The death of King Leopold II was widely seen as marking the end of an era of cruelty in the Congo. But his influence on Belgium and Africa persisted for a long time. It was quickly discovered that he’d left a vast fortune, which he wanted to be spent on future monuments and palaces (diverting inheritance from his daughters). The Belgian Parliament spent years trying to transfer Leopold’s fortune to the public purse; Parliament eventually discovered that Leopold had stolen money from his sister, Charlotte, who was still alive, and mentally ill. Historians estimate that Leopold personally made a billion dollars (in today’s money) from his Congo territory. Nobody in Belgium argued that this money should be returned to the Congolese people.
The aftermath of Leopold’s death exposes some of the limitations of the Congo reform movement. Leopold’s death marked the end of one era of tyranny, but that era was succeeded by another era of tyranny in which the Belgian Parliament inherited a lot of Leopold’s money, but didn’t bother to return it to the Congolese (the rightful owners of this wealth). And, tragically, the Belgian Parliament continued many of Leopold’s policies (and had been aware of these policies for decades, as Hochschild has shown).
Another unpleasant question: did the European/American Congo reform movement do any lasting good? On one hand, it seems clear that the achievements of Roger Casement, George Washington Williams, and Edmund Dene Morel were not in vain: they led the Belgian government to reform conditions in the Congo and protect African lives. But, although there were fewer cases of torture and execution under the Belgian Parliament’s Congo territories, the Belgian administrators continued to use forced labor. During the First World War, for instance, the Belgians forced thousands of Africans to fight in a battle in which they had no stake. And under Belgian authority, the people of the Congo were still deprived of their right to their own land, as well as the enormous wealth of that land. As late as World War II, Congolese people were forced to work in harsh conditions in mines, usually for insultingly little pay.
Hochschild has no illusions about the Congo reform movement: he respects some of its humanitarian concerns, but also recognizes the short-sightedness of its aims. The Congo reform movement focused on specific human rights abuses in the Congo, but didn’t really condemn the principle of imperialism itself. Partly as a result, Belgian rule in the Congo continued for decades to come. During this time, the Congolese people faced miserable living conditions. European politicians and businesses continued to control the natural wealth that rightfully belonged to the Congolese people themselves.
Another question: why, out of all the imperialist ventures in Africa, did the Congo finally attract the attention of powerful Europeans? There were, after all, hundreds of cases of European powers depriving Africans of their land rights and forcing them to work and fight. In the early 20th century, in the German-controlled territory of Namibia, German administrators killed and tortured a comparable number of Africans of the Herero tribe. And in the Philippines, around the same time, the U.S. tortured tens of thousands of Filipino prisoners and burned villages full of women and children. Why, then, was there no major protest against U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, or German colonialism in Namibia?
The hypocrisy of the Congo reform movement is stunning: powerful people throughout Europe and America ganged up against Belgium, but refused to take responsibility for their own countries’ imperialist atrocities. Even Joseph Conrad and Edmund Dene Morel, two of the most important critics of Belgian imperialism, made statements supporting British imperialism, despite the fact that the history of the British Empire is full of human rights abuses (including the first use of concentration camps in history, during the Boer War).
One simple reason that the Congo aroused such outrage in Europe is that it was a safe target. The Congo was controlled by one small and relatively new European country, while most of the large European powers, such as Britain and France, had no economic or political interest in the Congo. Powerful British, American, and French figures criticized the state of affairs while turning a blind eye to the atrocities of their own countries’ colonies.
The other countries of Europe sanctimoniously criticized Belgium for exploiting the people of the Congo, while simultaneously exploiting the native peoples of other countries in much the same way.
In 1913, Roger Casement, now a knight of the British Empire, retired from consular service and devoted himself to fighting for Irish independence from Great Britain. Casement tried to buy guns and raise an army to fight against British forces in Ireland; he even proposed sending Irish troops to Egypt to help the Egyptians fight for their own independence from the British Empire. Casement was eventually arrested and tried for high treason. The case prompted an international outpouring of sympathy for Casement, but, nevertheless, he was found guilty and sent to prison. When the police discovered his diary, full of evidence of his homosexuality, they made copies and distributed them to the newspapers, essentially ending any possibility that Casement could appeal his sentence. Casement was executed for his treason.
Although the international reaction to the Belgian occupation was characterized by a lot of hypocrisy and ignorance, many of the figures of the Congo reform movement continued to fight for humanitarian causes for the rest of their lives, showing that their commitment to universal human rights was deeply sincere. Roger Casement, for example, supported Irish and Egyptian independence. However, Casement’s political positions led him to be arrested for treason. When it was revealed that he was a homosexual, he lost almost all of the powerful allies he’d made in the 1900s. As a result, he was sentenced to death and executed.
In 1914, Morel entered a new phase of his life when he became one of the most famous people in Britain to protest World War I. Morel’s decision made him extremely unpopular, and many of his old friends and allies deserted him instead of tarnishing their own reputations by association. Morel’s position on World War I now seems ahead of its time: not only did he protest the pointlessness of the war, but he argued, after the war ended, that harsh peace terms for Germany could lead to another world war. Morel was imprisoned for protesting the war, in the same prison in which Casement had been executed one year previously.
Some of Morel’s ideas about the Congo were condescending, short-sighted, or even “softly” racist. However, he continued to fight for human rights causes for the rest of his life, suggesting that he was sincerely committed to helping other people. In many ways, Morel seems to have been ahead of his time—while the notion that World War I was a foolish, avoidable conflict is utterly uncontroversial by modern standards, such an idea would have sounded outrageous to most people in 1914.
When Morel was released from prison in 1918, he was surprised to find himself a hero to the British Labor Party (which had gradually become more and more opposed to the war). He was elected to Parliament in Dundee, Scotland, and he was one of the party’s most important voices on foreign policy in the early 1920s. In 1924, records now show, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; tragically, he died the same year. He was mourned at enormous memorial services in Dundee, London, and New York
Morel wasn’t a perfectly moral figure; however, his life is an important example of how even ordinary people can choose to devote themselves to human rights causes. Furthermore, Morel’s life shows how people can “evolve” on human rights issues: over time, Morel’s views seem to have grown more tolerant and open-minded.