Voices from the Darkness

A few more anecdotes from the worthy Mr. Clark. This is an extract from a letter to the Chief of the District, Mueller:

“There is a matter I want to report to you regarding the Nkake sentries. You remember some time ago they took eleven canoes and shot some Ikoko people. As a proof they went to you with some hands, of which three were the hands of little children. We heard from one of their paddlers that one child was not dead when its hand was cut off, but did not believe the story. Three days after we were told the child was still alive in the bush. I sent four of my men to see, and they brought back a little girl whose right hand had been cut off, and she left to die from the wound. The child had no other wound. As I was going to see Dr. Reusens about my own sickness I took the child to him, and he has cut the arm and made it right and I think she will live. But I think such awful cruelty should be punished.”

Mr. Clark still clung to the hope that King Leopold did not know of the results of his own system. On March 25th, 1896, he writes:

This rubber traffic is steeped in blood, and if the natives were to rise and sweep every white person on the upper Congo into eternity there would still be left a fearful balance to their credit. Is it not possible for some American of influence to see the King of the Belgians, and let him know what is being done in his name? The Lake is reserved for the King—no traders allowed—and to collect rubber for him hundreds of men, women and children have been shot.”

At last the natives, goaded beyond endurance, rose against their oppressors. Who can help rejoicing that they seem to have had some success?

Extracts from letter-book commencing January 29th, 1897:

“The native uprising. This was brought about at last by sentries robbing and badly treating an important chief. In my presence he laid his complaint before M. Mueller, reporting the seizure of his wives and goods and the personal violence he had suffered at the hands of M. Mueller’s soldiers stationed in his town. I saw M. Mueller kick him off his veranda. Within forty-eight hours there were no ‘sentries’ or their followers left in that chief’s town—they were killed and mutilated—and soon after M. Mueller, with another white officer and many soldiers, were killed, and the revolt began.”

Such is some of the evidence, a very small portion of the whole narrative furnished by Mr. Clark. Remember that it is extracted from a long series of letters written to various people during a succession of years. One could conceive a single statement being a concoction, but the most ingenious apologist for the Congo methods could not explain how such a document as this could be other than true.

So much for Mr. Clark, the American. The evidence of Mr. Scrivener, the Englishman, covering roughly the same place and date, will follow. But lest the view should seem too Anglo-Saxon, let me interpolate a paragraph from the travels of a Frenchman, M. Leon Berthier, whose diary was published by the Colonial Institute of Marseilles in 1902:

“Belgian post of Imesse well constructed. The Chef de Poste is absent. He has gone to punish the village of M’Batchi, guilty of being a little late in paying the rubber tax…. A canoe full of Congo State soldiers returns from the pillage of M’Batchi…. Thirty killed, fifty wounded…. At three o’clock arrive at M’Batchi, the scene of the bloody punishment of the Chef de Poste at Imesse. Poor village! The débris of miserable huts…. One goes away humiliated and saddened from these scenes of desolation, filled with indescribable feelings.”

In showing the continuity of the Congo horror and the extent of its duration (an extent which is the shame of the great Powers who acquiesced in it by their silence), I have marshalled witnesses in their successive order. Messrs. Glave, Murphy and Sjoblom have covered the time from 1894 to 1897; Mr. Clark has carried it on to 1900; we have had the deeds of 1901-4 as revealed in the Boma Law Courts. I shall now give the experience of Rev. Mr. Scrivener, an English missionary, who in July, August and September, 1903, traversed a section of the Crown Domain, that same region specially assigned to King Leopold in person, in which Mr. Clark had spent so many nightmare years. We shall see how far the independent testimony of the Englishman and the American, the one extracted from a diary, the other from a succession of letters, corroborate each other:

“At six in the morning woke up to find it still raining. It kept on till nine, and we managed to get off by eleven. All the cassava bread was finished the day previous, so a little rice was cooked, but it was a hungry crowd that left the little village. I tried to find out something about them. They said they were runaways from a district a little distance away, where rubber was being collected. They told us some horrible tales of murder and starvation, and when we heard all we wondered that men so maltreated should be able to live without retaliation. The boys and girls were naked, and I gave them each a strip of calico, much to their wonderment….

“Four hours and a half brought us to a place called Sa…. On the way we passed two villages with more people than we had seen for days. There may have been 120. Close to the post was another small village. We decided to stay there the rest of the day. Three chiefs came in with all the adult members of their people, and altogether there were not 300. And this where, not more than six or seven years ago, there were at least 3,000! It made one’s heart heavy to listen to the tales of bloodshed and cruelty. And it all seemed so foolish. To kill the people off in the wholesale way in which it has been done in this Lake district, because they would not bring in a sufficient quantity of rubber to satisfy the white man—and now here is an empty country and a very much diminished output of rubber as the inevitable consequence….”

Finally Mr. Scrivener emerged in the neighbourhood of a “big State station.” He was hospitably received, and had many chats with his host, who seems to have been a very decent sort of man, doing his best under very trying circumstances. His predecessor had worked incalculable havoc in the country, and the present occupant of the post was endeavouring to carry out the duties assigned to him (those duties consisting, as usual, of orders to get all the rubber possible out of the people) with as much humanity as the nature of the task permitted. In this he, no doubt, did what was possible as one whom the system had not yet degraded to its level—one of the rare few: and one cannot wonder that they should be rare, seeing the nature of the bonds, and the helplessness in which an official is placed who does not carry out the full desires of his superiors. But he had only succeeded in getting himself into trouble with the district commander in consequence. He showed Mr. Scrivener a letter from the latter upbraiding him for not using more vigorous means, telling him to talk less and shoot more, and reprimanding him for not killing more than one man in a district under his care where there was a little trouble.

Mr. Scrivener had the opportunity while at this State post, under the régime of a man who was endeavouring to be as humane as his instructions allowed, to actually see the process whereby the secret revenues of the “Crown Domain” are obtained. He says:

“Everything was on a military basis, but, so far as I could see, the one and only reason for it all was rubber. It was the theme of every conversation, and it was evident that the only way to please one’s superiors was to increase the output somehow. I saw a few men come in, and the frightened look even now on their faces tells only too eloquently of the awful time they have passed through. As I saw it brought in, each man had a little basket, containing, say, four or five pounds of rubber. This was emptied into a larger basket and weighed, and being found sufficient, each man was given a cupful of coarse salt, and to some of the head-men a fathom of calico…. I heard from the white men and some of the soldiers some most gruesome stories. The former white man (I feel ashamed of my colour every time I think of him) would stand at the door of the store to receive the rubber from the poor trembling wretches, who after, in some cases, weeks of privation in the forest, had ventured in with what they had been able to collect. A man bringing rather under the proper amount, the white man flies into a rage, and seizing a rifle from one of the guards, shoots him dead on the spot. Very rarely did rubber come in but one or more were shot in that way at the door of the store—‘to make the survivors bring more next time.’ Men who had tried to run from the country and had been caught, were brought to the station and made to stand one behind the other, and an Albini bullet sent through them. ‘A pity to waste cartridges on such wretches.’ Only the roads to and fro from the various posts are kept open, and large tracts of country are abandoned to the wild beasts. The white man himself told me that you could walk on for five days in one direction, and not see a single village or a single human being. And this where formerly there was a big tribe!…

“As one by one the surviving relatives of my men arrived, some affecting scenes were enacted. There was no falling on necks and weeping, but very genuine joy was shown and tears were shed as the losses death had made were told. How they shook hands and snapped their fingers! What expressions of surprise—the wide-opened mouth covered with the open hand to make its evidence of wonder the more apparent…. So far as the State post was concerned, it was in a very dilapidated condition…. On three sides of the usual huge quadrangle there were abundant signs of a former population, but we only found three villages—bigger, indeed, than any we had seen before, but sadly diminished from what had been but recently the condition of the place…. Soon we began talking, and, without any encouragement on my part, they began the tales I had become so accustomed to. They were living in peace and quietness when the white men came in from the Lake with all sorts of requests to do this and to do that, and they thought it meant slavery. So they attempted to keep the white men out of their country, but without avail. The rifles were too much for them. So they submitted, and made up their minds to do the best they could under the altered circumstances. First came the command to build houses for the soldiers, and this was done without a murmur. Then they had to feed the soldiers, and all the men and women—hangers-on—who accompanied them.

“Then they were told to bring in rubber. This was quite a new thing for them to do. There was rubber in the forest several days away from their home, but that it was worth anything was news to them. A small reward was offered, and a rush was made for the rubber; ‘What strange white men, to give us cloth and beads for the sap of a wild vine.’ They rejoiced in what they thought was their good fortune. But soon the reward was reduced until they were told to bring in the rubber for nothing. To this they tried to demur, but to their great surprise several were shot by the soldiers, and the rest were told, with many curses and blows, to go at once or more would be killed. Terrified, they began to prepare their food for the fortnight’s absence from the village, which the collection of the rubber entailed. The soldiers discovered them sitting about. ‘What, not gone yet?’ Bang! bang! bang! bang! And down fell one and another, dead, in the midst of wives and companions. There is a terrible wail, and an attempt made to prepare the dead for burial, but this is not allowed. All must go at once to the forest. And off the poor wretches had to go, without even their tinderboxes to make fires. Many died in the forests from exposure and hunger, and still more from the rifles of the ferocious soldiers in charge of the post. In spite of all their efforts, the amount fell off, and more and more were killed….

“I was shown around the place, and the sites of former big chiefs’ settlements were pointed out. A careful estimate made the population, of say, seven years ago, to be 2,000 people in and about the post, within a radius of, say a quarter of a mile. All told, they would not muster 200 now, and there is so much sadness and gloom that they are fast decreasing…. Lying about in the grass, within a few yards of the house I was occupying, were numbers of human bones, in some cases complete skeletons. I counted thirty-six skulls, and saw many sets of bones from which the skulls were missing. I called one of the men, and asked the meaning of it. ‘When the rubber palaver began,’ said he, ‘the soldiers shot so many we grew tired of burying, and very often we were not allowed to bury, and so just dragged the bodies out into the grass and left them. There are hundreds all round if you would like to see them.’ But I had seen more than enough, and was sickened by the stories that came from men and women alike of the awful time they had passed through. The Bulgarian atrocities might be considered as mildness itself when compared with what has been done here….

“In due course we reached Ibali. There was hardly a sound building in the place…. Why such dilapidation? The Commandant away for a trip likely to extend into three months, the sub-lieutenant away in another direction on a punitive expedition. In other words, the station must be neglected, and rubber-hunting carried out with all vigour. I stayed here two days, and the one thing that impressed itself upon me was the collection of rubber. I saw long files of men come, as at Mbongo, with their little baskets under their arms, saw them paid their milk-tin full of salt, and the two yards of calico flung to the head-men; saw their trembling timidity, and, in fact, a great deal more, to prove the state of terrorism that exists, and the virtual slavery in which the people are held….

“So much for the journey to the Lake. It has enlarged my knowledge of the country, and also, alas! my knowledge of the awful deeds enacted in the mad haste of men to get rich. So far as I know, I am the first white man to go into the Domaine Privé of the King, other than the employees of the State. I expect there will be wrath in some quarters, but that cannot be helped.”

So far Mr. Scrivener. But perhaps the reader may think that there really was a missionary plot to decry the Free State. Let us have some travellers, then. Here is Mr. Grogan from his “Cape to Cairo”:

“The people were terrorized and were living in marshes.” This was on the British frontier. “The Belgians have crossed the frontier, descended into the valley, shot down large numbers of natives, British subjects, driven off the young women and cattle, and actually tied up and burned the old women. I do not make these statements without having gone into the matter. I remarked on the absence of women and the reason was given. It was on further inquiry that I was assured by the natives that white men had been present when the old women had been burned…. They even described to me the personal appearance of the white officers with the troops…. The wretched people came to me and asked me why the British had deserted them.”

Further on he says:

“Every village had been burned to the ground, and as I fled from the country I saw skeletons, skeletons everywhere. And such postures! What tales of horror they told.”

Just a word in conclusion from another witness, Mr. Herbert Frost:

“The power of an armed soldier among enslaved people is absolutely paramount. By chief or child, every command, wish, or whim of the soldier must be obeyed or gratified. At his command with rifle ready a man will … outrage his own sister, give to his persecutor the wife he loves most of all, say or do anything, indeed, to save his life. The woes and sorrows of the race whom King Leopold has enslaved have not decreased, for his Commissaire officers and agents have introduced and maintain a system of deviltry hitherto undreamed of by his victims.”

Does this all seem horrible? But in the face of it is there not something more horrible in a sentence of this kind?—

“Our only programme, I am anxious to repeat, is the work of moral and material regeneration, and we must do this among a population whose degeneration in its inherited conditions it is difficult to measure. The many horrors and atrocities which disgrace humanity give way little by little before our intervention.”

It is King Leopold who speaks.