America’s Early Role in the Congo Tragedy

America’s Early Role in the Congo Tragedy

America’s Early Role in the Congo Tragedy

How US financiers helped Belgium’s King Leopold rape the homeland of some 20 million Africans.



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.)

American financiers also organized the Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo, known as Forminiére, which obtained a ninety-nine-year monopoly on all mines discovered within six years in a district covering half the Congo Free State. King Leopold and his Belgian bankers and collaborators cut themselves in for big slices in every concession and option.

Hearst’s New York American of December 10-14, 1906, printed the whole story, along with exposés of Belgian bribes to Representatives and Senators, of Belgian academic front-men sent on lecture junkets to hoodwink American professors, of the use of the Roman Catholic hierarchy–including Cardinal Gibbons, who later recanted–to dignify the racket. August Belmont had represented Leopold for a while but apparently missed out on the big thing. According to the American, the principal members of the United States group were Ryan, James D. Stillman, Edward B. Aldrich (son of Nelson W. Aldrich, Republican leader in the Senate, and brother of Winthrop W. Aldrich, Mr. Eisenhower’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s), the Guggenheim brothers, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller denied membership. Another source adds John Hays Hammond and Harry Payne Whitney to the participants. “Ryan and his associates, by the mere purchase of stock,” said the American, “thus became part rulers over an empire larger than all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and half of Pennsylvania.”

Morel’s agitation for Congo reform, which had behind it most of the British press, the Anglican and Non-Conformis churches, the majority of intellectuals and labor, was also supported by Belgian liberals and labor. In addition, by 1914 the growth of plantation rubber, the collapse of world prices, and King Leopold’s wasteful methods of collection had finished the Congo wild-rubber industry. By this time, however, Katanga copper had begun to yield its fabulous riches, and tin, diamonds, gold, silver, tungsten, manganese, uranium, palm oil, timber, and coffee were on the way. Since then the tyranny of King Leopold has given way to a “benevolent despotism” under which Congo labor enjoys many benefits–but neither political freedom nor a chance for higher education.

The proletariat of the Congo compounds is still the Achilles heel of the “free world.” For every white man in the Belgian Congo there are 208 blacks, each a human being, with wants, feelings, and ambitions. So far the Bantu drive for opportunity has been kept in check by rigid police methods combined with a number of economic concessions. But American soldiers stationed in the Congo during the war taught the natives that there was a third class of human beings besides masters and helots–democrats, just as British tommies who shared cigarettes with Kikuyns helped to crack tradition in Kenya.

Nationalist rumblings from the Gold Coast, Tunisia, Morocco, and Natal have been heard in the Congo. Mau Mau crosses borders. Asian revolution is not an Asian secret. Many African students attend European universities, and some of them return home. The golden age of colonial exploitation is beginning to fade in the Congo–as elsewhere in Africa.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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