Henry Morton Stanley traveled to meet King Leopold in June of 1878. At the time, Stanley was Europe’s leading expert on the Congo River, having traveled through it over the course of two years. Leopold understood that, by controlling the Congo River, he could control the passage of European ships across Africa, thereby making huge sums of money.
By the late 1870s, Leopold had a definite plan for the Congo: having satisfied Europe’s power elite that he was a benevolent figure, he needed to colonize the Congo before another European power claimed it.
When Leopold finally met with Stanley, Leopold was 43 years old, and a shrewd, experienced monarch. Stanley, thirty-seven, was famous across Europe and America, but still wildly insecure about his status in the eyes of Europe’s elite. Perhaps sensing this, Leopold flattered Stanley, giving him luxurious gifts and praising his bravery and ingenuity. Stanley accepted a contract of 50,000 francs a year (the equivalent of about 250,000 dollars) to lead an expedition to the Congo.
Leopold was a shrewd judge of character: he recognized that Stanley, in spite of his vast fame, was hungry for praise and recognition from the aristocracy. Thus, Leopold was careful to flatter Stanley in addition to offering him large sums of money in return for doing his bidding.
What did Leopold expect to find in the Congo? In no small part, he was excited by the prospect of ivory, which was seen as a luxury good throughout Europe. However, as before, he took great pains to appear to be a benevolent humanitarian. He established a new organization, the International Association of the Congo (IAC). Leopold evidently wanted people to confuse the IAC with the IAA; indeed, the two organizations even had the same flag. Leopold publicized the information that the IAC would be traveling to “the Congo”—a phrase which now referred to an area of land, not just the Congo River—in order to build “hospices” to protect and benefit the African peoples. As before, donations poured in from Europe’s greatest humanitarians. Leopold even claimed that he was sending Stanley to investigate the possibility of building “free negro republics” around the Congo, whose presidents would live in Europe and rule with King Leopold’s help. Privately, however, Leopold assured Stanley that there would be no “negro republic” in the Congo—white people would have all the power.
Leopold had studied the imperial histories of France, England, and Germany, so he must have known that his territory in the Congo was likely to make him fabulously wealthy. However, he also recognized that he would need to keep his fortune secret; otherwise, he would lose his reputation as a philanthropist, thereby becoming a political and economic rival to the other Western powers. Notice that, from the very beginning, Stanley was aware that Leopold was a liar—he’d heard Leopold’s talk of a resettlement colony, and had been informed by Leopold himself that there would be such a resettlement colony. While Stanley would go on to protest some of Leopold’s bolder deceptions, he was content to participate in Leopold’s lies for the time being.
For the next five years, Stanley worked diligently on behalf of King Leopold. His men, some of whom were white Europeans, some of whom were Africans who lived near the river, spent two years building infrastructure. During this time Stanley brutally punished anyone thought to be shirking hard labor. In his letters to Leopold, Stanley criticized his workers for being lazy and weak-minded. On one occasion, Stanley nearly died of malaria, but he remained loyal to his mission and to King Leopold throughout his illness. Meanwhile, Leopold carefully used his political influence to spread the message that his intervention in the Congo was economically disinterested; at the same time, however, he instructed Stanley to gather as much ivory as possible, and claim the territory surrounding the Congo River.
Stanley was a brutal colonial ruler. Like many of the most notable empire-builders of the era, Stanley’s job was to intimidate his men into working long hours in horrible conditions, so that the future generations of European visitors could have roads, buildings, and telegraph lines. Leopold and Stanley proved to be an effective team: while Stanley worked his men hard, Leopold continued to give the general public the impression that he was interested in charity and nothing more.
During Stanley’s expedition, other European powers began exploring the area surrounding the Congo. Afraid that he would lose his colonial holdings, Leopold instructed Stanley to work as quickly as possible to secure his Congolese landholdings. Stanley, backed by a private army of thousands, negotiated treaties with dozens of African chiefs who lived along the river. Though Stanley wanted to leave the chiefs some sovereignty over their own land, Leopold pressured Stanley to arrange for treaties granting Belgium total control over the land. In reality, many of the African chiefs didn’t realize they were singing “treaties” at all—many had never seen written words before, and didn’t understand that they were surrendering their land forever. Also, Stanley was shrewd in using alcohol to persuade African chiefs to agree to give up their lands; he would offer the chiefs gin in return for their cooperation.
Throughout the 19th century, European countries colonized and developed territories of Africa, America, Asia, and Australia. In many cases, the European colonists claimed that they had a legal right to do so. However, the European powers’ legal claim to the land was highly questionable, because the native people with whom they made the deals didn’t always fully understand what they were signing—for example, many of the African chiefs who “agreed” to give up their land didn’t understand what a contract was. The fact that Stanley worked quickly and used the lure of alcohol to close deals suggests that he must have known that his behavior was unethical.
What do we know about the societies that existed along the Congo River before Stanley’s arrival? To begin with, societies along the Congo were incredibly diverse. Some of the Congo River societies were seminomadic; they wandered along the river in pursuit of big game. Other Congolese societies were more sedentary, and had sophisticated arts and sciences. Congolese baskets, mats, masks, and woodcarvings played a major role in inspiring the Cubist artwork of Pablo Picasso. But for now, Europeans didn’t stop to notice the beauty of Congolese art. Finally, many of the societies along the river had strong spiritual traditions—for example, one society elected its leaders via a compromise between the society’s elders, the spirits of their ancestors, and wild animals.
Although there is relatively little information about the societies that lived along the Congo River before Stanley’s arrival, it’s important to try to understand them. To begin with, notice that Hochschild doesn’t characterize the Congolese tribes as monolithic—they were very different from one another (some were nomadic, some more sedentary, etc.). By celebrating the tribes’ art, culture, and religion, Hochschild refrains from portraying the Congolese as mere victims (as Edmund Dene Morel and his colleagues tended to do).
By June of 1884, Stanley’s work in the Congo was done. He’d arranged for hundreds of treaties granting the Belgians control over Congolese land, and he’d built sturdy roads and buildings. Stanley complained more than once about Leopold’s greed, even though it was Stanley himself who allowed Leopold to realize his greedy ambitions. By this time, the scramble for Africa had truly begun: the great powers of Europe were busy organizing expeditions to explore and colonize various parts of the African continent. Leopold, meanwhile, was trying to find a way to get other nations to recognize his newly secured landholdings in the Congo.
Leopold seized land in the Congo at the time when many European powers were “scrambling” to claim as much of Africa as possible. Because Belgium had no other imperial landholdings, Leopold needed to find a way to set a precedent for Belgian imperialism—in other words, he needed to convince another Western country to formally recognize his territory. Moreover, Leopold needed to do so while still seeming to be a generous humanitarian.