It was near the turn of the century, after abolitionism had swept through Europe and seemingly conquered every defender of slavery, that a young shipping clerk named Edmund Dene Morel noticed something strange while going about his business at the harbor in Antwerp, Belgium. Ships were arriving filled to the brim with rubber—that was to be expected. But they were leaving again for the colony of Belgium’s King Leopold II not with goods to be used in payment, but with guns and ammunition. This was strange, Morel thought. The profits scraped out of the so-called free state of the Congo were gargantuan, but the only investment heading back towards the African continent was soldiers, guns, shackles, and bayonets. This could only mean one thing: regardless of the Belgian king’s flowery philanthropic descriptions of his African endeavors, Leopold must actually be running a slave state in the Congo.
This discovery, much like Thomas Clarkson’s discovery of the horrors of the slave trade a century before, was to change the course of history. “Brought face to face with evil,” historian Adam Hochschild writes in his magnificent history King Leopold’s Ghost, “Morel does not turn away. Instead, what he sees determines the course of his life and the course of an extraordinary movement, the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century. [Leopold’s Congo slave state] was the first major atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera.” At the age of twenty-eight, Morel quit his job, refused attempts by Leopold and his employers to bribe him, and launched what came to be known as the Congo reform movement. Like the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade before it, the Congo reform movement was driven by a man who would not give up, and powerful, gripping, and graphic evidence of what was taking place in jungles far from the eyes of the Europeans.
But we must back up in our story. The fate of the Congo, which was to become the subject of Morel’s passion for justice, was first shaped by another man’s insatiable lust for wealth and power: Leopold II, King of the Belgians. A monarch with enormous ambitions and a very small country, he spent decades searching for a colony that he could call his very own. When the so-called Scramble for Africa began, Leopold was already ahead of the game. He had hired the world-famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley—who uttered the famous phrase “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”—to begin staking his claim in the Congo territories, and sent ambassadors throughout Europe and the United States to persuade other nations to recognize his claim to vast swathes of African territory.
In an insidious irony, he actually took advantage of the anti-slavery sentiment fanned into a wildfire by William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and legions of abolitionists as a way of achieving a foothold in Africa in the first place. He described himself sanctimoniously as an abolitionist, and launched a pious public relations campaign to present himself as a philanthropist with the abolition of the Arab slave trade and the Christianization of the African peoples as his two great objects. The United States recognized Leopold’s claim to the Congo first. Other nations soon followed. Leopold’sclaim, mind you—the Congo was not Belgium’s colony, it was Leopold’s personal fiefdom.
In spite of his claims of being an ardent abolitionist, the Leopoldian wolf in sheep’s clothing was actually one of the most prolific slavers of his time. Not only was his African mercenary army the Force Publique comprised of men who were in essence slaves, but the entire Congo territory was turned into slave state—many of the slaves directly supplied by Tippu Tip, the most prominent slave-dealer on the African continent, and precisely the sort of man Leopold had promised to root out. Tip, of course, was happy to do business with a man whose capacity for inflicting human misery matched and possibly surpassed his own.
It is hard to exaggerate the misery inflicted by the iron regime of Leopold as he used bullets, whips, starvation and destruction to extract first ivory and then rubber from the jungles of his private African plantation. His agents and mercenaries were give quotas, and told to fill them even if they had to carve them out of the flesh of the Congolese people. Almost immediately, ivory was stolen from the people at gunpoint. Unable to bushwhack their way through the dense African jungle on their own, Belgian agents conscripted thousands of Congolese as porters, forcing them to carry heavy loads of wine, food, guns and ammunition to be fired into the bodies of their countrymen. These marches were accompanied by whippings of savage ferocity, and the African captives made many of these jungle marches with chains wrapped tightly around their necks. No one was too young to be beaten, either—one Belgian magistrate in Congo recalled little children, many of them around the ages of seven or eight years old, being flogged 25 lashes with the infamous chicotte whip (made of hippopotamus rawhide) for the crime of laughing in front of a white man. Whippings of over one hundred lashes were not uncommon, and were generally fatal. These could be doled out for the most nonsensical offenses.
In the Belgian colonizers as in the West Indies plantation owners and the slave ship captains, we see how evil corrodes and destroys the soul, eating away at any sense of humanity or empathy until only a black void remains. Women were kidnapped to be used as sex slaves, and sold into prostitution or used as field hands when the white officials were done with them. Even young girls at missionary schools were not safe, and could be snatched by white officers with virtual impunity. In one particularly horrific instance, a Belgian officers shot sixty soldiers consecutively for refusing to work on Sunday. Even if killings were frowned upon, the punishment was a slap on the wrist, if anything at all. Joseph Conrad himself wrote Heart of Darkness about the horrors he saw in Leopold’s Congo, describing scenes he witnessed his diary: slave columns chained together by iron collars, black bodies along the roadside with bullet-holes indicating summary executions, and even a skeleton still tied to a post.
The one exception to European barbarism was the Protestant missionaries, and as such they were usually left alone or even specifically provided for during rebellions against the Belgians by the Africans who respected their devotion to the Gospel and their genuine love towards their African neighbors. Later, reports and photographs from missionaries would be one of Morel’s prime avenues for evidence against the Leopold regime.
When the demand for ivory gave way to a demand for rubber, the killing in the Congo reached near-genocidal levels. In order to force the Africans to disperse in the forest and harvest the rubber, the traders would raid the villages, loot them, and hold the women hostage until their desperate husbands and family members had produced the demanded amount of rubber. Village elders, chiefs, or children would also do for hostages in a pinch. The conditions of their imprisonment were so harsh that death was not uncommon, and the rape of women by the guards was frequent. When reprisals and executions were deemed necessary, officers demanded the severed right hands of the victims be brought back to them so that each bullet allotted to their soldiers could be proven to have been used to kill someone rather than frittered away on hunting. When soldiers wanted to use their ammunition for recreational purposes but did not feel like shooting anyone, they would often simply chop an African child’s hand off and submit that as proof that the bullet had been put to good use. Sometimes entire villages were slaughtered for a refusal or inability to provide rubber.
Throughout the 1890s, accounts of atrocities in the Congo had trickled out to the press via visitors and Protestant missionaries, and for years they had been skillfully parried by Leopold, who always professed that he was shocked, horrified, and would be addressing the situation immediately. His public relations resembled that of the campaign launched by the slave traders against the abolitionists, and one wonders if he actually studied it: He lied, he deflected, he pointed to where other atrocities took place, he attempted to undermine and discredit his opponents, he appealed to the so-called greater good, he dehumanized the victims and appealed to European racism, and he simply ignored accusations. But when former shipping clerk Edmund Morel set to work to expose Leopold, his responses would inevitably fail.
After his discovery at the Antwerp harbor, Morel set to work. He soon produced a staggering body of meticulously researched work detailing the inner workings of the Congo slave state, relying on dozens of sources. The beleaguered missionaries of the Congo were thrilled. “Suddenly,” Hochschild writes, “here was someone not only eager to publish their testimony, but to put it in the hands of the British parliament. Morel barraged the missionaries with requests for more information. They gladly complied, and also began sending what turned out to be powerful tools for Morel’s campaign: photographs—of devastated villages, severed hands, children with missing hands and feet.” These images shocked and horrified men and women across Europe, and an outcry against Leopold’s private reign of terror began. “The Congo was a special and extraordinary evil calling for special means of attack,” wrote Morel. “If the British people could really be roused, the world might be roused…Britain had played that part before [in the campaign against slavery] …could we raise a throbbing in that great heart of hers?”
They could. Sir Roger Casement, a British consul, went on an investigative trip and was horrified by the rape of the Congo. Morel, who was writing a weekly newspaper as well as producing an enormous amount of material relentlessly attacking an increasingly frustrated and flailing Leopold, launched the Congo Reform Association and obtained the endorsement of the great-grandson of William Wilberforce to place themselves as heirs and successors to the abolitionist movement. And just as horrific images of tortured Africans and packed slave ship holds seething with desperate and dying humanity inflamed the people of Great Britain against the slave trade, history repeated itself as Morel and allies such as Alice Harris Seeley set out across Europe with the graphic evidence of Leopold’s atrocities.
“A master of the media of his day,” Hochschild writes, “Morel made particularly effective use of photography. A central part of almost every Congo protest meeting was a slide show, comprising some sixty vivid photos of life under Leopold’s rule; half a dozen of them showed mutilated Africans or their cut-off hands. The pictures, ultimately seen in meetings and the press by millions of people, provided evidence that no propaganda could refute.” Across Europe, imagery held the imaginations of the people hostage. In Switzerland, for example, “men grew pale and tears collected in women’s eyes when Alice Harris’s pictures of maimed children were shown.” Artists added their own graphic satire: savage cartoons were published showing Leopold dining on a meal of severed African heads, his gigantic white beard dripping with blood, his claw-like hands grasping the shrunken heads of murdered natives. In the United States, Congo reformers showed more slides, again with “photographs of adults and children with their hands cut off, forced laborers at work as porters, a devastated village.”
Morel’s campaigning and Alice Harris’s photographs, according to Dr. Richard Benjamin of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, created a “groundswell in public opinion.” That groundswell forced Leopold in 1908 to turn over his private fiefdom to Belgium, who felt that his colony was becoming an international disgrace. He extracted millions of francs from the Belgian government in the negotiation process, and left to live in one of the many residences he’d built with Congo blood money with his mistress, a former prostitute nearly fifty years younger than himself. Historians estimate that nearly ten million Africans died during his reign of terror.
While abuses did continue in the Congo—Morel declared Leopold’s relinquishing of the Congo a “partial victory”—what is exceptional about the Congo reform movement is that in barely a decade, using vivid visuals and horrifying testimonies, an incredible human rights movement successfully inflamed thousands of people across two continents against injustice, and forced a monarch to give up his private colony. Although the Congolese were still denied self-government and still suffered, although to a lesser extent, under colonial rule, Hochschild notes that “the Congo reformers for roughly a decade were spectacularly successful in keeping the territory in the spotlight.” When hidden injustices were revealed, those injustices came under attack.
For human rights to be restored, two things were necessary: people like Edmund Morel and Alice Harris, who would not give up, and visual evidence of the atrocities that were taking place, that could not be ignored.