Author: D. Augustus Straker

Title: "The Land of Our Fathers."

Journal: New York Freeman

Place of Publication: New York

Date: January 23, 1886

Place: Congo Basin


Most Americans did not have access to Congressional debates about whether the U.S should recognize the sovereignty of King Leopold II of Belgium's Congo Free State—which prompted the convening of the Berlin Conference—or discussions of U.S. engagement with the "African Question." [note 1] They turned to newspapers to glean any information about the major international issue for the West at the time—the present and future state of African affairs. U.S. media coverage of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was extensive, with articles published in the major coastal newspapers and dailies in the South, West, and Midwest, attesting to the scope of American interest in European designs on Africa.

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The Land of Our Fathers.

Interest in the Congo Region.

Why are the European Powers Grasping Africa Territory?

By D. Augustus Straker, L.L.D. in the A. M. E. Church Review for January.

It is a matter of no small concern to the sons and daughters of Africa, wherever assembled upon the face of the globe, to perceive the deep interest which the civilized powers of the earth are taking in the development of the resources of the "Dark Continent," and to observe the attention which said powers seem now ready to give to the civilization of its races.

It is a matter of right and duty that we, who are identified with the African race, the native land of our forefathers, -- the continent third in size to the continents of the globe, and which has been in times past the theatre of arts and sciences, and the mart of a great portion of the world's commerce, and whose resources, as developed and undeveloped, prove it to be one of the riches portions of man's habitation upon earth; so that men and nations, who have hitherto looked upon it as the abode of wild beasts and human savages only, now, with surprising interest, selfish or patriotic, seek its shores, and solicit its benefits to the end of human civilization, -- I say, for these reasons, it is a matter of right and propriety that we should discuss this topic.

The people of Africa are varied in ethnological distinctions, like unto other races of people in other natural divisions of the globe. Its natural composition and production challenge the admiration of the traveler and the talent of the explorer. Its history is fraught with the achievements of the statesman, the philosopher, the scientist and the patriot. Hannibal and Hamilcar attest its military renown. The cities of Rome, Greece, Babylon, Nineveh and Tyre owe no small amount of their prestige in the history of great peoples in the commercial intercourse with and supply from Africa, as well as the upbuilding of their literature through its source, as the origin of systematic letters.

Against the unwarranted and hostile assertion of Commander Foote, that "the loss of all Africa would offer no memorable deduction from anything but the earth's black catalogue of crimes," is to be placed the impartial, unprejudiced statement of Volney, the great French Oriental traveler and distinguished linguist, who after visiting the wonders of Egypt and Ethiopia, exclaimed, "How are we astonished, when we reflect that to the race of Negroes, at present our slaves, and the objects of our extreme contempt, we owe our arts and sciences, and even the very use of speech!" Herodotus and Home have found enough in Africa to grace the pages of history whereby to instruct mankind as derived from the African race. It is not then surprising that from the deep and long lethargy, in which civilized nations remained for hundreds of years, so utterly inconsistent with civilization under the influence of Christian religion, there should not be a sudden awakening to what African has been, what it is and what it is capable of becoming. It may be that this is caused by the insatiable lust for dominion and wealth, which were once wrested from weak nations by cruel force, but now, under the influence and growth of law and civilization, seeks to get its desire by the more civilized method of International Conferences. In this there may be also the righteous desire to extend the benefits of civilization to the benighted races of Africans. It is to be hoped for, and we earnestly trust that this latter reason is the prime cause and object of the International Conference lately held at Berlin, under the auspices of King Leopold, of Belgium. If so, the civilized powers but carry out the fundamental principles of that intercourse and duty developing upon all civilized nations towards an uncivilized and weaker nation. Says Vattell: "A nation must not simply confine itself to the preservation of other States. It should likewise, according to its power, and their want of its assistance, contribute to their perfection. * * * Natural society imposes on it this general obligation." Thus it will be seen that this topic has both as international and a race aspect.

The late International Conference held at Berlin, in which the civilized powers of England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Turkey, Holland and the United States of America engaged, was convened at the instance of King Leopold, of Belgium, to discuss the question, "how best to utilize the commercial facilities of the extensive country watered by the Congo River, and comprising the Congo Valley," and also, as King Leopold expressly declares as the prime object of the Conference, namely, "not to acquire acquisition to Belgium; but in the interest of geographical science, free commercial intercourse and introduction of civilization into the very heart of Africa." This Christian catholic spirit and purpose must commend itself as worthy of the great master-mind which gave it birth, as well as it deserves the praise of all lovers of human progress and the spread of civilization; and should the result of this unprecedented meeting of the highest type of human civilization, over which the united flag of the civilized powers of the earth wafted, be the uplifting of Africa from a state of mental darkness, intellectual inanition and commercial stagnation, to the position of a civilized and prosperous state, reared upon the pedestal of Christianity, adorned by the arts and sciences of our forefathers revived by modern progress, and made strong and prosperous by the commercial intercourse of civilized nations -- it will establish an era in the world's progress unprecedented in the past; and the name of King Leopold, of Belgium, will be inscribed upon the top most round of the ladder of the fame of patriots, for he who loves another's country and its wellbeing to the end of uplifting it from darkness into light, loves his own country best, and is a patriot, whose country is all the earth and whose countrymen the people thereon. Vattell has truly said, "That the officers of humanity were those succors, those duties which men owe to each other as men, that is as social beings formed to live in society, and standing in need of mutual assistance for their perservation and happiness, and to enable them to live conformable to their nature. Now," continued this great author, "the laws of nature being o less obligatory on nations than on individuals, whatever duties each man owes to other men, the same does each nation, in its way, owe to other nations." But it is astonishing to perceive how these underlying fundamental principles of the duties of civilized nations, not only towards one another, but towards the uncivilized races, should have been so long and so woefully neglected. This omission of Christian duty is the true cause of the absence of all progress in civilization in Africa. It was the recognition of this duty which led that great and noble man, statesman, philanthrophist, humanitarian and scholar, Charles Sumner, he whose every pulse beat in sympathy with his fellow-man's wants in ever clime and of every color -- the noblest soul that e'er wore earth's garb about it -- to summon the attention of the United States Congress to the duty of the American Government to Liberia, and to demand a recognition of the equality of rights due Liberia as an independent government. Upon the same principle, he advocated the rights of the United States to protect the Republic of Santo Domingo against the rapacity of American speculation, as sought by some American White citizens. Speaking on the question in Congress, March, 1871, Mr. Sumner said, "Foremost among admitted principles of International Law is the axiom that all nations are equal without distinction of population, size, or power. Nor does International Law know any distinction of color. As a natural consequence whatever is the rule for one is the rule for all, nor can we do to a scattered, small, weak or black what we would not do to a populous, large strong white nation." I have thus treated this topic in a measure in the abstract, because it is in the light of these fundamental principles that we can safely and correctly view the relation which these civilized powers should bear towards Africa and ascertain their influence upon it. In order that this International Conference should have a civilizing and Christianizing influence upon the inhabitants of the Congo Valley in particular, and Africa in general, the spirits of equality of rights, as human beings, must enter the minds and formulate the actions of its soil and mould its future. If, instead of this, the spirit, the purpose be to enter Africa to acquire dominion only over the rich and fertile territory of our Fatherland, and to keep servile the races thereon, to the end of making them "hewers of wood and drawers of water," so as to fill the already loaded coffers of cupidinous nations, then frustrated be the purpose of the late Conference. But if, instead, resting upon the avowed declaration of King Leopold, the purpose of the Conference is to carary civilization even into the heart of Africa and utilize its commercial agencies, we cannot deny that the introduction of such civilized powers as England, France, Belgium, Germany, the United States of America and the other powers already mentioned must have a beneficial influence in Christianizing and civilizing Africa. In order to prove this, let us see what is the present condition of the Congo Valley and Africa in general. But seven years ago this portion of Africa, known to the natives as Lualaba, watered as it is by the famous Congo River, whence it drives its modern name, was discovered by the American explorer, Mr. Henry Stanley, on his march from Lake Tanganyika, during which he encountered so great dangers, and suffered the loss of go many noble men. Its area is estimated by Mr. Stanley at about one million square miles, making it as large as British India or China. It is said to have a population of forty-four million souls. The land is not everywhere peopled, and vast forest and jungles are known to exist. This region is tropical throughout; with heat, sunshine and rainfall copiously distributed, fertility and vegetation therefore prevail. Fruit, vegetables and fish abound. The inhabitants are said to be nearly all uncivilized, and though some of them are gentle and open-hearted, yet many are predatory, barbarous and blood-thirsty. The materials for commerce in this region are oils, pigments, ornamental woods and reeds, ivory, horns, feathers and other productions of the animal kingdom. Its mineral resources are said to be copper, gypsum, bitumen and malachite. Tea and coffee are capable of being raised, it is said. Those who have been among the natives say they show great inclination for receiving civilizing influences. They are said to be good carpenters and canoe builders. They use knives, spears and other iron articles, which they make themselves. In all these evidences of native talent we clearly observe a ready adaptation to civilizing influences by contact. The great highway for commerce is the great Congo River. Such are the chief characteristics of the country and people of the Congo Valley. The political situation is such that the inhabitants have local chiefs, but are destitute of administrative organization and have nothing approaching to government. In this condition they are of course at the mercy of those civilized people who come in contact with them, and who, by design and intrigue, seek to make them their prey and despoil them of their goods. It is therefore clear that only such contact with civilization as has for its purpose the uplifting of these people can benefit them.

Despite this ill condition of a barbarous people, their is enough found in the prospective resources of the Congo Valley to excite the European powers which assembled at Berlin in conference, to determine how best to utilize this latent forces, which lie hid in the fertile bosom of Africa, and which, through the exploits of Livingston and Stanley, have only commenced to dawn upon the civilized powers of the earth, yet sufficiently so to produce the Berlin Conference and to cause Portugal, in her ancient right through treaty, to claim the exclusive control of a large portion of the Congo Valley and to be willing to be regarded as a mere partner with the other powers in the work of the spread of commerce in this fertile region. This dispute gives rise to the question, Is it the material prosperity of the people of Africa which these civilized powers seek? or, is it the lust of dominion and territory? Despite Portugal's course in the Conference at Berlin, yet it must be conceded that should these powers plant their civilization in the Dark Continent, untold benefit will be derived as an inevitable result of the law of con-association, so strengthening by its influence even amidst hostilities, upon the theory that the conquest of a barbarous people by a civilized power is justifiable through its benefits. This we know is a plea of justification made by the Pilgrim Fathers in their warfare in America against the aborigines, or native Indians. But this Berlin Conference is not the result of emotional effort, but is the natural development of human progress arising from the light of discovery of history, law, science and Christianity, which have given to the civilized world so much knowledge of Africa, its resources and developments.