First Fruits of the System

“In November last (1894) there was heavy fighting on the Bosira, because the people refused to give rubber, and I was told upon the authority of a State officer that no less than eighteen hundred people were killed. Upon another occasion in the same month some soldiers ran away from a State steamer, and, it was said, went to the town of Bombumba. The officer sent a message telling the chief of the town to give them up. He answered that he could not, as the fugitives had not been in his town. The officer sent the messenger a second time with the order: ‘Come to me at once, or war in the morning.’ The next morning the old chief went to meet the Belgians, and was attacked without provocation. He himself was wounded, his wife was killed before his eyes, and her head cut off in order that they might possess the brass necklet that she wore. Twenty-four of the chief’s people were also killed, and all for the paltry reason given above. Again the people of Lake Mantumba ran away on account of the cruelty of the State, and the latter sent some soldiers in charge of a coloured corporal to treat with them and induce them to return. On the way the troops met a canoe containing seven of the fugitives. Under some paltry pretext they made the people land, shot them, cut off their hands and took them to the Commissary. The Mantumba people complained to the missionary at Irebu, and he went down to see if the story was true. He ascertained the case to be just as they had narrated, and found that one of the seven was a little girl, who was not quite dead. The child recovered, and she lives to-day, the stump of the handless arm witnessing against this horrible practice. These are only a few things of many that have taken place in one district.”

It was not merely for rubber that these horrors were done. Much of the country is unsuited to rubber, and in those parts there were other imposts which were collected with equal brutality. One village had to send food and was remiss one day in supplying it:

“The people were quietly sleeping in their beds when they heard a shot fired, and ran out to see what was the matter. Finding the soldiers had surrounded the town, their only thought was escape. As they raced out of their homes, men, women and children, they were ruthlessly shot down. Their town was utterly destroyed, and is a ruin to this day. The only reason for this fight was that the people had failed to bring Kwanga (food) to the State upon that one day.”

Finally Mr. Murphy says: “The rubber question is accountable for most of the horrors perpetrated in the Congo. It has reduced the people to a state of utter despair. Each town in the district is forced to bring a certain quantity to the headquarters of the Commissary every Sunday. It is collected by force; the soldiers drive the people into the bush; if they will not go they are shot down, their left hands being cut off and taken as trophies to the Commissary. The soldiers do not care whom they shoot down, and they most often shoot poor, helpless women and harmless children. These hands—the hands of men, women and children—are placed in rows before the Commissary, who counts them to see the soldiers have not wasted the cartridges. The Commissary is paid a commission of about a penny per pound upon all the rubber he gets; it is, therefore, to his interest to get as much as he can.”

Here is corroboration and amplification of all that Mr. Glaves had put forward. The system had not been long established, and was more efficient ten or twelve years later, but already it was bearing some notable first fruits of civilization. King Leopold’s rule cannot be said to have left the country unchanged. There is ample evidence that mutilations of this sort were unknown among the native savages. Knowledge was spreading under European rule.

Having heard the testimony of an English traveller and of an American missionary, let us now hear that of a Swedish clergyman, Mr. Sjoblom, as detailed in The Aborigines’ Friend, July, 1897. It covers much the same time as the other two, and is drawn from the Equateur district. Here is the system in full swing:

“They refuse to bring the rubber. Then war is declared. The soldiers are sent in different directions. The people in the towns are attacked, and when they are running away into the forest, and try to hide themselves, and save their lives, they are found out by the soldiers. Then their gardens of rice are destroyed, and their supplies taken. Their plantains are cut down while they are young and not in fruit, and often their huts are burned, and, of course, everything of value is taken. Within my own knowledge forty-five villages were altogether burned down. I say altogether, because there were many others partly burned down. I passed through twenty-eight abandoned villages. The natives had left their places to go further inland. In order to separate themselves from the white men they go part of the way down the river, or else they cross the river into French territory. Sometimes, the natives are obliged to pay a large indemnity. The chiefs often have to pay with brass wire and slaves, and if the slaves do not make up the amount their wives are sold to pay. I was told that by a Belgian officer. I will give you,” Mr. Sjoblom continues, “an instance of a man I saw shot right before my eyes. In one of my inland journeys, when I had gone a little farther, perhaps, than the Commissary expected me to go, I saw something that perhaps he would not have liked me to see. It was at a town called Ibera, one of the cannibal towns to which no white man had ever been before. I reached it at sunset, after the natives had returned from the various places in which they had been looking for india-rubber. They gathered together in a great crowd, being curious to see a white man. Besides, they had heard I had some good news to tell them, which came through the Gospel. When that large crowd gathered, and I was just ready to preach, the sentinels rushed in among them to seize an old man. They dragged him aside a little from the crowd, and the sentinel in charge came to me and said, ‘I want to shoot this man, because he has been in the river fishing to-day. He has not been on the river for india-rubber.’ I told him: ‘I have not authority to stop you, because I have nothing to do with these palavers, but the people are here to hear what I have to say to them, and I don’t want you to do it before my eyes.’ He said: ‘All right, I will keep him in bonds, then, until to-morrow morning when you have gone. Then I will kill him.’ But a few minutes afterward the sentinel came in a rage to the man and shot him right before my eyes. Then he charged his rifle again and pointed it at the others, who all rushed away like chaff before the wind. He told a little boy, eight or nine years of age, to go and cut off the right hand of the man who had been shot. The man was not quite dead, and when he felt the knife he tried to drag his hand away. The boy, after some labour, cut the hand off and laid it by a fallen tree. A little later this hand was put on a fire to smoke before being sent to the Commissary.”

Here we get the system at its highest. I think that picture of the child hacking off the hand of the dying man at the order of the monster who would have assuredly murdered him also had he hesitated to obey, is as diabolical a one as even the Congo could show. A pretty commentary upon the doctrine of Christ which the missionary was there to preach!

Mr. Sjoblom seems to have been unable to believe at first that such deeds were done with the knowledge and approval of the whites. He ventured to appeal to the Commissary. “He turned in anger on me,” he adds, “and in the presence of the soldiers said that he would expel me from the town if I meddled with matters of that kind any more.”

It would, indeed, have been rather absurd for the Commissary to interfere when the severed hand had actually been cut off in order to be presented to him. The whole procedure is explained in the following paragraph:

“If the rubber does not reach the full amount required, the sentinels attack the natives. They kill some and bring the hands to the Commissary. Others are brought to the Commissary as prisoners. At the beginning they came with their smoked hands. The sentinels, or else the boys in attendance on them, put these hands on a little kiln, and after they had been smoked, they by and by put them on the top of the rubber baskets. I have on many occasions seen this done.”

Then we read in the latest State papers of the Belgian diplomatists that they propose to continue the beneficent and civilizing work which they have inherited.

Yet another paragraph from Mr. Sjoblom showing the complicity of the Belgian authorities, and showing also that the presence of the missionaries was some deterrent against open brutality. If, then, they saw as much as they did, what must have been the condition of those huge tracts of country where no missions existed?

“At the end of 1895, the Commissary—all the people were gathering the rubber—said he had often told the sentinels not to kill the people. But on the 14th of December a sentinel passed our mission station and a woman accompanied him, carrying a basket of hands. Mr. and Mrs. Banks, besides myself, went down the road, and they told the sentinel to put the hands on the road that they might count them. We counted eighteen right hands smoked and from the size of the hands we could judge that they belonged to men, women and children. We could not understand why these hands had been collected, as the Commissary had given orders that no more natives were to be killed for their hands. On my last journey I discovered the secret. One Monday night, a sentinel who had just returned from the Commissary, said to me: ‘What are the sentinels to do? When all the people are gathered together, the Commissary openly tells us not to kill any more people, but when the people have gone he tells us privately that if they do not bring plenty of india-rubber we must kill some, but not bring the hands to him.’ Some sentinels, he told me, had been put in chains because they killed some natives who happened to be near a mission station; but it was only because he thought it might become known that the Commissary, to justify himself, had put the men in chains. I said to the sentinel: ‘You should obey the first command, never to kill any more.’ ‘The people,’ he answered, ‘unless they are frightened, do not bring in the rubber, and then the Commissary flogs us with the hippopotamus hide, or else he puts us in chains, or sends us to Boma.’ The sentinel added that the Commissary induced him to hide cruelty while letting it go on, and to do this in such a way that he might be justified, in case it should become known and an investigation should be made. In such a case the Commissary could say, ‘Why, I told him openly not to kill any more’ and he might put the blame on the soldier to justify himself, though the blame and the punishment in all its force ought to have been put on himself, after he had done such a terrible act in order to disguise or mislead justice. If the sentinels were puzzled about this message, what would the natives be?”

I have said that there was more to be said for the cannibal murderers than for those who worked the system. The capitas pleaded the same excuse. “Don’t take this to heart so much,” said one of them to the missionary. “They kill us if we do not bring rubber. The Commissary has promised us if we bring plenty of hands he will shorten our service. I have brought plenty already, and I expect my time will soon be finished.”

That the Commissaries are steeped to the lips in this horrible business has been amply shown in these paragraphs. But Mr. Sjoblom was able to go one stage further along the line which leads to the Palace at Brussels. M. Wahis, the Governor-General, a man who has played a sinister part in the country, came up the river and endeavoured to get the outspoken Swede to contradict himself, or, failing that, to intimidate him. To get at the truth or to right the wrong seems to have been the last thing in his mind, for he knew well that the wrong was essential to the system, and that without it the wheels would move more slowly and the head engineer in Europe would soon wish to know what was amiss with his rubber-producing machine. “You may have seen all these things that you have stated,” said he, “but nothing is proved.” The Commissary meanwhile had been holding a rifle to the head of witnesses so as to make sure that nothing would be proved. In spite of this Mr. Sjoblom managed to collect his evidence, and going to the Governor, asked him when he could listen to it. “I don’t want to hear any witnesses,” said he, and then: “If you continue to demand investigation in these matters we will make a charge against you…. That means five years’ imprisonment.”

Such is Mr Sjoblom’s narrative involving Governor Wahis in the general infamy. “It is not true,” cries the Congolese apologist. Strange how Swedes, Americans, and British, laymen and clergy, all unite in defaming this innocent State! No doubt the wicked children lop off their own hands in order to cast a slur upon “the benevolent and philanthropic enterprise of the Congo.” Tartuffe and Jack the Ripper—was ever such a combination in the history of the world!

One more anecdote of Mr. Wahis, for it is not often that we can get a Governor of the Congo in person face to face with the results of his own work. As he passed down the river, Mr. Sjoblom was able to report another outrage to him:

“Mr. Banks told the Governor that he had seen it himself, whereupon M. Wahis summoned the commandant in charge—the officer who had ordered the raid had already gone elsewhere—and asked him in French if the story were true. The Belgian officer assured M. Wahis that it was, but the latter, thinking Mr. Banks did not understand French, said: ‘After all, you may have seen this; but you have no witnesses.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr. Banks, ‘I can call the commandant, who has just told you that it is true.’ M. Wahis then tried to minimize the matter, when, to his great surprise, Mr. Banks added: ‘In any case I have, at his own request, furnished to the British Consul, who passed through here lately, a signed statement concerning it.’ M. Wahis rose from his chair, saying: ‘Oh, then, it is all over Europe!’ Then for the first time he said that the responsible Commissary must be punished.”

It need not be added that the punishment was the merest farce.

These successive reports, each amplifying the other, coming on the top of the killing of Mr. Stokes, and the action of the British Colonial Office in prohibiting recruiting for Congoland, had the effect of calling strong attention to the condition of that country. The charges were met partly by denial, partly by general phrases about morality, and partly by bogus reform. M. van Eetvelde, in Brussels, and M. Jules Houdret, in London, denied things which have since been proved up to the hilt. The reform took the shape of a so-called Natives’ Protection Commission. Like all these so-called reforms, it was utterly ineffectual, and was only meant for European consumption. No one knew so well as the men at Brussels that no possible reform could have any effect whatever unless the system was itself abolished, for that system produced outrages as logically and certainly as frost produces ice. The sequel will show the results of the Natives’ Protection Commission.

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