ONCE WHEN Leopold and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were watching a parade in Berlin, Leopold, grumbling about the erosion of royal authority, remarked to the kaiser, "There is really nothing left for us kings except money!" Rubber would soon bring Leopold money beyond imagining, but the Congo alone was never enough to satisfy him. Fantasizing an empire that would encompass the two legendary rivers of Africa, the Congo and the Nile, he imagined linking the rivers by a great railway, and in the early 1890s dispatched expeditions northeast from the Congo toward the Nile valley. One of these claimed the ancient copper mines of Bahr-el-Ghazal, taking care to claim the mines for Leopold personally while committing the Congo state to provide military protection.
The French finally blocked the king from further moves toward the Nile, but he was already dreaming of new colonies elsewhere. "I would like to make out of our little Belgium, with its six million people, the capital of an immense empire," he said. "The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, are in a state of decadence and their colonies will one day or another come on to the market." He asked Prime Minister William Gladstone of England about the possibility of leasing Uganda.
Leopold was quick to embellish his imperial schemes with any humanitarian sentiment in the air. In 1896, he proposed to another surprised British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, that a Sudanese army under Congo state officers be used "for the purpose of invading and occupying Armenia and so putting a stop to the massacres [of Armenians by the Turks] which were moving Europe so deeply." (Queen Victoria thought her cousin Leopold was becoming delusional.) When there was a crisis in Crete, he suggested that Congolese troops help restore order. After the United States won the Spanish-American War, he proposed that a corporation lease some of Spain's remaining territories, such as the Canary Islands in the Atlantic or the Carolines in the South Pacific. The corporation, he suggested, could be registered in a "neutral" state, such as, for example, the État Indépendant du Congo.
None of these dreams distracted Leopold from managing his main source of income. He kept the Congo's growing profitability as secret as possible, however, lest it stir up demands that he pay back the Belgian government's big loan. For as long as Leopold could get away with it, the Congo state did not publish a budget. When at last it did so, it presented revenue figures that grossly understated the state's real profits.
One advantage of controlling your own country is that you can issue bonds. This eventually was to become a source of revenue for Leopold almost equal to that of rubber. All told, the king issued bonds worth more than a hundred million francs, or roughly half a billion of today's dollars. Some bonds he sold; some he gave to favorites; some he kept for his personal portfolio; some he used in lieu of cash to pay for public works projects in Belgium. Since the bonds were for terms as long as ninety-nine years, Leopold knew that paying back the principal would be somebody else's problem. Supposedly the bond money was for development in the Congo, but little of it was ever spent there.
Leopold much preferred to spend it, and his Congo rubber profits, in Europe. For such a shrewd and ambitious man, he was notably unimaginative in his tastes, and used his vast new fortune in ways that would earn him a place less in the history books than in the guidebooks. A string of monuments, new palace wings, museums, and pavilions began going up all over Belgium. At his favorite seaside resort, Ostend, Leopold poured millions of francs into a promenade, several parks, and an elaborately turreted gallery (decorated with eighty-five thousand geraniums for its opening) for the racetrack he frequented. Rubber earnings also financed a golf course at nearby Klemskerke, a royal chalet at Raversijde, and endless renovations and the enlargement of the château of Laeken. Many of these riches Leopold officially gave to his country with much fanfare as a Royal Gift, although he continued to live in the castles and palaces in the same manner as he always had. His real purposes in bestowing the Royal Gift were to have the nation pay for the upkeep of these properties and to keep them out of the hands of his three daughters, to whom Belgian law required that he leave his personal possessions.
In 1895, Leopold turned sixty, and as he grew older he became a hypochondriac. Any aide who coughed risked banishment for several days. Always fearful of getting a cold, he wore a waterproof bag around his beard when he went outside in wet weather or swam in the sea. He demanded that the palace tablecloths be boiled daily to kill germs.
When not traveling, he lived mostly at Laeken. He rose early, had a cold shower, trimmed his great beard, received a massage, read the early morning mail, and ate a huge breakfast—a half-dozen poached eggs, a stack of toast, and an entire jar of marmalade. Then he spent much of the day walking around his beloved gardens and greenhouses, often reading mail and dictating answers while on the move; his secretaries had to learn to write while walking. Lunch lasted precisely half an hour; the king read newspapers and letters while eating and sometimes scribbled instructions in the margins of letters in nearly illegible handwriting that his staff spent anxious hours each day deciphering. Other family members at the table were expected to remain silent.
In the afternoon, he was driven to the Royal Palace in downtown Brussels to meet officials and visitors, then back to Laeken for the evening meal. The high point of his day was the arrival of the Times of London. Each afternoon a carefully wrapped copy of that morning's paper was tossed from the Ostend-Basel express as the train passed the private railway station, bearing the royal coat of arms, at Laeken. A footman ironed the paper—germs again—and the king read it in bed at night. (When the Times later joined his chorus of critics, Leopold angrily announced that he was stopping his subscription. But he secretly sent his valet to the Brussels railway station each day to buy him a copy.)
Perhaps Leopold liked the Times because it was a newspaper written not for a small country but for a powerful one. In any case, his lust for colonies still extended to all corners of the world. In 1897, he started to invest Congo state profits in a railway in China, eventually making big money on the deal. He saw that country as he had seen the "magnificent African cake," a feast to be consumed, and he was as ready as ever to invite himself to the table. Of the route he hoped to get for his railway line he said, "This is the spine of China; if they give it to me I'll also take some cutlets." He tried to arrange an exchange—Chinese laborers for the Congo; Congolese soldiers for China—that would give him a military foot in the door, like the other Western powers now maneuvering in the Far East. He bought several small parcels of land in China in the name of the État Indépendant du Congo. When Leopold sent a Congo state delegation—all Belgians, of course—for negotiations, the Chinese viceroy Li Hung-Chang feigned surprise: "Am I right in thinking that Africans are black?"
Back in the Congo, the rubber boom gave added urgency to the territory's major construction job: the narrow-gauge railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, around the big rapids. This project required up to sixty thousand workers at one time. Although the line was only 241 miles long, and little more than half the width of American standard-gauge tracks, climate, disease, and terrain made it one of the more daunting railway construction projects in history. It took three years to build just the first fourteen miles. An early surveyor of this forbidding stretch of land described it as "a piling up of enormous stones which, in certain places, seem to have been thrown on top of each other by the hands of giants." The whole route required ninety-nine metal bridges, totaling more than twelve miles in length.
Construction workers were brought in from British and French territories in West Africa, from Hong Kong and MaCão, and from the British West Indies. Leopold remained fascinated with the idea of using Chinese workers in the Congo. "What would it cost," he wrote to an aide, "to establish five big Chinese villages in the Congo? One in the North, another in the Northeast, one in the East, another in the South, and one between Matadi and Leopoldville. Two thousand Chinese to mark our frontiers, what would it cost?" The idea of five villages vanished, but Leopold's dream did cost the lives of many of the 540 Chinese brought to work on the railway in 1892. Three hundred of them died on the job or fled into the bush. Most of the latter were never seen again, although several were later found more than five hundred miles in the interior. They had walked toward the rising sun, trying to get to Africa's east coast and then home.
Several hundred laborers from the Caribbean island of Barbados had evidently been told they were being recruited for somewhere else; when their ship tied up at Boma in September 1892 and they realized they were in the Congo, they rebelled in fury. Soldiers fired at them, killing two and wounding many more; the rest were sent on to the railhead at Matadi the same day and put to work.
The railway was a modest engineering success and a major human disaster. Men succumbed to accidents, dysentery, smallpox, beriberi, and malaria, all exacerbated by bad food and relentless floggings by the two-hundred-man railway militia force. Engines ran off tracks; freight cars full of dynamite exploded, blowing to bits workers, black and white. Sometimes there were no shelters for the people to sleep in, and recalcitrant laborers were led to work in chains. The European construction foremen and engineers could cancel their contracts and go home, and a steady flow did so. The black and Asian workers could not. When bugles sounded in the morning, crowds of angry laborers laid at the feet of European supervisors the bodies of their comrades who had died during the night.
In a metaphor that is echoed elsewhere in Africa, local legend along the railway line has it that each tie cost one African life and each telegraph pole one European life. Even in the rosy official figures, the railway death toll was 132 whites and 1800 nonwhites. Some estimates, however, place the nonwhite toll close to 1800 a year in the first two years, which were the worst. Cemeteries dotted the rail line. Again and again workers tried to escape; three hundred men from Sierra Leone, brandishing hammers, shovels, and pickaxes, stormed the port of Matadi and tried to commandeer a ship at the dock to take them home. Club-wielding guards—themselves recruited from Zanzibar—forced them back. Other workers went on strike or fled to nearby Portuguese territory.
In 1898, eight years after construction started, the first short, stumpy steam engine, bedecked with flags, pulled two railway cars all the way up the narrow-gauge track from Matadi to Stanley Pool. A large tent decorated with flowers awaited its arrival; state officials, military men, officers of the railway, and a bishop all banqueted and drank to Leopold's health in champagne. The assembled VIPs ceremonially bolted the last rail, a cannon fired a twenty-one-gun salute, and all the steamboats in Stanley Pool blew their whistles. Officials erected a monument on the old caravan route that the rail line had replaced: three life-size metal figures of porters—one carrying a large box on his head, two collapsed in exhaustion beside him. The inscription read: THE RAILWAY FREED THEM PROM PORTERAGE. It said nothing about who made them become porters in the first place.
Although it included hairpin turns and steep grades that stretched a one-way trip to two days, the railway added enormously to the state's power and wealth. The more than eleven million pounds of rubber a year the Congo was producing by the turn of the century could now reach the sea from the steamboat docks of Stanley Pool without being carried for three weeks on men's heads. Rail cars going the other direction moved steamboats around the rapids in far larger pieces than porters could carry. Leopoldville quickly became the busiest river port in central Africa, home to steamers of up to five hundred tons. One sidewheeler on the river, the sixty-ton Ville de Paris, had begun life as an excursion boat on the Seine.
Except for those employed by the state or on projects like the railway, Leopold was wary of foreigners in the Congo. He was, however, saddled with one group of them, several hundred foreign Protestant missionaries like William Sheppard and his colleagues. Almost all had come from England, the United States, or Sweden, countries where Leopold hoped to curry favor. The missionaries had come to the Congo eager to evangelize, to fight polygamy, and to impart to Africans a Victorian sense of sin.* Before long, however, the rubber terror meant that missionaries had trouble finding bodies to clothe or souls to save. Frightened villagers would disappear into the jungle for weeks when they saw the smoke of an approaching steamboat on the horizon. One British missionary was asked repeatedly by Africans, "Has the Savior you tell us of any power to save us from the rubber trouble?" Unexpectedly, certainly without intending to take on such a role, the missionaries found themselves acting as observers on a battlefield, and Sheppard was by no means the only one who bore witness. In 1894, a Swedish missionary recorded a despairing Congolese song:
We are tired of living under this tyranny.
We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away
And dealt with by the white savages.
We shall make war....
We know that we shall die, but we want to die.
We want to die.
Due to the missionaries, from the mid-1890s on Leopold had to deal with scattered protests, like Sheppard's articles, about severed hands and slaughtered Africans. But the critics at first captured little attention, for they were not as skilled at public relations as the king, who deployed his formidable charm to neutralize them.
As a start, he encouraged mission society officials to talk with him directly, personally urging one French clergyman to do this "instead of having recourse to the press, which is always unpleasant (toujours désagréable)." Then he artfully used both promise and threat. While cultivating their leaders, he made sure to remind the mission societies of the Congo state's ability to impose taxes or deny permission to build new missions. The Southern Presbyterian mission where Sheppard worked had endless trouble getting new land it wanted to build on.
A Swedish Baptist missionary, E.V Sjöblom, was perhaps Leopold's most forceful critic in the late 1890s, speaking to all who would listen and publishing a detailed attack on the Congo's rubber terror in the Swedish press in 1896, an attack that was picked up by newspapers in other countries. At a public meeting in London the following year, Sjoblom told how African Force Publique soldiers were rewarded for the number of hands they collected. "[An] agent told me that he had himself seen a State officer at one of the outposts pay a certain number of brass rods (local currency) to the soldiers for a number of hands they had brought. One of the soldiers told me...'The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service. I have brought in plenty of hands already, and I expect my time of service will soon be finished.'" State officials threatened Sjoblom in the Congo itself and quickly counterattacked in the Belgian and British press.
Another knowledgeable opponent of Leopold's was H. R. Fox Bourne, secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, a group that had grown considerably wiser since it had elected Leopold its honorary president a decade earlier. The king himself reportedly paid a visit to the office of the Times in London to try to persuade the newspaper not to run Fox Bourne's articles.
Publicly, however, Leopold took the high road, pronouncing himself deeply shocked at reports of misdeeds in his domain. Most accusations he was able to survive with little damage, for they concerned atrocities committed against Africans. But in 1895 he faced his first real trouble in Europe when a particularly brutal Congo state officer, as one shocked British journalist put it, " dared to kill an Englishman."
The victim was actually Irish: Charles Stokes, a colorful, flamboyant trader who had, as the British liked to say, gone native, marrying an African woman. Stokes's ivory trading competed with the lucrative monopoly Leopold was trying to establish in the eastern Congo. He was also accused of selling arms to the Afro-Arabs. A Force Publique expedition went looking for Stokes near the state's eastern border, found him, and hanged him on the spot. The London press thundered its outrage. There was also a wave of protest in Germany, for Stokes's home base was in German East Africa, and the Congo state was supposedly open to German traders. In a vain attempt to dampen the outcry, the Congo government admitted its mistake and made large indemnity payments to the British and German governments. But this was not the end of the matter. One German paper declared that if the Congo had so cavalierly executed a white man, think what it must do to the natives. The European press began paying more attention to news of Congo atrocities.
Leopold had to act. In 1896 he appointed the Commission for the Protection of the Natives: six prominent Congo missionaries, three of them Belgian Catholics, three foreign Protestants. The commission was greeted as a good thing everywhere in Europe, especially in England, where the king was most worried about criticism. "It is wholly to King Leopold's credit that he should have squarely faced the facts of the situation," said the Manchester Guardian.
Few people noticed that none of the commission members was based in any of the prime rubber areas where the atrocity reports were coming from; that the commissioners were scattered over more than a thousand miles; that the king had provided no money for them to travel to meetings; that one of the British members had previously advised his fellow missionaries against publishing any atrocity stories; that another had surveyed the Congo-Angola frontier for Leopold; and that the commission had no power whatever except to "inform" the Congo state authorities about abuses.
The commission met only twice, and each time, because of distance and expense, only three of the six members managed to attend. But for Leopold, the move was a public relations coup, and he cemented his triumph with visits to England, Germany, and Sweden in the summer of 1897. For the next few years Britons were distracted by the Boer War, and attacks on Leopold almost completely disappeared from the European press. The king's critics kept up sporadic fire, but no one seemed to heed them. They despaired of attracting much attention again.
Had there been approval ratings in Europe at the time, the closing years of the century would have found Leopold at his peak of favor, both abroad and at home. In Belgium, colonial chauvinism now began to bubble up in verse:
Sur les plages où les entraîne
La voix d'un sage Souverain,
Nos soldats vont l'âme sereine,
Affrontant un climat d'airain,
De l'Africain briser la chaîne
En domptant l'Arabe inhumain
(On the beaches where a wise Sovereign's voice draws them,
Our soldiers, hearts serene, brave the brazen climate
To break the African's chain, and subdue the cruel Arab)
However, the sovereign's voice pushed rather than drew his soldiers to the beachheads, for, although the Congo was the dominating passion of his life, Leopold never went there.
Why should he have done so? The Congo in Leopold's mind was not the one of starving porters, raped hostages, emaciated rubber slaves, and severed hands. It was the empire of his dreams, with gigantic trees, exotic animals, and inhabitants grateful for his wise rule. Instead of going there, Leopold brought the Congo— that Congo, the theatrical production of his imagination—to himself. Red mahogany from it paneled the bedroom of his private railway car, animals from it appeared in Belgian zoos, and to the array of huge greenhouses at Laeken the king added a Congo Greenhouse (still full of palm trees today), topped with four glass cupolas and an octagonal dome bearing the star emblem of his private state.
From that serene, picturesque Congo stage setting of his fantasy, Leopold brought to himself even its people. In 1897, when a world's fair took place in Brussels, the most talked-about exhibit was on the outskirts of the city, at Tervuren. More than a million visitors came to see this celebration of the Congo. Items on display ranged from that great instrument of civilization so praised by Stanley (who twice visited the fair), the Maxim gun, to a large set of linen tapestries portraying Barbarism and Civilization, Fetishism and Christianity, Polygamy and Family Life, Slavery and Freedom. The most extraordinary tableau, however, was a living one: 267 black men, women, and children imported from the Congo. *
With great fanfare they were brought by train to Brussels's Gare du Nord and then marched across the center of the city to take the tram for Tervuren. There, in a park, they were installed in three specially constructed villages: a river village, a forest village, and a "civilized" village. A pair of Pygmies rounded out the show. The "uncivilized" Africans of the first two villages used tools, drums, and cooking pots brought from home. They danced and paddled their dugout canoes around a pond. During the day they were on exhibit in "authentic" bamboo African huts with overhanging thatched roofs. European men hoping to see the fabled bare breasts of Africa went away disappointed, however, for the women were made to wear cotton dressing gowns while at the fair. Clothing, a local magazine observed, was, after all, "the first sign of civilization."
In a rare show of interest in her husband's Congo projects, Queen Marie-Henriette and her entourage came to look at the Congolese, Leopold's dream made flesh. When the king was told that some of the Africans were suffering indigestion because of candy given them by the public, he ordered up the equivalent of a zoo's don't-feed-the-animals sign. The placard said: THE BLACKS ARE FED BY THE ORGANIZING COMMITTEE.
The local press titillated its readers by speculating about whether the "uncivilized" Africans were dangerous. A reporter approached a circle of them. "At the center, sitting on a log, was the chief, motionless and sacrosanct. The voice of a singer was first heard alone; then a chorus picked up a refrain, accompanied by hand claps and the banging of sticks on metal objects, and by a swaying motion of these crouching bodies. And what were the soloist and chorus singing about? The magnificent deeds of [Force Publique Captain Hubert] Lothaire, the great warrior." All was well.
The Africans of the "civilized" village included ninety Force Publique soldiers, some of whom made up a military band. The soldiers marched, the band played, and, near the end of their stay were guests at a banquet. A black sergeant rose and proposed a toast to King Leopold II. When the Africans sailed for home, a newspaper rhapsodized, "The soul of Belgium follows them, and, like the shield of Jupiter, protects them. May we always thus show the world an example of humanity!"
The ship that took the Congolese back to their homeland probably returned to Belgium with a cargo of rubber, for the riches of the Congo were now flowing to Europe on a regular schedule. Every few weeks, a fine new steamer, equipped with electric lights and refrigerators, arrived at Antwerp filled with rubber, ivory, and other products. The vessels belonged to a subsidiary of Elder Dempster, a Liverpool-based shipping line whose steamers had long plied the west coast of Africa. The firm had the contract for carrying all cargo to and from the Congo. For anybody curious about the Congo state, few jobs in Europe provided a better vantage point than a position with Elder Dempster. It was as if, in 1942 or 1943, somebody who began to wonder what was happening to the Jews had taken a job inside the headquarters of the Nazi railway system.
Elder Dempster needed someone to go to Belgium frequently to supervise the arrival and departure of ships on the Congo run. The company gave this task to a bright, hardworking young man on its staff, Edmund Dene Morel. Morel, then in his mid-twenties, was, conveniently, bilingual. His mother was English; his father had been a low-ranking French civil servant who died young, leaving no pension for his widow and small son. After a childhood on the edge of poverty, both in England and France, Morel had left school at fifteen to work in Paris to support his ailing mother. A few years later, he took a position as a clerk in Liverpool for Elder Dempster.
Unable at first to adequately support his mother and himself on his meager clerk's salary, the young Morel had also given French lessons for two shillings and sixpence an hour. Then he found a more satisfying sideline: writing free-lance articles on African trade issues for publications like the Shipping Telegraph and the Liverpool Journal of Commerce. These pieces reflected a businessman's view: they celebrated increases in cotton production and shipping tonnage and seldom questioned the prevailing dogmas of the day. Some praised Leopold's regime. "A great future is in store for the Congo," Morel wrote in one, "and ... those vast territories secured to their country by the foresight of King Leopold II will one day prove a magnificent field for [Belgian] enterprise."
It was with such enthusiasm that, in the late 1890s, Morel began traveling back and forth across the English Channel as his company's liaison with officials of the Congo state. Here is how he later described the scene he saw once or twice a month:
The quay at Antwerp; a steamer moored alongside; the musical chimes ringing from the old cathedral spire; the sound of the Brabançonne —the Belgian national anthem. On the quay and on the steamer's decks, a jostling, motley crowd. Military uniforms, the flutter of women's dresses. Ship's officers gliding to and fro. The hatches battening down. Steam getting up. Surrounded by groups of relatives or boon companions, passengers bound Congowards. Men, of whose fitness for residing and governing in tropical Africa even a novice would have doubts. Young mostly, and mostly of a poor type, undersized, pallid, wastrels. Some shaken with sobs; others stumbling in semi-intoxication. Many wearing broad tropical felts [hats] and with guns slung across their shoulders, proud possessors for the first time in their lives of either. Here and there an older bronzed individual—one who has obviously been through all this before. The faces of these, distinctly not good to look upon; scarred with brutality, with cruel and lustful eyes; faces from which one turns with an involuntary shudder of repulsion.
As Elder Dempster representative in Belgium, Morel dealt not just with business at the wharf, but with Leopold's top Congo executives. He later recalled how an episode in the office of the highest-ranking of them awakened his suspicions:
A room whose windows look out upon the back of the Royal Palace at Brussels. A gloomy room, thick-carpeted, heavy curtained: a room of oppressive shadows. In its centre a man, seated at a desk. A man thin to emaciation, with narrow, stooping shoulders; with receding forehead, high curved nose, large ears set far back: lantern jawed, cold eyed. A face in repose passively inhuman, bloodless, petrified, all sharp bones and gaunt cavities: the face of the then "Secretary of State" for the Congo Free State.... The physiognomy of the Secretary of State undergoes a remarkable and disconcerting transformation. It becomes affected by a sort of involuntary twitching.... It is the face of another man that looks at us. The mask of an impeccable officialdom peels off like a powdered glove from the hand. He leans forward and in rapid staccato accents complains that confidential information as to the last outward-bound steamer's cargo has been divulged to the Press.... The paragraph is pointed out. It looks innocent enough, being a list of the principal articles on board. But that list contains an enumeration of the cases of ball cartridges [rifle bullets], the cases of rifles and the boxes of percussion-cap guns [military muskets].... That is the fault. That is the lapse from professional secrecy. As the enormity of the indiscretion is denounced, the speaker rises, the cadaverous cheeks flush, the voice trembles ... the long bony hands saw the air. He will hear no excuses; allow no interruption. Again and again he repeats the words secret professionnel with passionate emphasis. His gestures are violent.... The youngest individual present leaves the room wondering why so large a quantity of material of war is required ... why its export should be kept secret and why the Congo Government should be so greatly troubled at the "indiscretion."
At the dockside at Antwerp, Morel saw what the Elder Dempster ships were carrying. But he soon noticed that the records he carefully compiled for his employer did not conform with the trade statistics that the État Indépendant du Congo announced to the public. As he studied the discrepancies between the two sets of figures, he began to uncover an elaborate skein of fraud. Three discoveries shocked him:
The first was that the arms cargo sent to the Congo whose disclosure had so upset the secretary of state was not an exception; it was the rule:
"Elder Dempster steamers employed in the Congo trade had been regularly shipping for the past few years prodigious quantities of ball cartridge and thousands of rifles and cap-guns either consigned to the State itself or to sundry Belgian 'trading' Companies.... To what usage was this armament put?"
Morel's second discovery was that somebody was skimming handsome profits off the top. To the tune of tens of millions of today's dollars, "the amount of rubber and ivory brought home from the Congo in the Elder Dempster ships ... greatly exceeded the amounts indicated in the Congo Government's returns.... Into whose pocket did the unavowed surplus go?"
His final discovery lay starkly before him on the docks, as he watched the ships being loaded and unloaded, and it was confirmed in Elder Dempster's records. There he found the most ominous message of all: "Of the imports going into the Congo something like 80% consisted of articles which were remote from trade purposes. Yet, the Congo was exporting increasing quantities of rubber and ivory for which, on the face of the import statistics, the natives were getting nothing or next to nothing. How, then, was this rubber and ivory being acquired? Certainly not by commercial dealing. Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out."
Morel was right. We now know that the value of the rubber, ivory, and other riches coming to Europe each year on the Elder Dempster ships was roughly five times that of goods being shipped to the Congo that were destined for Africans. In return for the rubber and ivory, Morel knew, it was not possible that the Congo's Africans were being paid in money—which he knew they were not allowed to use—or in goods that came from elsewhere, for Elder Dempster had the cargo monopoly. Clearly, they were not being paid at all.
Later in life, E. D. Morel was to become good friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But the young Morel made a deduction more far-reaching than anything accomplished by Holmes. From what he saw at the wharf in Antwerp, and from studying his company's records in Liverpool, he deduced the existence—on another continent, thousands of miles away—of slavery.
"These figures told their own story.... Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits ... forced labour in which the Congo Government was the immediate beneficiary; forced labour directed by the closest associates of the King himself.... I was giddy and appalled at the cumulative significance of my discoveries. It must be bad enough to stumble upon a murder. I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman."
With this brilliant flash of recognition by an obscure shipping-company official, King Leopold II acquired his most formidable enemy.