By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Leopold II had taken control of the Congo without popular or church support, relying on foreign and Belgian military and administrative agents, and the 1908 reprise was sparked by international criticism of the EIC administration, not popular imperial clamor in Belgium. (Ruth M. Slade, King Leopold's Congo: Aspects of the Development of Race Relations in the Congo Independent State Oxford Univ. Press, 1962, 46; L.H. Gann and Peter Duignan, The Rulers of Belgian Africa, 1884-1914 Princeton Univ. Press, 1979, 100).
Though he never visited his private colony, King Leopold held absolute political, judicial and legislative power in the Congo, which he then devolved to a governor-general and a vice-governor. All 'unoccupied' land was claimed as property of his Association, both unexplored lands and fields lying fallow. Even settled farm lands were subject to his orders. Leopold also claimed a large private estate in the region of Lake Leopold II (north-east of Kinshasa). Meanwhile, Leopold also set about confusing the question of legitimacy. In place of the old International African Association, which was now moribund, Leopold constructed a new International Association of the Congo. Holding power always in his own hands, but often in the name of this distinct corporation, with its own flag, Leopold was also able to mask his private empire with some of the veneer of his former 'humanitarian' promises. In order to fund the project of colonisation, the Association took control of the rubber and ivory trades. Much of the land was given to concessionary businesses, which in return were expected to build railroads or simply to occupy a specific, disputed region. Concessions were granted the power to tax Congolese villages at rates of between 6 and 24 francs annually per head, an almost meaningless figure in a country where there were no large stocks of cash in circulation. Africans then had to work to produce crops in kind. Companies were also set up to exploit the mineral resources, as well as human labour. The Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga, established in 1905, was soon joined by the Compagnie de Fer du Congo, the Compagnie du Katanga, the Compagnie des Magasins Generaux, the Compagnie des Produits du Congo, the Syndic at Commercial du Katanga, and so on. Many of these were owned directly by Leopold, or indirectly, through his appointed proxies.
European officers and administrators were recruited to manage the logistics of running a large country as an empire. By 1906 there were 1,500 civil servants, and established transport routes between the coast and the interior. Missionaries were sent, with the explicit blessing of a Vatican keen to counteract earlier Protestant missions. Local troops were organized into a nascent army, the Force Publique. Although this detachment claimed 19,000 troops in 1888, such high numbers could only be maintained through the conscription of unwilling local people. In 1892 one judge wrote to the governor-general asking why it was that three-quarters of his soldiers died between conscription and arrival in the cities?
Similar patterns of forced labour were employed to recruit porters, carriers and other workers. In 1896, the surviving members of the Force Publique were sent out to capture 10,000 unskilled laborers, who were then set to work on the building of the Congo 's first railway. We do not know how many survived. Yet we do know that by the time it was finished the track was little more than a short tramline. One critic pointed out that just a few miles of rail had cost 40 million francs; but no on~ counted the human cost. The waste of people and resources was typical of Leopold's rule. Bill Berkeley observes that for all the kleptocratic dictators of the Congo, there has been one model, Leopold. (B. Berkeley, The Graves Are Not Yet Fuff: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa, 2001, p. Il5).
According to historian Neal Ascherson: Like one of those last dinosaurs at the end of the saurian age whose very size or length of fang or desperate elaboration of armour sought to postpone the general decline of their race, Leopold developed in his own person into a most formidable type of King, designed for the environments of the late nineteenth century, which used the new forms of economic growth to strengthen and extend royal authority. Other monarchs watched the growth of modern trust capitalism with mixed feelings of suspicion, incomprehension and contempt. Leopold understood that the private fortunes of a King remained as much a measure of his power to act freely as they had been in the Middle Ages. (N. Ascherson, The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo, 1999, p11).
What changed everything was William Dunlop's 1890 discovery that cheap inflatable bicycle tires could be manufactured from rubber. Other uses of rubber were soon patented, in tubing, insulation and wiring. Eventually, the greatest use for rubber would be found in car tires. The sources of Leopold's wealth were more modest, a Dunlop-inspired cycling boom. Forests of cultivated rubber were eventually to be planted in Southeast Asia, but in the years before these came to maturity, the greatest source of rubber was equatorial Africa, where rubber grew wild. Leopold announced that his representatives in the Congo would now enjoy a monopoly of the trade in rubber and ivory. (J. Stenghers and J. Vansina, 'King Leopold's Congo', in J.D. Page and R. Oliver (eds), The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 6: From 1870 to 1905, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 313-58).
While he quadrupled the export duty on ivory, he announced that his representatives would now enjoy a monopoly of the trade in rubber and ivory. (J. Stenghers and J. Vansina, 'King Leopold's Congo', in J.D. Page and R. Oliver (eds), The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 6: From ISlo to 1905 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 313-58).
An 1891 decree compelled the Congolese to supply to Leopold's representatives. No trade was required. 'Labour' was accumulated along perceived family and triballines. (W.J. Samarin, The Black Man's Burden: African Colonial Labour on the Congo and Ubangi Rivers 1880-1900, 1989, p. 231).
Villages were presented with terrible demands, which could only be paid if the men of the village gave themselves over to forced labour. Where villages refused, Leopold's army, the Force Publique, was employed. Homes were burned and the hands of the victims were taken for payment, as evidence of successful kills. Thus in the context of the Congo, one could say that rubber production created a slave society, dependent on the mass levy of village labour, under the auspices of an authoritarian colonial administration; later, copper would be the source of independently run state growth, depending as it did on a network of mines, transport, machinery and a thriving state apparatus. Eventually, as we shall see, the production of diamonds for export would be able to continue profitably whether under regular government or in conditions of extreme deprivation, in malign anarchy, through the collapse of the state and civil war. Conan Doyle (the author of ‘Sherlock Holmes’) provided a vivid account of the conditions under which the rubber was taken. White agents were paid 150 to 300 francs per month, a lower salary than many European workers. But the greater the rubber harvest in their area, the more money they received by way of bonuses, and the greater was their own chance of securing enough money to buy their own passage home. The agents employed black foremen, 'Capitas', to live among villagers, imposing discipline on them. These newly appointed 'local officials' were often former member’s of the Force Publique. They had been trained to commit acts of the most extreme brutality. Not surprisingly, the Capitas were extremely unpopular: In one period, various rebellions killed some 142 of them in just seven months. But resistance was often fatal. Learning of the death of one of their representatives, white agents would only come with arms and destroy the village. Black people managed the tyranny, but they did so under white orders. 'Often too the white man pushed the black aside, and acted himself as torturer and executioner.' so Other critics dubbed this system 'red rubber', as if the trees grew on the blood of Leopold's dead. This economic system contained something of the feudal system. There was a military power. The structure of authority was like a pyramid, with King Leopold at the top, appointing subordinates downwards. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued that Leopold was motivated rather by a search for consumers, to purchase excess Belgian goods. With bitter irony, Hobsbawm records that Leopold's 'favourite methods of exploitation by forced labour was not designed to encourage high per capita purchases, even when it did not actually diminish the number of customers by torture and massacre'. (E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1375-1914, London, 1987),1', 66).
It is possible that such explanations are in fact too complex. Hobsbawm's model fits the system that Livingstone desired to create, not the one that Leopold actually made. According to Bertrand Russell, Each village was ordered by the authorities to collect and bring in a certain amount of rubber, as much as the men could collect and bring in by neglecting all work for their own maintenance. If they failed to bring the required amount, their women were taken away and kept as hostages in compounds or in the harems of government employees. If this method failed, native troops ... were sent into the village to spread terror, if necessary by killing some of the men; but in order to prevent a waste of cartridges, they were ordered to bring one right hand for every cartridge used. If they missed, or used cartridges on big game, they cut off the hands of living people to make up the necessary number. ('Murder for Money: Congo, First Genocide of the Twentieth Century', in B. Russell, Freedom and Organization 1b4-1914, London, 1934).
For the historian Peter Forbath, The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber .... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace ... the people who were demanded for the forcedlabout gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected. (Forbath, The River Congo, 1977 p. 105).
In 1906, the Belgian anti-slavery activist Alphonse Jacques warned of the 'complete extinction' of the Congolese people. Such language may seem extreme, yet there is no doubt that the advent of Leopold's colonialism was a disaster for the local population. Famine combined with disease and the introduction of forced labour. The demographic evidence shows an extraordinary rate of killing. Citing Belgian sources, Adam Hochschild writes that the population of the region fell from over 20 million people in I89I to 8.5 million in 1911, only to recover somewhat over the next decade to IO million in I924. (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost,1999, p. 233).
Yet Leopold's capture of the Congo had been based on the most fair-sounding of promises. In I889-90, for example, Brussels hosted eight months of humanitarian meetings, culminating in an Anti Slavery Conference of the major powers. Under Belgian direction, Leopold indicated, the Congolese were proceeding quickly in the direction of prosperity, public education and eventual self-government. By loudly trumpeting the glorious future facing the black Africans, by holding out the distant possibility of tutelage leading to self-government, by declaring his new country a ' Free State ', Leopold successfully presented himself as the inheritor of the liberal ideal.In the absence of sustained Congolese voices, we have to make do with Western sources. The first significant protest to find its way into the newspapers came in 1890, when George Washington Williams, significantly a black American lawyer, historian and missionary, dedicated an Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II. The contents were less flattering than the title. Williams had actually travelled to the region, initially believing that the Congo was an area of human advance. On his expected return to America, he hoped to establish a movement of black people to travel back to Africa. What Williams actually found in the Congo dismayed him. He learned from the people he met thit Stanley had cheated his way into acquiring these territories, with gin, threats and fake magic tricks. Prisoners were jailed. White traders had kidnapped black women for concubines. Good government and public services were non-existent. Far from bringing an end to slavery, Leopold's agents had made the system endemic. (J. Hope Franklin, George Washington Williams: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1985).
Williams' Open Letter was printed widely discussed by the press in Europe and America. Only its author's death, in England in 1891 of tuberculosis, prevented the furore from engulfing the entire colony. Another early critic, the Swedish missionary Edward Wilhelm Sjoblom arrived in the Congo on 3I July 1892. Within days, he had witnessed a terrible beating, on the steamer in which he travelled. The instrument employed was the chicotte, a whip of trimmed hippo hide with edges like knife blades. The captain of the steamer was under orders to catch 300 boys, who might serve in the Force Publique. One boy was indeed found, and then bound to the steam engine, I he hottest part of the boat. Sjoblom took up the story of what happened to the child.The captain showed the boy the chicotte, but made him wait all day before letting him taste it. However, the moment of suffering came. I tried to count the lashes and think they were about sixty, apart from the kicks to the head and back. The captain smiled with satisfaction when he saw the boy's thin garb soaked with blood. I had to witness all this in silence. At dinner, they talked of their exploits concerning the treatment of the blacks. They mentioned one of their equals who had flogged three of his men so mercilessly that he had died as a result. This was reckoned to be valour. One of them said, 'The best of them is too good to die like a pig.' (Quoted in S. Lindquist, 'Exterminate All· the Brutes', London, 1997), p. 20).
Thus, although it is possible that some young Congolese welcomed the arrival of Stanley, hoping that the people of the region too would benefit, no process by which wealth or skills were allowed to 'trickle down'. The exploitation of the local population intensified; the misery increased. The population declined sharply, as a result of disease, massacre and the toll of forced labour. Some of the winners were more obvious: Leopold's family, the share owners and the banks. Exports from the Congo Free State rose from 11.5 million francs in 1895 to 47.5 million in 1900. Exports of rubber rose from 580 tons to 3,740 in the same years. Between 1896 and 1905, just one concession the Domaine de fa Couronne, earned Leopold 70 million Belgian francs in profit. (J. Polasky, The Democratic Socialism of Emile Vandervelde: Between Reform and Revolution, Oxford, 1995, p. 59).
Beyond the Belgian King, there stood a network of acolytes, allies and place-keepers, all of whom received shares in the great enterprise. Vast profits were made. Company Abir, one concession in the Belgian Congo, possessed capital of just one million Belgian francs, yet in l897 it returned an annual profit of l,247,455 francs: more than a l00 per cent turnover on the initial stake. (E.D. Morel, The British Case in French Congo: The Story of a Great Injustice, Its Causes and its Lessons, 1903, p. 56).
Leopold also used the vast profits he made to build palaces at Laeken, the Arch of the Cinquantenaire, and a colonial museum at Tervuren. He even succeeded in cooking the books, to make the rich empire look like a money-loser. Eventually, in l908, the Belgian government agreed to pay Leopold the sum of IrO million francs to release him from his 'debt'. Even this vast sum does not convey the extraordinary profits that Leopold was able to make, as a result of his conquest. In November 1909, a month before his death, Leopold bought fifty-eight large Pioperties worth at least l2 million francs. Another front company, the Fondation de Niederfiillbach possessed assets worth 45 million francs, including jewels. Yet Leopold's estate was worth just l5 million francs. (Martin Ewans, European Atrocity, African Catastrophe, Leopold II, the Congo Free State and Its Aftermath, p.231).
A demand for reform of the Belgian Congo was raised in America, where politicians threatened to investigate King Leopold. Other critics included the novelist Mark Twain and the black activists Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. British opponents of the private empire included E.D. Morel, Roger Casement, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad. The Belgian deputy Emile Vandervelde toured the region and defended the critics of the empire in the Congo 's courts. (Polasky, The Democratic Socialism of Emile Vandervelde).
The most surprising of these dissidents was perhaps Morel. A successful trader of French extraction, Morel's full name was Georges Edmond Pierre Achille Morel-de-Ville. He was employed from l89l at Elder Dempster, the Liverpool shipping company that controlled the trade between Britain and the Congo. An occasional visitor to Belgium, Morel also worked as a freelance journalist. He started to write about Africa from l893. One early article, published in the English Pall Mall Gazette on l6 July l897, defended King Leopold's Free State. Contrary to the accounts that were then coming out in other British papers, Morel insisted that there was no slavery in Leopold's colony. Black workers were paid the equivalent of 30’s per month, more than many unskilled workers in Britain. Some 4,000 tonnes of goods were sent out from the Congo each year. The colony was evidently not bankrupt. If there were problems with the Congo, this was because the people were still degenerate, ignorant and backward. The Belgian experiment deserved 'fair play'. (E.D. Morel, History of the Congo Reform Movetnent, Oxford,1968).
So far, there was nothing untypical about Morel. But one day in 1897 or 1898, a strange thought occurred to him. Morel took to studying the goods loaded and unloaded from the Congo ships. He saw vast quantities of rubber and ivory being unloaded in Antwerp, but nothing of any substance was sent out, beyond officers and firearms. What did that mean? The realisation then dawned on him that there could only be one answer. For all the wealth produced in Africa, the people of the country must receive nothing in return. Their wealth was simply being stolen from them.On 24 March 1900, Morel penned his first critical article, ' Belgium and the Congo State ', in The Speaker. He described the Free State as a system of private theft. Morel left his post with Elder Dempster, devoting his energies full-time to the anti-Belgian cause. He established a paper, the West African Mail, which filled its columns with exposes of Leopold's 'system'. (J. Marchal, E.D. Morel Contre Leopold: L'Histoire du Congo 1900-1910, vol.I, Paris, 1996, pp. 12-14, 16, 20).
Morel made contact with Roger Casement, the British consul to the region. They met for the first time on 10 December 1903, with Casement recording in his diary: 'Grattan Guinness called on me in afternoon and then Ed. Morel. First time I met him. The man is honest as day. Dined at Comedy together late and then to chat till 2 am. Morel sleeping in study.' It was an eventful meeting. Casement persuaded Morel to launch a new public campaign, The Congo Reform Association. Through the next ten years, Morel's Association campaigned for reform. Hundreds of meetings were held each year. The campaign grew in size. It also suffered many setbacks. One of Morel's best sources was a Nigerian trader, Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, an independent-minded person, with strong business links across the region. Shanu's letters of criticism had to be shipped out from the Congo in great secrecy. They were then published in the British press, but always under a pseudonym. In 1904, Leopold's agents revealed that Shanu was the source. Facing ruin, Shanu killed himself. From 1903 onwards, Morel did not campaign just for the reform of the Belgian Congo, but also for the transformation of the French Congo. He argued that the French rulers of the neighbouring territory had witnessed the success of Leopold's empire, and were now determined to copy it themselves. The intensive competition between French and British traders had been to the detriment of British interests: 'The factories of British merchants are broken into; native traders in British employ are flogged; produce paid for by British merchants is openly appropriated.78 This last observation highlights an important contradiction within the reform movement. Morel and his closest friends closest to the reality of European colonialism were radicalised by the campaign. They also learned of widespread abuses in British Africa, and realised that more was wrong than simply the Belgian ownership of the Congo Free State and the actions of French traders. From being simply a middle-of-the-road businessman, Morel became a critic of all imperial adventures. Yet, even while Morel and Casement were pushed leftwards, their campaign still received considerable support from Liverpool businessmen and Conservative bishops. In May 1903, the House of Lords unanimously passed a motion accusing the Belgian rulers of the Congo of ill-treating the black population. The message was directed towards the rulers of imperial Britain. Morel described his cause as 'the British Case'. Only after 1908 did Morel's full radicalism become evident. Following the success of this campaign, his next cause would be the struggle to expose the secret treaties, and the pernicious role they played in the outbreak of the Great War. After 1914, Morel blamed European colonial adventurism for the outbreak of war. (G. Gudenkauf, Belgian Congo: Postal History of the Lado Enclave 1397-1910, 1986, p. 52).
By then, however, Morel was taking positions far to the left of the ones that he had held before 1908.Morel's ally Roger Casement was an Anglo-Irish diplomat. Arriving in Africa in 1885 he briefly worked for Elder Dempster, which also employed Morel. Casement then served as a civil servant on Leopold's project. This experience of the Congo in the 1880s served Casement well. It meant that he possessed vivid memories of the situation before Leopold's empire had been fully established; against which he could then contrast the system at its height. In 1891 Casement was appointed to a post at the Colonial Office, working for the Niger Coast Protectorate. Then in autumn 1900 Casement was sent back to the Congo as British Consul. It was a position of some considerable authority. Sent by the government to answer the colony's critics, Casement found everywhere the signs of a people dying. Fields were deserted.
The surviving people complained bitterly
of floggings and of the rubber tax. Casement was convinced that Leopold's whole
project was unjust. His 'Congo Report' was submitted to the Marquess of
Lansdowne on II December 1903, the day after his first meeting with Morel. 'The
trade in ivory', Casement wrote, 'has entirely passed from the hands of the
natives of the Upper Congo, and neither fish nor any other outcome of local
industry now changes hands on an extensive scale or at any distance from home'.
One Belgian expedition of 1900 had resulted in seventeen deaths and loss of
much livestock. Compensation was paid to chiefs at a rate of 1,000 brass rods
per head (50 francs), 'not probably an extravagant estimate for human life,
seeing that the goats were valued at 400 rods each (20 francs).' The population
of Lukolela, he observed, had fallen from 6,000 in
January 1891 to 719 in December 1896. Another Town, '0', had comprised 4,000
people in 1887. Scores of men had put off in canoes to greet us with
invitations that we should spend the night in their village. On steaming into 0
[in 1903] ... I found that this village had entirely disappeared, and that its
place was occupied by a large 'camp d'instruction',
where some 800 native recruits, brought from various parts of the Congo State,
are drilled into soldier-hood by a Commandant and a staff of seven or eight
The population of Lake Mantumba had fallen by 60 per cent as a result of forced labour.
During the period 1893-1902, the Congo State commenced the system of compelling the native to collect rubber and insisted that the inhabitants of the district should not go out of it to sell their produce to traders .... This great decrease in population has been, to a very great extent, caused by the extreme measures resorted to by officers of the State, and the freedom enjoyed by the soldiers to do just as they pleased.
On his return to England, Casement devoted his energies to the Reform Association. It was launched following a meeting in the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on 24 March 1904. Earl Beauchamp was elected president, Edmund Morel the honourary secretary. Other early supporters included the Bishops of Durham, Liverpool, Rochester and St Asaph. In June 1905 Casement became a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. The award was made in recognition of his services to the reform of the Congo. It raises an awkward point. Casement was well aware that a part of the campaign's support relied on the reformers' refusal to criticise similar adventures conducted by the British throughout Africa. Indeed, while some supporters of the campaign argued that the best solution would be the full freedom of the Congolese people, others could join it believing that the only alternative to Belgian control was British rule. Casement and Morel were radicalised by their experiences into the adoption of a more fundamental critique of imperialism. Yet they made few efforts initially to distance themselves from mainstream support. (Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias: The Black Diaries: An account of Roger Casement's life and times with a collection of his diaries and public writings, Paris, 1959, p.200).
After 1918, Morel considered himself a socialist, yet even now his politics were complex and were shaped by a latent racism, which came to the fore at the time of the French occupation of the Rhineland. Morel's response, The Black Horror on the Rhine, accused the French of employing 50,000 African troops, 'savages', to rape German women. The pamphlet went through many editions. Its success with European readers has been compared to another contemporary falsehood, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. See R. Reinders, 'E.D. Morel and the "Black Horror on the Rhine", International Review of Social History 13 ,1968, pp. 4-28).
The novelist Arthur Conan Doyle joined the campaign relatively late, publishing his book The Crime of the Congo in 1909. It was dedicated to E.D. Morel, 'The unselfish champion of the Congo races'. Of Belgium, Conan Doyle wrote: 'Her colony is a scandal before the whole world. The era of murders and mutilations has, as we hope, passed by, but the country is sunk into a state of cowed and hopeless slavery. It is not a new story, but merely another stage of the same.' Was it fair to put so much emphasis on Belgian rule? What about British territories? Conan Doyle, a self-declared patriot, rejected the comparison: 'Where land has so been claimed, it has been worked by free labour for the benefit of the African community itself, and not for the purpose of sending the proceeds and profits to Europe. (Conan Doyle, The Crime of the Congo, see above).
Then in July 1901, Emile Vandervelde, a parliamentarian and a leading member of the Socialist International, encouraged a Belgian takeover of the Congo from Leopold and a fundamental reform of the regime there, arguing that 'European civilisation is destined to conquer the world'. On 1 July 1903 Vandervelde attacked existing systems of colonialism as the source of slavery abroad and militarism at home. As long as the empire remained 'in the forms that it takes under the capitalist regime', then such exploitation would continue. Working closely with Morel, Vandervelde told the Belgian parliament on 7 Decemeber 1906: 'We cannot be responsible before world opinion without having acted ourselves, without having reformed the institutions of the Congo.' (Polasky, The Democratic Socialism of Emile Vandervelde, pp. 1O-II, 16, 53, 57-9,61-2,67-9,71).
As late as 1908 Leopold's allies sought to try a black American minister, Sheppard, whose accounts of the horrors had encouraged the reform movement. Morel wired Vandervelde asking for the name of a young lawyer who might be persuaded to voyage out to Africa and defend Leopold's critics. To general surprise, Vandervelde took on the case on a pro bono basis, travelling out to the Congo at his own expense, defending the minister, even risking his own life, but eventually securing Sheppard's release. For all Vandervelde's appealing personal qualities, though, his politics were shaped by the same compromises as I hose of Morel or Casement. His biographer Janet Polasky presents her subject as standing Between Reform and Revo/ution. This is too generous:
Vandervelde's argument that the reform of empire was better than deserting the people to stand alone meant in reality that the Congolese should remain under outside dominance. Such rule may have been reformed, but it was still a form of empire. Had the leaders of Belgian parliamentary socialism clearly demanded self-government for the people of the Congo, such was the crisis, the demand could have been won. In its place, Vandervelde's own scheme was adopted. After 1908, Leopold's private empire was 'nationalised' by the Belgian state.
Thus the Belgian state sought to nationalize its African administration specifically, and the colonial effort more generally. However the effort that went into colonial education after 1908 suggests that the imperial state always viewed its colonial rule to a degree as insecure, perhaps even threatened from within. Despite the great self-assuredness of rule on the ground in the Congo, many Belgian colonials perceived the metropolitan population’s lack of knowledge or interest in the Congo as a danger. Technological, cultural, and religious superiority were not enough to run an empire: national faith in the colony was a necessary accompaniment to overseas expansion. Moreover, colonial rule was not static, rather it was recognized as something in a constant process of becoming. The state and colonial enthusiasts in Belgium wanted to direct how that becoming would turn out.
It is important to address education because by the 20th century elementary education for school-age children in Belgium, as in the rest of western Europe, was required, and the classroom had become a site of instruction in ideology. “The elementary school became the principal institution through which the established order sought to preserve the status quo.” (Theodore S. Hamerow, The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century, 1983, 167).
The status quo changed in 1908 when Leopold II transferred the EIC to his other state, and instruction needed to change as a result. After 1908, there was widespread concern among colonial veterans, officials, and enthusiasts that Belgian children did not know enough about the empire and that there was an “indifference of the masses for colonial things”. (Closet to Janssens, 9 Aug. 1932, folder 205.816.3 R 1925-49, portefeuille R61 O.C., AA, see also Bulletin de l’Association des Vétérans Coloniaux, no. 1, new series, Aug. 1945 p. 11-12)
Decades after the reprise,director of Belgium ’s colonial university Norbert Laude called on the Commission de Propagande Coloniale Scolaire and the Ministry of Public Education to rectify the matter. (N. Laude, “A propos de l’enseignement colonial en Belgique,” Institut Royal Colonial Belge Bulletin des Séances/Koninklijk Belgisch Koloniaal Instituut Bulletijn der Zittingen 16, no. 2,1945: 280-282).
On a more practical level, administrators and others were concerned that the lack of colonial education restricted the number of candidates to work in the colony. This classroom propaganda reinforced and interacted with pro-imperial messages emanating from Belgian World’s Fairs, the Musée du Congo belge, and the Office Colonial’s (O.C.) quinzaines coloniales, all of which emphasized indoctrinating children. Targeted propaganda in the classroom reinforced messages from these other media: love of dynasty and nation, reverence for Leopold II and the pioneer period, and negative views of Africans.
After the Belgian takeover, Minister of Colonies Jules Renkin sought to address the need for skilled administrators and doctors in the colony resulting from the lack of an education system or colonial spirit among Belgians inherited from the EIC. (Communication faite par M. Orts à la séance du 20 Novembre 1908: de la formation des fonctionnaires coloniaux (n.p., 1908), 4, “Documentation. Commission instituée en vue de rechercher les meilleurs moyens de formation aux carrières coloniales,” report by Institut Solvay, Institut de Sociologie, Groupe d’études coloniales, RG 981, Papiers Pierre Orts, MRAC archives).
In 1910 and 1911, respectively, Renkin created an École de Médicine Tropicale and an École coloniale, both in Brussels. Yet he also almost immediately sought to overhaul and essentially recreate the institutions in order to foster a true school of higher learning for overseas administrators. In 1920, Renkin’s successor Louis Franck oversaw the creation of the flagship colonial educational institution in Belgium, the École Coloniale Supérieure, later renamed the Université Coloniale, seated in Antwerp. (Gann and Duignan, The Rulers of Belgian Africa, 180; A.R. of 30 Sept. 1910). It was renamed Institut Universitaire des Territoires d’Outre-Mer (INUTOM) by Arrêté du régent, 4 May 1949.By 1946 they claimed to have taught close to 1,500 students. (La Revue Colonial Belge, no. 12, 1 Apr. 1946: 15).
But the colonial university in Antwerp, renamed the Université Coloniale in 1923, was exceptional for a number of reasons: it was a boarding school; it was the only state colonial university; it was a strictly national institution; and it was an auxiliary of the Ministry of Colonies. Students lived on campus and their travel off campus, for example back home or to the city of Antwerp, was restricted in order to keep students out of trouble and to cultivate a sense of community. At least in its first years, time off campus was limited to the hours 19h30-22h00 every day and from Saturday afternoons to Sunday night. (Form letter, N. Laude, 23 Sept. 1926, dossier “I.U.C. 1925/1929, Dossier Personnel,” Papiers Robert Moriamé, MRAC archives).
To further foster “camaraderie”, students lived and ate meals together, often sharing those meals with professors. (“C.A. de l’Univ. Coloniale séance du 8/2/27,” portefeuille 94 INUTOM 2e DG 2/4 no. 115 ,3899, 94 -Requètes - Réclamations des étudiants, AA).
The school was for Belgian citizens only, indicating it was a vehicle to nationalize the Congo administration. The program lasted four years,with part or all of the third dedicated to military service.To enter the Université coloniale, students had to be Belgian, be at least 18 years old in the year in which they entered the school, pass a medical exam, and pass an entrance exam in either French or Flemish. Brochure de Propagande: Ecole Coloniale Supérieure (n.p: n.d.), 5. There was de jure prohibition of Congolese attending the university because Congolese did not have Belgian citizenship. Mulatto students were not legally forbid entry, but in practice they were excluded. “Note pour Monsieur le Ministre,” 27 Jan.1950 and letter from Van den Abeele to President of the Conseil d’Administration de l’INUTOM, 18 Aug. 1950, portefeuille 91 INUTOM, 2e DG 2/4 no. 111 (3898) 91 Elèves mulâtres, AA. Nevertheless photographs from the 1927-28 and 1948-49 promotions show some students of very dark complexion. See Fondation Royale des Amis de l’Institut Universitaire des Territoires d’Outre-Mer/Vriendenfonds van het Universitair Instituut voor de Overzeese Gebieden, Middelheim: Mémorial de l’Institut Universitaire des Territoires d’Outre-Mer/Gedenkboek van het Universitair Institut van de Overzeese Gebieden (N.p.: Rossel Edition, 1987).
The school appealed to potential students’ sense of adventure and desire to join an elite even though by 1910 the conquest of the Congo was a fait accompli and the empire less and less could entice recruits with the prospect of adventure, battle, and rapid advancement. Minister of Colonies Louis Franck exhorted students at the end of one of his speeches to,“Become men capable of commanding.” In essence thus the education was moral more than anything else and the school endeavored to create an elite to administer the colony,” It wants to form MEN!” (Brochure de Propagande: Ecole Coloniale Supérieure, 10).
One student recorded Lemaire as telling his students he would do all in his power so that the school produced “a genuine elite, not an elite of words, no, an Elite in the flesh, in heart and mind.” (Roger Depoorter, Le Commandant Charles Lemaire: Pionnier et Pedagogue 1863/1926/Kommandant Charles Lemaire: Pionier en Pedagoog 1863/1926, Antwerp: Fondation Royale des Amis de l’INUTOM/Koninklijk Vriendenfonds van het UNIVOG, 1985).
What we do find in school textbooks in Belgium after 1908 is that there was little written about ‘colonialism in the Congo’ in fact in attention to the colony was the rule after the 1908 reprise. In fact Godefroid Kurth’s La Nationalité Belge, a pro-Catholic, anti-socialist history school text that justified the existence of the Belgian nation-state, was updated for publication in 1912, that is to say soon after the annexation of the Congo. This nearly 200-page long work on Belgian history devoted only one page to the Congo, even incorrectly placing the date of annexation at 1909. To put Kurth’s and the other texts discussed below in perspective, it is useful to consider for comparison purposes another general text on Belgian history, Belgium, published in 1945 in a United Nations series edited by Robert J. Kerner in which 78 of 454 pages of text are dedicated to the Congo, almost one fifth of the book. Jan-Albert Goris, ed., Belgium (Berkeley, 1945).
C. Debaere and N. Piret’s 1927 Nieuwe en Nieuwste geschiedenis set aside just seven of its 224 pages to European expansion as a whole, with only one page on the Congo. (C. Debaere and N. Piret, Nieuwe en Nieuwste geschiedenis. Met talrijke platen, kaarten, leesstukken en toepassingen. Leerboek der algemeene geschiedenis ten gebruike van het middelbaar onderwijs en het lager normaalonderwijs. III, 2nd ed, 1927).
Even into the 1950s, there was little increase of coverage of the Congo in textbooks. H. Corijn’s 1951 Algemene en nationale geschiedenis - oriented to the official teaching plan - dedicated a whole section to “Colonial Expansion and the European Balance,” but only four pages to Belgium and its colony; according to Raphael De Keyser, “Colonial administration or colonization in the literal meaning of the words are practically not treated.” In fact school history textbooks focused on “great men” history, had a moralizing tone, and were patriotic.
What set Belgium apart from other colonizing powers was the fact that Belgium took on the task of colonizing central Africa with reluctance, as opposed to others’ expansion into the continent. Belgian children could be especially proud because Belgian imperialism was altruistic.
Thus Godefroid Kurth presented Belgium as a little, feisty colonial power, taking up a task where no other power dared to tread. Kurth returned to the Congo in the first appendix of his text, regarding Belgium’s role in imperialism: a little country had done what no one else could, or would, do, spread religion and civilization in central Africa, creating the possibility of a future of millions of Christians in a large African nation that could join the ranks of the world’s great countries. Belgium was not only feisty, it was the best colonizing power, paralleling what British schoolchildren learned of their own empire. (MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire, 1984).
In spite of being a Socialist, Vandervelde as we have seen in an elaborate appeal to the most heroic of instincts, was well versed in the art of concealing privilege. In fact where hen in 1906, the Belgian anti-slavery activist Alphonse Jacques warned of the 'complete extinction' of the Congolese people--such talk disappeared almost overnight when in 1913, for reasons of commerce, and with the likelihood of war against Germany in mind, Britain recognized the Belgium Congo. But how slavery changed to a more humane treatment will be the subject of part two including the political difficulties that were created along the way.
But when Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost,1999, argues that there is a “collective amnesia” in Belgium about the colonial past, what this should mean is that there is a lack of knowledge among Belgians.
As for a different dimension to some of the legacy's of the colonial era see also my somewhat controversial approach about race and the role it played in the Rwandan Genocide.
From the vantage point of 1908, the idea of someone writing a history of Belgian imperial propaganda in the classroom a century later might have appeared strange, for why would the state, or other groups, need to educate Belgians about the Congo?
Case Study P. 1: The Creation of Belgium.
Case Study P. 2: The Start of Belgian Imperialism: When Texas was to be a Belgian Colony.
History of the former Belgian Congo P.1: Egypt in Central Africa.