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 Congo Free State, like all other States, acquired possession of ownerless lands, not by bloody wars which have characterised the acquisitive and "civilising" methods of it's principal mentor in morals, but only after treaty with the natives who happened to occupy those lands in their savagery. All lands which the natives occupy with at least the rudiments of peaceful industry are guaranteed to them. What for ages had been unused and undeveloped for the good of mankind, native or foreign, is now being successfully exploited by the State. Before this industrial, civil, and moral era, the vast Congo forests were not even traversed by the indolent native, so long as he could acquire his food in the sluggard idleness which to this day prevails throughout neighbouring African colonies.
The Congo Free State is pursuing a policy for the preservation of it's forests, far in advance of other colonies, by enforcing the replanting of rubber trees and vines as fast as the old growth has been sapped, thus ensyring to future generations the result of Belgian foresight and wisdom.
The Congo Free State does not trade as a State. Like other governments it is interested in the development of the Government domain by it's inhabitants. The United States first occupied the wild lands of North America by conquest of, and treaty with, the Indians. It then threw the land open to the pre-emption of it's citizens under certain restrictions and impositions; for instance, to improve the land within a certain time, to maintain it's yield, to pay taxes, build roads, and in other ways contribute to the cost of administering and improving the State.
After vainly waiting seven years for the influx of foreign capital and enterprise to freely enter upon it's public lands, and assume the burdens and enjoy the gain of developing the forests for the wealth they contained, the Congo Free State proceeded to cause a part of it's lands (one fourth) to be developed en regie (by trustees), in order that the land might at least contribute to the creation and support of the public works to be established within the State for the benefit and betterment of it's native population. Another part (one fourth) of the forests have been conceded to private companies, in harmony with the system followed by France, England, Germany, and Portugal, whose territories are contiguous to the Congo Free State. But here again we have an exhibition of far-seeing statesmanship, almost unparalleled in colonial history. Instead of doling out the State's land absolutely free to favoured concessionaires, which has been the invariable practise in other colonies, the Belgians have exacted a tremendous guarantee and a growing revenue from those who exploit the natural resources of it's forests, by retaining in some cases a half interest in the capital of the concessionary companies.As an example of practical politics, this admirable system alone constitutes a material heritage to the future of the Congo. The revenue thus annually accruing to the support of the Congo budget must play materially in the development and welfare of the State. Moreover, while the State has such large influence in the internal affairs of it's concessionary companies, it has a practical power within the companies in addition to the State law. This dual control should ensure a commercial policy in harmony with the spirit and the letter of the underlying principles of the State's government. Under this system, the Congo Free State now exports to European markets 5000 tons of rubber annually, where a few years ago this great asset lay hidden in a forest upon which none of the Powers Signatory to the General Act of Berlin desired to spend it's means or it's labour.
One of the counts in the complaint by certain perfervid pamphleteers in Great Britain against King Leopold is that there is no freedom of commerce in that part of the Congo Basin occupied by the Congo Free State. Freedom of Commerce under the definition of such persons is the indiscriminate right of traders and adventurers, and purveyors of arms and spirituous liquors, to swoop down on the State and private lands of the Congo, incite the native to invade the forest, steal rubber product and sell it to the trader at the latter's price. One need not dwell upon the preposterous nature of the transparent scheme of commercial freedom. Private property is nowhere open to unlawful invasion. Public property is not open to the spoliation of adventurers and vandals. The 5000 tons of rubber gathered by the several industrial forces at work in the Congo can be purchased by traders as well at Matadi as at Stanley Pool, at Boma as well as at Antwerp, at a proper price. If the freedom of commerce defined by Congophobes were permitted to prevail in any civilised or uncivilised country in the world, anarchy and tribal wars would ensue, all rights of property would be violated, and the larcenous proclivities of the African Negro would be encouraged. In the case of the Congo, a reign of terror would decimate the native population, and denude the forests which the wise laws of the State endeavour to preserve. Upon their ruins the "savagery" of the white man would have succeeded that of the black.
As already indicated, Congo law very properly forbids invaders of the State from buying the product of private property from any one except the owner. In that respect it does not depart from the law of every other country. The desire of adventurers to buy rubber and ivory direct from the natives is not sufficient reason for permitting the latter to trespass upon private property for the purpose of stealing it's product. Once establish a traffic on these lines, and you put a premium on the crime of theft, and pit the spear of every native against his brother in their rubber-hunting areas.
The difference between the Congo system of colonization and those of it's principal critic is the difference between a definite State policy which, having the land and it's resources for it's material basis, applies humane measures for enforcing it's development for the benefit and civilisation of the native, and the permanent constitution of the State, and a policy the baneful influence and unprogressive operation of which can be observed in the protectorates and colonies of one of it's neighbours, where the budgets are to a large degree sustained by the importation of alcohol as a beverage - a "civilising influence" which, to the honour of the Belgians, is almost entirely excluded from the Congo Free State ...

The foregoing exposition of internal policy may be regarded as a brief statement of the principles which underlie the system of government in the Congo Free State.
That the United States did not construe an illogical meaning into the phrase "freedom of commerce", and warp it out of all semblance to it's natural character, is evidenced by the terms of it's treaty with the Free State made seven years after the promulgation of the General Act of the Berlin Conference, during all of which time the Congo State authorities had acted upon the interpretation of Baron Lambermont's definition, and in the learned opinions of Maitres Barboux, Nys, van Berchem, and Picard.
Article I if the treaty of April 2, 1892, between the United States and the Independent State of the Congo reads :

The citizens and inhabitants of the Independent State of the Congo in the United States of America and those of the United States of America in the Independent State of the Congo shall have reciprocally the right, on confirming to the laws of the country, to enter, travel, and reside in all parts of their respective territory; to carry on business there; and they shall enjoy in this respect for the protection of their persons and their property the same treatment and the same rights as the natives, or the citizens and inhabitants of the most favoured nation.

In this connection, Sire Edward Malet, the British Plenipotentiary at the Conference, clearly pointed out that "freedom of commerce unchecked by reasonable control would degenerate into licence". Reasonable control is only another name for State law and police regulation. The Congo Government maintains that, subject to it's internal laws and regulations which affect it's own and foreign subjects alike, the subjects of every nation are free to enter it's territory in pursuit of legitimate trade. Apropos of this phrase of the subject Baron Deschamps says :

The power of the State in this connection in incontestable. That power is derived directly from the primary right and duty to maintain public order everywhere and under all circumstances. Nobody can deny the State the right of taking steps, for example, for the preservation of public safety. Government cannot be carried on without a judicial and administrative police system, and a State could not renounce that prerogative without laying itself open to a charge of incapacity in it's primary and essential functions. Hence, such a renunciation could not be argued from mere presumptions or inductions. (New Africa, p.68)
Amongst the innovations attempted by the Berlin Act was that which sought, by Article IV., to abolish all import and transit dues. Little serious account appears to have been taken - so far as the Act reveals - of the practical necessity for erecting and sustaining works of public utility to commerce, and the equity of imposing proper charges on the wares upon which the benefits of such work were bestowed. The absolute prohibition of import duties created great difficulties for the Free State which, but for the personal munificence of it's Sovereign, would have wrecked a liberal undertaking, handicapped and fettered by the fanciful legislation of the Berlin Conference, - "Merchandise imported into those regions shall remain free from import and transit dues". Fortunately the legislators of the Berlin Conference were not to become the practical governors of the Congo Free State, else they might have realised that the gravest body may enact farce and commit folly. It was the experiment of a new principle in colonial administrative economy which they aimed at, but there is a vast difference in substance between a mirage and a mountain. That there were misgivings in the mind of some members of the Conference as to the logic of driving traders into the Congo, on the one hand, utterly untaxed for the support of the Government and the security it afforded, while on the other the State was charged with the creation of public works and the maintenance of law and order without revenue, is manifested by that final clause of Article IV, which provides that "the Powers reserve to themselves to determine, after the lapse of twenty years, whether this freedom of import shall be retained or not". In this case the Powers did not wait twenty years to revise their principle of free trade. Five years were sufficient to reveal it's inapplicability to a new country, and the Second Brussels Conference, assembled in 1890, made of the free-trade-clause of 1885 a clause allowing on merchandise other than liquors an impost not exceeding ten percent. "It would never do", said Baron de Courcel, "to renew the colonial experience gained in the sixteenth century, when colonies were brought to ruin by those who pretended to fix in Europe, from a purely metropolitan point of view, their financial and administrative system". The experiment of prohibiting import duties proved, as already indicated, a serious hindrance to the economic life of the new State. That the experiment would not, however, be persisted in by the Powers, had been foreshadowed by the suggestion of Baron Lambermont at the Conference when he said : "It is experience which will then inspire the interested Powers with the most favourable resolutions for the development and commercial progress in their possessions." There were, therefore, after all, men of practical political foresight at the Conference, whose assent to so radical a policy of free trade was accorded for the purpose of the moment only, and while the great question of civilising Central African tribes dominated their early aims even to the disadvantage of the correlated questions of commerce. Article III of the General Act, therefore, provided that : "Wares of whatever origin, imported into these regions, under whatsoever flag, by sea or river, or overland, shall be subject to no other taxes than such as may be levied as fair compensation for expenditure in the interest of trade, and which for this reason must be equally borne by the subjects themselves and by foreigners of all nationalities." The reasons actuating the Berlin Conference not to fix the rate of such taxation as it provided for at the Brussels Conference, are clearly indicated on page 85 of the protocols to the General Act, from which the following declaration is quoted :

The rate of the taxes of compensation is not fixed in any definite manner. The support of foreign capital ought to be placed, with commercial freedom, amongst the most useful aids to the spirit of enterprise, whether it has reference to the execution of works of public interest or whether it has in view the development of the cultivation of the natural products of the African soil. But capital only goes, in general, to places where the risks are sufficiently covered by the chances of profit. The Commission has therefore thought that there would result more disadvantages than advantages from binding too strictly, by restrictions arranged in advance, the liberty of action of public powers or of concessions. If abuses should arise, if the taxes threatened to attain an excessive rate, the cure would be found in the interest of the authorities or of the contractors, seeing that commerce, as experience has more than once proved, would turn away from establishments the access to, or use of which, had been rendered too burdensome.

That contribution by traders to the maintenance of the State under a system of taxation and police regulation is not incompatible with commercial freedom was forcibly reiterated at the Conference by Count de Launay and, of course, by other members who at all dwelt upon a principle so well established. Treating this question with much erudition, Baron Descamps cites the French law of March 2, 1791, relating to patents, which, he says, "gave the most emphatic assent of modern times to the principle of commercial freedom. The very clause proclaiming freedom of commerce provided for licence dues ! Thus : 'Everybody shall be free to carry on any business he chooses; [sic] but he must first obtain, and pay for, a licence, and submit to any regulations of police that may be made'." (New Africa, p.67)
Obviously the "freedom of commerce" intended by the General Act of the Berlin Conference is not the open door with the key thrown away and chaos prevailing behind it. The State is mistress of her domain. She is alone responsible for it's civil order and the just regulation of it's life, whether social, commercial, or political. Her attitude upon all fundamental rules of civilised government has two facets : the one toward her subjects, the other toward the society of nations which surrounds her. She must conduct her affairs with due regard for those broad principles of national morality which civilised communities recognise as a lofty standard of social and political life. Until she prove herself incompetent in this respect, her territory cannot become the subject of international partition or regulation on pretexts of humanitarianism or on any other, nor is it in the justice of nations or of men to undermine the force of her authority or to enfeeble the integrity of her Statehood by any agency whatsoever.
From the latest report of the Vice-Governor-General of the Congo Free State are quoted below statements which shed light upon the belief held by the Belgians concerning their own fiscal policy, and the attitude they offer to the criticisms of it's burly neighbour, Great Britain, in it's rule of the Soudan and it's other colonial possessions :

In the region of commerce the Congo State, which was the first to inscribe in it's international conventions the principles of liberty, has not failed, no matter what any one says to the contrary, in the programme which was drawn up in 1884, and of which, as has recently been recalled, Stanley was made the spokesman. The regime of the "open door", which has just been claimed by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, at the very moment, too, when purely philanthropic declarations were being heard in the House of Commons, is that also of the Congo State; and there cannot be discovered in our territory the existence of monopolies such as those of ivory and rubber which the Government of the Soudan has created for it's own profit in some parts of the Soudan (Soudan Gazette No.47, May 1st 1903).
The traders of all nations may sell on the Congo the objects of their commerce, and buy the natural produce from the proprietors of the soil; no limit, no hindrance is placed on this traffic, and that is really freedom of trade. That this freedom may remain complete notwithstanding the existence of the domain rights, and the granting of concessions, has been proved up to the hilt, and to declare, as has been done in the House of Commons, that trade does not exist on the Congo is to put oneself in contradiction with the law and the facts. These statements, by repetition, end by being considered as axioms, and it is not realised that they still await proof. The regime of concessions, besides, has not been established for the exclusive advantage or benefit of the Belgians; the opening was given to foreign initiative and capital without distinction to become interested in the development of the country, and if, by a want of confidence that the event has not justified, English capital was withdrawn from some Congolese undertakings, the prosperous condition of which is now made a grievance, it does not follow therefrom that those who did run the risk inherent in enterprises in new countries should see today the results of their efforts and their perseverance assailed.
It is to the astonishment, not to say to the general indignation, of the handful of Europeans who are working, and undergoing hardships on the spot, that these attempts are made abroad to represent them all, from the highest place to the most obscure of the assistants, as associated in an odious work of destruction and inhumanity. The duty of protesting against this legend is imposed on whoever has seen with his own eyes these territories, once disinherited, being opened to civilisation, evangelisation, and progress; populations, formerly troops of slaves, reborn to confidence and freedom; the rapid economic equipment, the railways under exploitation or construction, a flotilla which covers the river and it's affluents, routes which open up the most distant regions, telegraphic and telephonic lines to the Upper River, cultivation and plantation gradually extending, cattle introduced into every district, mission establishments opened in all parts, vaccine institutions, and services of medical, sanitary, and hygienic orders. Such are some of the results of what has been called the system of the State, a system which was inspired before everything by the vows of the Berlin and Brussels Conferences, and it could not be explained how it has been possible for the State's adversaries to cry it down if it were not known that their customary tactics are to lay stress on the inevitable imperfections of a work of that extent still, after all, in the stage of it's beginning ...
As concerns cotton, which before the Mahdist invasion was seemingly cultivated in a sufficiently considerable degree, I hold it on good authority that in Cairo and Lower Egypt some little disquietude is being shown on the subject of the activity displayed by the Belgians on the Upper Nile, and that some apprehension is felt there of a cotton competition in the near future.

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