dictated by a spirit of practical wisdom, will bear fruit and will contribute to bestow on those populations the benefits of civilisation.
The practical conditions under which are placed the vast regions that you have just opened to commercial enterprise have seemed to exact special guarantees for the maintenance of peace and public order. As a matter of fact, the evils of war would assume a particularly disastrous character if the natives were led to take part in the conflicts of civilised Powers. Justly preoccupied with the dangers that such an eventuality would entail the interests of commerce and of civilisation, you have sought the means of withdrawing a great part of the African Continent from the vicissitudes of general politics, by restraining these national rivalries to the pacific competition of commerce and industry.
In the same category you have aimed at preventing the misunderstanding and contests to which new seizures of territory on the coasts of Africa might give rise. The declaration as to the formalities to be complied with in order to make acquisitions of territory effective has introduced into public right a new regulation, which will contribute in it's degree to remove from international relations causes of dissension and conflict.
The spirit of mutual good understanding which has distinguished your deliberations has equally presided over the negotiations which have taken place outside the Conference, with the object of regulating difficult questions of delimitation between the parties which exercise sovereign rights in the basin of the Congo, and which by nature of their position are called upon to become the chief guardians of the work which we are about to sanction.
I cannot touch on this subject without rendering my homage to the noble efforts of His Majesty the King of the Belgians, the founder of a work which is today recognised by almost all the Powers, and which by it's consolidation may render precious services to the cause of humanity.
Gentlemen, I am charged by His Majesty the Emperor and King, my august master, to express to you his warmest thanks for the part that each of you has taken in the happy accomplishment of the task of the Conference.
I fulfil a final duty in making myself the mouthpiece of the gratitude that the Conference owes those of it's members who have discharged the difficult labours of the Commission, notably the Baron de Courcel and the Baron Lambermont. I also thank the delegates for the valuable assistance they have afforded us, and I associate with the expression of that gratitude the Secretaries of the Conference, who by the precision of their work have facilitated our task.
Gentlemen, the work of the Conference will be, like every human undertaking, susceptible of improvement and perfection; but it will mark, I hope, a step forward in the development of international relations, and will form a new link of solidarity between civilised nations.


The brilliant, cordial, and edifying final session of the Berlin Conference presaged no such campaign of calumny as that which has proceeded since Sir Charles Dilke, on gross misinformation purveyed by interested persons, and on what appears to have been his wilful misreading of a book entitled The Fall of the Congo Arabs, attacked the Congo State by moving in the British Parliament on April 2, 1897, a measure calling for a new Conference to consider charges which no one had presented, but which, for some inscrutable reason, this eminent parliamentarian seemed anxious to dignify by sensational legislation.
When the Berlin Conference concluded it's labours, it was with manifest sympathy fot the King of the Belgians and his voluntary pledge to an African task which practically all the participating Powers regarded as impossible of achievement, such were it's glaring difficulties. Now, after twenty years of Belgian sacrifice, there are those who, jealous of the achievements in a task they were so anxious to avoid in 1885, must destroy where they cannot reap in 1905. To men of purpose and brave outlook, this is merely one of the many incivilities of civilisation. Success begets envy in one's neighbour; failure often confirms him in his secret contempt.
In Belgium the completion of the General Act of the Berlin Conference evoked a patriotic feeling of satisfaction which, in it's address to the King, the Chamber of Representatives voiced in the following language : "To your Majesty belongs the honour of having conceived the African work, of having pursued and developed it by persevering efforts .... We felicitate your Majesty on these important results and, as Belgians, we are proud of the solemn homage rendered by the Powers to the generous and progressive ideas of our Sovereign." The Belgian nation, for a long time uncertain of the result of the philanthropic work of it's King in Central Africa, and having observed that other nations had shrunk from this costly task of civilisation, now uttered it's sentiments of approval in many forms. In his speech before the Chamber on March 10, 1885, M. Beernaert, then Minister of Finance, said, amongst other expressions of hope for the new State, that the merit of the work accomplished "belongs especially to the initiation, to the persistent energy, and the sacrifices of our King." Then, expressing the hope of extended industries - a hope that was largely, if not entirely, the incentive which actuated the Powers Signatory to the Berlin Act - the Minister concluded his address with the belief that the Congo would offer "to our superabundant activity, to our industries more and more confined, outlets by which we shall know how to profit. May the enterprising spirit of our King encourage our countrymen to seek, even at a distance, new sources of greatness and prosperity for our dear country." The Belgian Chamber and Senate ratified the nation's participation in the General Act of the Berlin Conference without a dissenting vote.
To the loyal address of his Parliament, the King of the Belgians made reply, graciously acknowledging the support his subjects had given him in his great African work,
There remained now the making of a Sovereign for the new State, and, having regard to the universal tribute of praise rendered to it's founder at the Berlin Conference, it was clear enough, in it's opinion, who should continue to direct the destinies of a wild territory in which so much had been accomplished in so short a time. Belgium, however, was not prepared, in 1885, to take over the Congo State as her colony. There were, at that time, many considerations in Belgium and in the Congo to suggest caution to a naturally conservative Government. The creation of the Congo State had involved many risks and great difficulties. It had required a huge expenditure of money, nearly all of which the King had personally contributed without the slightest assurance that his country or his estate would ever recover it, except in so far as his marvellous foresight assured him in this respect. If there were many difficulties at the beginning of his Majesty's African enterprise, there were still greater obstacles to be surmounted. To the ultra-conservative section of the Belgian Parliament the whole project was still enshrouded in doubt. But the King, having so far borne the risks and the cost of civilising the savage African black man, had also given his country the written assurance that the result of his labours - whatever they were when realised - should be at the disposal, by appropriation or otherwise, of the Belgian nation "without costing her anything." As the theory of a purely personal union between Belgium and the Congo State had found much favour, it was proposed that the King of the Belgians should be empowered to become the Sovereign of the Congo Free State without in any respect involving the Belgian nation.
In this eminently practical proposal the King had taken the initiative in the following letter to his Council of Ministers :

Gentlemen : - The work created in Africa by the International African Association has greatly developed. A new State has been formed, it's limits are fixed, and it's flag is recognised by almost all the Powers.
There remains to organise a Government and an Administration on the banks of the Congo.
The plenipotentiaries of the nations represented at the Berlin Conference have shown themselves favourable to the work undertaken, and since then the two Legislative Chambers, the principal towns of the country, and a great number of important bodies and associations have expressed to me on this subject the most sympathetic sentiments.
With such encouragement I could not recoil from the prosecution and achievement of a task in which I had, as a matter of fact, taken an important part; and since, gentlemen, you consider, as I do, that it may be useful to the country, I beg of you to demand from the Legislative Chambers the assent which is necessary to me.
The terms of Article 62 of the Constitution describe by themselves the situation which has to be established.
King of the Belgians, I should at the same time be the Sovereign of another State.
That State would be independent, like Belgium, and it would enjoy, like her, the benefits of neutrality.
It would have to provide for it's own needs; and experience based on the example of the neighbouring colonies justifies me in affirming that it would dispose of the necessary resources.
For it's defence and it's police it would rely on African forces commanded by European volunteers.
There would then be between Belgium and the new State only a personal bond. I am convinced that this union would be advantageous for the country, without there being the possibility of imposing any burdens on it in any case.
If my hopes are realised, I shall find myself sufficiently rewarded for my efforts. The welfare of Belgium, as you know, gentlemen, is the object of my whole life.
.................................... Leopold


There were a few obstructionists in the Belgian Parliament who, impelled by an habitual attitude of opposition to all that the dominant political party proposed, offered considerable criticism. They disregarded the similar expedients adopted by Prussia, Holland and Great Britain in reference respectively to Neuchatel, Luxembourg, and Hanover. But the spirit of the Belgian people favoured the King's suggestion, and his Majesty's Ministers stood firmly by him. When the vote was called on April 28, 1885, the Chamber passed the following resolution with but one dissentient :

His Majesty, Leopold II., King of the Belgians, is authorised to be the chief of the State founded in Africa by the International Association of the Congo. The union between Belgium and the new State of the Congo shall be exclusively personal.

The Senate, two days later, having passed a similar resolution, the King addressed the following acknowledgment to his Ministers :

Gentlemen : - The Chambers, by voting almost unanimously the resolution that you submitted to them, have shown themselves convinced that at the same time that I was pursuing, in the general interest, the international African work, I had it at heart to serve the country, to contribute to the augmentation of it's wealth, and to increase it's reputation in the world. I have asked you to thank, in my name, the Chambers for the mark of high confidence which they have given me. I also beg of you to accept for yourselves the expression of my very sincere gratitude. Believe me, gentlemen, your very affectionate
..................................... Leopold


Leopold II., King of the Belgians, had now become Sovereign of the Congo Free State, a territory with a population estimated as five times larger than the Belgium which he had ruled since 1865. Many foreign bodies, philanthropic, scientific, and commercial, sent their congratulations; the Lord Mayor of London visited the King in state, and offered him the felicitations of the British metropolis, and all the Powers concerned in the Conventional Basin of the Congo expressed their satisfaction with this happy consummation of his Majesty's enlightened undertaking in Mid-Africa.
What, by the Berlin Conference had been sanctioned, now assumed permanent form, organisation, and well0defined onward movement.. There were still difficulties ahead, some of them with the State's neighbours, France and Portugal. Their early exactions may be regarded as symptomatic of that febrific goading which has now become the mania of lesser bodies elsewhere. Subsequent conventions with France and Portugal somewhat assured the Congo State that it's onward march would not be obstructed by these Powers. On the other hand, the exalted views and edifying principles so generally prevalent at the Berlin Comnference soon became stale and innocuous in the official mind of the other Powers who had subscribed to precepts which, from subsequent indifference or self-interest, were disregarded. Not the least among the pledges of the Powers of the Berlin Conference was that designed to regulate the importation of alcohol. Consistent with the Christianising aims of it's Sovereign, the Congo Free State has fulfilled this pledge in a manner to put it's neighbours to shame for the large percentage of revenue they derive from a debasing liquor traffic.
So if the young State started upon it's progressive course in 1885-1887, having paid a heavy price to France and to Portugal for freedom to develop under the government of the strong personality of it's magnanimous Sovereign, it was perhaps because such a course would secure the Congo State to the Belgian nation in accordance with the preconceived purpose of it's King. By the Congo-French Convention the basin of the Kwilu and the left bank of the Congo, from Stanley Pool as far north=eastward as it's explorations had attained, were assigned to France. On the other hand, it insured the Congo Free State what constitutes it's outlet to the sea, the possession of the district of the Cataracts, and the towns of Boma and Banana at the mouth of the Congo. The Congo-Portuguese Convention assigned to Portugal territory south of the Congo as far as Noki, and along the parallel of Noki to it's intersection by the river Kwango, which from that point was designated as the boundary in a southerly direction. The territorial assignments of these conventions were subsequently modified, and Germany and Great Britain have since acquired the large areas of the Congo Basin lying east of Lake Tanganyika and it's parallel north and south.








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