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



Chapter XIV : The Congo Public Force (pp.164-176)


The State's military organization is constituted by what is called the Congo Public Force (Force Publique). It had it's origin in the necessities of the International Association before the State had gone far along it's difficult way. It was recruited from the blacks of Zanzibar and along the West Coast at Lagos, Sierra Leone, Elmira and Accra. The first troops were, therefore, foreigners - Zanzibaris and Haussas. Their foreign origin was, in a sense, an element of security to the Association when it had to direct repressive measures against some of the Congolese tribes. The Zanzibaris and the Haussas had great military aptitude and, lacking sympathy for the Congolese, were generally loyal to their commanders. They loved an enemy from the instinct inherent in savage natures.
The maintenance of this early body of troops was exceedingly expensive for the young State. Besides food, uniform, and medical attendance, these mercenaries received one franc twenty-five centimes a day. Moreover, on the expiration of their term of service they were sent back home at the expense of the Government. As the term of their engagement was only three years, this obligation formed an important addition to their cost.
It was beyond the financial power of the State to provide an adequate organisation on such a basis. While the administrators of the Congo were devising means for the support of an efficient force at a reduced cost, the British government on the Gold Coast prohibited further recruiting of Haussas by foreign states. Barred from getting it's soldiers from the surrounding British territory, the Congo Government proceeded to develop it's earlier plans for raising a native local force, the first purpose of which was that it should supplement the main body of regular troops.

The nucleus of what is the present Public Force were the men of the Bangala tribe, whom Captain Coquilhat employed as armed police when he founded Equateurville in 1885. A short time later, Captain van Dorpe made the same experiment among the Manyanga. Finding the men from both tribes fit for a military career, the principle of employing aboriginal races in the Public Force was followed with the rapid establishment of the numerous posts and stations erected at that time. The wisdom of employing natives for the organisation of such a national force was soon apparent. In 1888 an order was issued to form eight companies of one hundred and fifty men, with power to increase the number to two hundred and fifty. It was not, however, till 1891 that Baron van Eetvelde and the Governor-General, M. Camille Janssen, drafted a practical scheme for the foundation of a permanent Public Force. Mr. Demetrius C. Boulger, whose volume entitled The Congo State treats at length of the subject up to 1898, describes the scheme which the Sovereign had approved :

The principal features of the scheme were, that the force should be divided into two companies corresponding with the administrative districts, and that one hundred and twenty European officers, chiefly Belgians, should be appointed to the command and disciplining of this force. The different grades of this army were : one commandant, eleven captains, ten lieutenants, thirty-nine sub-lieutenants, and sixty sergeants. The new system of recruiting was of two kinds. The first provided for the engagement of volunteers for a period not exceeding seven years, and the second for an enforced levy of militia by order of the Governor-General, and arranged between the commissary of the district affected and the local chiefs. The levy was to be made, wherever possible, by lot, among the men between the ages of fourteen and thirty. The term of service for the latter was to be five years, with a further period of two years in reserve. Each man received, besides food for himself and his wife (if he had one), a daily pay of twenty-one centimes, or a sixth of that which had to be paid for the alien soldier. Moreover, the expense of sending the men back to their homes was reduced to a minimum. The reduction in the cost meant, besides a saving to the Government, the possibility of raising the strength of the force to a figure more in proportion to the requirements of the State. Of the old alien contingent, it has never been found possible to maintain more than three thousand men, and the native contribution to this was about two hundred; but in 1891 the latter was increased to sixteen hundred men, and in 1897, by which time the alien element had been eliminated, the Public Force was raised to a grand total of eight thousand militiamen and four thousand volunteers. The number of companies had been raised to twenty-two, with a nominal strength of nine thousand five hundred and forty men at the end of last year (1897), whereas in 1891 the total was only two thousand nine hundred and fifty.
For the purpose of training these forces, seven camps of about five hundred men each were formed, and the period of training the men undergo is fixed at eighteen months. The uniform is blue linen, or, for full uniform, blue cloth, with a scarlet fez. The arm in general use is the Albini, with a short bayonet. The white officers carry the Mauser rifle, with a magazine. The greatest pains is taken in the fire-training and discipline of the men. Competitions are held every three months among sections of fifty men, and prizes awarded. A great improvement has been effected in the housing of the troops, who are now almost entirely accomodated in brick barracks. The artillery of the force is of considerable strength, and includes Krupps, Maxims and Nordenfelts.
The seven camps of instruction are Zambi, for the Lower Congo; Kinshassa, Bolobo, Irebu, Kassongo, Umangi, La Romee for the Upper Congo. The principal armed camps, as they are called (because they are bases of military power) are those at Lusambo, Bomokandi, and the Aruwimi; but Vankerckhovenville, Dungu and Redjaf are now of equal, if not of greater importance. At Kinshassa, on Stanley Pool, a fort with a battery has been constructed for the protection of Leopoldville and the railway terminus; and here an experiment has been succesfully tried of utilising the services of prisoners of war. Men selected from the captives of the numerous expeditions have been passed through a probationary course on the works on this place, and in this manner a considerable number of recruits have been obtained for the Public Force on more favourable terms than the militiamen recruited through the chiefs. Kinshassa is not the only fortified place within the State territory; for at Chinkakassa, near Boma, a strong fort has been constructed, commanding the navigation of the Congo and the approaches from the ocean. Here Captain Petillon, of the Belgian Engineers, has placed eight Krupps and a number of smaller guns in an admirably selected position, while the Mongos tribe, from the Equateurville district, has supplied an adequate number of skillful and handy gunners. The authorities of the Congo State will experience no difficulty in procuring suitable men for this arm of their Public Force.
The first and oldest company of the Public Force deserves a special motice to itself. This is the auxiliary company of the Congo Railway, and was founded by royal decree of 9th August, 1890, or twelve months earlier than the decree constituting the general force. It's organization was entrusted to Captain Weyns, an officer of the Carabiniers. It's strength was first fixed at the modest total of fifty men; in 1892 it was increased to a hundred men, and afterwards it received a further addition of fifty men. The task entrusted to this corps was the protection of the railway works and of the villages through which the railway passed. As eight thousand navvies were employed on the line, and as these were composed of many nationalities, the task was no sinecure, but it was performed with perfect success and without friction. The auxiliary force was recruited in a different manner from the rest of the military. It contained several elements : for instance, twenty-five Senegalese, and fifty Batetelas from the country between the Sankuru and the Lualaba. Although of precisely the same race as the mutineers of the Dhanis column, the latter gave no trouble in 1897. Like the other militiamen of the State, they serve for five years with the colours and for two years in the reserve, but the cost of maintaining this corps in borne by the railway company. It, however, forms an integral part of the general Public Force, and can be utilised in any occasion arises. Captain Weyns reported so favourably of the quickness of the Batetela recruits and their military aptitude, that all vacancies in this company are now, like those in the rest of the Public Force, filled up with natives of the Congo territory.


In the archives of the Congo State's Administration in Brussels, there are interesting official reports dealing with the question of creating a reliable native force from the most civilised of the Congolese tribes. The problem was not without many peculiar difficulties. Baron van Eetvelde, whose lofty aims for Congolese civilisation were fortified with many wise measures of great utility to the Government, had formulated plans for the establishment of a system of military conscription, as to which in January, 1897, hre reported as follows :

"The State has set itself the task of creating a purely national army, with the view of lightening the budget of the considerable charges which weighed upon it through having to recruit abroad, and also with the view of putting an end, in accordance with the highest dictates of policy, to it's dependence in this matter upon foreigners. It considers, moreover, the period of military service as a salutary school for the native, where he will learn respect for authority and the obligations of duty. It is happy, from this view, to see the number of national militiamen increase, and in order that the institution may preserve all it's value, special provisions have been made to prevent abuses, to regulate the recruiting, to assure the welfare of soldiers on service, and to provide occupation for those who have served their term. The decree on the recruiting of the Public Force is not more rigorous than any other similar act of legislation, and the incorporation is made under as sure guarantees of human liberty as in the armies of Europe. As is the case in almost all countries, the recruiting, independent of voluntary engagements, is made by annual levies, but "within the limits of the contingent fixed by the King-Sovereign," and within these limits "the Governor-General determines the districts and localities in which the levy is to be made, and also the proportion to be furnished by each locality. ... The mode according to which the levy operates is determined by the district commissary in agreement with the native chief; and although the drawing by lot is recommended, we must recognise that it would be difficult, in the present circumstances, to have recourse always and everywhere to this method in each village, and to refuse to recognise the customary authority of the villahe chief, when he designates the militiamen among his own dependants ... The length of active service is for five years. At the expiration of this term, the men pass two years in the reserve. The time passed under the colours, then, cannot exceed seven years - a term which experience shows not to be excessive; and it is strictly forbidden to keep under the flag men who are no longer borne on the lists, or whose term of service has expired, under pain of misdemeanour. These organic dispositions have been completed by instructions, which prescribe on the officers "to watch carefully that the men receive a sufficient nourishment, are comfortably housed, that the sick are well taken care of, that the men are always properly treated, that their misconduct is dealt with in conformity with the regulations and carefully avoiding all excessive severity.
In fact, this system renders light for the native his obligations as a soldier. We do not desire any other proof than those four thousand volunteers who are actually enrolled, and those numerous re-engagements, which show the taste of the native for the profession of arms. It was not with an army of malcontents that the State could have carried out it's anti-slavery campaign. The State continues to interest itself in it's soldiers after their term has expired. The time-expired men, sent back to their homes at it's expense, together with their wives and children (if there are any), are the object of special protection, and receive concessions of land in a station at their own choice.


The latest report of the Vice-Governor-General (July 1904) indicates the great improvement to which the Public Force has attained since the date of Baron van Eetvelde's statement of the system which prevailed in 1897. Local experience in savage lands should be the foundation of the reforms imposed. In the case of the State's Public Force, many local traditions, traits, and prejudices, and much inaptitude, were encountered to modify or extens those principles of police control which the State's earlier administration had adopted with characteristic hopefullness. M. Fuchs sets forth the present position of the Force with considerable detail and suggestion :

The Government is aware that the military service of the black race must be the object of constant watchfulness, in order that it may be impossible for them to practise the cruelties to which their primitive instincts might impel them.
The officers and commanders of the troops have been often warned that they must show themselves inflexible guardians of the observance of those instructions, which have been issued for the protection of the natives against any possible abuse on the part of soldiers left in isolated positions or subject to insufficient control. Instructions have been given to this effect - and I am happy to be able to say that they have been almost everywhere faithfully carried out. Any contravention of the order forbidding the despatch of armed soldiers under the command of black officers is also severely punished, and may entail even the dismissal of the agent in fault. These measures have been completed by the formal prohibition of the employment of auxiliaries under no matter what circumstances.
It has also been laid down that direct relations are to be established between the natives and European agents. In order still further to strengthen the maintenance of discipline among the soldiers of the black race, the regulations omn the subject have been completed by the penalty of dismissal from the Public Force. This is the most severe punishment in the eyes of the soldiers, for they highly esteem the profession of arms. Dismissal from the Public Force is inflicted on those soldiers who show themselves absolutely incorrigible or who are unworthy to remain in the ranks. In order to surround this rigorous measure with all the necessary guarantees, the soldiers whom it is wished to dismiss are brought before a Council of Discipline. The dismissal is pronounced, at Boma by the Commander of the Public Force; in the districts by the District Commissioner or by the head of the expedition, after examining the charge, the evidence, and the decision of the Council. Chiefs of zones cannot pronounce dismissal.
The Government have just finally decided that, for the future, the Soldiers of the Public Force shall not take part in work at the stations, and that their time shall be exclusively given up to their instruction, education and military service. The former arrangements which put soldiers, during some hours of the day, at the disposal of the territorial chiefs, chiefs of zones, and chiefs of posts, over and above the hours assigned for military duty, have been modified so as to maintain in a more continuous fashion the men under the control of their officers. In order to make this decision of the Government as fruitful as possible, the territorial chiefs have been ordered to reduce to the effective force strictly necessary for the assurance of security, the garrisons stationed at the posts in zones and districts, and to concentrate at the chief places in the territory garrisons as complete as possible. These measures are intended to produce the best results from the point of view of educating and instructing the troops, as well as from that of assuring military discipline, provided the territorial chiefs scrupulously carry out the new instructions mentioned above.
It has also been pointed out to them that it will be expressly recommended to the officials charged with the inspection - and the Government has decided to increase the inspections throughout the State territories - to ascertain if all these instructions, concerning the execution of the new table of daily work for the Public Force, have been carried out.
The other measures of organisation which have been passed, the formal prohibition to establish posts commanded by black officers, or to confide military operations to them, and finally forbidding the practice of taking sub-officers from their military duties to employ them as chiefs of stations, are of a nature to make us hope that very soon our Public Force will constitute a body in which we may have complete confidence.
In February, 1904, I thought it my duty to point out to the Government the manner in which instruction was given in thecamps, and to draw it's attention to the necessity that there would be to engage quickly a superior officer entrusted more especially with the mission of seeing to the higher direction and the general control of all orders issued concerning the Public Force. The Government, which had also occupied itself with the question, has confided this high employment to a superior officer who will be entrusted with the command of the Public Force.
The Government has resolved to send, at the same time three or four officers of the grade of commandant to be attached to the staff of the Public Force, and whom the commander will be able to appoint to exercise constant control over the companies and camps.
It is right to recall the fact that military service is so far from constituting a laborious servitude for those subjected to it, by virtue of the organic law of conscription, that voluntary engagements increase from year to year. Besides, the instructions of the Government encourage this state of mind by improving the well-being of the soldier from the triple point of view of habitation, food and clothing. And they are not only natives of Congolese territory, properly speaking, who seek there military employment; numerous Africans coming from the English colonies of the West Coast solicit engagement at Boma.
The table of the engagements of men, natives of the coast and British subjects, is characteristic in this respect.
The multiplicity of voluntary enrolments will gradually remove, from the absolutely indispensable law of conscription, what might seem rigorous, particularly in the eyes of people not yet thoroughly acquainted with civilisation, and with the idea of the necessity of public order.
It is nevertheless important to note that the efforts attempted with the view of nationalising the police forces are being crowned more and more with success. The State can now renounce the assistance, elsewhere advantageous, of foreign mercenaries, thanks to the methodical, extensive, and wise application of the militia law, ans especially to the considerable increase in the number of national volunteers. But there could be no question of abandoning the system of recruiting by means of regional conscription. It signifies, indeed, that all the population throughout the whole extent of the territory participates in this public charge as much in the interests of the regular and permanent operation of the recruiting of the national militia as in that also of the natives who benefit by the lessons of their military profession (a sense of order, discipline, cleanliness, clothes, hygiene, habitation etc.). The stay in the ranks of the armed force has as it's principal advantage their initiation in civilised life, and their preparation for a regular life of work.
The proportion of deaths has become very low among the blacks of the Public Force and among the labourers. This is due in a great degree to the improved conditions under which our men live. The lodgment is well aired and neatly kept. The food is varied as much as possible, and it's careful preparation is provided for. The camps of the soldiers of the Public Force are well kept up. Barracks constructed in stone with cemented floors serve in the Lower Congo as lodgment for our troops. The black officers have their habitation separate from that of their men.
In the stations on the upper river these prescripts are also well followed. At Boma the creation of a working city, constructed of well-chosen materials, is in progress.
It is interesting to quote with regard to the constant and progressive improvement in the existence of the natives the following paragraphs from the report of Mr. Casement, His Britannic Majesty's Consul :

"Then (in 1887) I had visited most of the places I now revisited, and I was thus able to institute a comparison between a state of affairs I had myself seen when the natives lived their own savage lives in anarchic and disorderly communities, uncontrolled by Europeans, and that created by more than a decade of very energetic European intervention. That very much of this intervention has been called for, no one who formerly knew the Upper Congo could doubt, and there are today widespread proofs of the great energy displayed by Belgian officials in introducing their methods of rule over one of the most savage regions in Africa."
"Admirably built and admirably kept stations greet the traveller at many points."
"The Government station of Leopoldville numbers, I was informed by it's chief, some 130 Europeans, and probably 300 native Government workmen, who all dwell in well-ordered lines of either well-built European houses, or, for the native staff, mud-built huts.
On the whole, Government workmen at Leopoldville struck me as being well cared for, and they were certainly none of them idle."

In thus taking care of their employes the agents have performed a duty which has not only resulted in the well-being of the blacks, but has also allowed of a reduction in the number of the workers, and accomplishing better and more rapidly executed work.

It will be observed elsewhere in this volume that some of those who condemn the State's system of Government point to the Force Publique as the chief instrument by which the Administration encompasses the enslavement of the native population. There are glaring discrepancies in what such persons, either maliciously or in ignorance, represent as the police system which prevails in the State at the present time. There does not exist a police system anywhere in Europe or Africa which has not some inherent defect. To expect the highest discipline and the utmost control in a police body composed of the imperfectly civilised Negroes of Equatorial Africa is only one manifestation of that narrow, unintelligent outlook upon the subject over which certain persons are agitating themselves inti suspicious frenzy. The report of M. Fuchs denotes that the State's police system is founded upon the high principles of justice, that discipline and order are being maintained without the abuse of power, and that, whatever individuals may have done to transgress in the sphere of their opportunity, no such extravagant charges of misgovernment as a few persons have made can be fixed upon a State with the police laws above indicated. A million square miles of savage territory are governed with 14,270 natives enrolled in the State's military service. This is seven soldiers to about every 625 square miles. Does this not signify native respect for, and tranquility in, the State ? What civilised community maintains it's authority with such a meagre force ?


Click HERE for a table showing foreigners (from Accra/Lagos/Sierra Leone) employed in the Congo State Public Force, 1883-1903








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