Modern history

Part II: A King at Bay


AT THE TIME E. D. Morel made his discoveries, most people in Europe and the United States knew surprisingly little about Leopold's apparatus of exploitation. Few Europeans who came home from the Congo said much in public about the bloodshed they had participated in. Except for George Washington Williams, almost ten years earlier, journalists who went to the Congo usually copied Stanley in celebrating the king's regime. (Twenty-six of them traveled there to marvel over the opening of the railway in 1898, for instance.) The foreign missionaries, who had seen so many atrocities, had little media savvy or political clout. Leopold's critics from British humanitarian societies were easily dismissed by the public as relics of past battles like Abolitionism and as people who were always upset about something in some obscure corner of the world.

Morel would change all this. Until now, none of Leopold's opponents had had access to the facts and figures from the Congo administration in Europe that Morel had gleaned from his insider's position at Elder Dempster. And until now none, except the prematurely dead Williams, had had another quality Morel would soon exhibit: a rare skill at publicizing his message.

Having made his dramatic discoveries, Morel refused to remain quiet. First, he confronted his boss, Sir Alfred Jones, head of the Elder Dempster line, president of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce—and honorary consul in Liverpool of the Congo state. "He was not the easiest of men to approach. He disliked having unpleasant facts brought to his notice....The next day he left for Brussels. Upon his return he preserved silence, as far as I was concerned, and I noted a marked coldness in his manner.... He told me he had seen the King and the King had promised him that reforms would be carried out, and that the Belgians were doing great things and must have time to set their African house in order."

Morel's employers were at great risk. If he made his information public and angered Leopold, the company could lose the lucrative Congo shipping contract. Now company officers did not know how to cope with this upstart junior functionary who was telling them that he had discovered something terrible about their best customer—and, worse, was demanding that they do something about it.

In Belgium, Morel found, abruptly "the atmosphere changed and in a hundred subtle ways it was intimated to me that my presence was unwelcome." He was cold-shouldered at Elder Dempster headquarters in Liverpool; then the company tried to silence him. It offered him a higher salary and a promotion to a post in some other country. When that didn't work, Jones offered him £200 a year to be an hour-a-day consultant, a thinly veiled attempt to buy him off. Morel again refused. In 1901, he quit his job and took up his pen full-time, filled with "determination to do my best to expose and destroy what I then knew to be a legalized infamy ... accompanied by unimaginable barbarities and responsible for a vast destruction of human life."

Morel knew he had taken a momentous step. "I had launched the boat," he wrote, "and there could be no turning back." He was twenty-eight years old.

From Morel's hand there now flowed a torrent of attacks on Leopold. At first he went to work for a British newspaper dealing with Africa, but its editor limited what he could say about the Congo. So in 1903, with funding from various sources, including John Holt, a Liverpool businessman known for his integrity who was something of a mentor to Morel, he started his own publication. The West African Mail, "An Illustrated Weekly Journal Founded to Meet the Rapidly Growing Interest in West & Central African Questions," would be a forum where no one could censor him.


Morel was all of a piece: his thick handlebar mustache and tall, barrelchested frame exuded forcefulness; his dark eyes blazed with indignation. The millions of words that would flow from his pen over the remainder of his life came in a handwriting that raced across the page in bold, forward-slanting lines, flattened by speed, as if they had no time to spare in reaching their destination.

In certain ways Morel is harder to fathom than some of the other figures of the Congo story. For example, it is easy to see how Stanley's painful poorhouse childhood may have fostered his cruel streak and the drive to place his mark on the world. The origin of the fiery passion for justice that fueled Morel is less evident. He spent his youth in the business world, not in the socialist movement that inspired many turn-of-the-century crusaders. As a young man, he was not active in any political party or social cause. Although he had some Quaker ancestors, he may have discovered them only later in life, for there is no record of his receiving Quaker teachings as a child. Formally, he was an unenthusiastic member of the Church of England, but at heart, like another great firebrand of Quaker ancestry, Thomas Paine, he had little use for any form of organized religion. From his campaign against King Leopold, he had nothing to gain, only a promising career at Elder Dempster to lose. He had a sick mother, a wife, and what would soon be a large family to support. In every way, he seemed an unlikely person to become the leader of a great moral crusade. His prodigious capacity for indignation seems to be something he was born with, as some people are born with great musical talent. After learning what he had in Brussels and Antwerp, he writes, "to have sat still ... would have been temperamentally impossible."

It was this smoldering sense of outrage that led Morel to become, in short order, the greatest British investigative journalist of his time. Once he determined to find out all he could about the workings of the Congo and to reveal it to the world, he produced a huge, albeit sometimes repetitive, body of work on the subject: three full books and portions of two others, hundreds of articles for almost all the major British newspapers, plus many written in French for papers in France and Belgium, hundreds of letters to the editor, and several dozen pamphlets (he turned out six in one six-month stretch, one of them in French). He did all this while continuing to edit the West African Mail and to write much of it. Besides the articles under his byline, many columns by "Africanus" or "An Observer" seem the work of the editor himself. Before long, Morel was also editing a special monthly supplement to the newspaper, devoted solely to exposing injustice in the Congo. And despite the pace of his work, he found time for a hobby, collecting different species of moths.

Morel's writing combined controlled fury with meticulous accuracy. Every detail in his books came from careful research, the evidence amassed as painstakingly as in a lawyer's brief. Over the years both admirers and enemies have searched his work for factual errors, with scant success. Even today, in almost any account of the rubber system in Leopold's Congo, if you trace statistics and quotations to their sources, many of them prove to have been first printed by Morel.

Although his soon became the most energetic voice in England directed against the Congo atrocities, it was not the only one. A few members of Parliament, especially Sir Charles Dilke, one of the most eloquent proponents of human rights in his day, spoke out strongly. Then there were the humanitarian groups like the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society; they preached a Christian humanitarianism, which, though it sounds somewhat paternalistic to our ears today, they applied to denouncing brutalities wherever they occurred, in England's colonies or elsewhere. Morel differed from them not only in his torrential energy but in his fervent belief that the Congo was a case apart, an entire state deliberately and systematically founded on slave labor. The humanitarians, Morel wrote, emphasized "the atrocious nature of the deeds committed, while my endeavor from the first was to show that given certain premises [Leopold's taking as his own the land and all its products]...those deeds must of necessitytake place."

An important influence on Morel was the writer Mary Kingsley, who became a friend just before her death, in 1900. Kingsley's 1897 Travels in West Africa is both a high-spirited classic of travel writing and one of the first books by a European that treats Africans as human beings. She saw them not as "savages" in need of civilization, but as people living in coherent societies that were being torn apart by colonialists and missionaries who had no appreciation of African life.

Leopold's decree that "vacant" lands belonged to the state, as Morel came to see it, completely destroyed the traditional systems of communal ownership of land and its products. He had learned from Kingsley that most land in Africa traditionally belonged in common to one village, clan, or tribe. If it was not being used for crops, it was a hunting ground or a source of wood for building, iron for tools and weapons, or other materials.

Besides being theft, the seizure of the land left the Africans nothing to trade with, which was especially upsetting to Morel, who had a passionate faith in free trade. Like Kingsley, he was convinced that only free trade would humanely bring Africa into the modern age. In a way surprisingly conventional for such a firebrand, Morel assumed that what was good for the merchants of Liverpool was good for Africa. His belief is understandable, because several of his Liverpool businessmen friends were Quakers who took their business ethics seriously and who supported him unstintingly.

Morel now plunged ahead with books, speeches, articles, and pamphlets about the Congo. There was no question of his actually traveling there, for Leopold routinely banned unfriendly journalists. But this did not faze him. Once Morel had staked out his position as the best-informed, most outspoken critic of the Congo state, insiders knew that he was the man to come to if they had any revealing documents to leak. And the more he published, the more they leaked. His knack for getting inside information continually enraged Leopold and the men around him. As the king's well-burnished version of the Congo was put on display in world's fairs, greenhouses, and museums, a very different Congo began to be seen in the pages of the West African Mail.

When, for example, Leopold's spokesmen indignantly denied that there was any kidnapping of women to force their husbands to gather rubber, Morel reproduced the printed form in French where each agent of the A.B.I.R. concession company had to list "natives under bodily detention during the month of——, 1903." Across the page were columns to be filled in for each hostage: "Name," "Village," "Reason for arrest," "Starting date," "Ending date," "Observations." And there was no doubt why people were being held "under bodily detention"; he also printed an order from A.B.I.R. management instructing agents about the "up-keep and feeding of hostages."

Dissident state or company employees in the Congo could not easily write to Morel directly, for a cabinet noir, or censorship office, in Boma monitored their correspondence. But when these men came home, they brought documents. For years, one of Morel's secret sources was Raymond De Grez, a decorated Force Publique veteran, wounded in action several times, who quietly supplied Morel with a stream of inside information from a post in Brussels. Someone in the Belgian head office of a big Congo company—the one that had hired Joseph Conrad as a steamboat captain—apparently passed on to Morel a collection of letters from the company's agents in the Congo. And if any disillusioned Congo veteran came home and gave a newspaper interview, whether in Belgium or Germany, Sweden or Italy, Morel's contacts would send him a clipping, and he made sure that the critical information found its way into the British press. He even taunted the Congo administration once by printing, in the original French, a long itemized list of confidential memoranda, letters, and other documents that someone had offered to sell him.

His campaign encouraged opposition to Leopold in Belgium, especially among the socialists in Parliament. And when damaging information surfaced in Belgian parliamentary debates, Morel quickly reprinted it for the much larger audience in England. One revealing item he published, for example, was a secret order to Congo state officials in the field about bonuses they would get for men conscripted into the Force Publique: "90 francs for every healthy and vigorous man considered fit for military service, and whose stature exceeds 1 metre 55 centimetres; 65 francs for every youth whose stature is at least 1 metre 35 centimetres; 15 francs per male child. The male children must be at least 1 metre 20 centimetres in height, and must be sufficiently strong to be able to support the fatigues of the road.... The bonus will only fall due when the men have been handed over to the headquarters of the various districts." The Congo's acting governor general added a warning to local officials that this order "must under no pretext be removed from your archives. You will convey to your subordinates such explanations as may be necessary in connection with this circular, verbally." Morel gleefully included that warning as well.

From other material cited in Belgian parliamentary debates, Morel quoted a letter that a Force Publique officer, Lieutenant Edouard Tilkens, had written to his commander: "I expect a general uprising. I think I warned you of this, Major.... The motive is always the same. The natives are tired of ... transport work, rubber collecting, furnishing livestock.... For three months I have been fighting, with ten days' rest.... I have 152 prisoners. For two years I have been making war in this country, always accompanied by forty or fifty Albinis [soldiers armed with Albini breech-loading rifles]. Yet I cannot say I have subjugated the people.... They prefer to die.... What can I do?"

Other vital sources of information were certain British, American, and Swedish missionaries. The Congo state censors couldn't read their letters, because they had their own steamboats and colleagues who could personally carry mail back to Europe. For years the missionaries had been helpless witnesses to chicotte whippings, Force Publique raids, burned villages, and the other aspects of rubber slavery in action. Suddenly, here was someone not only eager to publish their testimony, but to put it in the hands of the British Parliament. Morel barraged the missionaries with requests for more information. They gladly complied, and also began sending what turned out to be powerful tools for Morel's campaign: photographs—of devastated villages, severed hands, children with missing hands and feet.

The missionaries provided some of the most horrifying accounts Morel published. An American described seeing Congo state soldiers cut off someone's hand "while the poor heart beat strongly enough to shoot the blood from the cut arteries at a distance of fully four feet." A British Baptist described a Congo state official punishing some men for stealing rubber: "For this he had them tied up right in the sun to stakes for a day and a night.... They were naked and without food and water all day, and so great was their agony that their tongues were hanging out."

Sometimes missionaries sent Morel the names of the dead, and these, too, he published, like casualty lists in wartime. Nowhere else, of course, did these names ever appear in print:

1. Bokangu....Chief ... Killed with blows with butt of gun
2. Mangundwa..."..... " " " " " " "
3. Ekunja......."..... " " " " " " "
21. Ekumba.....Man ... Shot
22. Monjangu....."..... "
23. Gili....... Woman.. "
24. Akaba......Boy.... "

Morel also exposed the web of deceptions, large and small, continually spun by Leopold and his allies. Little escaped him. For example, the king went to great lengths to cultivate Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid, a prominent British Baptist, newspaper owner, and former member of Parliament. Leopold invited Gilzean Reid to the Royal Palace several times, gave him the Order of Leopold, and made him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Crown. In return, Gilzean Reid led a delegation from the Baptist Missionary Society to Brussels in 1903. There, at a luncheon with the king and other prominent Belgians, the society presented a "memorial of thanks" voicing the hope that "the peoples of the Congo may ever have the advantage of just and upright rule." Morel swiftly pointed out in print that when Gilzean Read passed the news on to the London Morning Post, he rewrote the Baptist message to express to the king the hope that "the peoples of the Congo State may realise increasingly the advantages of your enlightened rule."


Morel's attacks soon drew a response from the Royal Palace. One evening in London, Sir Alfred Jones, Morel's former boss, invited Morel to a dinner party. The two men's relations were, to say the least, strained, but at the meal all was smiles, and, Morel writes, "the wines were choice and copious." After dinner, Jones and the other guests retired, leaving Morel alone with a visiting Antwerp shipping executive named Aerts, who made it clear that he was acting as Leopold's representative.

After one last attempt to convince Morel that the king meant well and that reforms were in the offing, the visitor took, as Morel describes it, a different tack (the ellipsis is in the original):

What were the Congo natives to me? Of what use this pursuit of an unrealisable ideal? I was a young man. I had a family—yes? I was running serious risks. And then, a delicately, very delicately veiled suggestion that my permanent interests would be better served if.... "A bribe?" Oh! dear, no, nothing so vulgar, so demeaning. But there were always means of arranging these things. Everything could be arranged with honour to all sides. It was a most entertaining interview, and lasted until a very late hour. "So nothing will shake your determination?" "I fear not." We parted with mutual smiles. But my companion, I thought, was a little ruffled. For my part I enjoyed myself most thoroughly.

One of the eyewitness attacks on Leopold's regime that Morel published consisted of several articles by an American, whose testimony, given at greater length in a 1903 book, was devastating [see [>] for one instance already cited]. On his latest tour of duty in the Congo, Edgar Canisius nominally had been a business agent of the Société Anversoise du Commerce au Congo, one of the big rubber concession companies, but in effect he was a counterguerrilla commander. When the thirty-four-year-old Canisius arrived at his post near the northwestern border of the Congo, at the start of 1900, the company had been harvesting rubber for several years, and vines were getting scarce. The gatherers of the Budja tribe, he writes, "became mere slaves to the company, for rubber-making occupied all their time, the victim having to search far and wide for the giant vines from which the sap is extracted. They were not even fed by their taskmasters, their only remuneration being merchandise or mitakos [pieces of brass wire] in ridiculously small quantities.... The natives bitterly bemoaned the scarcity of the rubber-producing lianas, and piteously begged to be allowed to perform other service than rubber-gathering."

Rebellious Budjas had killed thirty soldiers, and several punitive expeditions were sent against them. Canisius and two other white officers led one, accompanied by a force of fifty black troops and thirty porters. The column marched into villages abandoned by the fleeing Budjas and left scorched earth in its wake. "As our party moved through village after village.... A party of men had been detailed with torches to fire every hut.... As we progressed, a line of smoke hung over the jungle for many miles, announcing to the natives far and wide that civilization was dawning."

Porters carried the soldiers' supplies. "We ... marched ... through native clearings, where the trunks of large trees lay by hundreds across our path. Over these we had to climb, the trail seeming to lead to the top of every high ant-hill within range. The carriers had an especially hard time, for many of them were chained together by the neck.... They carried our boxes slung on poles, and when one fell he usually brought down all his companions on the same chain. Many of the poor wretches became so exhausted by this kind of marching that they could be urged forward only by blows from the butt-ends of the rifles. Some had their shoulders so chafed by the poles that they literally shrieked with pain."

From a military post far in the interior, Canisius's troops searched the jungle for rebels, and when they captured them, worked them to death: "All were compelled to carry heavy loads, each of which had previously required two men to transport ... until they finally succumbed to starvation and smallpox."

As the fighting grew worse, the troops took to killing their prisoners, in one case thirty of them at a time. By the time the campaign was over, "we had undergone six weeks of painful marching and had killed over nine hundred natives, men, women, and children." The incentive, and the cause of the deaths, was the potential of "adding fully twenty tons of rubber to the monthly crop."


By 1903, after several years of hard work, Morel and his allies in Parliament and the humanitarian societies had succeeded in putting the "Congo Question" on the British public agenda more prominently than it had ever been. In May, following a major debate, the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution urging that Congo "natives should be governed with humanity." The resolution also protested Leopold's failure to live up to his promises about free trade. Morel was proving a shrewd lobbyist. Behind the scenes he fed information to the speakers who supported the resolution; he would do so during many parliamentary debates on the Congo yet to come.

Leopold was alarmed. Britain was the superpower of the day and the most prominent colonial power in Africa. If it turned the full force of its influence against the Congo state, his profits would be at risk. Was a journalist like Morel capable of initiating this? Morel had been able to launch a barrage of criticism in print and to inspire a parliamentary resolution, but getting a reluctant British government to put pressure on a friendly monarch was surely something else. Leopold and his entourage were well aware of the difference: a Belgian newspaper editor had once shrewdly remarked that Lord Salisbury, the long-time British prime minister, "is not a man to care much about the fate of the blacks, any more than that of the Armenians or the Bulgarians."

Leopold's rule had been thoroughly exposed for what it was, but it remained in place. For the moment, he and Morel were at a stalemate. Neither knew that it would soon be broken by a man who, the very day after the British parliamentary debate ended, had embarked on a steamboat journey up the Congo River.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!