Further Fruits of the System

For a moment I must interrupt the narrative of the long, dismal succession of atrocities in order to explain certain new factors in the situation.

The Crime of the Congo
Buy this book from Amazon

It has already been shown that the Congo State, unable to handle the whole of its vast domain, had sublet large tracts of it to monopolist companies, in absolute contradiction to Article V. of the Berlin Treaty. Up to the year 1897, these companies were registered in Belgium, and had some pretence to being international in scope. The State had no open or direct control over them. This was now altered. The State drew closer the bonds which united it to these commercial undertakings. They were, for the most part, dissolved, and then reconstructed under Congo law. In most cases, in return for the monopoly, the State was given control, sometimes to the extent of appointing all managers and agents. Half the shares of the company or half the profits were usually made over to the State. Thus one must bear in mind in future that whether one talks of the Abir Company, of the Kasai, the Katanga, the Anversoise, or any other, it is really with the State—that is, with King Leopold—that one has to do. He owned the companies, but paid them fifty per cent. commission for doing all the work. As their profits were such as might be expected where nothing was paid either for produce or for labour (varying from fifty to seven hundred per cent. per annum), all parties to the bargain were the gainers.

Another new factor in the situation was the completion, in 1898, of the Lower Congo Railway, which connects Boma with Stanley Pool, and so outflanks the cataracts. The enterprise itself was beneficent and splendid. The means by which it was carried out were unscrupulous and inhuman. Had civilization no complaint against the Congo State save the history of its railway construction with its forced labour, so different to the tradition of the tropical procedure of other European colonies, it would be a heavy indictment. Now it sinks to insignificance when compared with the enslavement of a whole people and the twenty years of uninterrupted massacre. As a sketch of the condition of the railway district here is a little pen picture by M. Edouard Picard, of the Belgian Senate, who saw it in the building:

“The cruel impression conveyed by the mutilated forests,” he wrote, “is heightened in the places where, till lately, native villages nestled, hidden and protected by thick and lofty foliage. The inhabitants have fled. They have fled in spite of encouraging palavers and promises of peace and kind treatment. They have burnt their huts, and great heaps of cinders mark the sites, amid deserted palm-groves and trampled-down banana fields. The terrors caused by the memory of inhuman floggings, of massacres, of rapes and abductions, haunt their poor brains, and they go as fugitives to seek shelter in the recesses of the hospitable bush, or, across the frontiers, to find it in French or Portuguese Congo, not yet afflicted with so many labours and alarms, far from the roads traversed by white men, those baneful intruders, and their train of strange and disquieting habits.” The outlook was as gloomy when he wandered along the path trodden by the caravans to the Pool and back again. “We are constantly meeting these carriers, either isolated or in Indian file; blacks, blacks, miserable blacks, with horribly filthy loin-clothes for their only garments; their bare and frizzled heads supporting their loads—chest, bale, ivory-tusk, hamper of rubber, or barrel; for the most part broken down, sinking under the burdens made heavier by their weariness and insufficiency of food, consisting of a handful of rice and tainted dried fish; pitiful walking caryatids; beasts of burden with the lank limbs of monkeys, pinched-up features, eyes fixed and round with the strain of keeping their balance and the dulness of exhaustion. Thus they come and go by thousands, organized in a system of human transport, requisitioned by the State armed with its irresistible force publique, supplied by the chiefs whose slaves they are and who pounce on their wages; jogging on, with knees bent and stomach protruding, one arm raised up and the other resting on a long stick, dusty and malodorous; covered with insects as their huge procession passes over mountains and through valleys; dying on the tramp, or, when the tramp is over, going to their villages to die of exhaustion.”

It will be remembered that Captain Lothaire, having been acquitted of the murder of Mr. Stokes, was sent out by King Leopold to act as managing-director of the Anversoise Trust. In 1898, he arrived in the Mongalla District, and from then onward there came to Europe vague rumours of native attacks and bloody reprisals, with those other symptoms of violence and unrest which might be expected where a large population accustomed to freedom is suddenly reduced to slavery. How huge were the rubber operations which were carried through under the ferocious rule of Captain Lothaire, may be guessed from the fact that the profits of the company, which had been 120,000 francs in 1897, rose to 3,968,000 in 1899—a sum which is considerably more than twice the total capital. M. Mille tells of a Belgian agent who showed 25,000 cartridges and remarked, “I can turn those into 25,000 pounds of rubber.” Captain Lothaire believed in the same trade methods, for his fighting and his output increased together. It is worth while to slaughter one-fourth of the population if the effect is to drive the others to frenzied and unceasing work.

No definite details might ever have reached Europe of those doings had not Lothaire made the capital mistake of quarrelling with his subordinates. One of these, named Lacroix, sent a communication to the Nieuw Gazet, of Antwerp, which, with the Petit Bleu, acted an honourable and independent part at this epoch. The Congo Press Bureau, which has stifled the voice of the more venal portion of the Belgian and Parisian Press, had not at that time attained the efficiency which it afterward reached. This letter from Lacroix was published on April 10th, 1900, and shed a lurid light upon what had been going on in the Mongalla District. It was a confession, but a confession which involved his superiors as well as himself. He told how he had been instructed by his chief to massacre all the natives of a certain village which had been slow in bringing its rubber. He had carried out the order. Later, his chief had put sixty women in irons, and allowed nearly all of them to die of hunger because the village—Mummumbula—had not brought enough rubber. “I am going to be tried,” he wrote, “for having murdered one hundred and fifty men, for having crucified women and children, and for having mutilated many men and hung the remains on the village fence.” At the same moment as this confession of Lacroix, Le Petit Bleu published sworn affidavits of soldiers employed by the Trust, telling how they had put to death whole villages for being short with their rubber. Moray, another agent, published a confession in Le Petit Bleu, from which this is an extract:

“At Ambas we were a party of thirty, under Van Eycken, who sent us into a village to ascertain if the natives were collecting rubber, and in the contrary case to murder all, including men, women and children. We found the natives sitting peaceably. We asked them what they were doing. They were unable to reply, thereupon we fell upon them all, and killed them without mercy. An hour later we were joined by Van Eycken, and told him what had been done. He answered: ‘It is well, but you have not done enough!’ Thereupon he ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross.”

In the face of these fresh revelations there was an outburst of feeling in Belgium, showing that it is only their ignorance of the true facts which prevents the inhabitants of that country from showing the same humanity as any other civilized nation would do. They have not yet realized the foul things which have been done in their name. Surely when they do realize it there will be a terrible reckoning! Some were already very alive to the question. MM. Vandervelde and Lorand fought bravely in the Chamber. The officials, with MM. Liebrichts and De Cuvelier at their head, made the usual vague professions and general denials. “Ah, you can rest assured light will be forthcoming, complete, striking!” cried the former. Light was indeed forthcoming, though not so complete as might be wished, for some, at least, of the scoundrels implicated were tried and condemned. In any other European colony they would have been hanged offhand, as the villainous murderers that they were. But they do not hang white men in the Congoland, even with the blood of a hundred murders on their hands. The only white man ever hanged there was the Englishman Stokes for competing in trade.

What is to be remarked, however, is that only subordinates were punished. Van Eycken was acquitted; Lacroix had imprisonment; Mattheys, another agent accused of horrible practices, got twelve years—which sounded well at the time, but he was liberated at the end of three. In the sentence upon this man the Judge used the words, “Seeing that it is just to take into account the example which his superiors gave him in showing no respect for the lives or rights of the natives.” Brave words, but how helpless is justice when such words can be said, and no result follow! They referred, of course, to Captain Lothaire, who had, in the meanwhile, fled aboard a steamer at Matadi, and made his escape to Europe. His flight was common knowledge, but who would dare to lay his hand upon the favourite of the King. Lothaire has had occasion several times since to visit the Congo, but Justice has indeed sat with bandaged eyes where that man was concerned!

There is one incident which should be marked in the story of this trial. Moray, whose testimony would have been of great importance, was found dead in his bed just before the proceedings. There have been several such happenings in Congo history. Commandant Dooms, having threatened to expose the misdeeds of Lieutenant Massard before Europe, was shortly afterward declared to have been mysteriously drowned by a hippopotamus. Dr. Barotti, returning hot with anger after an inspection of the State, declares vehemently that he was poisoned. There is much that is of the sixteenth century in this State, besides its views of its duties to the natives.

Before passing these revelations with the attendant burst of candour in the Belgian Press, it may be well to transcribe the following remark in an interview from a returned Congo official which appeared in the Antwerp Nieuw Gazet (April 10th, 1900). He says:

“When first commissioned to establish a fort, I was given some native soldiers and a prodigious stock of ammunition. My chief gave me the following instructions: ‘Crush every obstacle!’ I obeyed, and cut through my district by fire and sword. I had left Antwerp thinking I was simply to gather rubber. Great was my stupefaction when the truth dawned on me.”

This, with the letter of Lieutenant Tilken, as quoted before, gives some insight into the position of the agent.

Indeed, there is something to be said for these unfortunate men, for it is a more awful thing to be driven to crime than to endure it. Consider the sequence of events! The man sees an advertisement offering a commercial situation in the tropics. He applies to a bureau. He is told that the salary is some seventy-five pounds a year, with a bonus on results. He knows nothing of the country or conditions. He accepts. He is then asked if he has any money. He has not. One hundred pounds is advanced to him for expenses and outfit, and he is pledged to work it off. He goes out and finds the terrible nature of the task before him. He must condone crime to get his results. Suppose he resigns? “Certainly,” say the authorities; “but you must remain there until you have worked off your debt!” He cannot possibly get down the river, for the steamers are all under Government control. What can he do then? There is one thing which he very frequently does, and that is to blow out his brains. The statistics of suicide are higher than in any service in the world. But suppose he takes the line: “Very well, I will stay if you make me do so, but I will expose these misdeeds to Europe.” What then? The routine is a simple one. An official charge is preferred against him of ill-treating the natives. Ill-treating of some sort is always going forward, and there is no difficulty with the help of the sentries in proving that something for which the agent is responsible does not tally with the written law, however much it might be the recognized custom. He is taken to Boma, tried and condemned. Thus it comes about that the prison of Boma may at the same time contain the best men and the worst—the men whose ideas were too humane for the authorities as well as those whose crimes could not be overlooked even by a Congolese administration. Take warning, you who seek service in this dark country, for suicide, the Boma prison, or such deeds as will poison your memory forever are the only choice which will lie before you.

Here is the sort of official circular which descends in its thousands upon the agent. This particular one was from the Commissioner in the Wille district:

“I give you carte blanche to procure 4,000 kilos of rubber a month. You have two months in which to work your people. Employ gentleness at first, and if they persist in resisting the demands of the State, employ force of arms.”

And this State was formed for the “moral and material advantage of the native.”

While dealing with trials of Boma I will give some short account of the Caudron case, which occurred in 1904. This case was remarkable as establishing judicially what was always clear enough: the complicity between the State and the criminal. Caudron was a man against whom 120 cold-blooded murders were charged. He was, in fact, a zealous and efficient agent of the Anversoise Society, that same company whose red-edged securities rose to such a height when Manager Lothaire taught the natives what a minister in the Belgian House described as the Christian law of work. He did his best for the company, and he did his best for himself, for he had a three per cent. commission upon the rubber. Why he should be chosen among all his fellow-murderers is hard to explain, but it was so, and he found himself at Boma with a sentence of twenty years. On appealing, this was reduced to fifteen years, which experience has shown to mean in practice two or three. The interesting point of his trial, however, is that his appeal, and the consequent decrease of sentence which justified that appeal, were based upon the claim that the Government was cognisant of the murderous raids, and that the Government soldiers were used to effect them. The points brought out by the trial were:

1. The existence of a system of organized oppression, plunder, and massacre, in order to increase the output of india-rubber for the benefit of a “company,” which is only a covering name for the Government itself.

2. That the local authorities of the Government are cognisant, and participatory in this system.

3. That local officials of the Government engage in these rubber raids, and that Government troops are regularly employed there on.

4. That the Judicature is powerless to place the real responsibility on the proper shoulders.

5. That, consequently, these atrocities will continue until the system itself is extirpated.

Caudron’s counsel called for the production of official documents to show how the chain of responsibility went, but the President of the Appeal Court refused it, knowing as clearly as we do, that it could only conduct to the Throne itself.

One might ask how the details of this trial came to Europe when it is so seldom that anything leaks out from the Courts of Boma. The reason was that there lived in Boma a British coloured subject named Shanir, who was at the pains to attend the court day by day in order to preserve some record of the procedure. This he dispatched to Europe. The sequel is interesting. The man’s trade, which was a very large one, was boycotted, he lost his all, brooded over his misfortunes, and finally took his own life—another martyr in the cause of the Congo.