Author: Jesse Siddall Reeves

Title: "The Origin of the Congo Free State, Considered from the Standpoint of International Law"

Journal: The American Journal of International Law

Date: January 1909

Places: Congo Basin; Congo Free State; Congo River; Lake Tanganyika; Sudan; Zambezi River


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The Origin of the Congo Free State, Considered from the Standpoint of International Law

By Jesse Siddall Reeves

[. . .]

Leopold declared that he had no selfish or ulterior aim, and, although it has been charged that at this early date, when there was no exact geographical knowledge of central Africa, he had colonial aspirations for Belgium, [note 1] there seems to be no conclusive evidence to prove the assertion. This conference resulted in the organization known as L'Association Internationale pour l'Exploration et la Civilisation de l'Afrique Centrale," or, shortly, L'Association Internationale Africaine. It had at the outset three objects: First, to explore scientifically the unknown parts of Africa; second, to facilitate the opening of roads by which civilization might be introduced into central Africa; and, third, to find means of suppressing the negro slave trade in Africa. The methods for the attainment of these objects were (1) an organization "upon one common international plan" for the exploration of Africa from ocean to ocean and from the Zambesi to the Soudan, and (2) the establishment of scientific and relief stations within this territory. Both of the objects were therefore, scientific and humanitarian. The methods were to be international, i. e., distinctly nonpolitical. An important and perhaps significant action was the adoption of a flag to cover the proposed expeditions and the stations to be established. At the time this flag was to have a status, if possible, like that of the Red Cross. [note 2] An international commission was instituted which held a meeting in June, 1877, to formulate further plans. Tn addition to various national committees of the association there was to be an executive committee, resident at Brussels, under the immediate direction of Leopold, to which the several national committees were to send funds for the prosecution of the work. After the session of June, 1877, the International Commission seems to have done nothing. The various national committees had little or no vitality at any time. What activity Leopold's interest aroused outside of Belgium took the form of national or private expeditions. The Belgian committee, however, energized by Leopold, sent an expedition to Tanganyika, which had few results, geographical or otherwise. It served, however, to give continuity to the organization and to, perpetuate the name of the association.

[. . .]

In 1884 its territorial claims were large; it comprised the territory south of the Congo and drained by that river and its affluents. But up to the time of the Berlin Conference there had been no delimitation of its territories. Its population was numerous, it is true, having been estimated at from eleven to thirty millions. But these were the blacks, subject to their own primitive rule of life, dwelling in more or less settled fashion in tribal organizations, just as they had for centuries. Of the whites there were at this time about two hundred and fifty, nearly all of whom were in the service of the association. How many of the blacks were conscious of the existence of the alleged sovereign authority of the association, there is no evidence. Later events lead one to think that they were few. Some of these were tribes which resisted, more or less successfully, all exercise of that authority. Outside the small spheres of the various stations, no actual control over the natives was at first attempted. The association was not even able at all times to maintain uninterrupted communication among its stations. What organization there was for the purpose of enforcing the sovereign will, or of political administration, was the company of two hundred and fifty whites, one white person for each one hundred thousand or so of blacks. Nor was the association in any wise "self-contained." It was directed from Brussels and sustained out of Leopold's private purse. Even as to the whites there is nothing to show that they were bound by any tie of political allegiance to the association. Each servant or officer was recruited for a certain number of years' service. It has never been contended that any of the Belgians in its service foreswore allegiance to Belgium, substituting therefor an allegiance to the International Association of the Congo. [note 3]

[. . .]

Whether led by the belief that Leopold was doing his work for the benefit of England, [note 4] or in order to check the growing colonial power of France, Lord Granville found himself the center of attack when he signed the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of February 26, 1884. The date may be taken as the terminus a quo of the really political significance of the Congo project. This treaty recognized the hitherto shadowy title of Portugal to that part of the African west coast through which the Congo River debouches, between 5° 12' and 8° south latitude. This volte-face on the part of Great Britain, which had previously denied Portugal's claims, was denounced by the British press and in Parliament. Leopold appealed to Granville to wait before acting, in order to inquire into the validity of the treaties between Stanley and the native chiefs. [note 5] More important still were the protests of the continental powers. France declared that she would not be bound by the treaty (March 13). Germany served a like notice (April 18). [note 6] The Anglo-Portuguese treaty, therefore, allowed France and Germany to make common cause against the power which would have deprived Leopold of an outlet from his territories. While Great Britain and Portugal had agreed upon a joint commission for the Congo River, Germany and France came forward with a proposition for an international commission for the river, such as had been considered some time before by the Institute of International Law. These two Powers were drawn into an entente by which Leopold would surely be the gainer.

[. . .]

It is impossible within the limits of the present paper to enter into detail as to the results of the Berlin Conference as embodied in its General Act. The scope of the meeting was broader than Bismarck had originally suggested. Certain parts of the General Act refer particularly to the regime for the Congo, though nowhere is the Congo Association mentioned. The terms of the General Act are general and affect all territories with the so-called "conventional free-trade zone" as defined by the act. That tho conference applied its stipulations to a territory larger than the mere geographical basin of the Congo was due to the initiative of the American representatives. Mr. Kasson suggested that the "commercial basin" of the Congo should be considered, rather than the geographical one. Stanley urged this plan, but was surprised to notice" a curious reluctance to speak, as if there was some grand scheme of state involved." [note 7] A matter of policy was indeed involved, for by adopting the so-called "conventional zone" of the Congo, all powers having territory within it were affected. The provisions of the General Act were thereby made to apply not only to Belgian and French Congo, but practically to all territory between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, from the Zambesi to 5° north latitude on the east, and from 2° 30' north latitude to 80° south latitude on the west. Within this territory there was to be absolute freedom of commerce. No power which exercised rights of sovereignty within the zone was to grant monopolies or privileges of any kind in commercial matters.

[. . .]

Freedom from import duties in the conventional zone, while making for commercial freedom, seriously handicapped the Congo Free State in its internal administration by cutting off a large and necessary source of income. In 1890 the representatives of the powers again assembled, this time at Brussels. The ostensible purpose of this meeting was to take further steps for the suppression of the slave trade. Before the Brussels Conference had progressed far, it developed that an attempt would be made to modify the onerous restrictions of the former act in reference to import duties. A provision for limited import duties was after long debate duly incorporated in the Brussels General Act, for the purpose of better enabling the Free State to wipe out the slave trade. In other respects the Berlin Act stands to-day. The impression has been general that the provisions of that act have been violated j that within late years, at least, the natives have been treated with no due regard for their "moral and material amelioration," such as the act prescribed. When charges of violation of the spirit of the Berlin Act were brought against the Congo Free State answer was made either by way of general denial or by a "tu quoque" argument, or else that if there had been some necessary disregard of the means of moral or of material regeneration, the State was within its right, as it was sovereign and independent; that as such sovereign and independent state it was the sole judge of the truth or falsity of the charges. Of course there were other answers, but these three groups comprise most of them. The force of public opinion, however, resulted in the appointment of a commission for the investigation of the charges of maladministration. This commission reported upon certain grave abuses in the form of labor taxes and of unrestricted forced services demanded both by the State and by the State's concessionary companies. Slowly -- too slowly for many active reformers -- public sentiment became a force which the absolute sovereign of the Congo did not withstand. A new conference which might review the whole question of the condition of the natives in the conventional zone, both within and without. the Congo Free State, was declined by certain of the continental powers when Great Britain proposed it in 1903. The only remaining sanction was that of ultranational public opinion. This, voiced in protests by more than one government, was reflected in Belgium. Leopold had as early as 1889 devised the Congo to Belgium. Later he agreed to permit Belgium to annex it if she so desired, after a term of years. After long negotiations between Belgium and Leopold, the Congo Free State now passes out of existence and becomes in fact what it should have been long ago, a Belgian colony. As a colony it will be subject to government by discussion. In that country where party strife is active, where liberal ideas find such ready expression, responsible parliamentary government must surely be a guaranty that the provisions of the Berlin Act will be observed in spirit as well as in letter.

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1. Keltie, The Partition of Africa (1st ed.), 119. [back]
2. E. Banning, Africa and the Brussels Conference, London, 1877, 155. [back]
3. Naturalization in the Congo Free State was established in 1892 by a decree of Leopold of December 27 of that year. Lycops, Les Codes Congolais, 161. [back]
4. Keltie, The Partition of Africa, 1st ed., 143, who quotes an unnamed source for the statement. [back]
5. Boulger, The Congo State, 42. [back]
6. Cattier, ep. cit., 25, makes the unsupported assertion that Holland and the United States also protested. [back]
7. Stanley, The Congo, II, 304. [back]