Transnational Elements of the Congo Reform Movement

By Dean Clay, Liverpool John Moores University

Belgian control of the Congo Basin was one of the most notable imperial atrocities during the imperialist age at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The brutal treatment of the people of the Congo Free State has come to symbolise the worst aspects of European imperialism. During the scramble for Africa, Leopold II of Belgium carved out an empire along the Congo River. This meant that the King ruled the Congo Free State as his own possession, exploiting the areas richness in raw materials, which took a huge toll in human life, as well as other atrocities, such as the severing of limbs.

The Congo Reform Association (CRA) was a humanitarian campaign set up in 1904 by E.D. Morel and Roger Casement, and also included the help of Dr Henry Grattan Guinness, and was arguably the first major human rights movement of the twentieth century, although critics would say that it was more about trade than a humanitarian issue. The CRA orchestrated debates and resolutions in Parliament, called public meetings and enlisted support in the United States.[1] Roger Casement was a British consul at the time and was instructed to investigate the alleged widespread human rights abuses and exploitation of the native people which were occurring in the Congo.[2] Casement published his report in 1904 and was instrumental in King Leopold II finally relinquishing his private territorial holdings in Africa. However, for many years prior to the publishing of this report there were reports coming from the Congo of the atrocities committed on there against its people, and slowly gained international support for their cause.

E. D. Morel would play a significant role in the activities and campaigning of the CRA. Morel first set off on his crusade against King Leopold II presence in the Congo Free State when he became aware of the atrocities perpetrated against the Africans. This happened when, whilst he was employed at a shipping firm, he noticed the ships returning from the Congo were offloading their cargo of raw materials and setting sail with weapons.[3] Switching to journalism, Morel was able to devote himself to exposing the regime and produced a series of articles on the subject. He argued that the atrocities in the Congo were the inevitable result of a system in place there which denied the native the right to free trade and, therefore, must force him to slave labour against his will.[4] Morel differed in the view of Guinness, who was an Irish Protestant Christian, in that Morel wanted to honour the 1885 Berlin Act and open up the Congo to free trade whereas the missionaries wanted to have access in order to Christianise the native population. However, Morel realised that he needed Guinness as he had the ability to influence a lot of religious philanthropic people which Morel did not have.[5] The missionaries played a very important role in spreading the information about the atrocities throughout Europe and North America. They achieved this by delivering thousands of lectures using images of mutilated Congolese natives and other horrific incidents.[6] In 1906, Morel wrote a book called ‘Red Rubber’ which was designed to arouse the emotions of its readers to the nature of the atrocities in the Congo, and in this book Morel described them as unparalleled at any other point in history.[7] To highlight the transnational element of support for the CRA, Morel was able to recruit the help of French journalist Pierre Mile to co-write a book with him, as well as support from French author Anatole France, and Belgian socialist leader Emile Vandervelde, who sent Morel copies of Belgian parliamentary debates.[8]

The CRA was able to garner support not only from people within different countries, but across the religious divide as well. An article published in The Washington Post in 1907 about Reverend R. J. Campbell declaring his belief that Great Britain could stop the atrocities, by banning Belgian coal ships from docking at British ports, supports this. Within the same article, it is mentioned that President Roosevelt has lent his weight to the campaign by declaring that he would support Great Britain in any concerted effort to end the horrors as he believed that if the two countries acted together (England and America), then no power could oppose them.[9]

Before the CRA came into existence, an awareness of the atrocities taking place in the Congo was already coming to light on the international stage. George Washington Williams, a black American Civil War veteran, minister, politician, journalist and historian wrote an open letter to King Leopold II on the Congo in 1890.[10] In this letter he detailed the suffering of the region’s inhabitants at the hands of the people who were working for Leopold. Washington appealed to the international community to ‘call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity …’[11] Williams also wrote a letter to the U.S. President describing the cruel slave trade being enforced upon the Congo natives as ‘crimes against humanity’.[12] These efforts helped to sway public opinion against Leopold’s regime which was running the Congo and sparked the coming together of educated campaigners in powerful positions, who were eager to raise awareness and highlight the situation to the masses, thus helping the Congolese to break free from the chains of their oppressors.

However, the Congo Reform Association would also take on a transnational dimension during its existence. There was a branch in the United States, which was set up to achieve the same goals, called the American Congo Reform Association (ACRA). The list of members was illustrious, from Booker T. Washington, an American Civil Rights activist, to Mark Twain, an internationally famous author.[13] Having influential people such as this on board helped the CRA in gaining publicity for its cause. Indeed, a letter was written to the New York Times bringing to the attention of the people of the United States that they were petitioning Congress on reform in the Congo, and also promoting the sale of Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”.[14] Twain himself, whilst occupying the role of vice-president of ACRA, and in addition to writing “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” which was a work of political satire condemning the actions of Leopold in the Congo, also wrote two other unpublished pieces on the Congo. He also gave a lengthy newspaper interview about the Congo, mentioned the issue in several speeches and made three trips to Washington to talk in favour of reform with President Theodore Roosevelt and high officials in the State Department.[15]

Booker T. Washington, an American Civil Rights activist, was also involved in ACRA and participated in the campaign to end the atrocities in the Congo. At the request of Thomas S. Barbour, the organiser of ACRA, Washington set about using his influence on high American officials on behalf of Congo reform. He called personally on his friend President Roosevelt and on members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to urge American diplomatic pressure on the Belgian government and monarch.[16] Indeed, Washington carried a lot of weight behind him in terms of being able to influence people in power. When he went to the White House, Washington carried with him a protest committee of the National Baptist Convention, which was the largest of all Negro organisations at the time, which he had helped to arouse to a state of concern.[17] Washington continued to lecture on Congo Reform and spoke with Mark Twain at a series of meetings in major American cities. All of this, along with the pressure exerted by Twain and other activists, did have an effect on policy makers and people in power, and in 1909 a letter was published in the New York Times detailing five principle demands that then Secretary of State Elihu Root had issued to the Belgian Minister to the United States, Baron Moncheur.[18]

Here we can see that an organisation and a movement which started out in Britain managed to find, and appealed to, other people of a different nationality rallying behind the same cause. The petitioning that they engaged in, the publicity they gained from their actions and the influence they exerted were all of great use to the cause of Congo reform, and showed that international barriers of nationality can be broken down when a common cause is found and a common goal is sought.

All of the campaigning to raise awareness not only aroused public opinion in Britain and the United States, but also within religious circles in Europe, even in Belgium, whose own King was the perpetrator of the atrocities in the Congo. Father Arthur Vermeersch wrote a book called ‘La Question Congolaise’ in which he strongly attacked the Leopoldian system in place within the Congo. However, where Morel and the other reformers considered the main crime of the regime to be its violation of the principle of free trade, Vermeersch saw it as a violation of natural law.[19] Obviously Vermeersch had his own agenda, in terms of the fact that he was Catholic and, as such, was wary at first of international reform working to the advantage of Protestants. Ultimately, however, he, and other Catholics, became critical of the regime once it was realised that the work of the Catholics missions in the region may be sacrificed and they became allies to the reformers.[20] Although not working towards the same goals as the CRA, by looking at this example we can see how far reaching the influence of the CRA was, by analysing the level of awareness raised for people within religious circles to jump onto the bandwagon and take in an interest in the issue, if not for anything other than to further their own agenda.

The Congo Reform Association was a movement designed to highlight the horrors occurring in the Congo Free State. It was originally founded in Britain but the cause was soon to be taken up by Americans and Europeans alike. It served to highlight the contrasting views of imperialism within certain circles at the time, in that it was accepted but not at any cost. People from different professions, writers, journalists, Government employees, and historians, to name but a few, all came together alongside people within the religious hierarchy to raise awareness of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo and, although their agendas differed, they all sought the common goal to end the suffering.

References

[1]  Suzanne Miers, Slavery and antislavery in the twentieth century. (Oxford, 2003), p.53.

[2] Kevin Grant, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. (New York, 2005), pp.62-63.

[3] Catherine Ann Cline, ‘E. D. Morel and the Crusade against the Foreign Office’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 1967), pp. 126-137.

[4] Catherine Ann Cline, ‘The Church and the Movement for Congo Reform’, Church History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1963), pp. 46-56.

[5] Grant, A Civilised Savagery, pp.62-63.

[6] Sharon Sliwinski, “The Childhood of Human Rights: the Kodak on the Congo.” Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2006), p.333-363.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Daniel Laqua, The Age of Internationalism and Belgium, 1880–1930: Peace, Progress and Prestige. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 56–59.

[9] ‘Congo Horrors Denounced’, (1907, 8 July), The Washington Post, p.3.

[10] http://www.friendsofthecongo.org/lumumba/freedom-fighters.html

[11] http://www.blackpast.org/?q=george-washington-williams-open-letter-king-leopold-congo-1890

[12] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa. (Boston, 1998), p.112.

[13] Wheeler, E.P. (1906)’Congo Reform Appeal’, New York Times, 31 January, p.6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hunt Hawkins, ‘Mark Twain’s Involvement with the Congo Reform Movement: A Fury of Generous Indignation’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 2 (June, 1978), pp.147-175.

[16] Louis R. Harlan, ‘Booker T. Washington and the White Man’s Burden’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Jan. 1966), pp.441-467.

[17] Ibid.

[18] ‘Root’s Demands on Belgium’, (1909, 29 Jan), The New York Times, p.6.

[19] Cline, ‘The Church’, pp. 46-56.

[20] Ibid.

 

Bibliography

Grant, K. A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Hochschild, A. King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Miers, S. Slavery and Antislavery in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Cline, Catherine Ann, ‘E. D. Morel and the Crusade against the Foreign Office’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 1967), pp. 126-137.

Cline, Catherine Ann, ‘The Church and the Movement for Congo Reform’, Church History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1963), pp. 46-56.

Harlan, Louis R. Louis R. ‘Booker T. Washington and the White Man’s Burden’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Jan. 1966), pp.441-467.

Hawkins, Hunt, ‘Mark Twain’s Involvement with the Congo Reform Movement: A Fury of Generous Indignation’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 2 (June, 1978), pp.147-175.

Laqua, Daniel. The Age of Internationalism and Belgium, 1880–1930: Peace, Progress and Prestige. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Sliwinski, Sharon. “The Childhood of Human Rights: the Kodak on the Congo.” Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2006), p.333-363.

‘Root’s Demands on Belgium’, (1909, 29 Jan), The New York Times, p.6.

‘Congo Horrors Denounced’, (1907, 8 July), The Washington Post, p.3.

Wheeler, E.P. (1906)’Congo Reform Appeal Wheeler, E.P. (1906)’Congo Reform Appeal’, New York Times, 31 January, p.6.

http://www.friendsofthecongo.org/lumumba/freedom-fighters.html

http://www.blackpast.org/?q=george-washington-williams-open-letter-king-leopold-congo-1890

 

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