Author: James Gustavus Whiteley

Title: "The Congo"

Journal: New York Times

Place of Publication: New York

Date: August 22, 1903

Place: Congo Free State


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The Congo.

An Experiment in Government Civilization Described in the New Book by E. Descamps. [note *]

Written for The New York Times Saturday Review of Books by James Gustavus Whiteley.

Associe de l'Institut de Droit international. Fellow of the Royal historical Society, &c.

Thirty years ago the heart of Africa was an unknown land, visited chiefly by Arab slave traders, who carried off their prey to the Eastern markets, leaving behind them a trail marked by the bones of their victims. To-day that part of Africa is a sovereign independent State, governed by a European monarch, under whose rule the natives are beginning to enjoy the blessings of civilization and immunity from the invasion of their old enemies, the slave traders. That great blank space with which map makers were wont to decorate the central portion of the map of Africa is now occupied by the Congo Free State, whose ruer and founder is his Majesty Leopold, King of the Belgians. In this region 480 kilometres of railway are in operation, four times that amount are under construction, 15,000 kilometres of waterway have been explored and are plied by steamers; the telegraph and telephone lines extend over 1,500 kilometres; the ships that enter her ports each year are represented by nearly half a million tons, and the trading companies operating there are capitalized at more than $25,000,000. This work has been accomplished in little more than a quarter of a century, but it is not in material things zone that he Congo has prospered. Courts of Justice have been set up, missions have been fostered and encouraged, and the great curse of the country -- the slave trade -- has been suppressed. As Lord Curzon said in the House of Commons, "The Congo Free State has done a great work, and by its administration the cruel raids of Arab slave dears have ceased to exist over many thousand square miles."

The existence of this great civilizing State in Central Africa is due to the initiative, the energy, and the generosity of its present ruler, King Leopold. It was he who planted the vineyard and who maintained it at his own cost in its early years, and now his work, like that of Naboth and other good gardeners, receives the highest of all compliments -- the envy of his neighbors. There has recently sprung up in England an active campaign against the administration of the Congo. The chief accusations made against the Free State are that the natives are badly treated, and that the Government discriminates unfairly against British trade. These accusations are no doubt made in good faith by some, but by others they are simply used as an excuse for the proposal to case Naboth out of his vineyard and to divide his heritage. A desire to possess the land seems to be at the root of the agitation, and certain, if one looks at the map, it is evident that a slice of the Congo State would connect England's possessions in Africa so that the British strip of land would run from the Cape to Cairo. Political agitators are wont to deceive their followers by assigning some holy cause for their action, and they even convince themselves that they are doing God's service when they are only seeking a more scientific boundary. How many political crimes have been committed for the sake of liberating somebody from something that never oppressed them. The rallying cry of "atrocities" is always sure to bring together a large following of honest, but often ignorant, men. The masses are warm-hearted, and are ever ready to believe highly colored tales of "atrocities" which come to them from foreign lands. It is easy to stir up such a crusade, but dry hard to stop it. the only hope is to take it in its early stages and to make the truth so plain that he who runs may read and he that standeth in the street may understand. It seems to have been with such an object in view that the Chevalier Descamps has written his book on "New Africa," in which he gives a most clear and entertaining account of the origin of the Congo Free State, its growth and development, its institutions, its work of civilization, and its position in the family of nations.

The book is a sort of brief for the Congo State, and there is no one better qualified to present such a brief than the Chevalier Descamps, who has been familiar with the African movement since its beginning, and who has studied it in all its stages. He is a member of the Belgian Senate, a well-known authority on international law, Secretary General of the Institut de Droit International, a member of the International Colonial Institute, and a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. His skill in presenting an argument and his judicial ability should be well known to Americans, as he was one of our chief counselors in preparing the American argument in the Pius fund case before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague. his book is not only interesting to the parties immediately connected with the Congo controversy, but also to all peoples with colonial problems on their hands, for it is an essay on government civilization in new countries.

Bacon says that a statesman's masterpiece is to make a small State a great one. It is perhaps an equally worthy achievement to make the wilderness into a civilized state. This is the task at which King Leopold has labored for years, and which he has finally accomplished. Even in his early speeches in the Belgian Senate, while he was yet Duke of Brabant, he declared:

"I will pierce the darkness of barbarism" * * * "I will secure to Central Africa the blessings of a civilized government; and I will, if necessary, undertake this giant task alone."

He started his great enterprise in 1876 by calling an International Geographical Conference, the object of which, said hid Majesty, was "to open up the only portion of the globe where civilization has not yet penetrated; to disperse the darkness which shrouds entire peoples; to discuss and decide upon the measures to be adopted in order to plant definitely the standard of civilization on the soil of Central Africa."

In the following year there was formed in Brussels a company called the Committee for Exploration of the Upper Congo, of which the King was made Honorary President. This committee went promptly to work. Its object was to explore the county systematically and to establish as bases of operations a number of scientific and hospital stations both on the coast and in the interior. In 1879 Stanley was sent out by his committee and began the work, and, as M. Wauters says:

"Five years sufficed to make the most brilliant discoveries, even in the very centre of the continent, to peacefully visit hundreds of new tribes, to obtain from native chiefs more than 500 treaties of suzerainty, to establish forty stations, to place five steamers on the waters of the upper river beyond the Cataracts, to occupy the whole of the country between the coast and Stanley Falls, between Bangala and Luluaburg."

The work having got well under way, the committee changed its name to the International Congo Association, and in April, 1884, this association was acknowledged by the United States of America as "the governing power of the Congo," and its standard -- a gold star in a blue field -- was recognized as "the flag of a friendly State."

Recognition of the new State by other governments soon followed. The eyes of the nations were turning toward Africa and governments were becoming aware that arrangements should be made to secure harmony between their spheres of influence in the centre of the continent. In the early part of 1885 the powers held a conference in Berlin for the settlement of Central African affairs and "to regulate the conditions most favorable to the development of trade and civilization in certain regions of Africa, and to assure to all nations the advantages of free navigation" on the Congo and the Niger. The various governments agreed upon what would now be called an "open-door" policy. No customs duties were to be charged, all flags to have free access, no government in that region to grant a monopoly or favor of any kind in matters of trade. The region was also declared "neutralized," so that the wars of home governments might not be transplanted to their colonies, and steps were taken for the suppression of the slave trade.

Before the Berlin Conference the Congo State already existed as an independent government, but, as the Chevalier Descamps remarks, it was at this historic meeting that "the work of King Leopold was seen by the full light of day in all its sovereign beauty." It was at this conference that the new Congo State was introduced by Prince Bismarck to her sister nations. A few months later King Leopold formally ascended his African throne as King-Sovereign of the Congo.

Several Governments, England, France, Germany, Portugal, and the Congo State, were specially interested in the material development of the Congo basin, and naturally their interests were not always identical, but there was one point on which all could agree and in which the interests of all were alike, manly, in the suppression of the slave trade, which was the curse of Africa, in the moral, political, and commercial sense. The world was roused by the revelations of Livingston, Stanley, Bartle, Frere, Wissmann, Serpa Pinto, Nachtigal, and Cardinal Lavigiere.

In 1890 a conference was held in Brussels to take further steps for the suppression of the slave trade. It was realized that a great part of this task in Central Africa must devolve upon the Free State on account of the Berlin Act, by which the Governments had agreed to ????????? prohibition of import dues ????????? State had been confronted with ???????? difficulties from which it had been ????????? only by the generosity of the King ??????? that the State was about to make a still more arduous effort it was thought proper to lighten her burdens, and an agreement was entered into allowing the Congo and other Governments in the conventional basin of the Congo to levy a small tariff in order that she might be in a position to fight a good fight. The end justified the means. The forces of the Congo State, after a sever struggle, won the victory, and about the middle of 1893 the power of the slave traders was annihilated.

"Central Africa explored, the Congo State founded, the Arab potentates vanquished; such," says the Chevalier Descamps, "are the three jewels that Belgium rejoices to see shining in the double crown of her King."

The opponents of the Congo pay but little heed, however, to this work of civilization which has been carried forward by King Leopold. They say that slavery still exits in the Congo, that barbarous customs are permitted, and that foreigners are not fairly treated. When looking for the good accomplished they, like Nelson, put that blind eye to the telescope. It is true that there are slaves in the Congo. Man-hunting, the Arab invasions, the slave raids, have been suppressed, but domestic slavery still exists. That is an old institution which cannot yet be rooted out. The State does not encourage the owning of slaves, and the legal status of slavery is not recognized, but the Government feels that the surest reforms are those which are effected slowly. In due time domestic slavery will disappear. "To attempt to abolish slavery in Africa in one blow, by force, is to attempt the impossible," said Cardinal Lavigiere, the "Apostle of the Blacks." "All the armies, all the wealth of Europe would not suffice to attain such an object. Moreover, the social condition of the African native, being founded on slavery, which has existed for centuries, everything would be thrown into a state of chaos, if we were to abolish all at once an institution, doubtless lamentable, but still preferable to chaos."

It is the same with the barbarous customs of the natives -- such as human sacrifice. The State has done away with such things to a great extent, but the customs of ages cannot be suppressed in a few years.

As to the treatment of natives by Government officials, such things no doubt occur, but they are isolated cases such as happen to all public services, and no colonizing nation is in a position to ace a stone at the Congo State on that score.

There is one institution in the Congo which is of singular utility and benefit, but which is much condemned by some who do not thoroughly understand it. This is the system of exacting a tax in labor in in kind, which some decry as State slavery. The Government gives protection, and the blessings of civilization to the natives who constituted about ninety-nine hundredths of the population, and who should, therefore, bear some of the burdens of the State. The native uses few dutiable articles; he is not allowed to have spirits, he requires no licenses and uses not stamps; none of these forms of taxation reach him. He is, therefore, required to pay a tax in labor or in kind. The tax in kind enables the State to gather in its rubber harvest and to carry on that great industry. As to the tax in labor, men of experience, like Mgr. Augouard, who have devoted their lies to the welfare of the natives for twenty-five years, look upon it as the only means of solving the problem of colonial industry. Major Wissmann, indeed, objected to "compulsory labor," but advocated the tax in labor, which seems to amount to about the same thing.

The authorities should (he said) as often as possible induce the natives to pay the impost by means of work rather than money. I think it would not be a bad idea if the Colonial Government were to refuse produce offered in payment of taxes and exact payment in labor.

All governments which deal with inferior races face this same problem -- how to teach the native habits of industry. The tax on labor not only helps the State, but also helps the native, for it teaches him to work -- the lesson which he most needs. He is, as Chevalier Descamps says, initiated "into the universal law of labor," and is paid for his compulsory work besides. It is a labor conscription instead of a military conscription.

Much ill feeling seems to have been aroused against the Congo State on account of the fact that the Government retains the great rubber forests of its own domain and either exploits this industry itself or grants working concessions to companies. The STate is so clearly within its right in this matter that it needs no defense, although this condition of affairs naturally creates much dissatisfaction among certain foreigners who would like to go in and freely exploit the riches of the land. The Chevalier Descamps gives a most clear explanation of the Government ownership of unoccupied lands, as well as of the manner in which the domain is cultivated and managed for the benefit of the State.

The Government of the Congo is most simple. If it is not absolutely perfect, it is at any rate perfectly absolute. There are of course, no representative institutions. The King is supreme ruler and issues his decrees. He is assisted by a High Council and a Secretary of State, ??? present the Baron van ???????? who resides in Belgium. The execution of these decrees is continued to the Governor General at Boma, who is assisted by an advisory committee which District Commissioners preside. The Government has wisely availed itself of such primitive institutions as already existed and works though the old tribal organizations. Two hundred and fifty-eight native chiefs have been officially acknowledged, and through these chiefs the tribes are governed.

The Chevalier Descamps has death extensively, but not exhaustively, with the whole subject of the Congo. he has gone to the botto of the matter, but he has not stayed there. he is never submerged by his subject, but is always master of it. He deals with the origin and history of the State, with its policy, with its international position as regulated by the Conferences of Berlin and Brussels, with its commercial and political development, and with the great part it has played in the suppression of the salve trade and in the civilization of Africa. He also treats of its institutions, the form of government, its legislation and administration, its policy, its courts, its domain and industries, the finances, the army, railways, trade, missions, and sciences.

James Gustavus Whiteley.



* New Africa. An Essay on Government Civilization in New Countries and on the Foundation, Organization, and Administration of the Congo Free State. By E. Descamps. London: Sampson Low, Son, Marston & Co. 1903. [back]