The situation in the Belgian Congo is the direct outgrowth of the region’s history. In 1876, Leopold II of Belgium organized and assumed the presidency of the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Central Africa. When Stanley, the great African explorer, was unable to interest British capital or officialdom in the lower Congo, he turned to Leopold, who sent him back to Africa to stake claims for the association. A few years later the United States recognized the association as an “independent state.” Bismarck’s Berlin conference of 1885, summoned to straighten out European conflicts in Africa, admitted Leopold’s claims but called for free trade, the “moral well-being” of the natives, and suppression of the slave trade. King Leopold’s “exclusive mission” it declared, was “to introduce civilization and trade into the center of Africa.” Thus the black sheep of the Coburg family became trustee for one million square miles of African territory and guardian of some twenty million Africans.
By 1892 Leopold’s drive for rubber and ivory had established an imperialism that was to become and remain the worst–because it was the biggest and richest–in Africa. Soon protests began to boil up from missionaries, muscled-out merchant-adventurers, reformers. Stanley was nauseated, Sir Charles Dilke, an enlightened imperialist, tried to stir up British opinion; the New York Nation spoke.
In February, 1904, the British Foreign Office released the report of its consul at Boma, Roger Casement, corroborating and augmenting tales that most middle- and upper-class Europeans had refused to believe. Casement described the forced labor by which European fortunes were being made, to be invested in enterprises depending on more forced labor in China, South America and elsewhere. The grandfathers of the Africans who today swing picks, operate Bucyrus-Erie buckets, handle air hammers, and drive trucks in the Congo mines had to gather their quotas of rubber from the wild vines or have their hands chopped off, their genitals severed, their villages burned down, their children murdered. The grandmothers of the women who today pick the cotton, work on Lever Brothers’ oil-palm plantations, and bring their children to the church schools to be taught what is considered good for them were tortured, murdered, raped, and driven into brothels for King Leopold’s native soldiers or his white agents. Villages were wiped out, the land was expropriated, the communal society was destroyed. Roger Casement, who knew Africa from twenty years earlier, estimated a decline in population of three million by 1904. During the next eight years there was an estimated loss of at least another three million.
A vigorous movement for Congo reform now grew up in England. It was headed by E. D. Morel, an energetic, courageous humanitarian who fought Leopold’s immense political machine for eight years. When it seemed, in 1906, as if Morel might be able to enlist American cooperation, one of Leopold’s American advertising agents, an ex-patent-medicine lawyer named Henry Wellington Wack, suggested that for safety’s sake it might be well to cut in some big American money. J. P. Morgan met Leopold at Dover. Thomas Fortune Ryan and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., saw him at Brussels. In November, 1906, Ryan’s and Daniel Guggenheim’s American Congo Company obtained a ninety-nine-year option to collect rubber “and other vegetable products” over 4,000 square miles, plus a ten-year option to buy 2,000 square miles of territory. (In 1921 the company traded the forest monopoly rights for full title to 386 square miles and ninety-one years’ exclusive rights to mines discovered in additional territory–where it found diamonds.)