King Leopold’s Commission and Its Report

The immediate effect of the publication as a State paper of the general comment of Lord Cromer, and of the definite accusations of Consul Casement, was a demand both in Belgium and in England for an official inquiry. Lord Landsdowne stipulated that this inquiry should be impartial and thorough. It was also suggested by the British Government that it should be international in character, and separated from the local administration. Very grudgingly and under constant pressure the King appointed a Commission, but whittled down its powers to such a point that its proceedings must lose all utility. Such were the terms that they provoked remonstrance from men like M. A. J. Wauters, the Belgian historian of the Congo Free State, who protested in the Mouvement Géographique (August 7th, 1904) that such a body could serve no useful end. Finally, their functions were slightly increased, but they possessed no punitive powers and were hampered in every direction by the terms of their reference.

The Crime of the Congo
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The personnel of the Commission was worthy of the importance of the inquiry. M. Janssens, a well-known jurist of Belgium, was the president. He impressed all who came in contact with him as a man of upright and sympathetic character. Baron Nisco’s appointment was open to criticism, as he was himself a Congo functionary, but save for that fact there was no complaint to make against him. Dr. Schumacher, a distinguished Swiss lawyer, was the third Commissioner. The English Government applied to have a representative upon the tribunal, and with true Congo subtlety the request was granted after the three judges had reached the Congo. The Englishman, Mr. Mackie, hurried out, but was only in time to attend the last three sittings, which were held in the lower part of the river, far from the notorious rubber agents. It is worth noting that on his arrival he applied for the minutes of the previous meetings and that his application was refused. In Belgium the evidence of the Commission has never been published, and it is safe to say that it never will be. Fortunately the Congo missionaries took copious notes of the proceedings and of the testimony which came immediately under their own notice. It is from their evidence that I draw these accounts. If the Congo authorities contest the accuracy of those accounts, then let them confute them forever and put their accusers to confusion by producing the actual minutes which they hold.

The first sitting of any length of which there are records is that at Bolobo, and extended from November 5th to 12th, 1904. The veteran, Mr. Grenfell, gave evidence at this sitting, and it is useful to summarize his views as he was one of the men who held out longest against the condemnation of King Leopold, and because his early utterances have been quoted as if he were a supporter of the system. He expressed to the Commissioners his disappointment at the failure of the Congo Government to realize the promises with which it inaugurated its career. He declared he could no longer wear the decorations which he had received from the Sovereign of the Congo State. He gave it as his opinion that the ills the country was suffering from were due to the haste of a few men to get rich, and to the absence of anything like a serious attempt to properly police the country in the interests of the people. He instanced the few judicial officers, and the virtual impossibility of a native obtaining justice, owing to witnesses being compelled to travel long distances, either to Leopoldville or Boma. Mr. Grenfell spoke out emphatically against the administrative régime on the Upper River, so far as it had been brought under his notice.

Mr. Scrivener, a gentleman who had been twenty-three years on the Congo, was the next witness. His evidence was largely the same as the “Diary” from which I have already quoted, concerning the condition of the Crown Domain. Many witnesses were examined. “How do you know the names of the men murdered?” a lad was asked. “One of them was my father,” was the dramatic reply. “Men of stone,” wrote Mr. Scrivener, “would be moved by the stories that are unfolded as the Commission probes this awful history of rubber collection.”

Mr. Gilchrist, another missionary, was a new witness. His testimony was concerned with the State Domain and the Concessionnaire area, principally on the Lulanga River. He said:

“I also told them what we had seen on the Ikelemba, of the signs of desolation in all the districts, of the heartrending stories the people told us, of the butcheries wrought by the various white men of the State and companies who had, from time to time, been stationed there among whom a few names were notorious. I pointed out to them the fact that the basin of the Ikelemba was supposed to be free-trade territory also, but that everywhere the people of the various districts were compelled to serve the companies of these respective districts, in rubber, gum copal or food. At one out-of-the-way place where we were on the south bank, two men arrived just as we were leaving, with their bodies covered with marks of the chicotte, which they had just received from the trader of Bosci because their quantity had been short. I said to the Commissaire, given favourable conditions, particularly freedom, there would soon be a large population in these interior towns, the Ngombe and Mongo.”

In answer to questions the following facts were solicited:

Unsettled condition of the people. The older people never seem to have confidence to build their houses substantially. If they have any suspicion of the approach of a canoe or steamer with soldiers they flee.

Chest disease, pneumonia, etc. These carry off very many. The people flee to the islands, live in the open air, expose themselves to all kinds of weather, contract chills, which are followed by serious lung troubles, and die. For years we never saw a new house because of the drifting population. They have a great fear of soldiers. In the case of many the absence from the villages is temporary; in the case of a few they permanently settle on the north bank of the river.

Want of proper nourishment. I have witnessed the collecting of the State imposition, and after this was set aside the natives had nothing but leaves to eat.”

Also, that fines, which the Commission at once declared to be illegal, were constantly levied on the people, and that these fines had continued after the matter had been reported to the Governor-General. In spite of this declaration of illegality, no steps were taken in the matter, and M. de Bauw, the chief offender, was by last accounts the supreme executive official of the district. At every turn one finds that there is no relation at all between law and practice in the Congo. Law is habitually broken by every official from the Governor-General downward if the profits of the State can be increased thereby. The only stern enforcement of the laws is toward the foreigner, the Austrian Rubinck, or the Englishman Stokes, who is foolish enough to think that an international agreement is of more weight than the edicts of Boma. These men believed it, and met their death through their belief without redress, and even, in the case of the Austrian, without public remonstrance.

The next considerable session of the Commission was at Baringa. Mr. Harris and Mr. Stannard, the missionaries at this station, had played a noble part throughout in endeavouring within their very limited powers to shield the natives from their tormentors. In both cases, and also in that of Mrs. Harris, this had been done at the repeated risk of their lives. Their white neighbours of the rubber factories made their lives miserable also by preventing their receipt of food from the natives, and harassing them in various ways. On one occasion a chief and his son were both murdered by the order of the white agent because they had supplied the Harris household with the fore-quarter of an antelope. Before giving the terrible testimony of the missionaries—a testimony which was admitted to be true by the chief agent of the A.B.I.R. Company on the spot, it would be well to show the exact standing of this Corporation and its relation to the State. These relations are so close that they become to all intents and purposes the same. The State holds fifty per cent. of the shares; it places the Government soldiers at the company’s disposal; it carries up in the Government steamers and supplies licenses for the great number of rifles and the quantity of cartridges which the company needs for its murderous work. Whatever crimes are done by the company, the State is a close accomplice. Finally, the European directors of this bloodstained company are, or were at the time, the Senator Van der Nest, who acted as President; and as Council: Count John d’Oultremont, Grand Marshal of the Belgian Court; Baron Dhanis, of Congo fame, and M. van Eetevelde, the creature of the King, and the writer of so many smug despatches to the British Government about the mission of civilization and the high purpose of the Congo State. Now listen to some of the testimony as condensed by Mr. Harris:

“First, the specific atrocities during 1904 were dealt with, including men, women, and children; then murders and outrages, including cannibalism. From this I passed on to the imprisonment of men, women and children. Following this I called attention to the destruction of the Baringa towns and the partial famine among the people in consequence. Also the large gangs of prisoners—men, women and children—imprisoned to carry out this work; the murder of two men whilst it was being done. Next followed the irregularities during 1903. The expedition conducted by an A.B.I.R. agent against Samb’ekota, and the arming continually of A.B.I.R. sentries with Albini rifles. Following this I drew attention to the administration of Mons. Forcie, whose régime was a terrible one, including the murder of Isekifasu, the principal Chief of Bolima; the killing, cutting up and eating of his wives, son and children; the decorating of the chief houses with the intestines, liver and heart of some of the killed, as stated by ‘Veritas’ in the West African Mail.

“I confirmed in general the letter published in the West African Mail by ‘Veritas.’

“Following this I came to Mons. Tagner’s time, and stated that no village in this district had escaped murders under this man’s régime.

“Next we dealt with irregularities common to all agents, calling attention to and proving by specific instances the public floggings of practically any and every one; quoting, for instance, seeing with my own eyes six Ngombe men receive one hundred strokes each, delivered simultaneously by two sentries.

“Next, the normal condition has always been the imprisoning of men, women and children, all herded together in one shed, with no arrangement for the demands of nature. Further, that very many, including even chiefs, had died either in prison or immediately on their release.

“Next, the mutilation of the woman Boaji, because she wished to remain faithful to her husband, and refused to subject herself to the passions of the sentries. The woman’s footless leg and hernia testify to the truth of her statement. She appeared before the Commission and doctor.

“Next, the fact that natives are imprisoned for visiting friends and relatives in other villages, and the refusal to allow native canoes to pass up and down river without carrying a permit signed by the rubber agent; pointing out that even missionaries are subject to these restrictions, and publicly insulted, in an unprintable manner, when they do so.

“Next point dealt with was responsibility—maintaining that responsibility lay not so much in the individual as in the system. The sentry blames the agent, he in turn the director, and so on.

“I next called attention to the difficulties to be faced by natives in reporting irregularities. The number of civil officials is too small; the practical impossibility of reaching those that do exist—the native having first to ask permission of the rubber agent.

“The relations that are at present necessary between the A.B.I.R. and the State render it highly improbable that the natives will ever report irregularities. I then pointed out that we firmly believe that but for us these irregularities would never have come to light.

“Following on this the difficulties to be faced by missionaries were dealt with, pointing out that the A.B.I.R. can and do impose on us all sorts of restrictions if we dare to speak a word about their irregularities. I then quoted a few of the many instances which found their climax in Mrs. Harris and I almost losing our lives for daring to oppose the massacres by Van Caelcken. It was also stated that we could not disconnect the attitude of the State in refusing us fresh sites with our action in condemning the administration. I then mentioned that the forests are exhausted of rubber, pointing out that during a five days’ tour through the forests I did not see a single vine of any size. This is solely because the vines have been worked in such a manner that all the rubber roots need many years’ rest, whereas the natives now are actually reduced to digging up those roots in order to get rubber.

“The next subject dealt with was the clear violation both of the spirit and letter of the Berlin Act. In the first place we are not allowed to extend the Mission, and, further, we are forbidden to trade even for food.

“Next the statement was made that, so far as we are aware, no single sentry had ever been punished by the State till 1904 for the many murders committed in this district.

“I next pointed out that one reason why the natives object to paddle for the A.B.I.R. is because of the sentries who travel in the A.B.I.R. canoes, and whose only business is to flog the paddlers in order to keep them going.

“After Mr. Stannard had been heard, sixteen Esanga witnesses were questioned one by one. They gave clearly the details of how father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter were killed in cold blood for rubber. These sixteen represented over twenty murders in Esanga alone. Then followed the big chief of all Bolima, who succeeded Isekifasu (murdered by the A.B.I.R.). What a sight for those who prate about lying missionaries! He stood boldly before all, pointed to his twenty witnesses, placed on the table his one hundred and ten twigs, each twig representing a life for rubber. ‘These are chiefs’ twigs, these are men’s, these shorter are women’s, these smaller still are children’s.’ He gives the names of scores, but begs for permission to call his son as a reminder. The Commission, though, is satisfied with him, that he is telling the truth, and therefore say that it is unnecessary. He tells how his beard of many years’ growth, and which nearly reached his feet, was cut off by a rubber agent, merely because he visited a friend in another town. Asked if he had not killed A.B.I.R. sentries, he denied it, but owned to his people spearing three of the sentry’s boys. He tells how the white man fought him, and when the fight was over handed him his corpses, and said: ‘Now you will bring rubber, won’t you?’ To which he replied: ‘Yes.’ The corpses were cut up and eaten by Mons. Forcie’s fighters. He also told how he had been chicotted and imprisoned by the A.B.I.R. agent, and further put to the most menial labour by the agent.

“Here Bonkoko came forward and told how he accompanied the A.B.I.R. sentries when they went to murder Isekifasu and his wives and little ones; of finding them peacefully sitting at their evening meal; of the killing as many as they could, also the cutting up and eating of the bodies of Isekifasu’s son and his father’s wives; of how they dashed the baby’s brains out, cut the body in half, and impaled the halves.

“Again he tells how, on their return, Mons. Forcie had the sentries chicotted because they had not killed enough of the Bolima people.

“Next came Bongwalanga, and confirmed Bonkoko’s story; this youth went to ‘look on.’ After this the mutilated wife of Lomboto, of Ekerongo, was carried by a chief, who showed her footless leg and hernia. This was the price she had to pay for remaining faithful to her husband. The husband told how he was chicotted because he was angry about his wife’s mutilation.

“Then Longoi, of Lotoko, placed eighteen twigs on the table, representing eighteen men, women and children murdered for rubber. Next, Inunga laid thirty-four twigs on the table and told how thirty-four of his men, women and children had been murdered at Ekerongo. He admits that they had speared one sentry, Iloko, but that, as in every other such instance, was because Iloko had first killed their people. Lomboto shows his mutilated wrist and useless hand, done by the sentry. Isekansu shows his stump of a forearm, telling the same pitiful story. Every witness tells of floggings, rape, mutilations, murders, and of imprisonments of men, women and children, and of illegal fines and irregular taxes, etc., etc. The Commission endeavours to get through this slough of iniquity and river of blood, but finding it hopeless, asks how much longer I can go on. I tell them I can go on until they are satisfied that hundreds of murders have been committed by the A.B.I.R. in this district alone; murders of chiefs, men, women and little children, and that multitudes of witnesses only await my signal to appear by the thousand.

“I further point out that we have only considered about two hundred murders from the villages of Bolima, Esanga, Ekerongo, Lotoko; that by far the greater majority still remain. The following districts are as yet untouched: Bokri, Nson-go, Boru-ga, Ekala, Baringa, Linza, Lifindu, Nsongo-Mboyo, Livoku, Boendo, the Lomako river, the Ngombe country, and many others, all of whom have the same tale to tell. Every one saw the hopelessness of trying to investigate things fully. To do so, the Commission would have to stay here for months.”

What comment can be added to such evidence as this! It stands in its naked horror, and it is futile to try to make it more vivid. What can any of those English apologists of the Congo who have thrown a doubt upon the accounts of outrages because in passing through a section of this huge country upon a flying visit they had not happened to see them—what can Lord Mountmorris, Captain Boyd Alexander, or Mrs. French Sheldon say in the face of a mass of evidence with the actual mutilated limbs and excoriated backs to enforce it? Can they say more than the man actually incriminated, M. Le Jeune, the chief agent at the spot? “What have you to say?” asked the President. M. Le Jeune shrugged his shoulders. He had nothing to say. The President, who had listened, to his honour be it spoken, with tears running down his cheeks to some of the evidence, cried out in amazement and disgust. “There is one document I would put in,” said the agent. “It is to show that 142 of my sentinels were slain by the villagers in the course of seven months.” “Surely that makes the matter worse!” cried the sagacious judge. “If these well-armed men were slain by the defenceless villagers, how terrible must the wrongs have been which called for such desperate reprisals!”

You will ask what was done with this criminal agent, a man whose deeds merited the heaviest punishment that human law could bestow. Nothing whatever was done to him. He was allowed to slip out of the country exactly as Captain Lothaire, in similar circumstances, was allowed to slip from the country. An insignificant agent may be occasionally made an example of, but to punish the local manager of a great company would be to lessen the output of rubber, and what are morality and justice compared to that?

Why should one continue with the testimony given before the Commission? Their wanderings covered a little space of the country and were confined to the main river, but everywhere they elicited the same tale of slavery, mutilation, and murder. What Scrivener and Grenfell said at Bolobo was what Harris and Stannard said at Baringa, what Gilchrist said at Lulanga, what Rushin and Gamman said at Bongadanga, what Mr. and Mrs. Lower said at Ikan, what Padfield said at Bonginda, what Weeks said at Monscombe. The place varied, but the results of the system were ever the same. Here and there were human touches which lingered in the memory; here and there also episodes of horror which stood out even in that universal Golgotha. One lad testified that he had lost every relative in the world, male or female, all murdered for rubber. As his father lay dying he had given him the charge of two infant brothers and enjoined him to guard them tenderly. He had cared for them until he had been compelled at last to go himself into the forest to gather the rubber. One week their quantity had been short. When he returned from the wood the village had been raided in his absence, and he found his two little brothers lying disembowelled across a log. The company, however, paid 200 per cent.

Four natives had been tortured until they cried out for some one to bring a gun and shoot them.

The chiefs died because their hearts were broken.

Mr. Gamman knew no village where it took them less than ten days out of fifteen to satisfy the demands of the A.B.I.R. As a rule, the people had four days in a month to themselves. By law the maximum of forced labour was forty hours in a month. But, as I have said, there is no relation at all between law and practice in the Congo.

One witness appeared with a string knotted in forty-two places, and with a packet of fifty leaves. Each knot represented a murder and each leaf a rope in his native village.

The son of a murdered chief took the body of his father (all names, dates and place specified) to show it to the white agent, in the hope of justice. The agent called his dog and set it on him, the dog biting the son on the leg as he carried the corpse of his father.

The villagers brought their murdered men to M. Spelier, director of the La Lulanga Company. He accused them of lying and ordered them off.

One chief was seized by two white agents, one of whom held him while the other beat him. When they had finished they kicked him to make him get up, but the man was dead. The Commission examined ten witnesses in their investigation of this story. The chief was Jonghi, the village Bogeka, the date October, 1904.

Such is a fractional sample of the evidence which was laid before the Commission, corroborated by every detail of name, place and date which could enforce conviction. There is no doubt that it did enforce thorough conviction. The judges travelled down the river sadder and wiser men. When they reached Boma, they had an interview with Governor-General Constermann. What passed at that interview has not been published, but the Governor-General went forth from it and cut his own throat. The fact may, perhaps, give some indication of how the judges felt when the stories were still fresh in their minds, and their nerves wincing under the horror of the evidence.

A whole year elapsed between the starting of the Commission and the presentation of their Report, which was published upon October 31st, 1905. The evidence which would have stirred Europe to its foundations was never published at all, in spite of an informal assurance to Lord Lansdowne that nothing would be held back. Only the conclusions saw the light, without the document upon which they were founded.

The effect of that Report, when stripped of its courtly phrases, was an absolute confirmation of all that had been said by so many witnesses during so many years. It is easy to blame the Commissioners for not having the full courage of their convictions, but their position was full of difficulty. The Report was really a personal one. The State was, as no one knew better than themselves, a fiction. It was the King who had sent them, and it was to the King himself that they were reporting upon a matter which deeply affected his personal honour as well as his material interests. Had they been, as had been suggested, an international body, the matter would have been simple. But of the three good care had been taken that two should be men who would have to answer for what was said. Mr. Janssens was a more or less independent man, but a Belgian, and a subject all the same. Baron Nisco was in the actual employ of the King, and his future was at stake. On the whole, I think that the Commissioners acted like brave and honest men.

Naturally they laid all stress upon what could be said in favour of the King and his creation. They would have been more than human had they not done so. They enlarged upon the size and the traffic of the cities at the mouth of the Congo—as if the whole loot of a nation could pass down a river without causing commerce and riches at its mouth. Very early in the Report they indicated that the question of the State appropriation of the land had forced itself upon their notice. “If the State wishes to avoid the principle of the State appropriation of vacant lands resulting in abuse,” says the Report, “it should place its agents and officials on their guard against too restrictive interpretation and too rigorous applications.” Weak and trimming, it is true, but it was the cornerstone of all that the King had built, and how were they to knock it rudely out? Their attitude was not heroic. But it was natural. They go on:

“As the greater portion of the land in the Congo is not under cultivation, this interpretation concedes to the State a right of absolute and exclusive ownership over virtually the whole of the land, with this consequence: that it can dispose—itself and solely—of all the products of the soil; prosecute as a poacher any one who takes from that land the least of its fruits, or as a receiver of stolen goods any one who receives such fruit: forbid any one to establish himself on the greater part of the territory. The activity of the natives is thus limited to very restricted areas, and their economic condition is immobilized. Thus abusively applied, such legislation would prevent any development of native life. In this manner, not only has the native been often forbidden to shift his village, but he has even been forbidden to visit, even temporarily, a neighbouring village without special permit. A native displacing himself without being the bearer of such an authorization, would leave himself open to arrest, to be taken back and even punished.”

Who could possibly deny, after reading this passage, that the Congo native has been reduced from freedom into slavery? There follows a curious sentence:

“Let us hasten,” says the Report, “to say that in actual fact so great a rigour has not been shown. Almost everywhere certain PRODUCTS OF THE DOMAIN have been abandoned to the natives, notably palm kernels, which form the object of an important export trade in the Lower Congo.”

This palm kernel trade is an old-established one, affecting only the mouth of the river, which could not be disturbed without obvious international complications, and which bears no relation to the great Upper Congo populations, whose inhuman treatment was the question at issue.

The Report then proceeds to point out very clearly, the all-important fact which arises from the expropriation of the native from the land. “Apart from the rough plantations,” it says, “which barely suffice, to feed the natives themselves and to supply the stations, all the fruits of the soil are considered as the property of the State or of the Concessionnaire societies.” This being so, there is an end forever of free trade, or, indeed, of any trade, save an export by the Government itself, or by a handful of companies which really represent the Government, of the whole wealth of the country to Europe for the benefit of a ring of millionaires.

Having dealt with the taking of the land and the taking of its products, the Commission handles with kid gloves the third great root proposition, the forcing of the natives, for nothing, under the name of taxes, for trifles under the absurd name of trade, to work for the sake of their oppressors. It expends many words in showing that natives do not like work, and that, therefore, compulsion is necessary. It is sad to see just and learned men driven to such straits in defending what is indefensible. Do the blacks of the Rand gold mines like work? Do the Kimberley diamond hunters like work? Do the carriers of an East German caravan like work? No more than the Congolese. Why, then, do they work? Because they are paid a fair wage to do so. Because the money earned by their work can bring them more pleasure than the work does pain. That is the law of work the whole world over. Notably it is the law on the Congo itself, where the missionaries, who pay honestly for work, have no difficulty in getting it. Of course, the Congolese, like the Englishman, or the Belgian, does not like work when it is work which brings a benefit to others and none to himself.

But in spite of this preamble, the Commission cannot escape the actual facts.

“Numbers of agents only thought of one thing: to obtain as MUCH AS POSSIBLE IN THE SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME, and their demands were often excessive. This IS NOT AT ALL ASTONISHING, AT ANY RATE AS REGARDS THE GATHERING OF THE PRODUCE OF THE DOMAIN….

that is to say, the revenues for Government;

For the agents themselves who regulated the tax and saw to its collection, had a direct interest in increasing its amount, since they received proportional bonuses on the produce thus collected.”

No more definite statement could be made of the system which had been attacked by the Reformers and denied by the Congo officials for so many years. The Report then goes on to tell that when the State, in one of those pretended reforms which were meant for European, not for Congolese, use, allotted forty hours of forced labour per month as the amount which the native owed the State, the announcement was accompanied by a private intimation from the Governor-General to the District Commissioners, dated February 23rd, 1904, that this new law must have the effect, not of lessening, but “of bringing about a constant increase in the resources of the Treasury.” Could they be told in plainer terms that they were to disregard it?

The land is taken, the produce is taken, the labour is taken. In old days the African slave was exported, but we progress with the ages and now a higher intelligence has shown the folly of the old-fashioned methods when it is to easy to enslave him in his own home.

We may pass the Report of the Commission in so far as it deals with the taxation of the natives, food taxes, porterage taxes and other imposts. It brings out very clearly the curse of the parasitic army, with their families, which have to be fed by the natives, and the difficulty which it causes them with their limited plantations to find the means for feeding themselves. Even the wood to the State steamers is not paid for, but is taken as a tax. Such demands “force the natives in the neighbourhood of the stations in certain cases to an almost continuous labour”—a fresh admission of slave conditions. The Report describes the result of the rubber tax in the following terms:

“This circumstance [exhaustion of the rubber] explains the repugnance of the native for rubber work, which in itself is not particularly painful. In THE MAJORITY OF CASES the native must go one or two days’ march EVERY FORTNIGHT, until he arrives at that part of the forest where the rubber vines can be met with in a certain degree of abundance. There the collector passes a number of days in a miserable existence. He has to build himself an improvised shelter, which cannot, obviously, replace his hut. He has not the food to which he is accustomed. He is deprived of his wife, exposed to the inclemencies of the weather and the attacks of wild beasts. When once he has collected the rubber he must bring it to the State station or to that of the Company, and only then can he return to his village, where he can sojourn for barely more than two or three days, because the next demand is upon him…. It is hardly necessary to add that this state of affairs is A FLAGRANT VIOLATION OF THE FORTY HOURS’ LAW.”

The Report deals finally with the question of the punishments meted out by the State. These it enumerates as “the taking of hostages, the imprisonment of the chiefs, the institution of sentries or capitas, fines and military expeditions,” the latter being a euphemism for cold-blooded massacres. It continues:

“Whatever one may think of native ideas, acts such as taking women as hostages outrage too much our ideas of justice to be tolerated. The State has prohibited this practice long ago, but without being able to suppress it.”

The State prohibits, but the State not only condones, but actually commands it by private circular. Again the gap which lies betwixt law and fact where the interest of gain is concerned.

“It was barely denied,” the Report continues, “that in the various posts of the A.B.I.R. which we visited, the imprisonment of women hostages, the subjection of the chiefs to servile labour, the humiliations meted out to them, the flogging of rubber collectors, the brutality of the black employés set over the prisoners, were the rule commonly followed.”

Then follows an illuminative passage about the sentries, capitas or “forest guards,” or messengers, as they are alternatively called. It is a wonder that they were not called hospital orderlies in the efforts to make them seem inoffensive. What they actually were was, as we have seen, some twenty thousand cannibals armed with Albini repeating rifles. The Report says:

“This system of native supervisors (surveillants) has given rise to numerous criticisms, even on the part of State officials. The Protestant missionaries heard at Bolobo, Ikoko (Lake Mantumba), Lulonga, Bonginda, Ikau, Baringa and Bongandanga, drew up formidable accusations against the acts of these intermediaries. They brought before the Commission a MULTITUDE OF NATIVE WITNESSES, WHO REVEALED A LARGE NUMBER OF CRIMES and excesses alleged to have been committed by the sentinels. According to the witnesses these auxiliaries, especially those stationed in the villages, abuse the authority conferred upon them, convert themselves into DESPOTS, CLAIMING THE WOMEN AND THE FOOD, NOT ONLY FOR THEMSELVES BUT FOR THE BODY OF PARASITES AND CREATURES WITHOUT ANY CALLING WHICH A LOVE OF RAPINE CAUSES TO BECOME ASSOCIATED WITH THEM, AND WITH WHOM THEY SURROUND THEMSELVES AS WITH A VERITABLE BODYGUARD; THEY KILL WITHOUT PITY ALL THOSE WHO ATTEMPT TO RESIST THEIR EXIGENCIES AND WHIMS. The Commission was obviously unable in all cases to verify the exactitude of the allegations made before it, the more so that the facts were often several years old. However, TRUTH OF THE CHARGES IS BORNE OUT BY A MASS OF EVIDENCE AND OFFICIAL REPORTS.”

It adds:

“Of how many abuses have these native sentinels been guilty it would be impossible to say, even approximately. Several chiefs of Baringa brought us, according to the native custom, bundles of sticks, each of which was meant to show one of their subjects killed by the capitas. One of them showed 120 murders in his village committed during the last few years. Whatever one may think of the confidence with which this native form of book-keeping may inspire one, a document handed to the Commission by the Director of the A.B.I.R. does not allow any doubt to remain as to the sinister character of the system. It consisted of a list showing that from 1st January to 1st August, 1905—that is to say, within a space of seven months—142 sentries of the Society had been killed or wounded by the natives. Now, it is to be assumed that in many cases these sentries had been attacked by the natives by way of revenge. One may judge by this of the number of bloody affrays to which their presence had given rise. On the other hand, the agents interrogated by the Commission, or who were present at the audiences, did not even attempt to deny the charges brought against the sentinels.”

That last sentence seems the crown of the arch. If the agents on the spot did not attempt before the Commission to deny the outrages who shall venture to do it in their name?

The remainder of the Report, though stuffed with courtly platitudes and with vague recommendations of reform which are absolutely unpractical, so long as the root causes of all the trouble remain undisturbed, contains a few positive passages which are worth preserving. Talking of the want of definite instructions to military expeditions, it says:

“The consequences are often very murderous. And one must not be astonished. If in the course of THESE DELICATE OPERATIONS, WHOSE OBJECT IT IS TO SEIZE HOSTAGES AND TO INTIMIDATE THE NATIVES, constant watch cannot be exercised over the sanguinary instincts of the soldiers when orders to punish are given by superior authority, it is difficult that the expedition should not degenerate into massacres, accompanied by pillage and incendiarism.”


“The responsibility for these abuses must not, however, always be placed upon the commanders of military expeditions. In considering these facts one must bear in mind the deplorable confusion still existing in the Upper Congo between a state of war and a state of peace; between administration and repression; between those who may be regarded as enemies and those who have the right to be regarded as citizens of the State and treated in accordance with its laws. The Commission was struck with the general tone of the reports relating to operations described above. Often, while admitting that the expedition had been sent out SOLELY FOR SHORTAGE IN TAXATION, AND WITHOUT MAKING ALLUSION TO AN ATTACK OR RESISTANCE ON THE PART OF THE NATIVES, WHICH ALONE WOULD JUSTIFY THE USE OF ARMS, the authors of these reports speak of ‘SURPRISING VILLAGES,’ ‘ENERGETIC PURSUIT,’ ‘NUMEROUS ENEMIES KILLED AND WOUNDED,’ ‘LOOT,’ ‘PRISONERS OF WAR,’ ‘CONDITIONS OF PEACE.’ Evidently these officers thought themselves at war, acted as though at war.”


“The course of such expeditions grave abuses have occurred; men, women and children have been killed even at the very time they sought safety in flight. Others have been imprisoned. Women have been taken as hostages.”

There is an interesting passage about the missionaries:

“Often also, in the regions where evangelical stations are established, the native, instead of going to the magistrate, his natural protector, adopts the habit when he thinks he has a grievance against an agent or an Executive officer, to confide in the missionary. The latter listens to him, helps him according to his means, and makes himself the echo of all the complaints of a region. Hence the astounding influence which the missionaries possess in some parts of the territory. It exercises itself not only among the natives within the purview of their religious propaganda, but over all the villages whose troubles they have listened to. The missionary becomes, for the native of the region, the only representative of equity and justice; he adds to the ascendancy acquired from his religious zeal, the prestige which, in the interest of the State itself, should be invested in the magistrates.”

I will now turn for a moment to contemplate the document as a whole.

With the characteristic policy of the Congo authorities, it was originally given to the world as being a triumphant vindication of King Leopold’s administration, which would certainly have been the greatest whitewashing contract ever yet carried through upon this planet. Looked at more closely, it is clearly seen that behind the veil of courtly phrase and complimentary forms, every single thing that the Reformers have been claiming has been absolutely established. That the land has been taken. That the produce has been taken. That the people are enslaved. That they are reduced to misery. That the white agents have given the capitas a free hand against them. That there have been illegal holdings of hostages, predatory expeditions, murders and mutilations. All these things are absolutely admitted. I do not know that anything more has ever been claimed, save that the Commission talks coldly of what a private man must talk of hotly, and that the Commission might give the impression that they were isolated acts, whereas the evidence here given and the general depopulation of the country show that they are general, universal, and parts of a single system extending from Leopoldville to the Great Lakes, and from the French border to Katanga. Be it private domain, crown domain, or Concessionnaire territory, be it land of the Kasai, the Anversoise, the Abir, or the Katanga companies, the tale still tells of bloodshed and horror.

Where the Commission differs from the Reformers is in their estimate of the gravity of this situation and of the need of absolute radical reforms. It is to be borne in mind that of the three judges two had never been in Africa before, while the third was a direct servant of the attacked institution. They seem to have vaguely felt that these terrible facts were necessary phases of Colonial expansion. Had they travelled, as I have done, in British West Africa, and had it been brought home to them that a blow to a black man, Sierra Leone, for example, would mean that one would be taken by a black policeman before a black judge to be handed over to a black gaoler, they would understand that there are other methods of administration. Had they ever read of that British Governor of Jamaica, who, having in the face of dangerous revolt, executed a Negro without due forms of law, was recalled to London, tried, and barely escaped with his life. It is by such tension as this that Europeans in the Tropics, whatever be their nation, must be braced up to maintain their civilized morale. Human nature is weak, the influence of environment is strong. Germans or English would yield and in isolated cases have yielded, to their surroundings. No nation can claim much individual superiority in such a matter. But for both Germany and England (I would add France, were it not for the French Congo) can claim that their system works as strongly against outrage as the Belgian one does in favour of it. These things are not, as the Commissioners seemed to think, necessary evils, which are tolerated elsewhere. How can their raw opinion weigh for a moment upon such a point when it is counterbalanced by the words of such Reformers as Sir Harry Johnston or Lord Cromer? The fact is that the running of a tropical colony is, of all tests, the most searching as to the development of the nation which attempts it; to see helpless people and not to oppress them, to see great wealth and not to confiscate it, to have absolute power and not to abuse it, to raise the native instead of sinking yourself—these are the supreme trials of a nation’s spirit. We have all failed at times. But never has there been failure so hopeless, so shocking, bearing such consequences to the world, such degradation to the good name of Christianity and civilization as the failure of the Belgians in the Congo.

And all this has happened and all this has been tolerated in an age of progress. The greatest, deepest, most wide-reaching crime of which there is any record, has been reserved for these latter years. Some excuse there is for racial extermination where, as with Saxons and Celts, two peoples contend for the same land which will but hold one. Some excuse, too, for religious massacre when, like Mahomet the Second at Constantinople, or Alva in the Lowlands, the bigoted murderers honestly conceived that their brutal work was in the interest of God. But here the real doers have sat remote with cold blood in their veins, knowing well from day to day what they were doing, and with the sole object of adding more to wealth which was already enormous. Consider this circumstance and consider also the professions of philanthropy with which the huge massacre was inaugurated, the cloud of lies with which it has been screened, the persecution and calumny of the few honest men who uncovered it, the turning of religion against religion and of nation against nation in the attempt to perpetuate it, and having weighed all this, tell me where in the course of history there is any such story. What is progress? Is it to run a little faster in a motor-car, to listen to gabble in a gramophone?—these are the toys of life. But if progress is a spiritual thing, then we do not progress. Such a horror as this of Belgium and the Congo would not have been possible fifty years ago. No European nation would have done it, and if it had, no other one would have failed to raise its voice in protest. There was more decorum and principle in life in those slower days. We live in a time of rush, but do not call it progress. The story of the Congo has made the idea a little absurd.