AN UNUSUALLY late spring snowfall lay thick on the White House lawn as President Chester A. Arthur, wearing a high silk hat, boarded a private car lent to him by the Pennsylvania Railroad and headed south for a vacation. High blood pressure and other complaints had left him tired, he told his staff, and he wanted a good rest in Florida. Traveling with the president as he left Washington, on April 5, 1883, were the secretary of the navy, Arthur's valet, his personal secretary, and his French chef, whom a journalist on the train described as "a gentleman with a well-developed waist ... evidently a good feeder." A friend of the president's was also on board, and several of his late wife's cousins joined the party as the train rolled south. After Petersburg, Virginia, as the private car moved onto the tracks of a new railroad, a gray-bearded conductor provoked great hilarity by walking into the car, counting the passengers, and trying to collect $47.50 in fares. A telegram ordering him to let the presidential party travel for free was waiting at the next stop.
In Jacksonville, Florida, the president and his entourage were greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute. They then boarded a paddlewheel steamer and headed up the winding St. Johns River, lined with cypress trees and flocks of herons and cranes. More friends and relatives joined the sociable president along the way, and fireworks shot up from the banks of the river. The following day, the steamer tied up at a spot some thirty-five miles from today's Disney World, where the party climbed into carriages to visit the elegant mansion of the Belair orange plantation. They tasted different varieties of the plantation's prize oranges, and the secretary of the navy climbed a tree to pick some that particularly caught his eye. In the evening, the presidential entourage watched a song-and-dance performance, with banjo music, by a troupe of six local black boys.
One of the more forgettable of American presidents, Chester A. Arthur was an amiable man whose highest job, only a few years earlier, had been as collector of customs revenue for the port of New York—a position he had been forced to leave amid charges of corruption and mismanagement. Soon after this, Arthur's ties to the powerful New York State Republican machine won him nomination as candidate for vice president. To near-universal dismay, he had entered the White House when President James A. Garfield died from an assassin's bullet. A good storyteller and man about town, fond of whiskey, cigars, and expensive clothes, the dapper, sideburned Arthur is perhaps best remembered for saying, "I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." On this trip to Florida, however, his private life fitted very nicely into someone else's business. The owner of the Belair orange plantation was General Henry Shelton Sanford, the man who had helped Leopold recruit Stanley.
Sanford did not bother to leave his home in Belgium to be in Florida for the president's visit. With the self-assurance of the very rich, he played host in absentia. He made sure that the president and his party were greeted by his personal agent, and that they got the best rooms at the Sanford House hotel, which stood on a lakeshore fringed with palm trees in the town of Sanford. When the president and his guests were not out catching bass, trout, and catfish, or shooting alligators, or exploring the area by steamboat, the Sanford House was where they stayed for the better part of a week. There is no record of who paid the hotel bill, but most likely, as with the rail journey south, it was not the president.
Ironically, the huge Sanford orange plantation the Washington visitors admired was proving as disastrous a venture as Sanford's other investments. Some Swedish contract laborers found the working conditions too harsh and tried to leave as stowaways on a steamboat. A slaughterhouse Sanford invested in had a capacity fifty times larger than what the local market could consume and went bankrupt. A 540-foot wharf with a warehouse at the end of it that he ordered built was washed away by a flood. The manager of one of the hotels in Sanford absconded while owing him money. Foremen failed to put up fences, and wandering cattle nibbled at the orange trees. But if everything Sanford touched as a businessman turned to dust, as an accomplice of Leopold he was a grand success.
Sanford was a long-time supporter of President Arthur's Republican Party. For two years, he had been corresponding with Arthur and other high United States officials about Leopold's plans for the Congo. Now, after the president's trip to Florida, confident that Arthur would pay attention, he pressed his case with more letters. Seven months later, Leopold sent Sanford across the Atlantic to make use of his convenient connection to the White House. The man who had once been American minister to Belgium was now the Belgian king's personal envoy to Washington.
Sanford carried with him to Washington a special code for telegraphing news to Brussels: Constance meant "negotiations proceeding satisfactorily; success expected"; Achille referred to Stanley, Eugénie to France, Alice to the United States, Joseph to "sovereign rights," and Émile to the key target, the president. Bonheur (happiness) meant "agreement signed today." The agreement Leopold wanted was one that gave full American diplomatic recognition of his claim to the Congo.
Sanford also carried a letter to the president from the king, which he himself had carefully edited and translated. "Entire territories ceded by Sovereign Chiefs have been constituted by us into independent States," Leopold declared, a claim that would have startled Stanley, then finishing up his work on the Congo River. From Arthur, Leopold asked only "the official announcement that the Government of the United States...[will] treat as a friendly flag ... the blue standard with the golden star which now floats over 17 stations, many territories, 7 steamers engaged in the civilizing work of the Association and over a population of several millions."
On November 29, 1883, only two days after his ship arrived in New York and he had boarded the overnight train for Washington, Sanford was received by President Arthur at the White House. Leopold's great work of civilization, he told the president and everyone else he met in Washington, was much like the generous work the United States itself had done in Liberia, where, starting in 1820, freed American slaves had moved to what soon became an independent African country. This was a shrewdly chosen example, since it had not been the United States government that had resettled ex-slaves in Liberia, but a private society like Leopold's International Association of the Congo.
Like all the actors in Leopold's highly professional cast, Sanford relied on just the right props. He claimed, for example, that Leopold's treaties with Congo chiefs were similar to those which the Puritan clergyman Roger Williams, famed for his belief in Indian rights, had made in Rhode Island in the 1600s—and Sanford just happened to have copies of those treaties with him. Furthermore, in his letter to President Arthur, Leopold promised that American citizens would be free to buy land in the Congo and that American goods would be free of customs duties there. In support of these promises, Sanford had with him a sample copy of one of Leopold's treaties with a Congo chief. The copy, however, had been altered in Brussels to omit all mention of the monopoly on trade ceded to Leopold, an alteration that deceived not only Arthur but also Sanford, an ardent free-trader who wanted the Congo open to American businessmen like himself.
In Washington, Sanford claimed that Leopold's civilizing influence would counter the practices of the dreadful "Arab" slave-traders. And weren't these "independent States" under the association's generous protection really a sort of United States of the Congo? Not to mention that, as Sanford wrote to Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen (Stanley was still vigorously passing himself off as born and bred in the United States), the Congo "was discovered by an American." Only a week after Sanford arrived in Washington, the president cheerfully incorporated into his annual message to Congress, only slightly rewritten, text that Sanford had drafted for him about Leopold's high-minded work in the Congo:
The rich and populous valley of the Kongo is being opened by a society called the International African Association, of which the King of the Belgians is the president.... Large tracts of territory have been ceded to the Association by native chiefs, roads have been opened, steamboats have been placed on the river and the nuclei of states established ... under one flag which offers freedom to commerce and prohibits the slave trade. The objects of the society are philanthropic. It does not aim at permanent political control, but seeks the neutrality of the valley.
Leopold was delighted to hear his own propaganda coming so readily from the president's mouth. His aide Colonel Maximilien Strauch cabled Sanford: ENCHANTED WITH ÉMILE.
Sanford next went to work on Congress. He rented a house at 1925 G Street, a few blocks from the White House, telegraphed for his wife and chef to come over from Belgium, and began wining and dining senators, representatives, and Cabinet members. It was Sanford's finest hour, for the affable personality that made him both a bon vivant and a poor businessman served him wonderfully as a lobbyist. He had an excellent wine cellar, and he was called "the gastronomic diplomat," waging a "gastronomic campaign." "What a charming dinner that was at your house and in such a queenly presence too," one visitor wrote to him. Secretary of State Frelinghuysen was a frequent guest; President Arthur and members of Congress and the Cabinet found themselves receiving boxes of Florida oranges.
As he was winning congressional support for Leopold's claim to the Congo, Sanford discovered an unexpected ally. Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate brigadier general, was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Like most white Southern politicians of the era, he was frightened by the specter of millions of freed slaves and their descendants harboring threatening dreams of equality. The fierce-looking, mustachioed senator, small in stature but loud in bluster, thundered ominously about the dangers of "enforced negro rule," as blacks were "foisted into ... white families," where they might inflict "a worse fate than death upon an innocent woman." Morgan fretted for years over the "problem" of this growing black population. His solution, endorsed by many, was simple: send them back to Africa!
Always urging a "general exodus" of Southern blacks, at various times in his long career Morgan also advocated sending them to Hawaii, to Cuba, and to the Philippines—which, perhaps because the islands were so far away, he claimed were a "native home of the negro." But Africa was always first choice. To Morgan, Leopold's new state seemed heaven-sent. Wouldn't this territory require manpower to develop? And wouldn't the Congolese be eager to trade with the United States if the Americans they met had the same skin color? And couldn't the Congo become a market for the South's cotton surplus? Africa, he later said on the Senate floor, "was prepared for the negro as certainly as the Garden of Eden was prepared for Adam and Eve.... In the Congo basin we find the best type of the negro race, and the American negro ... can find here the field for his efforts." *
Sanford completely agreed. Although he was born in Connecticut, once he invested in the South he quickly assimilated the send-them-back-to-Africa feelings of white businessmen there. The Congo could serve, he had said, as "an outlet ... for the enterprise and ambition of our colored people in more congenial fields than politics." To the end of his life he would promote this new "Canaan for our modern Israelites," which could be "the ground to draw the gathering electricity from that black cloud spreading over the Southern states." Sanford and Morgan hit it off splendidly, and Morgan, too, began receiving crates of Florida oranges.
In early 1884, Morgan introduced a Senate resolution in support of Leopold's Congo claims, first sending a rough draft to Sanford. Like any lobbyist given the chance, Sanford reached for more. To Morgan's reference to land "drained by the Congo River" he added the words "its tributaries and adjacent rivers," a phrase that could be interpreted as meaning all of central Africa. The Senate toned this down, soon passing a modified version of Morgan's resolution. It also issued a thousand copies of a long report on the Congo under Morgan's name, mainly written by Sanford. "It may be safely asserted," the report declared, "that no barbarous people have ever so readily adopted the fostering care of benevolent enterprise as have the tribes of the Congo, and never was there a more honest and practical effort made to ... secure their welfare."
Knowing how carefully President Arthur's Republicans listened to business, Sanford got the New York Chamber of Commerce to pass a resolution endorsing U.S. recognition of Leopold's association. Favorable accounts of the king's philanthropic work began appearing in major American newspapers, stimulated, in the fashion of the day, by quiet payments from Sanford. Sanford's multilayered campaign was probably the most sophisticated piece of Washington lobbying on behalf of a foreign ruler in the nineteenth century, and on April 22, 1884, it bore fruit. The secretary of state declared that the United States of America recognized King Leopold II's claim to the Congo. It was the first country to do so.
Leopold knew he owed this great coup to Sanford, and knew also that what mattered more than money to the "General" was royal praise. He invited to breakfast Sanford's wife, Gertrude, who had returned to Belgium. "I cannot begin to tell you," she wrote to her husband afterward, "of all the flattering things the King said about you.... My dear nothing could have been more flattering to you or tender to me than were both the King and Queen."
During his adroit Washington lobbying, Sanford had passed around documents that thoroughly jumbled the names of the International Association of the Congo, entirely controlled by Leopold, and the International African Association, at this point defunct but still vaguely remembered as a philanthropic society of famous explorers, crown princes, and grand dukes. Everyone was left pleasantly confused. In his official statement of recognition, Secretary of State Frelinghuysen actually managed to use both names in the same sentence:
The Government of the United States announces its sympathy with and approval of the humane and benevolent purposes of the International Association of the Congo, administering, as it does, the interests of the Free States there established, and will order the officers of the United States, both on land and sea, to recognize the flag of the International African Association as the flag of a friendly Government.
Like most such official documents, this one rapidly disappeared into bureaucrats' filing cabinets. But it was later transformed, in a curious way that no one seems to have noticed. When this very statement was reprinted the following year in Stanley's best-sellingThe Congo and the Founding of Its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration, which was translated into many languages and read all over the world, the wording was different. The key change was that it referred only to Leopold's wholly-owned International Association of the Congo. The editor who made the change was most likely the king himself, who carefully corrected Stanley's manuscript, chapter by chapter. Long before Stalin, who also edited writers' manuscripts with his own hand, Leopold knew the uses of rewriting history.
"The recognition of the United States was the birth unto new life of the Association," wrote Stanley, and he was right. Meanwhile, as Sanford was preparing to return in triumph to Belgium, Leopold closed a similar deal in France. As in Washington, the king had his own man in Paris, a well-connected art dealer named Arthur Stevens. He negotiated directly with Premier Jules Ferry while Leopold paid a large monthly stipend to a journalist from the influential Le Temps to ensure a stream of sympathetic articles about his activities in the Congo.
The French did not feel threatened by tiny Belgium or by the vast size of Leopold's claims. Their main fear was that when the king ran out of money—as they were sure he would—in his expensive plan to build a railway around the rapids, he might sell the whole territory to their main colonial rival, England. After all, hadn't Stanley repeatedly pressed for a British Congo?
Leopold calculated that Stanley's impulsive Anglophile fusillades might now actually be helping him. "It is my judgment," the king had confided to Colonel Strauch some months earlier, after one such salvo from Stanley, "that we should not try to make a correction. It does no harm for Paris to fear that a British protectorate could be established in the Congo." To allay the French anxiety, Leopold offered a remedy. If France would respect his claim, he would give the country droit de préférence over the Congo—what real estate lawyers today call a right of first refusal. The French, relieved, quickly agreed. Confident that Leopold's planned railway would bankrupt him and that he would then have to sell them the land, they thought they were getting an excellent deal.
The Americans had been so charmed by Sanford's bonhomie that they had not bothered to specify the exact borders of the distant territory they were implicitly recognizing as Leopold's. France, on the other hand, was willing to draw these boundaries on a map, where they included most of the Congo River basin.
Leopold had used the words "independent States" in writing to President Arthur. But in his pronouncements over the next few months this became "State." As for the association, that "was a purely temporary body and would disappear when its work was completed," said a Belgian journalist in 1884, explaining the king's thinking. By such sleight of hand, the entity that came to be recognized by a lengthening list of countries over the following year gradually changed from a federation of states under the benevolent protection of a charitable society to one colony ruled by one man.
Leopold found that the hardest nut to crack was Chancellor Bismarck of Germany. At first, the king's greed got him in trouble. Besides the Congo basin, he wrote to Bismarck, he was claiming vaguely defined areas "abandoned by Egypt, where the slave-trade continues to flourish. To allow these [provinces] to be incorporated into and administered by a new State would be the best way to get at the root of the trouble and eradicate it." Bismarck, no fool, scribbled a comment in the margin beside this passage: "Swindle." Beside a passage about a confederation of free states, he put "Fantasies." When Leopold wrote that the precise frontiers of the new state or states would be defined later, Bismarck said to an aide, "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naïve selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything."
In the end, though, Leopold outsmarted even the Iron Chancellor, once again by working through the perfect intermediary. Gerson Bleichröder, Bismarck's banker, the financier of the St. Gotthard Tunnel under the Alps and many other projects, was a man of much behind-the-scenes influence in Berlin. The king had met him some years earlier at the fashionable Belgian beach resort of Ostend and had identified him as someone he could make use of. Bleichröder quietly bought good will for Leopold by conveying a 40,000-franc royal contribution to Berlin's Africa Society. He reported to Brussels on the latest doings at court in the city, and eventually he brought his friend the chancellor around to accepting Leopold's claim to the Congo. In return, Bleichröder received some banking business from advisers to Leopold and the chance to invest in the Congo himself. A woman pianist, thought to be a romantic interest of his, was invited to give a recital at the Belgian court, where she was presented with a medal by Leopold.
The king's negotiations with Bismarck reached a climax soon after Stanley returned to Europe in the summer of 1884. For five days the explorer was the guest of Leopold, now on holiday at Ostend's Royal Chalet, a sprawling seaside villa studded with turrets and towers. The king brought in a special cook to make Stanley a traditional English breakfast each morning, and the two men talked far into the night. Just as Stanley was about to leave came a message from Bismarck with questions about the boundaries of the new Congo state, so Stanley remained for a few hours to draw them in on a large map on the wall of the king's study. Bismarck let himself be convinced that it was better for the Congo to go to the king of weak little Belgium, and be open to German traders, than go to protection-minded France or Portugal or to powerful England. In return for guarantees of freedom of trade in the Congo (like everyone else, Bismarck did not know the full text of Leopold's treaties with the chiefs), he agreed to recognize the new state.
In Europe, the thirst for African land had become nearly palpable. There were some conflicting claims to be resolved, and clearly some ground rules were needed for further division of the African cake. Bismarck offered to host a diplomatic conference in Berlin to discuss some of these issues. To Leopold, the conference was one more opportunity to tighten his grip on the Congo.
On November 15, 1884, representatives of the powers of Europe assembled at a large, horseshoe-shaped table overlooking the garden of Bismarck's yellow-brick official residence on the Wilhelmstrasse. The ministers and plenipotentiaries in formal attire who took their seats beneath the room's vaulted ceiling and sparkling chandelier included counts, barons, colonels, and a vizier from the Ottoman Empire. Bismarck, wearing scarlet court dress, welcomed them in French, the diplomatic lingua franca, and seated before a large map of Africa, the delegates got to work.
More than anyone, Stanley had ignited the great African land rush, but even he felt uneasy about the greed in the air. It reminded him, he said, of how "my black followers used to rush with gleaming knives for slaughtered game during our travels." The Berlin Conference was the ultimate expression of an age whose newfound enthusiasm for democracy had clear limits, and slaughtered game had no vote. Even John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of human freedom, had written, in On Liberty, "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement." Not a single African was at the table in Berlin.
With his embryonic state already recognized by the United States and Germany, and with his friendly right-of-first-refusal deal made with France, Leopold was in a strong position. His International Association of the Congo was not a government—in fact, conference delegates seemed confused as to just what it was—so it was not officially represented at Berlin. But Leopold had no problem staying abreast of what went on at the conference. To begin with, keeping a close ear to the ground in the German capital was his friend Bleichröder, who was host to the delegates at an elegant dinner. Further, the king had ties with no fewer than three of the national delegations.
First, the Belgian representatives were his trusted underlings; one of them was appointed secretary of the meeting. Second, Leopold was unusually well informed about confidential matters in the British Foreign Office, because the foreign secretary's personal assistant owed a large sum of money to a businessman friend of the king's who had been one of his original co-investors in sending Stanley to the Congo. In addition, a legal adviser to the British delegation was Sir Travers Twiss, who had recently consulted for Leopold about his treaties with the Congo chiefs. Finally, who was appointed as one of two American delegates to the conference? None other than Henry Shelton Sanford, who sent Leopold informative dispatches almost daily. And who was "technical adviser" to the American delegation, even as he remained on Leopold's payroll? Henry Morton Stanley. Between sessions of the conference, Leopold sent Sanford to Paris and Stanley to London on diplomatic lobbying missions.
Although his role at Berlin was mainly as a figurehead for Leopold's Congo ambitions, Stanley was lionized by everyone and had a splendid time. "This evening I had the honour of dining with Prince Bismarck and his family," he wrote in his journal. "The prince is a great man, a kind father, and excellently simple with his family.... The Prince asked many questions about Africa and proved to me that in a large way he understood the condition of that continent very well." Bismarck, acquiring the beginnings of a substantial African empire for Germany, was glad to have the famous explorer stimulate German interest in the continent. He arranged for Stanley a round of banquets and lectures in Cologne, Frankfurt, and Wiesbaden.
In snowy Berlin, almost none of the conference participants except Stanley had seen more of Africa than the drawings of its scenery on the menus for Bismarck's banquets. So when anyone seemed unclear about why Leopold's claim was so grand, Stanley could speak with the authority of someone who had just spent five years in the Congo for the king. Early on, reported one diplomat, Stanley went to the big map of Africa "and immediately engrossed the interest of every delegate, by a vivid description of the features of the Congo basin; and finally of the [adjacent] country necessary to go with it under the same régime to secure the utmost freedom of communication."
Telegrams zipped back and forth between Berlin and Brussels, where Leopold was following every move. Contrary to myth, the Berlin Conference did not partition Africa; the spoils were too large, and it would take many more treaties to divide them all. But by resolving some conflicting claims, the conference (and a separate pact the king negotiated with France) did help Leopold in one important way: the king, France, and Portugal each got land near the Congo River's mouth, but Leopold got what he most wanted, the seaport of Matadi on the lower stretch of the river and the land he needed to build a railway from there around the rapids to Stanley Pool.
More important to Leopold was the web of bilateral agreements he made with other countries during and after the conference, recognizing his colony-in-the-making and marking out its boundaries. When talking to the British, for instance, he hinted that if he didn't get all the land he had in mind, he would leave Africa completely, which would mean, under his right-of-first-refusal deal, that he would sell the Congo to France. The bluff worked, and England gave in.
Europeans were still used to thinking of Africa's wealth mainly in terms of its coastline, and there was remarkably little conflict over ceding to Leopold the vast spaces he wanted in the interior. A major reason he was able to get his hands on so much is that other countries thought that they were giving their approval to a sort of international colony—under the auspices of the King of the Belgians, to be sure, but open to traders from all of Europe. In addition to perfunctory nods in favor of freedom of navigation, arbitration of differences, Christian missionaries, and the like, the major agreement that came out of Berlin was that a huge swath of central Africa, including Leopold's territory in the Congo basin, would be a free-trade zone.
The conference ended in February 1885, with signatures on an agreement and a final round of speechmaking. No one benefited more than the man who had not been there, King Leopold II. At the mention of his name during the signing ceremony, the audience rose and applauded. In his closing speech to the delegates, Chancellor Bismarck said, "The new Congo state is destined to be one of the most important executors of the work we intend to do, and I express my best wishes for its speedy development, and for the realization of the noble aspirations of its illustrious creator." Two months later, like a delayed exclamation mark at the from florida to berlin end of Bismarck's speech, a United States Navy vessel, the Lancaster, appeared at the mouth of the Congo River and fired a twenty-one-gun salute in honor of the blue flag with the gold star.
Most Belgians had paid little attention to their king's flurry of African diplomacy, but once it was over they began to realize, with surprise, that his new colony was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined. It was one thirteenth of the African continent, more than seventy-six times the size of Belgium itself.
To make clear the distinction between his two roles, the King of the Belgians at first considered calling himself "Emperor of the Congo"; he also toyed with the idea of outfitting loyal chiefs with uniforms modeled on those of the famous red-clad Beefeaters at the Tower of London. Then he decided to be merely the Congo's "King-Sovereign." In later years, Leopold several times referred to himself—more accurately, for his main interest in the territory was in extracting every possible penny of wealth—as the Congo's "proprietor." His power as king-sovereign of the colony was shared in no way with the Belgian government, whose Cabinet ministers were as surprised as anyone when they opened their newspapers to find that the Congo had promulgated a new law or signed a new international treaty.
Even though the entity officially recognized by the Berlin Conference and various governments had been the International African Association or the International Association of the Congo (or, in the case of the befuddled U.S. State Department, both), Leopold decided on yet another change of name. The pretense that there was a philanthropic "Association" involved in the Congo was allowed to evaporate. All that remained unchanged was the blue flag with the gold star. By royal decree, on May 29, 1885, the king named his new, privately controlled country the État Indépendant du Congo, the Congo Free State. Soon there was a national anthem, "Towards the Future." At last, at age fifty, Leopold had the colony he had long dreamed of.