Reconciliation in Congo Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 30 2012.

Despite the protestations of imperialists and missionaries, colonialism is rarely advantageous to the colonised. The British Empire was not the only villain. Little Belgium was particularly vicious. A British diplomat, Sir Roger Casement, who exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo, was executed in 1916 by the British for his part in the Irish rebellion.

Berlin carve-up

King Leopold II of Belgium had been granted control of the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo under the 1885 Berlin Agreement, which carved up Africa between the European colonial powers. Leopold founded the Congo Free State.

The Berlin Act obliged Leopold to establish free trade with Congo for the benefit of all nations; a condition that the King managed to flout through awarding territorial concessions for rubber extraction to a number of private companies, some were mere disguises for his own aggrandisement.

Dr Livingstone I presume!

Casement was initially a willing participant in the colonial project. When he got a job with the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool, he persuaded the company to let him go as a purser on one of its ships to Boma in the Congo. Once there at the age of 20 Casement joined the unpaid volunteers who were working for Henry Morton Stanley – the journalist who achieved fame by “finding” David Livingstone.

Stanley’s project of opening up the unmapped regions of Central Africa had attracted Leopold. However, the King could not arouse the interest of his subjects in colonial ventures and decided to look for financial support outside Belgium. An International African Association was set up with Leopold as its chairman. He stated that his sole ambition was “to open up to civilisation the only area of our globe to which it has not yet penetrated”.

Leopold was tall and striking in appearance but he received neither the affection nor respect of his own people nor the friendship of his royal cousins. Leopold was first cousin to Queen Victoria, but her son, the future Edward VII, detested him. After the break-up of Stanley’s team, Casement was recruited to the British diplomatic service and served as consul in a number of African locations.

One-way free trade

Trade returns showed that the flow of rubber out of the Congo into Belgium was rapidly increasing, but there was an unchanging trickle of imports into the Congo. The main import seemed to be guns. The labour force was not being paid. Leopold’s authority in the Free State was absolute, so only he was in a position to embezzle the State’s funds.

Casement met King Leopold in Brussels in October 1900 and challenged him with these reports. The King pleaded that Belgium was only a tiny country wanting ‘a few – only a few – of the crumbs that fall from your well-stocked British table. And yet in England you are suspicious of us!’

Casement report on human rights

By 1903, Casement was the British consul in Kinshasa and was commissioned by the British government to write a report on the human rights situation in the Congo Free State. Casement knew in his heart and his head that there was a ‘system’ and atrocities could not be explained as the transgressions of “bad apples”. The cutting off of hands was the deliberate act of soldiers of the administration, “who never made any concealment that in committing these acts they were but obeying the positive orders of their superiors”.

Casement was supported by the campaigning freelance journalist, Edmund D Morel, to whom he donated a third of his annual salary. The two men campaigned energetically in many countries to bring the abuses to light. In America, the campaign attracted the support of Booker T Washington and Mark Twain. Twain wrote of King Leopold II, who “for money’s sake, mutilates and starves half a million of friendly and helpless poor natives in the Congo every year”. He described Leopold as “this mouldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster, whose mate is not found in history anywhere and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there, which will be soon we hope and trust.”

Casement demonstrated in grim detail how a slave labour force was maintained by systematic brutality including amputations, vicious beatings, kidnappings and killings of the native population by the Bula Matadi soldiers of King Leopold. His report contained long and detailed eye-witness reports including what he himself had seen.

The report led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for murders during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national who was given a five-year sentence for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives).

Casement was awarded a CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael St George in 1905 for his Congo work).

In 1908, the Belgian parliament took over control of the Free State from Leopold and it became the Belgian Congo.
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