IT IS IN THE RAW, unedited testimony given to the Commission of Inquiry that King Leopold II's rule is at last caught naked. There could be no excuse that this was information gathered by the king's enemies, for the three commissioners had been sent by Leopold himself. There could be no excuse that people were fabricating stories, for sometimes many witnesses described the same atrocity. And there could be no excuse that witnesses were lazy malcontents, for many risked their lives by even speaking to the commissioners. When Raoul Van Calcken, an A.B.I.R. official, found two Africans, Lilongo and Ifomi, traveling to meet the commission, he ordered them seized. "He then told his sentries to tie us to two trees with our backs against the trees and our feet off the ground," Lilongo told a British missionary. "Our arms were stretched over our heads.... Look at the scars all over my body. We were hanging in this way several days and nights.... All the time we had nothing to eat or drink, and sometimes it was raining and at other times the sun was out.... We cried and cried until no more tears would come—it was the pain of death itself. Whilst we hung there three sentries and the white man beat us in the private parts, on the neck and other parts of the body with big hard sticks, till we fainted." Ifomi died, and Van Calcken ordered his body thrown in a river. Lilongo survived, testified before the commission, and was carried home by his younger brother.
The testimony given before the commission by Lilongo and other witnesses appears on forms, each headed with the full title of the commission ("The Commission of Inquiry instituted by the decree of the King-Sovereign dated July 23, 1904") and the names and titles of the three commissioners, followed by blanks for the names of the secretary, the witness, who swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and the interpreter. Then comes the story.
Witness Ilange Kunda of M'Bongo: "I knew Malu Malu [Quickly Quickly, the African name for Force Publique Lieutenant Charles Massard]. He was very cruel; he forced us to bring rubber. One day, I saw him with my own eyes kill a native named Bongiyangwa, solely because among the fifty baskets of rubber which had been brought, he found one not full enough. Malu Malu ordered the soldier Tshumpa to seize [Bongiyangwa] and tie him to a palm tree. There were three sets of bonds: one at knee height, a second at stomach height, and a third crushing his arms. Malu Malu had his cartridge-pouch on his belt; he took his rifle, fired from a distance of about 20 meters, and with one bullet he killed Bongiyangwa.... I saw the wound. The unhappy man gave one cry and was dead."
Witness M'Putila of Bokote: "As you see, my right hand is cut off.... When I was very small, the soldiers came to make war in my village because of the rubber.... As I was fleeing, a bullet grazed my neck and gave me the wound whose scars you can still see. I fell, and pretended to be dead. A soldier used a knife to cut off my right hand and took it away. I saw that he was carrying other cut-off hands.... The same day, my father and mother were killed, and I know that they had their hands cut off."
Witness Ekuku, paramount chief of Boiéka: "I knew Jungi well. He died about two months ago from the whipping he received. I saw him hit and I saw him die. It was about three or four meters from the white man's veranda, at the spot I showed you, between the two cactuses. They stretched him out on the ground. The white man Ekotolongo [Molle] held his head, while Nkoi [Ablay], standing at his feet, hit him with a cane. Three canes were broken during the execution. Finally Nkoi kicked Jungi several times and told him to get up. When he didn't move, Ekate said to the white man, 'This man is dead. You've killed him....' The white man replied, 'I don't give a damn. The judges are white men like me.'...Jungi was buried the next day.... Jungi was an old man but he had been healthy."
Witness Mingo of Mampoko: "While I was working at brick-making at Mampoko, twice the sentries Nkusu Lomboto and Itokwa, to punish me, pulled up my skirt and put clay in my vagina, which made me suffer greatly. The white man Likwama [a company agent named Henri Spelier] saw me with clay in my vagina. He said nothing more than, 'If you die working for me, they'll throw you in the river.'"
And so the statements continue, story after story, by the hundreds. Here at last was something the rest of the world had seldom heard from the Congo: the voices of the Congolese themselves. On few other occasions in the entire European Scramble for Africa did anyone gather such a searing collection of firsthand African testimony. The effect on anyone who read these stories could be only that of overwhelming horror.
However, no one read them.
Despite the report's critical conclusions, the statements by African witnesses were never directly quoted. The commission's report was expressed in generalities. The stories were not published separately, nor was anyone allowed to see them. They ended up in the closed section of a state archive in Brussels. Not until the 1980s were people at last permitted to read and copy them freely.
At the time he applied his artful spin control to the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, Leopold was seventy. As he grew older he seemed always in motion. He avoided Brussels as much as he could, and even while there showed his distaste for things Belgian by having all the meat for his table sent from Paris. He preferred to be abroad. He bought Caroline a French château and often stayed there with her. He liked to visit Paris, where he once took the entire French Cabinet out to dinner. Each winter he traveled south to the Riviera in his private railway car, its green leather chairs embossed with gold. While snowbound Belgians fumed and couriers shuttled to and from Brussels, he lived and worked for months on his yacht, the long, sleek Alberta, which could travel under steam or sail.
During these Riviera winters, Leopold installed Caroline in a luxurious home on shore, the Villa des Cèdres. "Every evening," she writes, "a steam launch took the king ... to a pier leading to my villa through a subterranean passage. Speaking about this, I can't help remarking on the extraordinary taste of the king for everything which ... had a secret and mysterious character. Anyone could sell him any house so long as it was built on the side of an abandoned quarry or if it had secret staircases."
Even when he could bring himself to remain in his own frustratingly small country, Leopold moved back and forth between the château at Laeken, the Chalet Royal on the beach at Ostend, and two other châteaux. Squadrons of craftsmen continually renovated these buildings, adding new rooms, outbuildings, and façades. At Laeken workmen installed an elevator done in Italian Renaissance style, and, open to the public, a million-franc "Chinese pavilion" (equipped, strangely, with a French restaurant). It was intended to be the first of a series of buildings representing different regions of the world. Leopold's ceaseless architectural fiddling extended to buildings he could see as well as those he lived in. He wanted, for instance, "to adorn the heart of Ostend with attractiveuniform façades." He offered a neighbor twenty-five thousand francs to put a façade on his house designed by Leopold's favorite architect, the Frenchman Charles Girault. When the landowner declined, the house was expropriated.
The king often went to see Girault in Paris, seating himself at a table in the architect's studio and poring through stacks of blueprints. He liked visiting building sites. "Ask the Minister of Public Works to be at the Brussels Palace at 9 Wednesday," he instructed his private secretary one day in 1908. "I want to go with him to St. Gilles Park and be there at 9:30. Then to the Cinquantenaire arch at 11. Then lunch at the Palace around 12:30, then go to Laeken at 2. A stop at the bridge over the canal opposite Green Avenue. At 3, Van Praet Avenue and the Japanese Tower. At 4 the Meysse road and the Heysel road." When he ordered some building done in the neighborhood of the Royal Palace in Brussels, Leopold had a special tower of wooden scaffolding erected, from which he could watch the progress of the work.
With his visitors, the monarch was always subtly bargaining for ways to extend his power. Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister, observed that Leopold's "only failing is that he cannot hide his intelligence: one gets suspicious, and afraid of being led up the garden path." The South African diamond king Cecil Rhodes, the one other white man whose boundless reach in Africa matched Leopold's, once joked that he had declined an invitation to a meal at the palace because "each dinner accepted cost a province."
At Laeken, servants were used to seeing the king's large, bearded, bald-headed figure with its severe brown eyes and big nose, dressed in a lieutenant general's uniform and walking for hours, leaning on his oak cane, among the palm trees and other tropical plants in the greenhouses and on the paths of the château's large park. His eccentricities multiplied. Sometimes he rode to rendezvous with Caroline on a large tricycle, which he referred to as " mon animal." He still feared germs and became convinced that it was good for his health to drink huge quantities of hot water each day; servants kept a decanter always at the ready. Court protocol remained as formal as ever, the tone set by Leopold, who spoke slowly and majestically, "as if," Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford wrote in their thinly disguised portrait of him in their novel, The Inheritors, "he were forever replying to toasts to his health." Leopold had also begun speaking of himself in the third person. "Bring Him some hot water!" "Call Him his doctor!" "Give Him his cane!"
The command he really wanted to give was: "Don't take away His Congo!" For thanks to Morel's campaign and his own Commission of Inquiry report, from all sides pressure was mounting on him to divest himself of the country he considered his private property. Only one alternative to Leopold's control of the Congo was ever really considered: its becoming a colony of Belgium. Even Morel, frustrated by the lack of other politically viable choices, reluctantly advocated what was known as "the Belgian solution." If such a move were accompanied by the proper reforms—and Morel constantly insisted on these—he believed the rights of the Congolese might be better protected in a Belgian colony open to scrutiny and under the rule of law than in a secretive royal fief. That few reformers considered anything but the "Belgian solution" seems surprising to us today, but we forget that in the first decade of the century, the idea of independence and self-government in Africa was voiced by almost no one, except for a few beleaguered rebels deep in the Congo rain forest. In 1890, George Washington Williams had called for the Congo to be under rule that would be "local, not European; international, not national." But it would be more than three decades later before even the most ardently anticolonialist intellectuals, in Europe, Africa, or the Americas, said much like this again.
To Leopold, the international explosion of bad publicity triggered by the Kowalsky disaster was a turning point: instead of grandly bequeathing the Congo to Belgium at his death as he had planned, he understood that he would have to make the change before then. With his extraordinary knack for making the best of an apparently difficult situation, he began to maneuver. If these do-gooders were forcing him to give up his beloved colony, he decided, he was not going to give it away. He would sell it. And Belgium, the buyer, would have to pay dearly.
Oddly enough, Leopold had the Belgian government cornered. The Congo reform movement had reached such a pitch of fervor that Belgium's international reputation was at stake. And the British public's capacity for moral outrage had a power independent of government: at about this time, for example, some British humanitarians were organizing a boycott of Portuguese products because of Portugal's use of forced labor in Africa. Furthermore, if Belgium didn't take over the colony soon, some powerful country might: France and Germany, long jealous of the king's lucrative rubber profits, had their eye on pieces of Congo territory. President Roosevelt hinted that he was willing to join Britain in convening an international conference to discuss the Congo's fate. Three times the British and American ministers in Brussels went, together, to see the Belgian minister of foreign affairs and press for Belgian annexation. But sharply limited as Leopold's powers were in Belgium itself, the worried Belgian government had no legal authority over him in his role as ruler of the Congo. In the end, the king held the key cards, and he knew it.
How much, then, could he get the government to pay him for his colony? Negotiations began at the end of 1906 but soon bogged down, because the government could not get an accounting of the secretive Congo state's finances. If you are buying a business enterprise, after all, you want to see the balance sheet. Leopold was wintering in the sun at Cap Ferrat, and the government dispatched the secretary general of the Foreign Ministry, Baron Léon van der Elst, to see him. The king received the baron on his yacht, showered him with hospitality for several days, and showed him through the gardens of his expanding array of properties on shore. But when the baron asked for financial data, Leopold replied that the Congo state "is not beholden to anyone except to its founder.... No one has the right to ask for its accounts." One reason for his obstinacy, it became clear when auditors finally got to see some numbers, was that the twenty-five million francs the Belgian government had loaned him in 1890, plus nearly seven million more he had borrowed a few years later, were missing. An Antwerp newspaper suggested that the money had gone to Caroline. The king huffed and puffed and deflected further questioning.
Negotiations dragged on through 1907 and into early 1908. Leopold grumped and raged at the officials who tried to talk with him. At one point he slammed the door in his secretary's face, accusing him of being in league with the forces trying to take away his Congo. But like his charm, the king's tantrums were calculated. With the time that they bought him, he secretly did everything possible to hide his bewildering web of Congo-related riches, all the while claiming that he had no such wealth at all: "I am the ruler of the Congo, but the prosperity of the country no more affects me financially than the prosperity of America increases the means of President Roosevelt," he told an American correspondent. "I have not one cent invested in Congo industries, and I have not received any salary as Congo executive."
Finally the king hinted that he was ready to give in. He named his price. He yielded a little, but not much, and in March 1908 the deal was done. In return for receiving the Congo, the Belgian government first of all agreed to assume its 110 million francs' worth of debts, much of them in the form of bonds Leopold had freely dispensed over the years to favorites like Caroline. Some of the debt the outmaneuvered Belgian government assumed was in effect to itself—the nearly 32 million francs worth of loans Leopold had never paid back.
As part of the deal, Belgium also agreed to pay 45.5 million francs toward completing certain of the king's pet building projects. Fully a third of the amount was targeted for the extensive renovations under way at Laeken, already one of Europe's most luxurious royal homes, where, at the height of reconstruction, 700 stone masons, 150 horses, and seven steam cranes had been at work following a grand Leopoldian blueprint to build a center for world conferences.
Finally, on top of all this, Leopold was to receive, in installments, another fifty million francs "as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo." Those funds were not expected to come from the Belgian taxpayer. They were to be extracted from the Congo itself.
In November 1908, as solemn ceremonies at Boma marked the Congo's formal change of ownership, an unusual drama was unfolding far inland. The mere fact that it had begun under Leopold's state and continued uninterrupted in the new Belgian colony suggests that the difference between the two regimes was not what the reformers had hoped for. At center stage was the black American missionary William Sheppard.
Sheppard's article from a decade earlier, about his discovering eighty-one severed hands being smoked over a fire, had been one of the most widely quoted pieces of testimony about the Congo. "His eyewitness account," writes one scholar, "was cited by almost every American reformer, black or white." For some years now Sheppard had had a strong ally in his colleague, William Morrison, a white minister who had been with the Southern Presbyterian Congo mission since 1897. Morrison was a fearless opponent of the regime, a friend of Morel's, and a leader in inspiring his fellow missionaries, American, British, and Scandinavian, to speak out. He had bombarded officials in Boma with letters of protest, published an open letter to Leopold, and delivered an influential speech when passing through London. In the United States, he had led a group of Presbyterians to see President Theodore Roosevelt about the Congo. The regime, in turn, hated Morrison as much as it did Sheppard.
Sheppard and Morrison were the most outspoken of any of the American Congo missionaries, whose protests had long nettled Leopold. He had ordered missionary magazines searched for their hostile articles; some copies still survive, heavily marked in blue pencil by palace aides. Leopold could not get at his real target, Morel, safe in England, but he had tried persistently to intimidate Morel's sources: in 1906 he had issued a decree mandating a fine or a five-year jail term for any calumny against a Congo state official. A British Baptist missionary who fed information to Morel was soon put on trial. He was convicted, fined a thousand francs plus court costs, and, less of a crusader than Sheppard or Morrison, he left the country. The little band of American Presbyterians saw it was now riskier to speak out; the authorities were watching them closely, both in Africa and abroad. Unknown to them, Moncheur, the Belgian minister to Washington, had attended in Virginia one of the many headline-making speeches denouncing Congo atrocities that was given by Sheppard, whose reputation for stirring oratory packed many a church or hall during his home leaves.
As the end of Leopold's rule approached, the Compagnie du Kasai, a concession company of a new generation that was the de facto government of the area where the Presbyterians were working, was trying to extract all the rubber it could while the boom lasted. The Kasai River basin, where exploitation had begun a little later than elsewhere, had become the Congo's most lucrative source of rubber. And who now suddenly reappears on the scene, visiting the area for some months as inspector general of the Compagnie du Kasai, having risen in the world since we met him last? Léon Rom, the one-time collector of severed heads. His transformation into a Congo company official was a common one for retired Force Publique officers.
In the Kasai region, the normally unwarlike Kuba people had risen in revolt against the rubber terror, spurred on, as in similar doomed uprisings elsewhere in southern Africa, by elders with a fetish said to change the white man's bullets into water. The rebels burned trading posts and a mission station; when bullets did not turn to water, some 180 of them were killed. Writing in the annual newsletter the American Presbyterians published for their supporters back home, the Kassai Herald, William Sheppard described the toll taken on the Kuba. Significantly, he first celebrated the Kubas' history, writing in a way that no white missionary would have done:
These great stalwart men and women, who have from time immemorial been free, cultivating large farms of Indian corn, peas, tobacco, potatoes, trapping elephants for their ivory tusks and leopards for their skins, who have always had their own king and a government not to be despised, officers of the law established in every town of the kingdom, these magnificent people, perhaps about 400,000 in number, have entered a new chapter in the history of their tribe. Only a few years ago, travelers through this country found them living in large homes, having from one to four rooms in each house, loving and living happily with their wives and children, one of the most prosperous and intelligent of all the African tribes....
But within these last three years how changed they are! Their farms are growing up in weeds and jungle, their king is practically a slave, their houses now are mostly only half-built single rooms and are much neglected. The streets of their towns are not clean and well-swept as they once were. Even their children cry for bread.
Why this change? You have it in a few words. There are armed sentries of chartered trading companies who force the men and women to spend most of their days and nights in the forests making rubber, and the price they receive is so meager that they cannot live upon it. In the majority of villages these people have not time to listen to the Gospel story, or give an answer concerning their soul's salvation.
Sheppard's story appeared in January 1908, the month Léon Rom returned to Belgium from a six-month business trip to the Kasai. Soon after, Rom's colleagues at the Compagnie du Kasai began to threaten, bluster, and demand a retraction, which Morrison and Sheppard refused to make. Morrison sent company officials forceful letters listing more specific charges, which upset them still further. The two missionaries were legally vulnerable, since technically they had published the article in the Congo itself. In England, Morel reprinted Sheppard's article, and also a photograph the missionaries had sent him, of forced laborers, tied to one another by ropes around their necks.
While the company was still complaining about the offending article, the British vice consul to the Congo, Wilfred Thesiger, paid a three-month visit to the Kasai basin to prepare a report on conditions there. Nervous officials monitored his travels, remembering all too well the international furor caused by Roger Casement's report four years earlier. To the authorities' dismay, Thesiger stayed with the American Presbyterians at their mission and traveled on their steamboat, the Lapsley. As someone who understood the local languages and who knew the district well, Sheppard acted as guide to Thesiger, taking him to thirty-one Kuba villages. After they departed, a suspicious station chief grilled villagers the two men had spoken to, and worriedly reported to his superiors that "Sheppard pointed to the Consul and said, 'You see this white man, when he returns to Europe he will tell the State officials whatever you tell him, because he is very powerful.' In the Bakuba villages [Thesiger]...asked any questions Sheppard suggested." Thesiger soon submitted an excoriating report on starvation and brutality in the Kasai to the British Parliament. One passage, describing Kuba homes falling into ruin while people were put to work as rubber slaves, closely echoed Sheppard's article. The Compagnie du Kasai's stock price plummeted. Company and Congo state officials, furious, blamed Sheppard.
The company could not legally punish the Presbyterians for helping Thesiger, but it could do so for their publishing Sheppard's 1908 article. In February 1909 it filed suit for libel against Sheppard, as writer of the article, and Morrison, as its publisher, demanding eighty thousand francs in damages. The two men, firm in their convictions, decided that if the judge ruled against them, they would, as Morrison wrote home, "prefer to go to prison rather than pay the fine." Abroad, their supporters rallied to their defense. "Morrison in the dock," wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (ignoring the black defendant, Sheppard), "makes a finer Statue of Liberty than Bartholdi's in New York harbour." In Washington, the affair was discussed at a Cabinet meeting. The American legation in Brussels informed the Belgian government that the United States viewed the trial with "acute interest and no little concern," and suggested that U.S. recognition of the new Belgian claim to the Congo might hinge on the result.
The trial took place in Leopoldville, some six hundred miles down the Kasai and Congo rivers from the Presbyterian mission. A photo shows Morrison and Sheppard before the trial, standing under some palm trees on each side of a dozen Kubas who were prepared to testify in their defense. The Kubas are naked above the waist. Morrison, the white man, looks resigned behind his heavy beard, as if preparing for one more ordeal in a saintly life that will be rewarded in Heaven, but certainly not before then. He wears a black hat, black suit, and scuffed shoes. Sheppard, the black man, wears a white suit and white hat. His shoes gleam; his chest is arched out; he stands a head taller than everyone else and seems to be enjoying the moment immensely. There is something proud and inclusive in his stance toward the Kubas, as if they are junior kinsmen.
The trial's opening date was set—deliberately, the missionaries thought—during the dry season on the Kasai River. After the steamboat carrying the two defendants and their Kuba witnesses encountered low water, the captain refused to go farther. A new date was fixed.
Morel telegraphed his friend and ally Emile Vandervelde, leader of the Belgian socialists, asking him to recommend an "honest young Belgian lawyer" for the two missionaries. Vandervelde, a leading figure in European democratic socialism, was also an attorney. To everyone's surprise, he declared that he would take on the case himself, pro bono. The trial was postponed yet again so that Vandervelde could travel out to the Congo. As he was preparing to leave Belgium, someone criticized him for traveling all the way to Africa to defend a couple of "foreigners." Unspoken, perhaps, was the fact that one of those foreigners was black.
Vandervelde replied, "No man is a stranger in a court of justice."
Newly arrived in the Congo, the anticlerical Vandervelde, president of the Second International and friend or acquaintance of all the great left-wing figures of his day, found himself living in a mission station and cruising Stanley Pool in the mission steamboat, which flew the American flag. He watched with great amusement as missionaries carried out baptisms by total immersion and prayed for a favorable verdict.
At last the trial began, in a Leopoldville courtroom of wood and brick, its windows open to the breeze. On a technicality, the court had dropped the charge against Morrison, leaving Sheppard the only defendant. In this frontier outpost, dotted with mango, palm, and baobab trees, and with its forced labor gangs, military barracks, and a firing range where Europeans practiced shooting on Sundays, the trial was definitely the biggest show in town. Over thirty foreign Protestant missionaries packed the courtroom in a show of support. They and other supporters of Sheppard sat on one side of the courtroom; on the other side were Catholic missionaries, Congo state officials, and other backers of the Compagnie du Kasai. Onlookers who couldn't fit in the room watched through the open door and windows. The Compagnie du Kasai officials wore white suits and white sun helmets; Sheppard looked natty in a dark coat with a handkerchief in his breast pocket.
After the judge rang a small bell to begin the proceedings and the lawyer for the Compagnie du Kasai spoke, Vandervelde rose to make the most of his unusual forum. Sheppard, he told the judge, was "no longer of England or America, but of the Kasai.... His only motive in revealing the condition of the natives amongst whom he lives is humanitarian." Vandervelde "made a magnificent defense," Morrison reported. "His speech was a marvel of eloquence, invincible logic, burning sarcasm, and pathetic appeal for justice to be done not only for us Missionaries but especially for the native peoples. He held the audience in the Courtroom spell-bound for over two hours." Sheppard, the accused, was also moved. "The trial is the talk of the whole country," he wrote, and the spectators "were so affected that their handkerchiefs were freely used." According to Sheppard, even the Catholic priests—usually staunch allies of the state—were weeping, and one of them came up and congratulated Vandervelde after his speech. "It is said there has never been such a speech as that made in Congo."
The trial won Sheppard some attention back home. Under the headlines AMERICAN NEGRO HERO OF CONGO and FIRST TO INFORM WORLD OF CONGO ABUSES, the Boston Herald wrote, "Dr. Sheppard has not only stood before kings, but he has also stood against them. In pursuit of his mission of serving his race in its native land, this son of a slave ... has dared to withstand all the power of Leopold."
After the closing arguments, the judge announced that he would give his decision in two weeks. In the end, it was politics, not Vandervelde's eloquence or the missionaries' prayers, that dictated the results. The presence of the American consul general and vice consul in the courtroom was a reminder of the problems Belgium might face if Sheppard were found in the wrong. Similarly, the judge knew he would not have a promising career in the Congo if he found that Sheppard's accusations against the company were true. Steering a cautious middle course, he made adroit use of the fact that (even though there were no other such companies in the area) Sheppard's article had not specifically named the Compagnie du Kasai, but had only attacked "armed sentries of chartered trading companies." Thus, the judge declared, most improbably, "the defendant Sheppard did not intend to make an attack on the said company.... The article did not and could not refer to the Compagnie du Kasai." In effect, Sheppard was found innocent, without the Compagnie du Kasai's being found guilty. The company, however, had to pay court costs.
Far up the Kasai River, the missionaries' wives knew that their husbands had vowed to go to jail rather than pay the damages if the judgment went against them. The sign that this had happened would be if the men were not on board the Presbyterian steamboat when it returned from Leopoldville. As people anxiously waited at the mission station, there seems to have been a warmth and camaraderie among these black and white Americans that would have been inconceivable back home. "Mrs. Morrison and I waited almost breathlessly for the return of our loved ones," wrote Lucy Gantt Sheppard. "As the Lapsley came steaming in, hundreds of Christians began singing hymns and waving their hands and shouting for joy. It was a glorious time—a time for thanksgiving."
Back in Europe, there was no thanksgiving for Leopold. In December 1909, less than two months after the Sheppard trial, the seventy-four-year-old king fell gravely ill with an "intestinal blockage," possibly a euphemism for cancer. Crowded out of the château of Laeken by his endless renovations, surrounded as always by sheaves of architectural drawings, the king was living in an outbuilding, the Palm Pavilion, amid the great greenhouses. Caroline and their two sons rushed to Leopold's side, and Leopold's private chaplain performed a hasty wedding. With things now straightened out with the church, the king could receive last rites. Nonetheless, Caroline, who stayed by his side, had to disappear from sight every time a visitor arrived.
Leopold's rejected daughters, Louise and Stephanie, came to Brussels, hoping for a reconciliation and for changes in their favor in the royal will. Obstinate to the last, their father turned them away. The royal physician, Dr. Jules Thiriar, who had also served as a dummy stockholder for the king in several Congo corporations, ordered an operation, but it was unsuccessful. Parliament had just passed a pet bill of Leopold's, instituting compulsory military service. When he came out of the anesthetic after his surgery, the king signed the bill with a trembling hand. The next day he seemed to rally, demanding newspapers and giving orders to prepare for a departure for the Riviera. A few hours later he was dead. One of the myriad of hovering officials led the weeping Caroline from his bedside.
If we are to believe Caroline's account, Leopold, just after the secret wedding, had turned to Baron Auguste Goffinet, one of the plump, bearded, slightly cross-eyed twins who had been among his closest aides for more than thirty years, and declared, "I present you my widow. I place her under your protection during the few days she'll spend in Belgium after my death." It is likely that the king did say something like this, for he knew that his three daughters and the Belgian public hated Caroline—and that they would do so all the more when they discovered that in his last days he had transferred to her a fortune in Congo securities, on top of some six million francs he had already given her.
Princess Louise's lawyers came after the securities, so when Caroline went to her Brussels villa, she found it padlocked and guarded, the windows boarded up. It was the same story at the French castle she had been given by Leopold. But with the help of the king's loyalists, who were seen removing papers from his desk in his final hours, Caroline got herself and much of her money away to Paris.
Less than a year later, she remarried—her husband none other than the former French officer, Durrieux, her original boyfriend and pimp. If she shared some of her fortune with him, his was surely one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time. Of Caroline and Leopold's two sons, one died a few years after his father. The other lived a long, quiet life on the income from capital once wrested from the labor of Congo rubber slaves; he died in 1984. Perhaps the most interesting of Leopold's descendants was his granddaughter Elizabeth, the only child of Stephanie and Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. She married a socialist politician and became known as the Red Archduchess.
At his death, Leopold was little mourned by his people. They much preferred his nephew and successor, Albert I, modest, likable, and—extremely rare for a European monarch—visibly in love with his wife. As for the world outside Belgium, thanks to Morel and his allies, it now thought of Leopold not in terms of the monuments and buildings he was so proud of, but of the severed hands. The American poet Vachel Lindsay declaimed:
Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
But the battle over how Leopold and his works would be remembered had only begun.
The life of a major figure in the early stages of that battle, Roger Casement, had now taken some new turnings. When Casement's report was published, he had been interviewed by newspapers, wined and dined by the London literary world, awarded a medal by the British king, attacked by the Belgian king, defended by Morel and the reform movement, and then vindicated triumphantly by Leopold's own Commission of Inquiry.
But Casement had to earn a living. By 1906, he was once again serving as British consul in a remote spot, this time Santos, Brazil, where the consulate was an empty, whitewashed room in a coffee warehouse. He wore a dress uniform for ceremonial occasions (white gloves, gold braid on collar and cuffs, a sword, and a hat with a cockade), but his daily work was anything but glamorous. Exasperatedly summing up his entire consular career, Casement later wrote, "My predecessor in Santos had a wire netting up to the ceiling to prevent ... distressed British subjects throwing things at him.... At Delagoa Bay [in Mozambique] I could not afford a secretary or clerk. I had to sit in my office for two years and open the door to everyone who came in. I was bottle washer and everything else.... I have known ladies to come in and ask me for their cab fare. I have been asked to pronounce a divorce and been upbraided for not doing it. Once a woman came into my office in Delagoa Bay and fainted on the sofa, and that woman remained in the house for a week."
When he was not bailing drunken sailors out of jail or performing other consular duties, Casement was becoming ever more involved with his native Ireland. On home leave he met members of the movement to revive what he called the "lovely, glorious language" of Gaelic and, with it, the roots of Irish culture. He visited the movement's language school at Cloghaneely, where he was photographed, arms crossed tightly on his stomach, as if holding in some anxiety, his tall frame seated awkwardly amid solemn Gaelic League members in long Victorian cutaways and vests.
"In those lonely Congo forests where I found Leopold," he wrote to a friend, "I found also myself, the incorrigible Irishman." To another, he said that "it was only because I was an Irishman that I could understand fully, I think, the whole scheme of wrongdoing at work on the Congo." He had come to feel that Ireland, like the Congo, was a colony, and that there, too, the core injustice was the way the colonial conquerors had taken the land. "I realised that I was looking at this tragedy [in the Congo] with the eyes of another race of people once hunted themselves."
True enough, but was the "race of people once hunted themselves" only the Irish? Being a gay man in an unforgiving age, Casement surely felt hunted every day of his adult life. That was a cause too dangerous to openly take on, but embracing Irish nationalism was possible, and Casement did so with characteristic passion. Although he never fully mastered the language, he sometimes used the Gaelic form of his name, Ruari MacAsmund, and tried Gaelic in his letters. On his way to take up his post in Brazil, his baggage stuffed with books on Ireland, he wrote to a friend, "Remember my address is Consulate of Great Britain and Ireland, Santos—not British Consulate!!" He had special stationery printed to emphasize this. From Brazil, he wrote home, "Send me news of Congo and Ireland—nothing else counts."
On one trip home, his ship anchored at Rio de Janeiro. "Casement came ashore and we talked for a time before going back to his liner for lunch," the British vice consul later recalled. "Half-way out to the ship, the villainous Brazilian boatmen who were rowing us out suddenly rested on their oars and, as was often their wont, tried to hold us up for more money than the price already agreed on. But by then Casement was launched on a tremendous monologue about Irish Home Rule and nothing could stem the flood. For a while the boatmen tried to shout him down, but it was impossible. Finally they gave up in disgust and we continued on our way, with Casement still going strong on Ireland."
Generous as always (he helped support a ne'er-do-well brother for some years) and frequently in debt, Casement somehow managed to contribute more than £85 in "Payments to Irish Causes in 1907" out of his salary. More and more, he came to see the world in terms of colonizers and colonized. His letters are filled with discomfort at working for the biggest colonizer of them all, and he gently chided his friend E. D. Morel for believing England to be morally superior to the other colonial powers: "I have no use for your British government.... You are one of the few, my dear Bulldog, who do not realise the national characteristics—and it is for that I love you. When I think what J.B. [John Bull] has done to Ireland I literally weep to think I must still serve—instead of fight.... I do not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers.... [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after."
Morel advised Casement not to sacrifice his pension rights by prematurely leaving the consular service. He understood Casement's frustrations, but was wise enough to know that some of them came from the man, not the job. "You are a difficult man to help," he once wrote to Casement. "You are very proud, for which I admire you, in the first place. Also, forgive me for saying so, it is a little difficult sometimes to know exactly anything [that] could be done that would fall in with your exact wishes."
Casement worried about Morel's welfare as much as Morel did about his. He knew that Morel, having poured all his energy into Congo reform, had not been able to put aside any money for his old age. In London on leave, Casement began collecting funds for this purpose, contributing £50 himself. "My hope now," he wrote to William A. Cadbury, the Quaker chocolate manufacturer, "is that we may raise from £10,000 to £15,000 possibly & with this sum ... invested for the wife and children the besetting fear and dread that weighs on his mind may be removed forever, & his whole personality released for greater good and more work for Africa, or elsewhere where such a fearless soul as his is needed." Casement followed this with a blizzard of letters and personal visits to other Congo reform supporters. He fell short of his target, but he succeeded in gathering several thousand pounds. He, and Morel even more so, were skilled at something essential to political crusades: fund-raising.
Suddenly an opportunity arose for Casement to repeat his famous Congo investigative journey, this time in another part of the world. Reports filtering back to England described atrocities committed against Indians in the remote Putumayo region of the Amazon River basin by officials of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company. British humanitarians, labor unions, and church groups were demanding action. The firm was incorporated in London, and some of the mistreated workers were British subjects, contract laborers from Barbados. The Foreign Office sent Casement to investigate.
For Casement, the Putumayo was the Congo all over again, from the long, dreary journeys on crowded steamboats to the swarms of rain forest mosquitoes to the shootings, shackles, beheadings, mutilations, and kidnappings of a slave-labor system driven by Europe's insatiable demand for wild rubber. Casement weighed and tried to carry the Indians' rubber loads. He measured the stocks into which people were locked to be flogged with a tapir-hide whip, which resembled the chicotte.
In reporting to the Foreign Office, Casement knew everything had to be precise and well documented. But his other writings from this time show a romantic idealization of the oppressed. The Irish, he felt, were "white Indians"; poverty-stricken Galway was the "Irish Putumayo." In a magazine article, he argued that the Putumayo Indians were morally superior to their white overlords; the Indian was "a Socialist by temperament, habit, and possibly, an age-long memory of Inca and pre-Inca precept." (Some of the smaller peoples crushed by their armies might not have seen the Incas so benignly.)
Despite succumbing to his own version of the Noble Savage myth, Casement got the job done. As with the Congo, he was not content just to carry out his Foreign Office assignment; he wrote voluminous letters to influential people, raised money, and fed pages of suggested questions to sympathetic members of Parliament. In the middle of this work, he received a startling piece of news: on recommendation of the foreign secretary, he was to be knighted. He agonized for days over whether to refuse the knighthood, feeling, as he explained to a friend, that "until Ireland is safe and her outlook happy no Irishman has any right to be accepting honours." Finally he said yes, but when it came to the day of the actual ceremony—which would have required him to kneel before the British king—he pled ill.
While in the Putumayo, Casement's life had been all work, as in the Congo, with scarcely a thought for anything else. But on the long voyages to and from South America he filled his diary again with a record of assignations. On shipboard: "Captain's steward, an Indian boy of 19, broad face." In Para, Brazil: "Shall I see Joao, dear old soul! I'll get up early.... To Cemetery and lo! Joao coming along, blushed to roots of hair with joy." He seemed to become more heedless in his meetings. Passing through Para again: "Dinner at 8 P.M. and out to cemetery and met Friend.... Police passing behind paling—but he laughed.... $10." Still undiscovered, the time bomb's fuse burned on.
One evening in 1910, a year after King Leopold died, London theatergoers attending a new play, based on the Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band, noticed a trio of men in the audience: the famous journalist E. D. Morel, with his trademark mustache; the black-bearded Sir Roger Casement, deeply tanned from his time in the Putumayo; and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, host of the other two.
Conan Doyle was Morel's most important new recruit to the cause of Congo reform. His help was eagerly welcomed by Morel, whose job had been made more difficult by the Belgian takeover of the Congo and Leopold's death the following year. Morel had suffered the worst setback that can happen to a crusader: he had lost his villain. It is always tempting to believe that a bad system is the fault of one bad man. Morel never gave in to that temptation, but he feared that his supporters would. For the Congo reformers, being able to demonize Leopold had been a double-edged sword. With the king now gone, the movement could easily falter, so Conan Doyle's influential support had come at just the right time.
In 1909 the novelist had spoken side by side with Morel to huge crowds: 2800 in Edinburgh, 3000 in Plymouth, 5000 in Liverpool. He wrote an introduction to Morel's newest book and also published a book of his own based on Morel's vast store of material,The Crime of the Congo, which sold twenty-five thousand copies a week when it first appeared and was immediately translated into several languages. With all the fervor of a late convert, he was one of the few people in Europe whose denunciations were even more impassioned than Morel's. He called the exploitation of the Congo "the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world."
Morel considered the Belgian takeover of the Congo only "a partial victory." He knew that the system Leopold had set up would not be quickly dismantled; it was too profitable. The same men who had been district commissioners and station chiefs for Leopold would now simply get their paychecks from a different source. The Force Publique didn't even bother to change its name. The new Belgian minister of colonies was a former official of a company that had used thousands of forced laborers to build railways in the eastern Congo. The head of the Belgian Senate committee that approved the new colonial budget—which increased "taxes in kind" on Africans, Morel pointed out—was a shareholder in the notorious rubber concession company, A.B.I.R. As long as there was big money to be made from rubber, white men, with the help of the gun and the chicotte, would force black men to gather it. Coached by Morel, Conan Doyle wrote, in one of many letters to the editor he sent to various British newspapers, "So long as in any report of Congo reforms, such a sentence occurs as 'Adult natives will be compelled to work,' there can be no true reform whatever."
Morel now concentrated on trying to make the Foreign Office demand that the Belgian government eliminate the hated Leopoldian "System" of forced labor and confiscation of the products of the land. The final picture in the Congo Reform Association slide show was of a British warship—which Morel urged be sent to Boma to block the Congo River. Earl Grey, the foreign secretary, refused, limiting his pressure on Belgium to withholding British recognition of the Belgian Congo. Morel threw himself into his organizing with more intensity than ever, turning out another book and an undiminished stream of pamphlets, articles, and issues of the Congo Reform Association's magazine. He packed the Royal Albert Hall to the highest balconies with a huge Congo protest meeting, endorsed by 20 bishops and 140 members of Parliament.
Change seemed to be on its way in the Congo. The new Belgian king, Albert I, who had actually visited the territory just before taking the throne and seen people without hands, let it be known that he thought forced labor a scandal and lobbied for major reforms. (He would lose his youthful idealism later in life, unfortunately.) Morel was delighted, but such news made it hard to keep his followers fired up. By 1910, the American Congo Reform Association had faded away. "Americans..." Morel wrote to one of his hundreds of correspondents, "have not got very much staying-power."
Morel tried valiantly to keep his followers focused on the issue of land ownership, so much more important but so much less dramatic than Leopold's personal villainy had been. He had long believed that "the root of the evil [will remain] untouched ... till the native of the Congo becomes once more owner of his land and of the produce which it yields."
Although Morel never intended it to be, his vocal insistence on African land rights was taken by many people, particularly in the Foreign Office, as implicitly threatening not just to Belgian but to British practice in Africa. "The Native question is not so simple as he thinks," the foreign secretary wrote to Lord Cromer, a Morel supporter. "We do not, in our own Colonies, say that all the land and produce of the soil belongs to the Natives." In believing that Congo land did belong to the Africans, Morel was inherently more radical than almost all of those he worked with. Once again, Morel the crusader for justice was in unspoken tension with Morel the British patriot, whose newest celebrity ally, Conan Doyle, had once been president of the Boys' Empire League. In Morel's writing of this period, we can begin to see signs of how his involvement with the Congo had changed and deepened him. In 1909, decades ahead of his time and in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory mood around him, he wrote a trenchant warning of the "far-reaching consequences over the wider destiny, not only of South Africa, but of all Negro Africa" that would flow from the fact that Britain had set up the new, independent Union of South Africa with an all-white legislature.
All did not look bleak to Morel, however. In the fall of 1909, the Belgian colonial minister announced major reforms, to be phased in over three years. Morel strongly protested that the transition period was too long. But over this time letters from his missionary correspondents turned hopeful. Similarly encouraging news came from inspection tours by British consuls. Reports of atrocities against rubber workers slowed to a trickle. In 1912, Alice and John Harris—now running the newly merged Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society—returned from a trip to the Congo and reported "immense improvement."
Morel was locked in a double race against time: against the inevitable British recognition of the Congo as a Belgian colony, which finally came in 1913, and against the waning fervor of his supporters. Even Casement felt that "the break-up of the pirate's stronghold [was] nearly accomplished" and urged Morel to declare the campaign over. Despite some doubts voiced in his private correspondence, Morel decided to publicly claim victory. "I do not wish to paint the present in roseate hues. The wounds of the Congo will take generations to heal. But ... the atrocities have disappeared.... The revenues are no longer supplied by forced or slave labour. The rubber tax has gone. The native is free to gather the produce of his soil.... A responsible Government has replaced an irresponsible despotism." The one major goal not achieved, he acknowledged, was African ownership of land.
On June 16, 1913, the Congo Reform Association held its final meeting, at the Westminster Palace Hotel in London. Many of the principal British supporters of the cause were together for the last time: John and Alice Harris, the Archbishop of Canterbury, explorers, missionaries, editors, M.P.s. Sir Roger Casement, William Cadbury, John Holt, Emile Vandervelde, Pierre Mille, and the writer John Galsworthy sent letters or telegrams of support that were read aloud. As the organization he founded, which had roiled the political waters of several countries for nearly a decade, officially went out of business, E. D. Morel was only thirty-nine years old.
A series of distinguished speakers praised him. Morel seldom liked sharing too much of the limelight, but when he replied on this occasion, he gave the greatest credit to someone else: "While I was listening to all that was being said, I had a vision. The vision of a small steamer ploughing its way up the Congo just ten years ago this month, and on its decks a man that some of you know; a man of great heart ... Roger Casement." The meeting marked the end of the first major international human rights movement of the twentieth century. "We have struck a blow for human justice," Morel told the assembled dignitaries, "that cannot and will not pass away." It would take another generation to judge whether this was true.