The testimony gathered by the Commission of Inquiry finally caught King Leopold II “naked.” King Leopold himself had sent the three judges to the Congo, so he couldn’t plead that their findings were biased or unfair. And the witnesses who spoke to the three judges couldn’t have been lying, since many of them described the same horrific events. The three judges had heard the testimony of African slaves who’d been tortured and beaten by the Force Publique with the full support of the Congo administration. But, amazingly, their 150-page report, which condemned the Congo administration, didn’t include any direct quotations from Africans. Indeed, the Africans’ testimony remained unread until the 1980s, when it was discovered in an archive in Brussels.
The impartial judges’ report on the state of the Congo is a striking example of the “soft” racism of the Congo reform movement. While the judges who compiled the report seem to have had the interests of the Congolese people in mind, they didn’t include first-hand Congolese testimony in their report—an implicitly racist decision, since it suggests that they believed that Congolese people couldn’t be trusted, exaggerated the truth, or were otherwise unreliable. Hochschild takes great effort to avoid making the same mistake as the “impartial” committee: throughout the book, he includes first-hand testimony from Congolese people who lived under the Belgians.
In spite of Leopold’s efforts, news of human rights violations in the Congo had reached America and Europe, causing an international outcry. Leopold decided to sell his territory in the Congo, though he had already planned to bequeath it to the people of Belgium. While Parliament was furious that it had to buy a territory it had been promised for free, it recognized that buying the land now was the only way to ensure that it wouldn’t end up in the hands of the British or the French. In 1908, Leopold finalized a plan to sell the territory to the Belgian Parliament for 45.5 million francs and the absorption of his vast personal debts.
Leopold failed to control the public relations crisis surrounding the Congo in the early 20th century; as a result, he had no choice but to sell his territory to the Belgian Parliament (despite the fact that he’d already arranged to bequeath it to Parliament). Even when he had a major publicity crisis on his hands, Leopold was a savvy negotiator, and managed to make a huge fortune reselling the territory.
At the end of 1908, the Congo formally became the property of the Belgian Parliament. William Sheppard, whose article ten years before had launched an international backlash against Leopold, argued that the sale of the Congo changed nothing—the local administrators would continue to exploit their slaves. Sheppard worked with another minister, William Morrison, to continue denouncing the state of the Congo. Sheppard and Morrison made many trips in and out of the Congo, updating the international community on the state of affairs there.
The sale of the Congo to Parliament marked a major milestone in the Congo reform movement. King Leopold II was such a famous figure that, in many ways, he’d become the central target for the Congo reform movement. Since Leopold was now out of the picture, it was much more difficult for the Congo reform movement to focus the public’s attention. Nevertheless, Sheppard and Morrison (and, during the same period, Morel) continued to campaign, knowing that they needed to make sure that conditions improved in the Congo under the Belgian Parliament.
Meanwhile, at the end of 1908, the Kuba tribe rose up against their colonial overlords. In the ensuing fight, Belgian forces slaughtered tens of thousands of unarmed Kuba tribesmen, and William Sheppard penned a long article praising the Kuba for their heroism. The chaos in the Congo, combined with the international criticism of the Belgian colony, caused a major drop in the international rubber market. The primary Belgian rubber company, Kasai, retaliated by filing a libel suit against Sheppard, whose article, Kasai claimed, had caused their business to fail. Sheppard, together with Morrison (who had published the article) traveled to Leopoldville in the Congo, where they stood trial. Sheppard and Morrison’s trial began with the court dropping charges against Morrison on a technicality. Thereafter, the defense persuasively argued that Sheppard had been motivated by a genuine humanitarian impulse, and a desire to protect the exploited peoples of the Congo. The trial made Sheppard even more famous, and newspapers in New York and Boston called Sheppard a hero. In the end, the judge found Sheppard innocent, and ordered the Kasai company to pay the court costs.
Although William Sheppard had been unsuccessful in raising awareness of the Belgian atrocities in the 1890s, he was now at the center of an international controversy surrounding the Congo reform movement. His victory in the trial marked how quickly the international tide had turned against Belgium. Where once Belgium had been praised for its philanthropy and humanitarianism, it was now seen (rightly) as a brutal imperialist power. The William Sheppard trial is also notable because it revolved around the idea of human rights: William Sheppard’s motivation for supporting the Kuba, the defense successfully argued, was a desire to protect his fellow human beings from harm and preserve their liberty.
In December of 1909, King Leopold, 74 years old, fell very ill, probably with cancer. He died a few days later, unloved by his people. His successor was his nephew, Albert I, who proved highly popular with his Belgian subjects. Leopold’s death was hailed as the end of an era of cruelty in the Congo; the American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote, “Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost / Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.” In fact, “the battle over how Leopold and his works would be remembered had only begun.”
The international response to King Leopold’s death suggests the strengths and weaknesses of the Congo reform movement. For many years, the movement depicted Leopold as the central villain of the Congo controversy; therefore, when Leopold died, many activists foolishly assumed that there was no longer a problem in the Congo at all (though, in fact, very little changed in the Congo for quite some time).
Beginning in 1906, Roger Casement worked as a British consul in Brazil. He continued to write about the Congo, however, once noting that he, like the Congolese, belonged to a “race of people once hunted themselves.” Perhaps Casement meant that he was an Irishman, or a homosexual—two groups that had been persecuted in the past and continued to face prejudice during Casement’s lifetime. Word of a human rights atrocity in the Amazon River basin, orchestrated by the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, reached Casement, and the British Foreign Office sent him to investigate further. In the Amazon, Casement repeated his achievement in the Congo by reporting clearly and precisely about the cruelty of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company. In private, Casement continued to keep a diary of his homosexual encounters.
Hochschild suggests that Casement found the inspiration to fight for Congolese rights because he was both a homosexual and an Irishman—two minority groups that were frequently discriminated against in early 20th century England. Perhaps Casement sympathized with the people of the Congo because he knew, first-hand, what it felt like to be treated like a second-class human being.
In 1910, Casement returned to the Congo cause, reuniting with his old ally Morel and enlisting the help of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Doyle published articles criticizing the ongoing cruelty of the Congo regime under the Belgian Parliament.
Morel and Casement continued to fight against the Belgian occupation in the Congo, enlisting the help of famous writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was difficult for Morel, Doyle, and Casement to mobilize the public against the Belgian Parliament for three main reasons. First, Morel had done such a thorough job of tying Leopold to the cruelty in the Congo that, now that Leopold was dead, he had to work hard to convince people that the problem was ongoing. Second, many powerful British politicians and journalists were worried that Morel’s attacks on the Belgian colonial administration could be used to attack British imperialism. Morel’s claim that the Congolese owned their own land clashed with the basic premise of British imperialism: claiming foreign land in the name of the Empire. Third, the Belgian colonial ministers announced major reforms in the Congo, to be instituted over the next three years. While the Congo remained under the control of European colonialists, British inspectors reported “immense improvement” in the African population. Thus, whether or not the Congolese human rights crisis really had been solved for good, the European public was quickly coming to believe that it had. In 1913, the Congo Reform Association held its last meeting, and then dissolved—marking the end of the first major international human rights movement of the 20th century.
One challenge that the Congo reform movement faced was that it had “bet the farm” on Leopold II—it had positioned Leopold at the center of the international controversy. Thus, when Leopold died, people concluded that Belgian tyranny was dead, too. While the Belgian Parliament introduced some reforms in the Congo in the years following Leopold’s death, the Congolese continued to live under foreign domination, be treated as subhuman, and face punishment for petty or nonexistent crimes. Morel’s Congo reform movement could be considered a great success or a great failure. On one hand, he succeeded in drawing international attention to the Congo atrocities; on the other hand, the “solutions” to the problem that emerged from the controversy were limited and, in many ways, superficial. Morel may have succeeded in banning specific cruel practices in the Congo, but (partly because of the strength of the British Empire, and partly because of his own political biases) he didn’t really attack the root cause of the problem—imperialism itself.