Author: Sydney Olivier

Title: The League of Nations and Primitive Peoples

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Place of Publication: New York

Date: 1918

Places: Congo Free State; Congo Basin; German African Colonies


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The League of Nations and Primitive Peoples

There is no sphere of international Politics in which the application of the principles involved in the idea of the League of Nations more convincingly appears to be called for, or in which, if the builders of such a League are in earnest, it could be more simply, promptly, and beneficially effected, than in that of the relations of European to primitive peoples. For the defects in these relations are, in regard to matters on which the conscience of mankind is fully agreed, more glaring and less likely to be overtly disputed on behalf of any Power than are the causes of discord between the civilized nations; whilst at the same time the ground is in a much more favourable state for the establishment and action of a central authority, both because of the special character of the history of the existing relations and of the comparatively short period and imperfect degree of their development in the greater part of the area to be dealt with.

'Foreign Politics', said the late Lord Salisbury, 'mean African Politics.' When he said it, Africa was in fact the chief sphere of activity of those policies of the extension of sovereignty, control, and economic exploitation on the part of European Governments over territories in the possession of less civilized or weaker peoples that were then keeping diplomatists busy. That dictum is as true to-day as ever, in the very significant sense that, whilst the Powers partitioned primitive Africa and the Pacific without coming to blows in the process, the crash of the world-war has come because, when they had safely disposed of all the 'primitive' peoples available, and, after a few tentative demonstrations in South America, had been chased away from that neighbourhood by the watchdogs of the Monroe Doctrine, they proceeded (in rivalry now with Russia and Austria also) to apply to half-civilized and more-than-half-civilized Africa-to Morocco and Tripoli, to weak or backward States in Europe -- Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Turkey -- to Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Persia -- very similar processes of encroachment, intervention, and control, on the same justificatory principles as they had appealed to in partitioning Africa, and as are now being applied, on the plea of much the same arguments, by the Central Empires to Poland, Rumania, and the dismembered racial groups that recently made up the Russian realm. Meanwhile, the United States had entered upon a similar policy among the surviving possessions of Spain in the Antilles and the Philippines, with further interventions in San Domingo and Haiti.

The world-war came, it may fairly be said, because the general politics of Europe had taken on the character and the colour of the politics of the 'scramble for Africa' -- because all Foreign Politics had become 'African' Politics.

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The fact, however, that acquisitions in Africa were divided, on something like a basis of give and take, between European Powers, although it did not create a permanent international guardianship for primitive peoples, yet rendered such a creation a much more obvious and attainable ideal.

And a most important approach was in fact made towards this ideal, for in regard to the exploitation of the Congo Basin an International Conference was assembled, at which the principle of international guardianship was powerfully advocated and to some extent established in practice. When Bismarck, at this (Berlin) Conference (1885) -- in which he had refused to allow the Pope to be represented -- proposed to declare that the sole purpose of its proceedings was to establish freedom of trade and navigation in the Congo Basin, the British Plenipotentiary deprecated this limitation, urging that commercial interests should not be regarded as the exclusive subject of the deliberations. The United States Minister warmly supported this attitude. And so the unpretentious realism of the Prussian confession of purpose was generously expanded by the pronouncement: "All the Powers exercising rights of sovereignty in the said territories undertake to watch over the preservation of the native races and the amelioration of the moral and material conditions of their existence, and to co-operate in the suppression of slavery, and above all of the slave-trade. They will protect and encourage all religious, scientific, or charitable institutions established for these objects or tending to educate the natives in the advantages of civilization."

Perhaps more importantly still, the Act also provided for the neutralizing of the Congo Territories in the event of war between any of the consenting Powers. But, on the other hand (and this too is important), whilst the European Powers were prepared and proposed in the draft Act jointly to guarantee this neutrality, thus laying a possible foundation for a similar consensual exclusion of militarism from the whole of Africa, the United States Senate refused to concur in this provision, and it was struck out. Consequences of this omission were (1) that when, simultaneously with her violation of the neutrality of Belgium, Germany mobilized her troops in East Africa (abutting on the Belgian Congo) the Allied European Powers (not unnaturally) declined to maintain the neutrality of the Congo State, and prepared for action against Germany on that side; and (2) that President Wilson, to whom, at a later date, Germany, having seen reason to think better of her policy of setting Africa on fire against the Allies, appealed for intervention on behalf of neutrality, had to point out that he possessed no locus standi.

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What ought to have been done in the Partition of Africa, what was attempted and in some degree foreshadowed in the Berlin Congo Act, must then be done, at any rate with regard to these lands. These territories of primitive peoples, to whatever sovereignty they may be committed, must be given security that they shall be governed conformably to principles laid down in the light of the experience in African affairs that the world has gained during the last thirty-five years -- a conformity to be enforced by the joint guarantee of the Powers associated in the settlement.

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