AS THE CONGO REFORM CRUSADE reached its height, the man in England whose name was most indelibly linked to the territory passed from the scene. After having been elected to Parliament, Sir Henry Morton Stanley found serving there a bore. The rousing adventure stories he liked to tell on the lecture circuit were no substitute for a polished House of Commons debating style. Stanley lacked something else useful in Parliament: a sense of humor. He soon resigned.
The years of battling malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases had taken their toll. Only in his early sixties, this surprisingly small man with close-cropped white hair and mustache and a ruddy, weathered face moved ever more slowly. He avidly followed the news of the Boer War, fulminating against the rebels who dared to challenge British rule. Filled with self-pity and calling himself "a man who had given up his life for his country and for Africa," he worked fitfully on his autobiography. Although he had been a fast, prolific writer all his life, he left this book unfinished, perhaps fearful of being caught in the web of contradictory stories he had spun about his childhood and youth. He, his wife, Dorothy, and an adopted son divided their time between a London home and an elegant mock-Tudor country mansion in Surrey. They named a pond, a stream, and a pine grove on their estate after the scenes of his fame: Stanley Pool, the Congo River, and the Ituri forest.
Stanley was rumored to be unhappy with the chamber of horrors the Congo had become, but the few public statements he made were all in Leopold's defense. His health grew worse, probably exacerbated by the myriad of hovering doctors eager to give their famous patient all the latest treatments: strychnine injections, ammonia, ether, and electric pulses. On May 10, 1904, Stanley heard Big Ben strike in the night, and murmured, "How strange! So that is time! Strange!" Those were his last words.
Stanley was one of the most lionized Englishmen of his time, and while he lived, his display of loyalty to Leopold was worth far more than any publicity the king could have bought. But with Stanley gone, Casement's report released, and Morel's attacks on the increase, Leopold needed new defenses. Signs of these showed up in an unexpected place.
Luxury train travel had reached a high point during the first decade of the twentieth century. Cities across Europe were linked together by the comfortable sleeping cars of the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits. For the well-to-do, boarding an overnight express train meant clouds of hissing steam on the platform, a porter carrying suitcases, and a sleeping car attendant folding down the bed. By the middle of the decade, these elite travelers could count on a small addition to the ritual. On the table in the sleeping compartment would be found a monthly magazine, with three parallel columns of type in English, French, and German, called The Truth about the Congo. Its free distribution to this select captive audience of wealthy Europeans was a publicist's dream. A major stockholder of the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits was King Leopold II. The king had begun his counteroffensive.
Stimulated by Morel, attacks on Leopold were now coming from all quarters. During the decade, branches or affiliates of the Congo Reform Association would spring up in Germany, France, Norway, Switzerland, and other countries. Eight members of the Swedish Parliament signed a statement supporting the C.R.A. Among his supporters Morel could count Prince Boris Czetwertynski, of a distinguished Polish noble family, the famous novelist Anatole France, and the Nobel Prize—winning Norwegian writer Bjornstjerne Bjornson. In Switzerland, wrote one witness, men grew pale and tears collected in women's eyes when Alice Harris's pictures of maimed children were shown at a Congo protest meeting. A speaker attacked the Congo administration at a big public meeting in Australia; a series of talks was given in New Zealand. In Italy, one of Leopold's critics was so vociferous that the Congo state consul in Genoa, Giovanni Elia, challenged him to a duel. (Both men were lightly wounded, the consul on the nose, his opponent on the arm.) Morel and his supporters seemed to the king an international conspiracy. So he fought back internationally.
Belgium's lack of great-power status meant that Leopold was dependent on cunning, above all on his skill at manipulating the press. As he waged his countercampaign, the king showed himself to be as much a master of the mass media as his archenemy Morel. He dispatched an aide on a secret mission to British Africa to search out abuses to match those Casement had found in the Congo. He made sure there were frequent articles in The Truth about the Congo along the lines of "Opium in British India" and derogatory news items from all over the British Empire: floggings in South Africa, human sacrifices in Nigeria, abuses in Sierra Leone and Australia. Then, calling in his chits, Leopold threatened to take away his friend Sir Alfred Jones's lucrative Congo shipping contract if Jones did not manage to dampen British criticism.
Jones promptly went to work. He paid £3000 for long trips to the Congo by two travelers. One was his friend Viscount William Mountmorres, a young man who indirectly owed Jones his job. Mountmorres obligingly published a favorable book about the Congo in 1906: "It is astounding to witness the whole-hearted zeal with which the officials ... devote themselves to their work." While Mountmorres acknowledged some excesses, he found most of the Congo "to be well and humanely-governed." Mountmorres's volume reminds one of Beatrice and Sidney Webb's famously cheerful account of their visit to the young Soviet Union. Like the Webbs, Mountmorres assumed that any laws and regulations on the books were carefully followed. The chicotte, he stressed, could be used only after a formal inquiry in which the accused had the right to call witnesses, and could be applied only to the buttocks. Also, "not more than twenty strokes may be inflicted in any case except for habitual thieving, when a maximum of fifty may be ordered, but in this case the punishment must be spread over a series of days, and not more than twenty strokes given on any one day." (In practice, this was followed about as rigorously as the early Soviet decree outlawing the death penalty.)
The other voyager Jones sponsored was Mary French Sheldon, a London publisher and travel writer. Once in the Congo, she depended for her travel on the steamboats of the state and its company allies (something Casement had been careful not to do), and officials spared no effort in showing her the territory's delights. Everywhere she went, hostages were released so that she would see no one in custody. According to one missionary, at Bangala on the Congo River the state agent even "pulled down an old prison, and levelled the ground, and made it all nice, because she was coming." Things went seriously awry only once, when a local station chief got his instructions garbled. Confusing Mrs. Sheldon with another VIP he had been told to prepare for, from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, he assembled for her inspection in a clearing the most severely crippled people and the worst cases of disease he could find. But no matter; Mrs. Sheldon fell in love with a steamboat captain and had a good time. Leopold granted her an audience when she was on her way home, and Jones helped place her enthusiastic articles in newspapers. "I have witnessed more atrocities in London streets than I have ever seen in the Congo," she wrote in the Times in 1905. On her return, she gave a speech and slide show for five hundred people at London's Savoy Hotel, for which Leopold paid the bill. The king then put her on his payroll at fifteen hundred francs a month (about $7500 today) to lobby members of Parliament.
While launching these counterattacks on his British critics in public, Leopold simultaneously tried to co-opt them, always using go-betweens to cover his tracks. A Paris attorney approached a board member of the Congo Reform Association: if the C.R.A. would draft a reform plan and a proposed budget for the Congo, he could guarantee, he said, that His Majesty would read it with great interest. Morel rejected this as "extraordinarily impudent." Leopold's British Baptist friend Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid made a similar overture to the Aborigines Protection Society; it too was rebuffed.
The king did get some artful revenge on one opponent, the influential French journalist Pierre Mille, an ally of Morel's who had fiercely and repeatedly attacked the king in print. One day a courtier brought word that Mille was quietly visiting Brussels with a woman not his wife. Leopold found out where they were staying and sent them an invitation to visit the great greenhouses at the château of Laeken. Mille and his lady friend accepted, and they appeared so delighted that Leopold thought he had won over a major critic. But soon after, Mille resumed his attacks. The king then asked the Belgian embassy in Paris to find Mille's home address. To it he sent a huge bouquet of flowers, with a card bearing the royal coat of arms and the message, "To Monsieur and Madame Pierre Mille, in memory of their visit to Laeken."
Leopold's public relations campaign was mounted by an elaborate staff. In September 1904, he had called together a group of his top advisers and laid plans for a Press Bureau. It would be headquartered well away from public scrutiny behind several innocuous front organizations: the German-based Committee for the Protection of Interests in Africa, the Bureau of Comparative Legislation in Brussels, and the Federation for the Defense of Belgian Interests Abroad, which operated in many countries.
Within a year or two, new pro-Leopold books began coming off the presses. The Press Bureau secretly subsidized several Belgian newspapers and a magazine, published in Edinburgh, called New Africa—The Truth on the Congo Free State. Taking a cue from Morel, Leopold ordered up more than two dozen pamphlets. His British publicist, Demetrius C. Boulger (who was on a 1250-franc monthly retainer, plus bonuses), wrote one called, perhaps too defensively, The Congo State isNOT a Slave State.* Another,A Complete Congo Controversy, illustrating the controversial methods of Mr. Morel, Hon. Sec. Congo Reform Association, appeared over the signature of one Lieutenant Colonel James Harrison, billed as "a country gentleman of absolutely independent mind, a sportsman and a traveller, and a familiar figure in London Social and Political Circles." Harrison's main qualification as a Congo expert was his having made a big-game hunting expedition there, during which, he found, "the natives were cheerful and satisfied."
The main work of the Press Bureau, however, was done under cover. Its agents surreptitiously passed cash to editors and reporters all over Europe; by 1907, the Brussels correspondents of both the Times of London and Germany's Kölnische Zeitungwere on the take. Two editors of a major newspaper in Vienna received the equivalent of more than $70,000 in today's money. In Italy, Elia, the dueling consul, made payments to two newspapers, planted favorable articles elsewhere, arranged for people to write a pro-Leopold pamphlet and book, and paid off at least one legislator. The newspaper Corriere della Sera refused a large bribe and launched an investigation instead.
The bureau focused much of its attention on Germany, now a major power in Africa. The country was a particular problem because Kaiser Wilhelm II personally loathed Leopold; at one point he called him "Satan and Mammon in one person." The Press Bureau organized the usual array of pro-Leopold lectures and pamphlets in German, but that was only the beginning. Ludwig von Steub, a banker who served as honorary Belgian consul in Munich, operated as a German bagman for Leopold. In Berlin, theNational-Zeitung was writing fiercely in 1903 of "the unscrupulous businessman who lives in the palace in Brussels," but von Steub, knowing that the newspaper was in financial difficulties, acted accordingly. By 1905, the paper moved onto the fence: "It is certainly not easy for a German to arrive at a clear opinion in questions where so many interests are at stake, notably those of the British rubber merchants." Later that year it devoted an entire page to a glowing portrait of a prosperous Congo state, shamefully calumnized by a clique of foreign merchants and missionaries who spread "old wives' tales" and "hateful peddlar's stories." By 1906 it was publishing Leopold's decrees. In 1907 its editor was decorated by the king.
Readers observed similar mysterious transformations in other German newspapers. The Münchener Allgemeine Zeitung, for example, once adamantly opposed to Leopold's rule, suddenly began publishing pro-Leopold Congo news items from "a most reliable source" or "a Congolese source" or "a well-informed source." The newspaper's Brussels correspondent, not in on the take, sent home more critical reports, including a long piece that apparently got into the paper without first being read by the editor in chief. In the very next issue, an editor's note began, "Contrary to the opinions we published in an earlier issue, another source, no doubt better informed on the situation in the Congo, has sent us the following commentary...."
Bribes are usually hard to trace, but we know something about Leopold's in Germany because of an amusing chain of events. Exposes damaged the Press Bureau's effectiveness, and in 1908 its German payoff operations were ordered shut down. But poor von Steub in Munich didn't understand the message or couldn't bring himself to stop doing this interesting work. He kept on paying out his bribes—and then became upset when he wasn't reimbursed. He soon was bombarding officials in Brussels with obsequious, complaining letters, which somehow escaped destruction and were discovered in the archives more than fifty years later. In them von Steub described his work in ever greater detail, to ever higher officials. "According to the opinion of all the colonial experts, the good will of the German government [toward the Congo] is due mainly to my activity," he wrote to the Belgian foreign minister. "To abandon the flag at such an important moment and to leave the field free for the enemy seemed a crime to me.... On January 1 and April 1 I made all the usual payments, and I dare hope to at least have my expenses covered." Later, more desperate than ever, he describes his "payments to organs of the press" and explains why he isn't submitting paperwork to back up his claims: "In giving me my assignment, M. Liebrechts [the Congo state's secretary general of the interior] told me, 'Journalists and writers won't give you receipts, so don't ask for any.'"
Despite the king's efforts to stem it, the outpouring of criticism spread rapidly. As soon as the Congo Reform movement was well under way in England, E. D. Morel set his sights on the United States. That nation had, Morel told every American who would listen, a special responsibility to bring Leopold's bloody rule to an end, because it was the first country to have recognized the Congo.
In September 1904, at the invitation of a group of American Congo missionaries who were already denouncing the king's rule, Morel crossed the Atlantic. Shortly after he disembarked in New York, he was received by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. He next spoke at a human rights conference in Boston and spurred his allies to found the American Congo Reform Association. Its first head was Dr. G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, remembered today mainly for later inviting Sigmund Freud to the United States. The association's vice presidents soon included several churchmen, President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University, Booker T. Washington, and Mark Twain. Washington took a delegation of black Baptists to the White House to urge President Roosevelt to put pressure on Leopold, lobbied members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and, encouraged by Morel, joined Twain in speaking about the Congo at public meetings in several cities. "Dr. Washington is no small enemy to overcome," one of Leopold's agents in the United States wrote the king. Leopold unsuccessfully tried to get Washington off the case by offering him an all-expenses-paid trip to the Congo, and, when that didn't work, a trip to Belgium.
Deeply impressed after meeting Morel in New York, Twain three times went to the nation's capital to lobby. "I think I have never known him to be so stirred up on any one question as he was on that of the cruel treatment of the natives in the Congo Free State...." Washington wrote of Twain. "I saw him several times in connection with his efforts to bring about reforms in the Congo Free State, and he never seemed to tire of talking on the subject." Twain had lunch with Roosevelt—news Morel eagerly passed on to the British Foreign Office—met with the secretary of state, and wrote to Morel that the cause of Congo reform in the United States was a "giant enterprise...[that] needs an organization like U.S. Steel." In 1905 he wrote a pamphlet, King Leopold's Soliloquy,an imaginary monologue by Leopold. It went through many printings and garnered royalties that the author donated to the Congo Reform Association. Much of the monologue is about Leopold's media campaign. "In these twenty years I have spent millions to keep the Press of the two hemispheres quiet, and still these leaks keep occurring," says Twain's exasperated king, who rages against "the incorruptible kodak. ...The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe." In Twain's pamphlet, Leopold attacks William Sheppard by name and denounces the black man's "meddlesome missionary spying." Although it is painted with too broad a brush and is far from Twain's best work, King Leopold's Soliloquy provoked the royal propaganda machine to rush out an anonymous forty-seven-page pamphlet, An Answer to Mark Twain.
Just as he had done in England, Morel smoothly shaped his message for different American constituencies. Most of his allies were progressive intellectuals like Mark Twain, but he was willing to sup with the devil to help his cause. He made shrewd use of Senator John Tyler Morgan, the former Confederate general who had helped to engineer U.S. recognition of Leopold's Congo twenty years earlier. Morgan, still thundering away about sending blacks back to Africa so as to make an all-white South, wanted the abuses in the Congo cleaned up with no delay. Otherwise, how could black Americans be persuaded to move there? He hoped to see ten million of them "planted" in the Congo, he told Morel. With prodding from Morel, Morgan kept the issue of Congo atrocities alive in the Senate.
The veteran British Baptist missionaries John and Alice Harris, who followed Morel to America, addressed more than two hundred public meetings in forty-nine cities. At one meeting in Chicago an old woman who had been born a slave tried to donate her life savings to the cause of Congo reform; the reformers would accept only one dollar. Speaking tours by other activists followed. John Harris enthusiastically reported to Morel from Washington, "Telegrams, petitions, private letters are rolling in here by the thousands.... The President ... with a little more pressure will take some action."
Secretary of State Elihu Root, who found himself on the receiving end of all the pressure, recalled later in some exasperation, "The very people who are most ardent against entangling alliances insist most fanatically upon our doing one hundred things a year on humanitarian grounds.... The Protestant Church and many good women were wild to have us stop the atrocities in the Congo.... People kept piling down on the [State] Department demanding action." Petition-signers included the governor of Massachusetts and every member of the Commonwealth's senate, a group of Yale professors and officials, university presidents, divinity school deans, bishops, and newspaper editors. A Congo resolution was passed by the convention of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Although Morel had vocal individual supporters throughout Europe, only in the United States did the cause of Congo reform become the full-scale crusade it was in England. Horrified to see the movement against him spreading to a new continent, Leopold leaped into action. When Morel spoke in Boston in 1904, no fewer than six of the king's spokesmen showed up to demand equal time. When the influential Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts arrived in Paris for a visit the following year, the king immediately sent an emissary to invite him to dinner in Brussels. "He named six different days, so there was no escape," Lodge wrote to President Roosevelt. Lodge was impressed by Leopold; he described him as "a shrewd, active able man of business—a cross between [railroad barons] Jim Hill & Harriman, between the great organizer & promoter & the speculator. He knows everybody & about everybody."
Using his knowledge "about everybody," Leopold targeted an even more powerful senator, Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island. Aldrich, a multimillionaire, a card-playing partner of J. Pierpont Morgan, the father-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was the ultimate Washington power broker. "I'm just a president," Roosevelt once told the journalist Lincoln Steffens, "and he has seen lots of presidents."
Leopold courted Aldrich and other influential Americans by promising them a share of the loot. He gave major Congo concession rights to Aldrich, the Guggenheim interests, Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the financier Thomas Ryan, a close friend and former legal client of Secretary of State Root. A letter of advice to the king from one of his American agents made clear the strategy Leopold was following: "Open up a strip of territory clear across the Congo State from east to west for benefit of American capital. Take the present concessionaires by the throat if necessary, and compel them to share their privileges with the Americans. In this manner, you will create an American vested interest in the Congo which will render the yelping of the English agitators and the Belgian Socialists futile." Leopold also gave more than three thousand Congo artifacts to the American Museum of Natural History, knowing that J. P Morgan was on its board.
With Senator Aldrich, Leopold's largesse worked. The State Department was under constant pressure from the reformers to appoint an American consul general to the Congo who could follow up Roger Casement's investigation with one of his own. To get the reformers off his back, Secretary of State Root nominated the consul general they had suggested, but when Aldrich let it be known he would block that choice in the Senate, Root withdrew the nomination.
His eye on key American ethnic voting blocs, Leopold also played the role of the victimized Catholic. His representatives in Rome successfully convinced the Vatican that this Catholic king was being set upon by unscrupulous Protestant missionaries. A stream of messages in Latin* flowed from the Holy See across the Atlantic to the designated Catholic point-man for Leopold in the United States, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore—who, as it happened, was another card-playing companion of Senator Aldrich. Cardinal Gibbons believed that the Congo reform crusade was the work of "only a handful of discontented men ... depending largely upon the untrustworthy hearsay evidence of natives." He spoke out loudly for Leopold, who awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown.
Leopold had a full squadron of lobbyists in the United States. Professor Alfred Nerincx, of George Washington University, helped put out a new English-language magazine on the Congo, gave speeches, and saw to it that favorable articles appeared in highbrow magazines. Frederick Starr, an oddball University of Chicago anthropologist who was a big believer in the inferiority of "primitive" peoples, received one of Leopold's innumerable medals and a full-year, all-expenses-paid tour of the Congo. In return he produced a series of fifteen enthusiastic articles in the Chicago Daily Tribune under the heading "Truth about the Congo Free State," later reprinted as a book.* Henry Wellington Wack, an attorney for a patent-medicine firm, published a thick book that soon appeared in thousands of American libraries. Instructions from Brussels were that Wack was "to act as if he were not in the State's employ, but merely an impartial publicist."
Another American agent, however, proved less reliable. In setting up his U.S. lobbying effort, the king had made a rare and disastrous misstep.
For any well-heeled Californian who found himself on trial in 1904, a likely defense lawyer might have been Colonel Henry I. Kowalsky of San Francisco. Kowalsky was a classic American type: the flamboyant trial lawyer who himself skirts the edge of the law and whose showman's dazzle attracts a roster of famous friends and acquaintances. A bon vivant, raconteur, and big spender who ran up legendary hotel bills, the gregarious Kowalsky's larger-than-life persona and courtroom skills won him a broad range of clients. Some were boxers and underworld figures; some were previously unknown relatives or common-law wives, whom he had a great knack for finding when there was a will that could be contested. Like many a colonel of his day, Kowalsky had never been in the army, although he let Europeans believe he had been.
It was not just Kowalsky's personality that was larger than life. A renowned amateur chef, he consumed a vast amount of his own and others' cooking. "Compared with him," a reporter later observed when the portly William Howard Taft was in the White House, "President Taft is a top worker in a team of acrobats." Kowalsky's enormous neck cascaded over his collar; his voice had a husky wheeze; and when a San Francisco newspaper asked local luminaries for their favorite recipes one Christmas, Kowalsky slyly submitted one for roast jowls.
He also suffered from narcolepsy, the disease that causes uncontrollable short spells of sleep. "There is scarcely a man familiar with the life of San Francisco who has not seen Kowalsky fall asleep on the street, sitting in the lobby of a hotel, trying a case in court or occupying a box at a theater," observed a reporter. He may, in fact, have had more control over this problem than he admitted; a journalist covering one trial noticed that "he awakes just in time to interpose the most pertinent legal objections to questions.
"And it is these sudden awakenings," the story went on, "that have occasioned such havoc among the furniture of Judge Graham's court. When a man of some 300 pounds—to put it conservatively—awakes with a start, it is apt to jar the strongest chair made.... A few times more and there is an ominous creak, and then a crack and a smash. 'There goes another,' murmurs Bailiff McGenity as the colonel abandons his ruined chair and draws up a firm one." At the end of this particular trial, Kowalsky grandly presented the court with a special chair he had ordered built—of solid oak, held together by iron bolts, its legs reinforced with iron bracing.
When Kowalsky was on the other side of a bitter legal battle with the famous gunfighter Wyatt Earp, the short-fused Earp threatened to shoot Kowalsky on sight. The two men ran into each other in a San Francisco saloon. Earp forced Kowalsky into a back room, pulled out a revolver, and told the lawyer to get ready to meet his maker. Kowalsky's jowly face dropped onto his chest and he dozed off. Earp stormed from the room, saying, "What can you do with a man who goes to sleep just when you're going to kill him!"
Kowalsky had an unerring eye for the pathway to a lucrative client, and he spotted one when Prince Albert, heir apparent to the Belgian throne, came to California. Albert was traveling incognito, but Kowalsky recognized and befriended him, and was rewarded in 1904 with an invitation to Belgium. There, he was received on board the royal yacht at Ostend and introduced to Leopold.
Looking at Kowalsky, the king saw an American who was active in the Republican Party, then in power, and a man who portrayed himself as a lobbyist extraordinaire, able to thwart the troublesome do-gooders intent on causing trouble for His Majesty. With Morel starting to stir up the American public, there seemed no time to waste. The king hired Kowalsky, gave him detailed instructions, and provided enough money for a luxurious office on Wall Street. As Kowalsky prepared to move to New York, his friends in San Francisco—judges, businessmen, an admiral, and some rival lawyers who may have been happy to see him leave town— gave him a farewell banquet that doubtless added a few more pounds to his already awesome frame. "I shall not closely follow the text of the toast which has been assigned me," said the mayor of San Francisco. "Like our guest, it is too large a subject." Another speaker commented that it was fortunate Leopold had not sent Kowalsky directly to the Congo, where "the cannibals of Africa would have taken pleasure in so choice a morsel."
Kowalsky replied to the toasts, "When I leave you, it is only because I have heard the clarion call of duty in the interest of humanity and civilization." The clarion call included an annual retainer of 100,000 francs, about $500,000 in today's money. In his new role, Kowalsky was received by President Roosevelt, to whom he gave a photograph of Leopold in a silver frame, an album of photos of the Congo, and a memorandum asking him not to be deceived by jealous missionaries and Liverpool merchants.
Someone taken by surprise by all this was Baron Ludovic Moncheur, the Belgian minister to the United States, who had just penned a rapturous article, "Conditions in the Congo Free State," for the influential North American Review and who thoughthe was leading Leopold's American propaganda effort. He was horrified by the sudden appearance of Kowalsky, who had the unmistakable look of a shyster. On the very day of Kowalsky's farewell banquet in San Francisco, Moncheur learned with dismay, the lawyer had had a fistfight in court with a creditor. Moncheur and his aides sent off a frantic stream of messages to Brussels.
At the Royal Palace, no underling dared openly oppose a new favorite of the king's, but Moncheur did at last receive a coded telegram from a top executive for Congo affairs: "I have your information on Kowalsky. Do you think the situation is such that we should cancel his mission?—which would be difficult for us, however. Wouldn't it be better to try to give him another mission in Africa or China?"
"It would be worse than useless to send him to the Congo," one of Moncheur's aides replied, "unless one could hope that he wouldn't come back." Moncheur followed this up with a prescient warning about Kowalsky: "If he took me to be the cause of his disgrace, he could make scenes that would produce a scandal in the press."
Cautiously, Congo state officials asked Kowalsky to come to Brussels, where they requested that he undertake an urgent mission to Nigeria. Kowalsky was interested enough to buy himself a sun helmet and an elephant gun, but he then turned down the assignment, probably having guessed that he was being put out of circulation. Because he knew too much, Leopold's worried Congo aides did not dare fire him, so they sent him back to the United States with more lobbying instructions, which barely disguised their mounting anxiety: "Colonel Kowalsky's mission is to enlighten senators and congressmen as to the justice of our cause, and to ward off the passing of unfavorable resolutions by them." However: "He will be careful not to call at the White House except in case of absolute necessity.... He will make no public speeches except after taking the Belgian Minister's advice."
Kowalsky was now out of the loop, and a year after Leopold had hired him, the king let his contract expire. In vain, the lawyer bombarded Leopold with letters (all beginning "My dear Majesty...") touting his work for the Congo cause, denouncing his rivals among Leopold's other American lobbyists (he called one "a characterless, unworthy, and unprincipled ingrate" with a "rascally hand"), and making extravagant claims for himself. "It was a mighty task, and I worked night and day.... I have travelled thousands of miles in this cause." He tried to flatter the king into putting him back on the payroll: "I confess having conceived an affection for your Majesty such as I felt for my much beloved and lamented father." To Kowalsky's annual retainer, Leopold added a hefty 125,000 francs on condition that he leave quietly, all the while soothing him with hints that at some future date the king might need his services again.
At last, however, the spurned Kowalsky did what Moncheur and his colleagues at the Belgian embassy had been dreading. On December 10, 1906, readers of William Randolph Hearst's New York American picked up their newspapers to find a front-page exposé on the workings of the American Congo lobby. KING LEOPOLD'S AMAZING ATTEMPT TO INFLUENCE OUR CONGRESS EXPOSED.... FULL TEXT OF THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN KING LEOPOLD OF BELGIUM AND HIS PAID AGENTS IN WASHINGTON. Although Kowalsky indignantly maintained that someone had robbed his office, he had, it appears, sold Hearst his complete Congo correspondence.
Every day for a week, Hearst played the story for all it was worth, splashing tens of thousands of words and dozens of photographs across the pages of the American and the many other newspapers he owned. There could not have been a worse catastrophe for Leopold, for, in order to highlight its scoop, the American dramatized the king's villainy by reprinting Morel's severed-hands photos and trumpeting all the Congo reformers' atrocity charges: INFAMOUS CRUELTIES. ... TORTURE OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN.... U.S. AMAZED AT CRIMES OF CONGO.
The documents revealed that, in addition to Kowalsky's salary and keep-quiet payment, Leopold had promised Kowalsky an additional 100,000 francs in the king's Congo state bonds "if the American Government does not make any declaration harmful to the Congo State, and if Congress passes no unfavourable resolutions before the end of the next session." A letter from Kowalsky to the king boasted of a $1000 bribe he had paid to an unnamed prominent journalist, who was, he claimed, "the President's personal friend," from whose services "we got hundreds of thousands in advertising our cause." Kowalsky also boasted that he had quashed an exposé in Munsey's Magazine by going to "the editor, my personal friend, who destroyed the article and published one very complimentary to Your Majesty's interest instead."
The most enticing revelation of all was that Kowalsky had used Leopold's money to bribe Thomas G. Garrett, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to help derail Congo protest resolutions. Garrett, Kowalsky extravagantly told the king, had "stood at the door of the committee room and held back the demanding, howling missionaries, ministers, and religious cranks, as well as some agents of the Liverpool outfit. All this time I was at my post, and only when Congress closed did I breathe safely." On the American's front page appeared a photograph of a handwritten letter on U.S. Senate stationery from Garrett to Kowalsky, asking for part of the promised payment.
Garrett was promptly fired. Hours after the story broke, Senator Lodge of Massachusetts, where the American Congo Reform Association had its headquarters, introduced a resolution calling for an international investigation of the Congo scandal. Skillful lobbying by Moncheur and backroom maneuvering by Senator Aldrich got the resolution watered down before it was passed, but the entire episode dramatically changed the climate in Washington. Secretary of State Root reversed the government's previous hands-off policy and decided to cooperate with the British in putting pressure on Leopold to end his rule over the territory. The Kowalsky revelations—swiftly and jubilantly reprinted by Morel, both in England and in a pamphlet in French for Belgium—created a major setback for Leopold. The tide was turning against the king.
Around the time that he hired Kowalsky, Leopold had begun maneuvers on a completely different front. Remembering how effectively his sham Commission for the Protection of the Natives had silenced his critics in the 1890s, he decided it was time for another commission. This one would go to the Congo, investigate the situation, and clear his name.
To his new Commission of Inquiry, he appointed three judges: one Belgian, one Swiss, and one Italian. The commission, however, was not as neutral as it appeared. The Italian, Baron Giacomo Nisco, worked not in Italy, but in the Congo state as chief judge. It was he, in fact, who in the notorious Caudron case [see [>]] had reduced the prisoner's sentence on grounds that a certain amount of "force" and "terror" was unavoidable. Furthermore, none of the three judges knew any African language or even enough English to talk directly to the highly critical British and American missionaries. The commission was told to hold hearings, hear witnesses, and issue a report. On the long voyage to the Congo, the king surely hoped, the old Africa hand Baron Nisco would enlighten his two fellow judges about the natives' need for firm discipline.
The commission spent several months taking 370 depositions. It held its sessions everywhere, from the verandas of rubber-collecting posts to the deck of its steamboat, the Archiduchesse Stéphanie, named after one of the daughters Leopold was not speaking to. There was much ceremony: scarlet judicial robes and black ones, interpreters, scribes, guards with rifles and fixed bayonets. A parade of witnesses offered horrifying testimony. One of the most impressive was Chief Lontulu of Bolima, who had been flogged with the chicotte, held hostage, and sent to work in chains. When his turn came to testify, Lontulu laid 110 twigs on the commission's table, each representing one of his people killed in the quest for rubber. He divided the twigs into four piles: tribal nobles, men, women, children. Twig by twig, he named the dead.
Word about the testimony quickly got back to Brussels, but Leopold did not realize what effect it was having on the commissioners. Then, in March 1905, from the Congo's capital at Boma came a curious warning signal that all might not turn out well for the king. Paul Costermans, the territory's acting governor general and, to the extent possible for a person high up in such a system, a man of personal integrity, was briefed on the commission's findings. He then alarmed his aides by plunging into a deep depression. Some two weeks later, after writing a series of farewell letters, he slit his throat with a razor.
Another bad omen for Leopold was the news that one of the judges, while listening to a succession of witnesses with atrocity stories, had broken down and wept. It was now obvious to the king that the process had backfired: to his horror what was intended to be a sham investigation had slipped out of his control and become a real one. Although Morel lacked the official verbatim transcripts, he quickly published as a pamphlet the information his missionary friends and their African parishioners had given the commission, and he sent a copy to every member of the Belgian Parliament.
On their return to Europe, the commissioners deliberated and produced a 150-page report. Even though it was couched in bland and bureaucratic language, Leopold saw that it repeated almost every major criticism made by Casement and Morel. He was furious. By the fall of 1905, he could no longer delay publication of the report that all Europe was waiting for. Politicians and journalists were already speculating about its contents. But Leopold had one more trick up his sleeve, perhaps the most dazzling stroke of showmanship in his long career.
With his modern sense of public relations, the king understood brilliantly that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event. He also knew that journalists dread having to digest a long official report when writing against a tight deadline—all the more so when the material is in a foreign language. On November 3, 1905, the day before the Commission of Inquiry report was scheduled for release, every major paper in England received a document with a cover letter explaining that it was a "complete and authentic résumé of the report." This timely and helpful summary came from the West African Missionary Association, which surely sounded reliable. Missionaries, after all, had been among the Congo state's most consistent critics. Most conveniently of all, the summary was in English.
Delighted, nearly all the British newspapers published the summary, thinking they were getting a one-day jump on the big news of the week. The Associated Press transmitted the summary to the United States, where it was also picked up by major newspapers. Only during the next few days, as reporters and editors had time to read the full text of the report in French, did they realize that the so-called summary had little to do with the report. Again and again it took major points in the report and "summarized" them beyond recognition. For example, where the report said, "We have ourselves described the disastrous effects of porterage, and shown that the excessive labor imposed on the natives in the neighborhood of certain important posts had the effect of depopulating the country," the summary said. "In order to avoid the regrettable consequences of [porterage] while awaiting the building of the railways, the Commission suggests that the waterways should be utilized."
And what, the journalists began to wonder, was the West African Missionary Association? They were able to trace it to the office of a London lawyer, but he refused to reveal the address of his client. A day or two later, relenting, he directed questioners to a one-room office across the street, with a freshly painted sign on the door. It was occupied only by a watchman. The lawyer then produced a list of the association's board members, but none of those whom reporters were able to reach had ever attended a meeting. Further investigation revealed that the "summary" had been brought to England by a Belgian priest to whose church Leopold had recently made a large donation. The West African Missionary Association, never heard from before publishing its influential summary, would never be heard from again.