At the time when Morel realized what was going on in the Congo, few Europeans had spoken out about the truth of King Leopold’s territories. Most people simply praised Leopold for his generosity and greatness. From Morel, however, Leopold faced a huge challenge. Morel, who was young and business-savvy, knew all the facts and figures of Leopold’s business. He also had a knack for publicity.
Edmund Dene Morel’s attack on cruelty in the Congo seems utterly uncontroversial to most 21st century readers. But at the time, Morel was seen as a radical, “disrespectful” young man who dared to attack King Leopold, one of the most beloved people in Europe.
Morel began by telling his superiors what he’d learned. Elder Dempster had a lucrative deal with the Belgian government, and if Morel exposed what he’d learned, then the company could go bankrupt. Thus, Morel’s superiors offered him a handsome raise and a promotion as a bribe for his silence; Morel refused. In 1900, he began writing attacks on Leopold, which he sent to British newspapers. Then, in 1903, he founded his own newspaper, West African Mail.
Morel could have accepted the bribery of the company and taken a promotion. However, he refused the bribe, and continued to denounce Belgium. Evidently, Morel was an exceptionally single-minded man—even though he needed money, he was more committed to human rights causes than to his own fortune.
What kind of man was Morel? He grew up in a working class home, and was a member of the Church of England (though, it seems, he wasn’t especially religious). Morel seems to have had a deep sense of indignation, and a strong moral compass—the two qualities that led him to become the “greatest British investigative journalist of his time.” His writing was clear, yet emotional, and he had an appetite for diligent research. In the course of his early investigations, Morel learned about the treaties that Stanley had negotiated with the African chiefs—treaties that were designed to rob entire tribes of their ancestral homes.
Morel’s behavior was so atypical for the time that it prompts an obvious question—on a personal level, how was Morel different from his contemporaries? It’s important to note that Hochschild doesn’t attempt to “psychoanalyze” Morel extensively, as he did with Leopold and Stanley. Morel seems to have had no particular neuroses or family troubles that might have inspired him to crusade for human rights—perhaps the best answer to the question is that Morel was born a uniquely moral, fair-minded person.
As Morel became better known for his denunciations of the Congo, other people approached him with leaked information. Gradually, he assembled evidence that the Force Publique was taking hostages in order to force slaves to harvest rubber, and he published interviews with some of the British and Swedish missionaries who’d witnessed human rights atrocities in the territory. Morel seems to have genuinely respected the people of the Congo; he published the names of Congolese victims, and regularly expressed his sympathy for Africans.
Morel, much his like nemesis, King Leopold, was a master of publicity. Just as King Leopold used powerful allies to disseminate propaganda across Europe, Morel used his journalistic contacts to gather useful information about the Congo and then send it around the Western world in newspaper articles. Compared with many members of the Congo reform movement, Morel seems to have had genuine respect for African people; he didn’t just think of them as passive, interchangeable victims (which, Hochschild argues, made him different from many of the other humanitarians of the era).
Leopold II, furious with Morel, arranged for one of his representatives to meet with Morel and offer him a bribe to stop writing about the Congo altogether. Morel proudly turned down the offer. Shortly afterwards, he published one of his strongest attacks on the administration of the Congo. After speaking with Edgar Canisius (the American state agent who’d spoken with Ilanga), Morel published Canisius’s report of a six-week forced march in the Congo, during which 900 African men, women, and children died.
Edgar Canisius was an important figure in the Congo reform movement because he passed on Ilanga’s personal story to Morel. So even though Morel hadn’t spent any time in the Congo, he used his sources to extract first-person accounts of Belgian cruelty in the territory. As before, Morel proved himself to be immune to offers of bribery.
By the end of 1903, Morel had succeeded in creating a national outcry. British politicians, missionaries, and humanitarians wanted to solve the “Congo Question.” This alarmed Leopold, since Britain was the world’s leading superpower. For the time being, however, Morel couldn’t do anything to topple Leopold’s regime in Africa.
It would take a long time before Morel succeeded in turning the public against Leopold for good. For the time being, however, Morel tried to undo some of the damage that Leopold had done; he tried to turn Great Britain, the world’s leading superpower, against Belgian imperialism.