Some Catholic Testimony as to the Congo

It must be admitted that the Roman Catholic Church, as an organized body, has not raised her voice as she should in the matter of the Congo. Never was there such a field for a Las Casas. It was the proudest boast of that church that in the dark days of man’s history she was the one power which stood with her spiritual terrors between the oppressor and the oppressed. This noble tradition has been sadly forgotten in the Congo, where the missions have themselves, as I understand, done most excellent work, but where the power of the Church has never been invoked against the constant barbarities of the State. In extenuation, it may be stated that the chief Catholic establishments are down the river and far from the rubber zones. It is important, however, to collect under a separate heading such testimony as exists, for an unworthy attempt has been made to represent the matter as a contest between rival creeds, whereas it is really a contest between humanity and civilization on one side and cruel greed upon the other.

The Crime of the Congo
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The organization of the Catholic Church is more disciplined, and admits of less individualism than that of those religious bodies which supplied the valiant champions of right in the Congo. The simple priests were doubtless as horrified as others, within the limit of their knowledge, but the means of expression were denied them. M. Colfs, himself a Catholic, said in the Belgian Chamber: “Our missionaries have less liberty than foreign missionaries. They are expected to keep silence…. There is a gag. This gag is placed in the mouth of Belgian missionaries.”

Signor Santini, the Catholic and Royalist Deputy for Rome, has been one of the leaders in the anti-Congo movement, and has done excellent work in Italy. From his own sources of information he confirms and amplifies all that the English and Americans have asserted. Speaking in the Italian Parliament on February 4th, 1907, Signor Santini said:

“I am proud to have been the first to bring the question of the Congo before this House. If at the present day we are spared the shame of seeing again officers of our Army, valorous and perfectly stainless, serving under and at the orders of an association of sweaters, slave-holders and barbarians, it is legitimate for me to declare that I have, if only modestly, at least efficaciously, co-operated in this result.”

There is no conflict of creeds in such an utterance as that.

Catholic papers have occasionally spoken out bravely upon the subject.

Le Patriote, of Brussels (Royalist and Catholic), in its issue of February 28th, 1907, has an indignant editorial:

“The rebellion in the A.B.I.R. territory extends. The Government itself forces the rubber, and delivers it on the Antwerp quay to the brokers of the A.B.I.R…. Nothing is altered on the Congo. The same abominable measures are adopted; the same outrages take place…. The Government is adopting the same measures as in the Mongalla, flooding the A.B.I.R. territory with soldiers to utterly smash the people, whom it thinks will then work, and the rubber output be increased…. The memory of these deeds will remain graven in the memory of men, and in the memory of Divine vengeance. Sooner or later the executioners will have to render an account to God and to history.”

There is one order of the Catholic Church which has always had a most noble record in its treatment of native races. These are the Jesuits. No one who has read the “History of Paraguay,” or studied the records of the Missions to the Red Indians of the eighteenth century, can forget the picture of unselfish devotion which they exhibit. Father Vermeersch, a worthy successor of such predecessors, has published a book, “La Question Congolaise,” in which he finds nothing incompatible between his position as a Catholic and his exposure of the abuses of the Congo.

In all points the position of Father Vermeersch and of the English Reformers appears to be identical.

On the rightful possession of the land by the natives he writes in terms which might be a paragraph from Mr. Morel:

“On the Congo the land cannot be supposedly vacant. Presumption is in favour of occupation, of a full occupation. By this is meant that it is not sufficient to recognize to the natives rights of tenure over the land they actually cultivate, or certain rights of usage—wood-cutting, hunting, fishing—on the remainder of the territory; but these rights of usage, which are much more important than with us, appear to imply a full animus domini, and to signify a complete appropriation, which is carried out amongst us in different fashion. It is not, in effect, indispensable in natural law that I should exhaust the utility of an article or of land in order to be able to claim it as my own; it suffices that I should make use of it in a positive manner, but of my own will, personally, and that I should have the will to forbid any stranger to use it without my consent. Hence effective occupation is joined to intention, and all the constituent elements to a valid title of property exist. Let us suppose, moreover, that some great Belgian landowner wishes to convert portions of his property into sporting land—that land, nevertheless, remains in his entire possession. Amongst the Congo natives, no doubt, occupation is usually collective; but such occupation is as worthy of respect as no matter what individual appropriation.”

He continues:

“To whom does the rubber belong which grows upon the land occupied by the Congo natives? To the natives, and to no one else, without their consent and just compensation.”


“To sum up, we recognize it with much regret, the State’s appropriation of so-called vacant land on the Congo confronts us with AN IMMENSE EXPROPRIATION.”

He makes a bold attack upon King Leopold’s own preserve:

“Humanity, whose cause we plead, Christian rights, whose principles we endeavour to inculcate, compel us to touch briefly upon a curious and mysterious creation which is peculiar to the Congo State—the Domaine de la Couronne.”

“What are the revenues of this mysterious civil personality? Estimates, more or less conjectural in nature, elaborated by M. Cattier appear to establish the profits from the exploitation of rubber alone, at eight to nine millions of francs per annum. M. le Comte de Smet de Naeyer reduces this figure to four or five millions. Short of positive data one can only deal in conjectures. But we regret still more that an impenetrable veil hides from sight all that takes place in the territory of this Domaine. It is eight or ten times the size of belgium, and throughout this vast extent of territory there is neither missionary nor magistrate.”

Only one missionary at that date had entered this dark land, and his exclamation was: “The Bulgarian atrocities are child’s play to what has taken place here.”

Father Vermeersch then proceeds to deal with the Congo balance-sheets. His criticism is most destructive. He shows at considerable length, and with a fine grasp of his subject, that there is really no connection at all between the so-called estimate and the actual budget. In the course of the State’s development there is an excess running to millions of pounds which has never been accounted for. In this Father Vermeersch is in agreement with the equally elaborate calculations of Professor Cattier, of Brussels.

He puts the economical case in a nutshell thus:

“X——, District Commissioner, commits every day dozens of offences against individual liberty. What can be done? These violations of the law are necessitated by a great enterprise which must have workmen. In such cases the intervention of the magistrate would be a ruinous imprudence, calculated to bring trouble into the region.”

“But the law?”

“Oh, law in the Congo is not applicable!”

“But if you offered a decent remuneration, would you not get free labour?”

“That is precisely what the State will not listen to. It maintains that the enterprise must be carried out for nothing!”

And disposes once again of the “forty hours a month” fiction:

“It is impossible for the State to obtain the amount of rubber it sells annually, by labour limited to forty hours a month, especially when it is borne in mind that a number of these hours are absorbed in other corvées. Of two things one, therefore. Either the surplus is furnished freely; and if so, how can coercion be logically argued? Or this supplementary labour is forced; and if so, the law of forty hours is shown to be merely a fraud.”

He shows the root causes of the evil:

“So long as an inflexible will fixes in advance the quantity of rubber to be obtained; so long as instructions are given in this form: ‘Increase by five tons your rubber output per month’ (instance given by Father Cus and van Hencxthoven in their report), we cannot await with confidence a serious improvement, which is the desire of all….”

“The Governor-General dismisses and appoints magistrates at his will, suspends the execution of penalties; even sends back, if need be, gentlemen of the gown to Europe. Who does not realize the grave inconvenience of this dependence? That is not all. No proceedings can be attempted against a European without the authority of the Governor-General.”

And, finally, his reasons for writing his book:

“The contemplation of an immeasurable misery has caused us to publish this book. The gravity of the evil, its roots causes, had long escaped us. When we knew them we could not retain within ourselves the compassion with which we were imbued, and we resolved to tell the citizens of a generous country, appealing to their religion, to their patriotism, to their hearts.”

Surely after such evidence from such a source there must be some heart-searchings among those higher members of the Catholic hierarchy, including both Cardinals and Bishops, who have done what they could to cripple the efforts of the reformers. Misinformed through their own want of care in searching for the truth, they have stood before the whole world as the defenders of that which will be described by the historian as the greatest crime in history.