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Murder for Money: Congo, 1st Genocide of the 20th Century
By Bertrand Russell [posted 1-24-2001]
From his book, 'Freedom and organization 1814-1914' (London:George Allen and Unwin,1934)

Introductory Notes
by Jared Israel

"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, many of them cannibals, 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." (From Bertrand Russell's text, below.)

Bertrand Russell, the eminent philosopher who inspired the 1967 War Crimes Tribunal which exposed the horrors of the U.S. war in Vietnam (see http://www2.prestel.co.uk/littleton/v1tribun.htm ) wrote the following informative report on the Belgian effort to 'civilize' the Congo and introduce free enterprise which, as Russell notes, cost 10,000,000 Congolese lives. The novel "Heart of Darkness" by the great Polish author Joseph Conrad is a fictionalized account of these events.

The U.S. and Britain are continuing in Belgium's footsteps, destroying the Congolese economy and slaughtering its population. This is done partly through proxies (the Ugandan and Rwandan governments, which are Anglo-U.S. creations). The Belgians worked through proxies as well. Plus ca change, plus c'est la mÍme chose. [ The more things change, the more they remain the same.]

I wonder about Russell's use of 'savage' to describe the Congolese whom Belgium profitably slaughtered at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Was Russell prejudiced? Or was this bitter irony?

The text follows. - JI

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Congo

The Slave Trade having been abolished, and slaves having been emancipated, the easiest way to exploit black labour was to occupy the countries in which the black men live, and it conveniently happened that these countries contained various valuable raw materials. Greed was only one, though the most important, of the motives to African imperialism, but there was one case, that of the Congo “Free” State, in which it appears to have been the sole motive. Some of the Philosophical Radicals thought that pecuniary self-interest, rightly understood, should be an adequate motive for useful activity. The example of the Congo will enable us to test this theory.

The Congo is a vast river, draining an area about as large as Europe without Russia, flowing through dark forests, and passing through territory almost entirely inhabited by savages. Although the mouth had long been known, the upper reaches were first discovered in 1871 by the virtuous Dr. Livingstone, who combined in equal measure a love of exploration and a desire to convert Africans to the Christian faith. Stanley, who discovered him at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, was less interested in the Gospel than in some other aspects of Christian civilization. His first journey was undertaken on behalf of the New York Herald, his subsequent journeys (which established the whole course of the Congo and of several tributaries) were made at the expense and in the interests of Leopold, King of the Belgians, of whom Stanley spoke always in terms of the highest praise.

King Leopold was the son of  Queen Victoria’s Uncle Leopold, whose advice she valued in the early years of her reign. He was moreover, as Sir H. H. Johnston puts it, “grandson of Louis Philippe, husband of an Austrian Archduchess, a devoted upholder of the Roman Church, and a very rich man.” He was a promoter of scientific research, particularly in Africa, and a patron of missionary efforts. The Berlin Conference of 1884, convened for the partition of Africa, decided that this high-minded monarch should be entrusted personally with the government of a territory which extended over about one million square miles, and contained the greater part of the Congo basin. He was respected by diplomats, extolled by travellers, and generally believed to be a model of philanthropy in his attitude to the negroes. In 1906, when he offered £12,000 for scientific research as to the prevention of sleeping sickness, he declared in a manifesto:

If God gives me that satisfaction (victory over sleeping sickness) I shall be able to present myself before His judgement-seat with the credit of having performed one of the finest acts of the century, and a legion of rescued beings will call down upon me His grace. [Quoted by E. D. Morel, Red Rubber, p. 151.]

When King Leopold took over the Congo, he announced that his purpose was purely philanthropic. Stanley, who conducted propaganda for him in England, explained how much he loved the black man, and feared that English people could not “appreciate rightly, because there are no dividends attached to it, this restless, ardent, vivifying, and expansive sentiment which seeks to extend civilizing influence among the dark places of sad-browed Africa.” The Prince of Wales (Edward VII), whose help was invoked by King Leopold as early as 1876 in calling a conference to discuss “the settlement by Europeans of unexplored Africa and the encouragement of exploration with a view to spreading civilization,” became dubious when assured that the sole motive was philanthropy. He wrote to Sir Bartle Frere:

The question is whether the public who represent money will take the same interest that he does. Philanthropy is all very well, but unless it is practical and gives a practical result it will not find that favour in the eyes of the English public that it deserves. [Sidney Lee, King Edward VII, I, p. 629.]

However, Leopold’s emphasis on philanthropy served his purpose. The other Powers showed little enthusiasm for an enterprise that was represented as involving expenditure without hope of pecuniary recompense, and when he offered to bear all the expense himself, they allowed him to assume the burden (as they supposed it) on condition of his preserving freedom of religion, freedom of trade, freedom of the Press, and so on.

After winning the approval of the world by suppressing Arab slave-raiders, the royal philanthropist set to work to introduce orderly government into his dominions. Being thoroughly up-to-date, he established a system of State Socialism, the most thoroughgoing that has ever existed; and in agreement with much modern opinion, he seems to have held that Socialism should involve no nonsense about democracy. He issued decrees by which all the land, all the rubber, and all the ivory was to be the property of the State – which was himself. It was made illegal for natives to sell rubber or ivory to Europeans, and for Europeans to buy either from natives. He next sent a secret circular to his officials, explaining that they “must neglect no means of exploiting the produce of the forests,” and that they would receive a bonus on all rubber and ivory, which would be great when the cost of collection was small, and small when it was great. For example, if the cost of collection was thirty centimes or less per kilo, the official received fifteen centimes per kilo; while if the cost was over seventy centimes per kilo, the official received only four centimes. The financial results were all that could have been hoped. Parts of the Congo were worked directly for the King, parts for companies in which he was a large shareholder. Take, for example, the Anversoise Trust, which exploited a region to the north of the river. The paid-up capital, of which the State had half, was £10,000, and the net profits in six years were £370,000. Another company, in four years, made a profit of £731,680 on a paid-up capital of £40,200. The original value of the shares – of which the King held half – was 250 francs, but in 1906 their value had risen to 16,000 francs. It is more difficult to discover what were the profits of the vast areas which were reserved as the King’s private domain, but it is estimated by Professor Cattier that they amounted to £300,000 a year. [Morel, op. cit., p. 145.]

The methods by which these vast profits were accumulated were very simple. 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, many of them cannibals, 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. The result was, according to the estimate of  Sir H. H. Johnston, which is confirmed from all other impartial sources, that in fifteen years the native population was reduced from about twenty million to scarcely nine million. [Sir H. H. Johnston, The Colonization of Africa (Cambridge Historical Series), p. 352.] It is true that the sleeping sickness contributed something to this reduction, but the spread of this disease was greatly accelerated by King Leopold’s practice of moving hostages from one end of his dominions to the other.

Enormous pains were taken to keep secret the large-scale systematic murder by which the royal capitalist obtained his profits. The officials and law-courts were both in his pay and at his mercy, private traders were excluded, and Catholic missionaries silenced by his piety. Belgium was systematically corrupted, and the Belgian Government was to a considerable extent his accomplice. Men who threatened disclosures were bought off, or, if that proved impossible, disappeared mysteriously. The only men in the Congo who could not be silenced were the Protestant missionaries, most of whom, not unnaturally, supposed that the King was ignorant of the deeds done in his name. To take one instance out of many, Joseph Clark, of the American Baptist Missionary Union, wrote on March 25, 1896:

This rubber traffic is steeped in blood, and if the natives were to rise and sweep every white person on the Upper Congo into eternity there would, still be left a fearful balance to their credit. Is it not possible for some American of influence to see the King of the Belgians and let him know what is being done in his name? The Lake is reserved for the King – no traders allowed – and to collect rubber for him hundreds of men, women, and children have been shot. [Morel, op. cit., p. 54.]

But it was easy to suppose that the missionaries exaggerated, or that these were merely isolated instances of officials who had been turned to cruelty by fever and solitude. It seemed incredible that the whole system was deliberately promoted by the King for the sake of pecuniary gain. The truth might have remained long unrecognized but for one man – E. D. Morel. Sir H. H. Johnston, an empire-builder untainted with eccentricity, thoroughly familiar with Africa, and originally a believer in King Leopold, after describing his influence in stifling criticism throughout the civilized world, says:

Few stories are at once more romantic – and will seem more incredible to posterity – than that which relates how this Goliath was overcome by a David in the person of a poor shipping clerk in the office of a Liverpool shipping firm which was amongst the partners of King Leopold.
      This shipping clerk – E. D. Morel – was sent over to Antwerp, and Belgium generally, because he could speak French, and could therefore arrange all the minutiae of steamer fares and passenger accommodation, and the scales of freights for goods and produce, with the Congo State officials. In the course of his work he became acquainted with some of the grisly facts of Congo maladministration. He drew his employers’ attention to these stories and their verification. The result was his dismissal.
      Almost penniless, he set to work with pen and paper to enlighten the world through the British press and British publishers on the state of affairs on the Congo. [Op. cit., p. 355.]

From that day to the moment of his death, Morel was engaged in ceaseless battle – first against inhumanity in the Congo, then against secret diplomacy in Morocco, then against a one-sided view of the origin of the War, and last against the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles. His first fight, after incredible difficulties, was successful, and won him general respect; his second and greater fight, for justice to Germany, brought him obloquy, prison, ill health, and death, with no success except in the encouragement of those who loved him for his passionate disinterestedness. No other man known to me has had the same heroic simplicity in pursuing and proclaiming political truth.

Morel’s difficulties in the Congo Reform agitation were such as most men would have found overwhelming. The French, impressed by the magnitude of Leopold’s profits, had established a very similar system in the French Congo, where it was producing the same results; they were, therefore, by no means anxious that the world should know the inevitable consequences of his economic methods. The British Foreign Office, needing the friendship of France and Belgium for reasons of high politics, was very loath to be persuaded, and at first suppressed consular reports tending to confirm the accusations of Morel and the missionaries.

The Roman Catholic Church – acting, according to Morel, under orders from the Vatican – represented that the whole movement for reform was a disguised attack upon Roman Catholicism emanating from the Protestant missionaries; but later, when the evidence proved irresistible, this defence was abandoned. King Leopold and his agents, of course stuck at nothing in the way of vilification and imputation of discreditable motives.

Nevertheless, Morel and the Congo Reform Association succeeded in rousing public opinion, first in England, and then throughout the civilized world. The British Government was forced to admit that the accusations had been confirmed by our Consuls, especially Casement (who was hanged during the War). The King, to keep up the pretence that the atrocities had occurred against his wishes, was compelled to appoint a commission of three impartial jurists to investigate the charges, and, although he published only a fragment of their report, what was allowed to appear made it evident that the charges were well founded. At last, in 1908, Europe, using the authority conferred by the Berlin Congress, deprived him of the Congo and handed it over to Belgium, on the understanding that the King’s system of exploitation should cease. By this time King Leopold had come be to avoided by his brother monarchs, on account both of his cruelty to negroes and of his kindness to ballet-girls.

Against King Leopold, it was possible for the conscience of mankind to be victorious, for he was, after all, a minor potentate. Against France, agitation has proved powerless. Except in the coastal regions, from which travellers are not easily excluded, large-scale atrocities occurred, and probably still occur; but “an impenetrable mist still lies upon the forest .” [Morel, The Black Man’s Burden (1920), p. 147.] - Bertrand Russell

Reprinted here For Fair Use Only. (C) The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.

The above text is reprinted from theWebsite of one Rae West at http://www2.prestel.co.uk/littleton/brfobcon.htm#st . The following are some of Mr. West's comments:

  • "Booklets published by the Congo Reform Association are available in the British Library. I was surprised to see how much of the work seems to have been done by women.
  • "There's some irony in Russell's distinction between 'savages' and the 'civilized world': I don't think he ever considered whether survival in dangerous and unhealthy regions of Africa didn't, in fact, require considerable skill. He used the same word 'savages' in his Autobiography, which was written/revised when he was in his 90s. It's possible that the word was meant in the sense of being wild or unplanned, rather than in the technical sense of 'uncivilised' or the other senses suggesting cruelty or unsociability—his History of Western Philosophy has a passage stating in effect that modern techniques wouldn't permit people to survive in small groups.
  • "Russell seems never to have revised his views of the various imperialisms, or attempted to seriously weigh evidence, always for example regarding the British Empire as benevolent, and the Russians as barbaric; perhaps similarly with regard to earlier epochs he seems never to have encountered views seriously anti-Norman Conquest or anti-Spanish in South America, or pro-Attila or pro-Genghis Khan.
  • "Casement also investigated and reported on Catholic atrocities in Peru. He appears to have been targeted with a 'dirty tricks' campaign, involving a supposed diary of his, but I'm uncertain whether it was shown to be forged."

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