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Home > Timeline > 1876 - 1913 > Leopold II of Belgium, E D Morel & the Congo

Left: King Leopold II of Belgium

Born: 9 April 1835 in Brussels.

Died: 17 December 1909 om Brussels.



Right: Edmund D Morel

Born: 15 July 1873 in Paris.

Died: 12 November 1924 in London.

The story of how King Leopold raped the Congo of its natural resources, and in particular its ivory and rubber, involves many famous people including Henry Morton Stanley, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad and Edmund Morel. Of these, Stanley’s involvement can stand alone whilst Conrad’s can be read in his semi-autographical book, ‘Heart of Darkness’ but Morel and Casement are so intimately involved in the downfall of Leopold that it makes no sense to write of them separately. This is the story of Leopold’s Congo.

Leopold’s story began with the foundation of the free and independent state of Belgium on January 20th 1831. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coberg was chosen as its first king and came to the throne later that year. On his death in 1865, his son, the Duke of Brabant, who was just three months younger than the country, became King Leopold II.

Leopold seems not to have had a particularly happy upbringing. He was tall, thin and, according to many reports, he had an enormous nose. He was also idle (or suffered from late development) but he did develop a passion for the accumulation of data of all descriptions which he filed, classified and cross-referenced. He was also showing signs of subtleness and a manipulative ability which would manifest themselves with a vengeance in the not too distant future. His main problem was that he was not rich and so, given his position as director of foreign affairs, it seemed an obvious move to consider which parts of the world he could lay claim to.

He had travelled extensively throughout his life and in 1875 he wrote: ‘I intend to find out discreetly whether there may not be anything to be done in Africa’. It took little effort to focus down from ‘Africa’ to ‘the Congo’, a virtually blank area on the map which had recently become the subject of renewed interest following the discoveries and writings of Livingstone, Speke, Baker and Burton into the interrelationship between the Nile, the Lualaba and the Congo river itself. At the end of that same year Lovatt Cameron turned up on the west coast, near Luanda, after a two and a half year journey through the heart of Africa from the east coast. Some of his comments struck crucial chords with Leopold. Tales of rich mineral deposits, grain and rubber triggered his financial lust whilst the stories of the Arab slavers with their heavily laden caravans provided an opportunity for him to appeal to Belgian missionary zeal and, hopefully, gain access to the country through apparently altruistic and honourable means. His problems now were how to move into the Congo without upsetting other European nations and how to extract any valuable ‘assets’ without having to share them with another country. This was to be resolved at the Brussels Conference of 1876.

The conference was a gathering of European scientists, explorers and geographers. It was non-political and Leopold’s proposition was that Central Africa should not be a place of national squabbles and bickerings but that an international body should be set up which would suppress slavery and develop the country and its infrastructure through normal and fair commercial practices. National sub-committees would be set up through existing learned bodies which would be financed by national governments but not subject to political control or influence. The meeting then established the international authority itself, formally known as the ‘Association Internationale pour reprimer la traite et ouvrir l’Afrique centrale’ but more commonly known as the ‘Association Internationale Africaine’ (or AIA). This was to be managed by an International Committee chaired by Leopold on the understanding that the chair would progress annually through different national representatives. There was then established an Executive Committee and the various National Committees. It was a remarkable conference and altruism, coupled with the spirit of pure research, triumphed – for a short time. The International Committee met again in 1877 and, forgetting its own rules, re-elected Leopold to the chair. It never met again. The Executive committee reported on the AIA’s operations until 1880 whilst, with the exception of Belgium, the National Committees never even saw the light of day.

Leopold’s intention at that time was somehow to find a way for Belgium to take control of the AIA but it rapidly became obvious to him that Belgium was unfit to receive his creation. He would just have to establish his own private colony in the Congo basin but whom could Leopold trust to set up such an organization He would have to know something of the African native, believe in himself, be prepared to use force where necessary and yet, be gullible and unappreciative of Leopold’s true intent. Out of the jungle, having taken almost three years to cross Africa from Lake Tanganyika down the Lualaba and the Congo to the West African Coast, came Henry Morton Stanley.

Leopold’s immediate problem now was how to recruit Stanley without alerting the British. He therefore resolved to employ Stanley to explore the Congo basin and establish some posts under the auspices of the AIA. A little early discussion with Stanley seemed a good idea so he sent two emissaries to meet him at Marseilles, where his train had stopped en route to Britain from Italy. Stanley was not interested; he wanted plaudits from his countrymen (the British) and time to write his book but by June 1878 he had become tired of the negative attitude of the British Government so he travelled to Brussels for a meeting with Leopold. The two got on well but Stanley emphasised that the first stage of any useful opening-up of the Congo required a railway round the lower falls and rapids. Funding was a problem but a proposal from the Dutch traders at the mouth of the Congo for a ‘Study Syndicate’ fitted nicely into the ostensible purposes of the AIA and a group of European financiers agreed to support this. The syndicate came into being as the ‘Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo’. Its terms of reference were never published but came to light in 1918 and included a clause excluding the Comité from political action. Like so many of Leopold’s clauses and contracts this seems to have faded into oblivion very quickly if one considers the evidence of a document found in the Belgian Foreign Ministry archives. Leopold writing to Stanley: ‘…It is a question of creating a new State as big as possible and running it … there is no question of granting political power to Negroes … the white man will head the stations which will be populated by free and freed Negroes. Every station would regard itself as a little republic … The work will be directed by the King (Leopold) who attaches particular importance to the setting up of the stations … the best course of action would be to secure concessions of land from the natives for the purposes of roads and cultivation and to found as many stations as possible …should we not try to extend the influence of the stations over the neighbouring chiefs and form a Republican Confederation of native freedmen? The President (of the Confederation) will hold his powers from the King.’

Leopold set out his requirements more fully in a private letter to Stanley in August 1878. Stanley was to acquire as much land as possible by purchase or concession on behalf of the Comité which would set out the laws of this ‘Free State’ with Leopold, as a private citizen, at its head. Although Stanley obtained close to 1,000,000 square miles of the Congo for Leopold, the latter was not happy as the French, through Count Savorgnan de Brazza, established a camp at Stanley Pool, the site of the future Brazzaville.

What Stanley did not know was that the Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo no longer existed! In November 1878 Leopold announced to his shareholders that most of the money used to found it had been spent and the rest was committed to contracts already underway. He felt very sorry about this but was prepared to return their original investments in full and offer them preference should any commercial undertakings grow from the enterprise. All he asked was that the Comité be dissolved. This was agreed and the Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo was immediately replaced by the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC) with 100% funding from Leopold. This fund provided the treasury of the Congo Free State which was thus also owned by Leopold. The similarity of the names of the AIA and AIC were hardly coincidental. As Leopold wrote to a supporter, ’care must be taken not to let it be obvious that the AIA and AIC are different, the public doesn’t grasp this’.

Leopold now needed international recognition and started with the United States of America as being the country least likely to understand the complexities of the pyramid of power which he was creating. It proved simple to confuse the Americans. In the President’s message to Congress in December 1883 the AIC was referred to as the AIA and the Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo was taken as a branch of the AIA. By February 1884 both Congress and the Senate recognised the flag of the AIC as that of the Congo Free States (not yet one state).

Leopold then brilliantly bound France, Germany and Britain to his scheme. A statement, issued jointly by the AIC and the French Prime Minister, said in essence that the AIC would not cede any of its territory to any power but that if it ever had to realize its assets France would have first refusal. The contradiction went unnoticed or, at least, it was not commented on. Now France could relax, knowing it would have no problems with the AIC and could, potentially, have some rich pickings whilst Germany and Britain now had no option but to support the AIC and so prevent it falling to the French.

Two items remained to be dealt with before Leopold had his new fiefdom. The first was the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, arranged by a number of European powers in an attempt to sort out a range of conflicting land claims in Africa. Interestingly it was not felt necessary to invite any Africans. Leopold rushed around negotiating numerous bilateral agreements but had surprisingly little trouble in acquiring the million or so square miles of central Africa which he sought as well as the port of Matadi and the land on which to build his railway past the rapids. There were probably two reasons for the ease with which he was granted his claims. The first was that most delegates had never even seen Africa and believed that, for them, any wealth came from trading near the coast. The second was that it was still believed that Leopold's organization, be it the AIA or AIC, was generating some sort of international colony which would be one giant free trade area. It took Leopold just three months to clarify the nomenclature when, by royal decree, his privately purchased country became the ‘État Indépendant du Congo’ – the Congo Free State. Note that the ‘States’ approved by the US had become one State; a one letter difference which went unnoticed.

His efforts to date had cost him a fortune and he still did not have his railway which was essential for the transportation of the riches of the Congo’s from the interior to the coast in reasonable quantity. At this time he was still thinking of ivory, rubber hardly featuring in his calculations. In 1887 for instance only thirty tons of rubber came out of the Congo. He needed money and turned to his own country, Belgium, which was beginning to realise that there might, after all, be some financial benefits to be had from the Congo. Using a combination of his philanthropic record, the ‘French possession’ threat and a will in which he left ‘all his sovereign rights’ in the Congo Free State to Belgium upon his death, he received an interest free loan of £1,000,000 (1890 value). He promised to borrow no more without the prior approval of the Belgian Parliament and to repay the loan (or have the Congo annexed by Belgium) by the end of 1900. The French do not seem to have been consulted and, in a typical gesture of altruism, the king back-dated his will by a year to August 1889 thus making it appear that his generosity had nothing to do with the ‘subsequent’ loan.

Although the political wheeler-dealing, corruption and lies continued to the end of Leopold’s reign, he now had his State but to take full financial advantage of it he needed four fundamental things. He had to put in place posts throughout his new land in which to pace his administrators and their ‘enforcers’, ‘recruit’ a labour force, develop the river transport on the 1,000 or so miles between Stanley Falls and the rapids and build Stanley’s railway from West of the rapids to Matadi.

In addition he needed stability. He was aware of the growing demand for rubber and of the competition he was facing from South America and the plantations in the Far East. He was now close to sixty years old and needed to make money fast. His idea for short to medium term stability was simple; he would involve directly, and for their own financial benefit, influential political and commercial friends throughout Europe who would, in the preservation of their own interests, support him against his detractors. He also appreciated the particular advantage to himself that he would then be able to offload any approbation onto their shoulders and off his own! This was achieved by a decree of October 1892 which split the Congo into three zones. The first, the Domaine Privée, was to be solely for his financial benefit and consisted of an area round Lake Leopold II and Lake Tumba. In 1901 it was supposed that it had been set up by a Decree of 1896, reserving the land as ‘Crown Property’ but this was subsequently shown to have been forged. The Domaine Privée was about ten times the area of Belgium. A second region was to be either sold on to new owners or distributed between concession companies. The largest of these companies, known as the ‘Anversoise’ was to be in the hands of his close friends but, by 1898, a 50% interest had been acquired by the Congo State (Leopold). The next largest, The Anglo-Belgian India-Rubber Company (ABIR), was formally under the chairmanship of an Englishman, Colonel North, although it later emerged that his financial stake was purchased with Leopold’s money. As with the Anversoise, Leopold soon owned at least 50% of the shares and the British Interest reverted to the Belgians.

Perhaps the most interesting area, from the point of view of Leopold’s machinations, was that situated around the River Kasai. This was designated a Free Trade Area although Leopold’s organization already controlled a major part of it and was particularly obstructive as independent traders tried to work within its ‘free’ economy. Within the 1892 decree was the comment, overlooked by all, that the free trade rights would cease when Belgium ‘was in a position to take over the sovereignty of the Congo’. By the terms of the Belgian Government’s loan this was 1901 and, although Belgium did not take up its offer, it was in a position to do so. Leopold took over again, for once with the law on his side, and that was the end of free trade.

With his land and position reasonably secure he could concentrate on transport and infrastructure. In 1890 Stanley’s railway was started at Matadi. Three years later it had advanced 14 miles at a cost in African life which is, even now, unknown. The official figures claimed 1800 non-whites and 132 whites but less official (and more reliable?) sources suggested that the 1800 figure only related to the first two years of its construction. Nevertheless, the line was extended to Stanley Pool over the next five years and was then open for business. Three weeks of portage were reduced to two days of steam-powered transportation. Leopold needed steamboats above the rapids well before the completion of the railway so that he could use the clear 1,000 miles of river, and its tributaries, to put in place his administrative infrastructure. These had to be dismantled and carried past the rapids and as an indication of what this involved, Just one of the steamboats required over 3,000 ‘porter loads’.

With transport now under control Leopold could get his ivory and rubber out - when it had been collected. His preferred modus operandi was trading posts with a white man in charge of the native work force. The posts, with their white agents in charge, were put in place but since the native workers had to be coerced to do anything for the agents, a middle tier of management was required. This was supplied by soldiers of Leopold’s private army, the ‘Force Publique’ which supplied both garrisons for general area protection and local ‘sentries’. The officers of this army were generally whites, often from Belgium but sometimes from other countries, lent to Leopold to learn the techniques of native control. Other ranks were often enslaved as much as the rubber tappers proved to be. They were generally stationed far from home and were left to be self-supporting. However, possessing guns, they were one off the bottom of the pyramid of power and not actually on the bottom. There were mutinies but by keeping the tappers under control and ensuring that they produced their full allocation of rubber, the soldiers had some chance of survival. Looking to the future, Leopold organized children’s camps, ostensibly under the auspices of the Catholic Church, which were intended to educate the native orphan children but, in actuality, his purpose was to turn them into trustworthy soldiers. The orphans tended to be collected from villages destroyed by the Force Publique and, if they were not orphans when they were found, they became so very soon afterwards.

The control of gangs of labourers by armed supervisors is nothing new but, because of the individual work of the natives in collecting the latex, a new protocol had to be developed by the agents and put into operation by the ‘sentries’ and the Force Publique. The vine which produced most of the Congo rubber was of the Landolphia genus which climbed a convenient tree and then spread out through the upper branches of its neighbours. When one was first located the latex could be extracted by tapping, or incising close to the ground but the tappers then had to move higher and higher up the vine for subsequent tappings. More latex could be obtained by cutting completely though the vine but this was terminal to the vine and forbidden. If caught doing it, it was also terminal for the tapper! As the vines close to a settlement ran dry the tappers had to move further out, often making journeys of a day or more. The usual trading goods of trinkets and the like were not of sufficient interest to the natives for them to put up with the rigours of a tapper’s life and Leopold had made certain that the Congo was, at least to the natives, a ‘no money’ economy. Money could give you power in that you might purchase guns or other undesirable products.

Force was the obvious means of persuasion against the natives who would not put up with the rigours of a tapper’s life for a few trinkets or trade goods and this force was better used against women and children than against the tapper who might then be unable to work efficiently. A procedure was soon established and documented in the official manual given to all agents. The soldiers would arrive at a settlement, loot it of animals and any other items of value, destroy the buildings, capture the women and children and imprison them in stockades built close to each trading post for just this purpose. They would then be ransomed against an arbitrarily decided weight of rubber. On returning with the rubber, the tappers often found that their women had been raped by the ‘sentries’ and/or had died from starvation or some disease.

If the natives objected to the forced labour the settlement was wiped out. Since Leopold did not want to waste money, his agents knew exactly how many bullets were issued to each soldier and these were not to be used shooting game for food! The bullet usage was supposed to relate closely to the number of natives killed and the soldiers supplied evidence of their kills by cutting the right hand from each corpse and smoking it so that it might be preserved for subsequent checking. When one agent suggested that the hands could have come from women, easier to catch and kill, penises were brought in to prove the honesty of the soldiers.

Severed heads had been considered trophies of inter-tribal wars long before Leopold took an interest in the Congo but he certainly had no objections to the continuation of the practice. One agent, Van Kerckhoven, paid his soldiers 1p per head ‘to stiffen their resolve during battle’ whilst another used twenty-one heads to decorate his flowerbeds. This is probably the origin of Marlow’s observation of Kurtz’s collection of heads in Joseph Conrad’s book ‘The Heart of Darkness’. In the ultimate statement of self-justification one agent reported how, when local villagers failed to meet their fish and manioc quota, he decapitated 100 of them. ‘There have been plenty of supplies ever since. My goal was ultimately humanitarian. I killed 100 people but this allowed 500 to live’.

Tales of horror and destruction could continue but the point has been made and it is time to turn to the fall of Leopold. He fought a running battle with his critics throughout his ‘Congo mission’ but for many years his outward altruism and humanity, as well as influential friends who were also gaining from his efforts, protected him. One of the earliest attempts to bring him to some accountability was initiated by a black American soldier, lawyer and preacher, James Washington Williams. Williams was already known in America as a proponent of black civil rights. In 1889 he wrote to Leopold suggesting that he could recruit black Americans to work in the Congo where they could advance themselves in a way impossible in the US. He came to Europe, met and was impressed by Leopold and, in 1890, set out for Africa where he spent six months touring the Congo. He was a civil rights activist and what he saw sickened him. His response was to write an ‘Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II’ which was also published as a pamphlet and widely distributed throughout Europe. He wrote a similar letter to the President of the United States of America, President Harrison. In the ‘Open Letter’ he accused Leopold on eight major points:

  1. Stanley used a range of crude conjuring tricks to persuade the natives that he had supernatural powers and to induce them to sign over their tribal lands for trivial recompense.
  2. Stanley was not a hero but a cruel foul-mouthed tyrant.
  3. Leopold’s African soldiers had to be self-sufficient and the results – death of the unhelpful natives and the destruction of their villages - followed from that.
  4. Leopold’s soldiers were excessively cruel to their prisoners.
  5. There was no wise government, no schools and no hospitals for the natives.
  6. The judicial system was corrupt and unjust. Whites could get away (literally) with murder whilst blacks could receive terrible punishments, including death, for trivial, or even invented, offences.
  7. Kidnapping natives to be used a concubines by state officials was commonplace.
  8. Leopold’s government was systematically slave trading throughout the Congo.

In a letter to America he coined a phrase which, still today, is the ultimate condemnation. He described Leopold’s operations in the Congo as: ‘A crime against Humanity’.

Leopold immediately set out to discredit Williams but was fortunate when, in August 1891, Williams died of tuberculosis aged just forty-one. The rumblings continued but without his passion to fan the flames, they slowly subsided. Even that august newspaper, The Times, saw fit to write a leader in 1895 which included: ‘a system of compulsion closely akin to slavery would be necessary before natives of the Congo Free State could be trained to regular voluntary labour’.

Another black American Missionary, William Henry Sheppard, was in the Congo at the same time as Williams and for partly the same reason – to find a country where black Americans could develop without segregation. Unlike Williams, however, he was based at one place, the Presbyterian mission he and a colleague had established far up the River Kasai, the home of the Kuba people. This was so remote that it took eight years for Leopold’s soldiers to reach it and during that time Sheppard established a remarkable rapport with the natives. He appears to be one of the very few black men respected by both whites and blacks in the Congo at that time. When Leopold’s soldiers arrived, the Kubas resisted and were massacred by the thousand. In 1899 Sheppard was told by his superiors to go into the jungle and find out what was happening. What he found was smoked right hands and the soldiers smoking them, for it was he who first publicised the practice in missionary magazines throughout both Europe and the States. His, and other missionaries’, articles continued to infuriate Leopold who, in 1906 made it an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment to commit any calumny against a Congo State official. After the first conviction of a Baptist minister, things quietened down a little but, in 1908, Sheppard published the story of another Kuba revolt and the way in which it was put down. The local concessionaires, the Compagnie du Kasai, demanded a retraction and when Sheppard’s colleague pointed out to the company that they had a lot more charges to make the Compagnie became more enraged. Whilst the arguments were continuing, the British Vice-Consul visited the region with Sheppard as guide to prepare his own report and, when this was published supporting Sheppard’s story, the company had had enough and sued Sheppard for libel. The judge reserved judgement as he worked out what to do. The Americans had made it clear that their attitude to Belgian’s claim on the Congo could depend on his verdict, whilst the judge’s career was obviously finished if he found for Sheppard. The verdict was clear. Since Sheppard had not named the Compagnie du Kasai in his article it could be assumed that he was only blaming soldiers of chartered trading companies for the massacres and did not intend to make an attack on the defendant, Sheppard was innocent and the Compagnie not guilty. Although the story of Sheppard has been told in isolation it forms only part of the greater story concerning the downfall of Leopold. If Leopold was the schemer and Stanley the realizer then E. D. Morel was their nemesis.

Edmund Dene Morel was the son of an English widow and who had been married to a Frenchman and who, at the age of seventeen, moved from Paris to Liverpool to become a clerk in the Elder-Dempster shipping line. He had no history of political activism neither did he know, nor care, much about Africa. The shipping line had plied the routes to Africa for a number of years and held the contract for all cargo to and from Leopold’s Congo. Being bi-lingual he soon became the liaison officer between the line and the Congo officials in Belgium and regularly visited Antwerp to compile and check the records of goods received and dispatched. It did not take him long to realise that a great fraud was being perpetrated – and that even worse things were happening. The fraud was obvious to someone used to dealing with figures. Leopold’s various trading companies and the Congo Government published certain trade figures for exports whilst the amounts of ivory and rubber unloaded at Antwerp greatly exceeded them. Millions of pounds were floating loose somewhere. The more disconcerting discovery was that there were regular shipments of guns and ammunition out of Antwerp into the Congo, assigned to either the State itself or to various named trading companies. Coupled to this was the fact that over 80% of the goods being shipped to the Congo were of no benefit to the natives but were intended to prop up the administrative system. How then were the ever increasing quantities of ivory and rubber being paid for? He knew that money was not an option as the natives were not allowed to use it and yet Elder-Dempster had a monopoly on all trade. The only answer must be that they were not being paid. They were, in fact, slave labour.

At the end of the century, in his mid 20’s, Morel found his conscience and, blistering with outrage, set out to destroy Leopold and his operation in the Congo. He first revealed his suspicions to Sir Alfred Jones, head of the shipping line and also Honorary Consul in Liverpool to the Congo, but, since the latter was more concerned with keeping his lucrative contract than on displaying moral principles, he was reluctant to stir the muddy waters. He did, however, promptly visit Leopold who told him, in essence, that the natives had to be subdued for their own long-term benefit and it would be better if this young clerk learned some discretion – quickly. The offer of a pay rise and a transfer away from the ‘Congo desk’ was rejected, only to be followed by a more blatant bribe which was again refused. In his younger days Morel had written some free-lance articles for trade journals and found he had some flair for the written word so, in 1901, aged twenty-eight he resigned and started his onslaught. Unfortunately there were limits to what he could get published so, two years later, he started his own paper ‘The West African Mail’ in which he had total editorial control.

Morel insisted on unimpeachable veracity and, whilst writing with all the fury he could muster, he was always accurate. Every attempt by Leopold’s supporters to catch him out was foiled. On complaining that the story of natives being forced to work through the kidnapping of their women was false, Morel was ready with a copy of the form given by the ABIR to all its agents headed ‘Natives under bodily detention’ and an order on the up-keep and feeding of hostages. As Morel’s fame spread he received letters, reports and copies of documents from a vast number of people including employees of Leopold in the Congo and clerks in the Belgian offices of Congo companies. Missionaries who had at last found a mainstream publisher outside the normal run of religious pamphlets and journals willingly released their pent-up emotions and produced more irrefutable evidence – photographs. Of the eyewitness stories which Morel published, just one sums up Leopold’s Congo. It came from an American agent working for the ‘Anversoise’, Edward Canisius: ‘…. We had undergone six weeks of painful marching and had killed over 900 natives, men, women and children’. The incentive? ‘Adding fully twenty tons of rubber to the monthly crop’.

One of Morel’s supporters was Sir Charles Dilkes MP and in 1903 the Congo question was raised in the Houses of Parliament. A resolution was passed making clear Parliament’s belief in Morel’s writings and protesting over the treatment of the natives. It also expressed concern about Leopold’s failure to live up to his free trade promises. Leopold became concerned and so started a campaign to present his side of the story.

Britain was intent on destabilising his operations because British gin manufacturers wanted to export their product to innocent natives but his enlightened administration would stop them.

Missionaries were bigots out to force their beliefs on everyone by any methods.

The very profits he was making from the Congo showed how well the natives were being treated.

Would this be enough and had he bought enough politicians and businessmen for things to quieten down yet again? The answer was soon forthcoming: the Foreign Office sent a telegram to HM Consul in the Congo and asked him to investigate.

The consul was the thirty-nine year old Roger Casement who had been in Africa for much of the last twenty years. Amongst other activities he had worked for the surveyors on the ‘rapids railway’ and had spent a week with Stanley in the Congo. In 1890 he had shared rooms with a Polish ship’s officer, Józef Konrad Korzeniowski who was on his way to learn the secrets of the river so that he might take control of his own steamer. Six months was all he could take in the Congo and later, as Joseph Conrad, he wrote of the atrocities he had witnessed in ‘Heart of Darkness’. In 1892 Casement worked in what is today Nigeria and then transferred to the British Consular service. In 1900, he was to set up the Consular Service in the Congo. He was fully aware of Leopold’s activities in the Congo and had already written to the Foreign Office about them. Now he had permission to investigate officially and he was not to let either the natives or his government down. For over three months he travelled throughout the Congo and the more he learned the more sickened he became. He returned to Britain to write his report and, although it was written in the formal restrained way of a government document, the factual and graphic contents were much more than the government expected or, perhaps, wanted. It was Casement, for instance, who dispassionately described the severing of penises in confirmation that the corpses which had provided right hands were males. Pressure to stop publication came from highly placed sources, including the British pro-Leopold minister to Brussels, who wanted to ‘avoid being put in an awkward position at the (Belgian) court’ and the head of the Elder-Dempster shipping line for more obvious financial reasons. The report had to be published, particularly since the frustrated Casement had given several interviews about its contents to the press but, as a compromise, all names were purged. Casement seethed when Leopold’s apologists issued general denials which he was unable to defend with specifics. It appeared that the ‘sentries’ were to protect the tappers (from what or whom?) and those unfortunates with missing hands had had them amputated to prevent the spread of cancer of the hands.

Luckily for Casement’s sanity he had, by then, met Morel whose work he had read whilst in the Congo and the two men struck up an immediate strong friendship. Out of this meeting came, in 1904, the ‘Congo Reform Association’, the intention of which was to persuade European governments to take action against the abuses of human rights in the Congo. Morel knew that politicians prefer a quiet life whenever possible so he sought out support from a wide range of lords, MP’s, churchmen and businessmen and kept up a continuous barrage of public (and private) meetings and writings. Perhaps his most famous book is ‘Red Rubber: The Story of the Rubber Trade Flourishing on the Congo in the Year of Grace 1906’ in which, in a central section of thirty-six pages, he documented close to 100 reports which he had received, from a broad spectrum of sources, concerning atrocities committed on the Congolese natives between 1890 and 1905. Each report was accompanied by a full provenance. As some indication of his prolific outpourings, it is estimated that he wrote over 3,500 letters in the in the first half of that year (1906) alone.

Leopold now realised that neither his words alone, nor those of his apologists, were enough to stop the rising tide of concern and resentment from Britain. He was presented with further problems when American missionaries lobbied President Roosevelt claiming that as the US was the first country to recognise the Congo Free State, it had a special responsibility to protect its indigenous population. Forced to act, predominantly in response to the Casement Report, Leopold set up an International Commission of Enquiry consisting of three judges, one from each of Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, who were to travel to the Congo to investigate Casement’s allegations. They returned to Belgium in March 1905 but Leopold kept their report suppressed until November of that year. In the meantime a Belgian Member of Parliament struck gold. He asked a provocative question: ‘Were bonuses still being paid to agents in inverse proportion to the value of the goods they exchanged for rubber and ivory?’ The Foreign Minister explicitly denied any such policy only to have read out to him the confidential State documents confirming this as official policy. The finally released report of the Commission of Enquiry was a shattering blow to the Belgian Government. It listed:

  1. The Land Laws: contrary to the Berlin Directive and would militate against the development of native life.
  2. Forced Labour: applied with unpardonable ferocity and reprisals.
  3. Bonus system: unacceptable and dishonest.
  4. Powers to Concession Companies: intolerable.
  5. Legal system: biased and inadequate.

(Shades of Williams’ Open Letter over a decade earlier).

Leopold’s choices were becoming very limited and became more so in March 1906 when a motion to revive the Annexation Bill of 1901 was passed in the Belgian Parliament. Leopold realised that he was beaten in terms of actual ‘ownership’ of the Congo but he still had more than half a pack of cards to play in concealing the multiplicity of companies in which he had shares or owned outright. He was content to hand over the administrative shell if he could keep the contents. He retreated to his yacht, the ‘Alberta’ and his Villa des Cèdres on Cap Ferat and prepared his defences. These consisted of a series of defensive ‘walls’, built on the assumption that, as each defence fell, another would be there to back it up.

In mid 1907 the Congolese and Belgians agreed to produce a draft treaty and negotiators were appointed, several of whom happened to be friends of Leopold. By the end of the year a draft treaty had been produced and signed which proved that Leopold had succeeded with his most important defence wall – The Belgian State pledged itself to recognise the Foundations existing in the Congo. This would include Leopold’s ‘Fondation de la Couronne’, formed as a foundation barely a year earlier but holding Leopold’s ‘Domaine de la Couronne’ (that tract of land ten times the area of Belgium) as its major asset together with a massive portfolio of land holdings throughout Belgium and southern France, shares and cash. The Government could not accept this but was surprised when Leopold gave way in early 1908. It had not realised the purpose of his ‘walls’ and by now he had finished putting most of his fortune out of reach of the Government. However, he still believed that he had a saleable asset. There was, and still is, no argument that a large amount of Leopold’s wealth went into building works throughout Belgium and the Government agreed to take these over and complete them as well as taking responsibility for their many outstanding debts. Leopold himself kept the ‘goods and movable assets’ of the ‘Fondation’ and received a gift of £2,000,000 in recognition of a nation’s gratitude. The politicians still argued but the end was in sight.

A speech from the throne by King Edward VII in 1908 represented the ultimate approval of the work of Morel and his colleagues. The King hoped that negotiations between Belgium and the Congo State would result in a state humanely administered in the spirit of the Berlin Act. The Belgian Parliament had to act if it was to retain any credence and self-respect so the treaty became law in 1908. On November 8th 1908 the flag of the Congo Free State was lowered for the last time but it took several years yet for the Belgian government to dismantle the ‘Leopold Legacy’. It was 1913, the year that the Congo Reform Association disbanded, that Britain recognised that the transfer of power was effective. By then Leopold had been dead for three and a half years, finally succumbing to an intestinal operation, probably for cancer, on December 14th 1909.

Was it worth it and what was the cost? No one knows the answer to either question. Some figures have been produced, most comprehensively in terms of rubber production by Morel who, after his discoveries in the late 1890’s which precipitated Leopold’s fall from grace, set out to establish realistic figures for Congo rubber exports. The best one can say is that they represent minimum figures.

From the earliest days of trading through the West Coast settlements, small amounts of rubber had become available for export at the instigation of the traders. Unlike his Mesoamerican counterpart, the African native had little use for the material except as an adhesive to fasten spear- and arrow- heads to their shafts. By 1888 it was still a small amount, representing about 10% in value of all exports, rising to 25% by 1895, 50% in 1896, 70% in 1898, 85% in 1900 and peaking at 90% in 1901 but remaining in this area for the rest of Leopold’s ownership of the Congo. It has been estimated that between 1898 and 1905, raw materials to the value of about £14,000,000 were exported from the Congo for the benefit of Leopold and his collaborators whilst imports, mainly to support the ‘administrative’ regime, were some £6,000,000.

It was also estimated that Leopold’s ‘Domaine de la Couronne’ gave him a clear profit of some £3,000,000 between 1896 and 1906 whilst the State’s rubber exports in its peak year of 1901 were estimated to be some £2,000,000. These estimates were calculated on the ‘most realistic estimates’ of exports from a mass of data and not just on the ‘official’ documents of the time which first arousE D Morel’s suspicions. They also exclude his profits from companies in which he had shares, usually over 50%. Morel estimated his income from dividends alone in the three major companies to be £360,000 in 1904-5. In attempting to ridicule the figure of £3,000,000, the Belgian Premier, a known apologist for Leopold, produced figures to show that it was at least a factor of four too large. Unfortunately, his mathematical errors did not escape the Members of the Belgian Parliament who felt that even the £3,000,000 was an underestimate.

In calculating Leopold’s financial gains from the Congo, the various loans he raised between 1888 and 1904 should not be forgotten. The Belgian Premier suggested £3,000,000 whilst others, less in Leopold’s pocket, calculated over £5,000,000.

By the time of Leopold’s death the money was rolling in nicely and it has already been noted that the Belgian Government did not act with an excess of zeal to stop the slave trade when it took control at the end of 1909. The money was, after all, useful to balance the country’s books and complete Leopold’s lavish projects. In the four following years 1909-1912, 14,000 tons were exported but then came the Great War followed by plantation rubber. The rush for wild rubber was over.

The human cost of the Congo rubber saga is as difficult to calculate as the financial but it was certainly high. There is general agreement that the population of the Congo in the 1880’s was around 25,000,000. In 1911 the official figure was put at 8,500,000, 7,700,000 in 1923 and 8 – 10,000,000 in the mid 1930’s. Making due allowance for inaccuracies in the 1880’s figure there seems to be no reason to doubt that 10 - 15,000,000 natives ‘vanished’ in the Congo during Leopold’s rubber-grabbing years. Not all this can be laid at the door of rubber or, indeed, at the door of Leopold himself, for during this period Africa was swept by a devastating plague of sleeping sickness. Secret flight was an option but this was against the Concession Company’s ‘law’ and it was not easy, as the death toll incurred by native porters during many explorations have shown. The birth rate of native Congolese fell substantially in the first decade of the 19th century and this is generally ascribed to the falling numbers of young indigenous males, murdered for failing to meet their target quotas of rubber. However, the concurrent rape of the female hostages should have compensated for this so the reasons must be more complex. One still has to ask how this should be factored into any calculations regarding lives ‘lost’ during this period.

The rubber tappers had to work between twenty and twenty-five days each month to pay their rubber taxes and this left them with little time to clear land, build shacks and grow food. Whichever came first, exhaustion or illness, and either would almost inevitably lead to the other, the result would be a drop in rubber collection and death. If half the missing millions died due to rubber-related causes, the figure would be close to the total population of Belgium and not dissimilar to the total number of dead in the Great War. If we take a not-unrealistic weight of rubber to come out of the Congo as 75,000 tons (75,000,000Kg) and the rubber-related loss of native life as 7,500,000 we have the value of a Congolese native life – 10Kg of rubber!

What of Morel after his prolonged campaign and ultimate victory? He became an active member of the Liberal Party and in October, 1912, he became its prospective parliamentary candidate in Birkenhead. However, he disagreed with the way that Herbert Asquith and his government were dealing with the crisis in Europe and at the outbreak of the First World War he became involved with establishing the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) which had three main objectives:

  1. to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy
  2. there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts
  3. that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.

To the anger of the Liberal party, Morel wrote many of the UDC anti-war pamphlets published during the war and this resulted in his being removed as the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Birkenhead. The Daily Express suggested that the UDC was working for the German government and encouraged its readers to go and break-up the organization’s meetings. The UDC complained to the Home Secretary about this "incitement to violence" but he refused to take any action. Over the next few months the police refuse to protect UDC speakers and they were often attacked by angry crowds, Morel himself being physically attacked on several occasions. When Scotland Yard was asked to investigate Morel and the UDC it reported that the UDC was not a revolutionary body and its funds came from the Society of Friends and "Messrs. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree".

In 1917 Morel was sentenced to six months in prison for a technical violation of the Defence of the Realm Act and never regained his full health. On his release from prison he left the Liberal Party and joined the Independent Labour Party where, in 1922, he defeated the Liberal Party candidate at Dundee, Winston Churchill. In spite of his relationship with Ramsey Macdonald and his undoubted abilities he was denied high office and died of a heart attack two years later on 12th November, 1924.