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

Chapter IX : The Economic Regime of the Berlin Act (pp.104-125)

The Berlin Act and the economic, that is, domestic, regime which it sought to establish in the Congo Basin occupied by Germany, France, Great Britain, Portugal, and the Free State, were, with various inadequacies and experimental defects, the logical expression of the drift that political science as applied to the law of nations had assumed in Europe as early as 1874. Under the operation of the old Pacte Colonial, the policy which prevailed in the colonies of the European Powers discriminated greatly against the subjects of all save the mother country. The commercial policy of such colonies was that of the Power which governed the colonial territory, whether that was an extension of the home territory or merely a dependency.
Some marked theoretics freighted the course of international life as the time approached when exploration had revealed all the colonising areas which the known earth contained. Europeans and their descendants already occupied, under different forms of law, as states, colonies, prospectorates, leaseholds, spheres of influence, over 82 per cent, of the lands of this planet. Those who followed the evolution of the law of nations were impressed by an African situation in 1884 which offered opportunity for experimentation with new, and perhaps more elastic, economic principles for the regulation of colonial interests in regions where the character of the country, it's natural features, such as waterways and coastal advantages, and the juxtaposiyion of several governments, tended to a conflict detrimental generally to the civilisation of such possessions and their contributions to the markets of the world.
In the Annales de l'Institut de Droit International, vols. iii and vii, are to be found the various resolutions of Prof. Egide Arntz relative to practical and cooperative jurisdiction in the Congo Basin. These were offered on September 7, 1883, at the Munich meeting of the Institute. But long before, namely, in 1878, M. Gustave Moynier had raised the question of a converted civilising movement and the adoption of a scheme of political regulation in the region of the Congo. M. Emile Laveleye and the late Sir Travers Twiss had, thereafter, also discussed the question before the Institute. The essays of Professor Arntz and Sir Travers Twiss, which embody their respective views on what to them at that time appeared to be a signal opportunity for applying principles of colonial government as yet unestablished by tests of practice, are fully set forth in the Report of the Committee on Foreign Relations.
The Berlin Conference of November 15, 1884, may be regarded as the crystallised result of the interest manifested in respect of the Mid-African situation by the learned bodies and the eminent legal authorities indicated, and also as the outcome of Germany's tactful method of superseding the then imminent treaty between Great Britain and Portugal signed on February 26, 1884, but thereafter abrogated. As pointed out in another chapter, the British-Portuguese treaty met with active opposition in Germany and in England.
It was during the agitation of this feeling that the Conference was summoned at the instance of Germany. If one could analye in extenso all the essentials which so aptly informed Prince Bismarck of Germany's masked advantages in such a Conference, the Iron Chancellor would stand revealed as an early monument to the German astuteness of today. In creating an Areopagus of the fourteen Powers assembled at Berlin and referring to it the questions which, if unsettled, would have led to conflicts, combinations, and confusion prejudicial to German East Africa, Prince Bismarck's workmanship surpassed the materials which his skill employed. As the Prince said at the final session of the Conference, the lofty aims and political idealities proclaimed during it's earlier sessions would, when translated into facts, offer opportunity for improvement. Indeed, time and the practical application of it's precepts, so enthusiastically proclaimed, had revealed the theorist where the man of practical political sense would better have written certain clauses of the General Act. As it stood in 1885, it cannot be regarded with that awe which certain persons manifest when they misinterpret it's inconclusive preachments. Some praise it as "the inauguration of a truly new era in colonial affairs". Others, condemning it without reserve, speak of it as "the work of theorisers without experimental basis". A fair estimate of this unique political palaver, as embodied in the General Act, probably lies somewhere between the extravagant praise and the untempered condemnation frequently bestowed upon it. If, from a legal and plitical point of view, it can be regarded as only a tissue of the substance it aimed at, the fact remains that the Berlin Conference has more than justified itself by guiding, often disspelling commercial rivalries which, in their unchecked development, might have nullified the great sacrifices of Belgian blood and money in the cause of African civilisation. The Conference entered the forum when many complications, arising from competing expeditions, conflicting explorations, unregulated trading operations, the advent of evil adventurers, the devastating slave trade, and a combination of other causes - commercial and political - had provoked the distrust and avarice frequently observed when several European peoples occupy in common a vast and fertile territory inhabited by savage tribes. At a meeting of a Committee of the Conference held on December 10, 1884, Mr. Kasson, the Plenipotentiary of the United States, gave utterance, in retrospect of early American colonisation, to expressions of historic fact which graphically portray Mid-African conditions twenty years ago :

The first colonies founded in America have been the work of different nationalities. Even there, where at first emigration was of free and peaceful nature, foreign Governments were soon installed, with military forces to support them. Wars immediately broke out in Europe. The belligerents had colonies, and soon the field of battle spread to America. In the heat of the struggle, each of the belligerents sought allies amongst the native tribes, where they thus excited their natural inclination for violence and plunder. Horrible acts of cruelty ensued, and massacres where neither age nor sex were spared. The knife, the lance, and the torch transformed peaceful and happy colonies into deserts.
The present condition of Central Africa reminds one much of that of America when that continent was first opened to the European world. How are we to avoid a repetition of the unfortunate events, to which I have just alluded, amongst the numerous African tribes ? How are we to guard against exposing our merchants, our colonies, and their goods to these dangers ? How shall we defend the lives of our missionaries and religion itself against the outburst of savage custo,s and barbarous passions ?
Finding ourselves in the presence of those whom we are urging to undertake the work of civilisation in Africa, it is our duty to save them from such regrettable experiences as marked the corresponding phase in America.

Whatever defective novelty may still reside in the Berlin Act, the Conference which begot it gave an immense impetus to the great work of African civilisation. It eliminated movements by the various Powers which were accomplishing little or nothing for lack of definition and unity. It organised a scramble, so to speak, into an orderly and intelligently directed set of enterprises, chief among which were those urged forward by the King of the Belgians and his diligent subjects. In that amplitude of pledges, which when applied to them the other Signatory Powers found it convenient to forget, little Belgium strove mightily not only to discharge her obligations under the Berlin Act, but to demonstrate her own innate genius for the work of colony-building and civilisation. It is perhaps in the inevitable result of this spirit that we find the explanation of Belgian dominance and Belgian progress far excelling that of it's African neighbours.
In the United States the Berlin Act has not met with the universal respect of competent legal authorities. It provided no means for it's own enforcement, and left the national committees, which were to carruy out certain of it's provisions, without machinery and without that central authority essential to it's life. It also appears that the national committees never acted. Each of the Powers, supreme within the border of it's own African territory, pursued a course which it believed was best calculated to develop the resources and the civilisation of that region of the Congo in which it ruled. Nevertheless, the General Act had delimited the territory comprised in the Conventional Basin of the Congo; defined the domain occupied therein respectively by Germany, France, Great Britain, Portugal, and the Free State; applied to the entire Congo Basin the principle of freedom of commerce and of navigation, and concerted the aims of all the Powers to the suppression of the iniquitous slave trade and the horrible practice of cannibalism. It did not deal specifically with questions of territorial sovereignty, nor with the internal public and private land system, nor, in fact, with any act or principle of the civil or military government of a State. It did, however, seek to restrict the duties upon the Congo and it's affluents, and stipulated that upon these highways there should be open to all nations the freedom to trade and to navigate. As Baron Descamps aptly says in his essay on Government Civilisation in New Countries :

The broad-minded measures of the Berlin Conference did away with many of the existing anomalities. Doubtless, the general application of those measures to all colonies would have been a step in the right direction; but while their general adoption could have been justified on the same grounds as their special application to the Congo, the Conference would not have been able to accomplish such a gigantic reform of distributive equity. The Conference, however, did what it could in this direction. It felt that the impracticability of the complete scheme did not prevent it's partial application; that it was not easy to reform the whole world at once, especially the colonial world; that the field of experience on which it could operate was large enough; and that, last but not least, the nature of the country, where theGovernment was as yet more or less insecure, was calculated to induce those concerned to make exceptional sacrifices.
The Conference therefore made the following regulations for the Congo Basin :
Art.1 : The trade of all nations shall enjoy complete freedom.
Art.2 : All flags, without distinction of nationality, shall have free access.
Art.3 Par.2 : All differential dues on vessels as well as on merchandise are forbidden.
Art.5 : No Power which exercises or shall exercise sovereign rights in the above-mentioned region shall be allowed to grant therein a monopoly or favour of any kind in matters of trade.

The five Powers occupying and governing the Congo Basin have here assumed certain obligations in reference to the commercial regime which should prevail in their territory. There shall be freedom to trade, and to navigate in pursuit of commerce; there shall be no differential duties imposed; there shall be no monopoly in matters of trade. In the fourth protocol of the Berlin Conference, Baron Lambermont's report includes a definition of what the Conference meant by monopoly "in matters of trade". This statesman declared that

No doubt whatever exists as to the strict and literal sense which should be assigned to the term in commercial matters. It refers exclusively to traffic, to the unlimited power of every one to sell and to buy, to import and to export, products and manufactured articles. No privileged situation can be created under this head, the way remains open without any restrictions to free competition in the domain of commerce, but the obligations of local Governments do not go beyond that point.

Notwithstanding the explicit nature of this definition, those who, for reasons which it is not the purpose of this volume to expose in detail, condemn the governmental system og the Congo Free State, and declare that the General Act of the Berlin Conference aimed at much more than insuring the common right (freedom) of all nations to pursue legitimate trade in the Basin of the Congo. How much more, and precisely what the Act aims at, according to hostile commentators, varies with the capacity for exaggeration, or the speciousness in argument, of the critic. Some declare that freedom in matters of trade means that anybody may invade the Congo Basin and barter with natives for the produce of the soil and chase, laws respecting private property and providing regulations to govern traffic notwithstanding. In his essay Principles of Government in the Congo Free State (September 1904) the author briefly indicates the motif of King Leopold's rule in Central Africa and the cogent reasons for the system which has made that rulre the envy of persons whose faculty of perception is not as dormant today as it was in 1885, when it was lazily assumed that the salvation of a territory, not worth much materially, was being imposed upon an enthusiastic and impractical kingly philanthropist. Amongst other things, this essay contains the following exposition of the system of internal government by which the Congo Free State and it's people have morally and materially prospered. It is, in substance, the definition of Congolese policy stated by his Majesty, King Leopold :

..... The principles of the Congolese system of internal government appear to be in entire conformity with the General Act of Berlin, wherein freedom of trade is assured to the subjects of all nations. This signifies the liberty to sell and to buy in a legitimate way, not in a way peculiar to the theories of Congo despoilers. It is repugnant to law, and disturbing to civil order and progress, to permit the product of the land to be purchased from any person but it's legitimate owner. Congo law represses theft, the insiduous encouragement of which would appear to be the aim of those who so grossly misinterpret the principle of Freedom of Commerce. A respect for property is essential to all governments which hope to endure, and the law of this attitude is universal in all civilised communities. Trade, whether free or restricted, could not exist on any other basis. The forces of civilisation are paralysed without it, and untamed natives are left to savage internecine strife.
The principles of the Congo Government are that the soil shall maintain those who develop it's resources for the betterment of the sower and the reaper. The civilisation of the native by industry and other forms of instruction in the attributes of order, civic life, and all that he may be capable of absorbing of enlightened freedom. For the privilege of residing within the sphere of a State so governed, the white man is the most taxed member of society in the world. Shall savages alone be exempt from labour and just contribution to organised government ? Shall the white man's rule teach the black that idleness, craft, animal instincts, predatory habits in gaining his irregular subsistence, are the foundations of civilisation ? Or shall the white man by precept and example, and by humane but positive insistence, train the savage in the ways of law and order, industry and thrift ?
Reverting for a moment to the assertion that the Government of the Congo Free State is primarily responsible for what it's detractors allege to be the enslavement of the native, I fail to find conviction in unfounded statements often repeated, and arguments upon wrong premises, varied only in form, not substance. Ignorance of the motif impelling Congo State method and movement has misled those who have brought prejudice to a subject worth the attention only of the broadest minds. The system, which is the object of attack when new stories of atrocities are scarce, is briefly stated to be to devote the revenue derived from the State's property as much as possible to cover the State's expenses; that is to say, to the moral and material organisation and regeneration of the country and it's inhabitants; to resort to the imposition of a tax in specie as rarely as possible; and to exact a few hours' labour monthly from the natives, in order to give them the habit of work, which is the greatest of civilising precepts.
In this connection the Congo Government goes beyond it's duty, and pays the natives for this work, teaching them the relation between labour and it's reward. The habit of work, when formed, will elevate the natives from the savage instincts which tend to debase them in idleness. The exaction of, amnd payment for, forty-odd hours' work each month from an able-bodied native, for whose redemption from savagery millions of money and lives have been, and are being, spent, is a lesser tax than the white man pays on his meagre income from daily toil in the cities of London, New York, Paris and Berlin. The county road tax alone, levied upon the farmer in the United States, is a greater imposition than this. Those who have the hardihood to argue that the enforced practice of habits of industry upon savages in an African colony, less than twenty years in the making, is an unjust and iniquitous burden, can have no conception of the condition of the white slaves in the Midland counties of England, no understanding of life and it's burdens in the centres of the world's highest civilisation.

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