In the spring of 1883, President Chester A. Arthur traveled to Florida as the guest of General Henry Shelton Sanford, still the loyal servant of King Leopold II. Sanford was a longtime supporter of the Republican Party to which Arthur belonged, and Leopold believed that he could use Sanford to convince Arthur to formally recognize his claims to Congolese land. In the fall of 1883, Sanford met with Arthur in the White House, where he praised Leopold for his great humanitarian work. Shrewdly, Sanford compared Leopold’s work in the Congo to the American project to resettle slaves in Africa—a project which had been driven by private societies and which had resulted in the creation of the independent country of Liberia. Sanford also claimed that Leopold’s colonial holdings in the Congo would thwart the ambitions of “barbaric” Arab slave-traders in the region.
In this section, Hochschild shows that Leopold II, in addition to being a racist himself (given that he was willing to enslave Congolese people), was skillful at manipulating other people and catering to their political and ideological leanings. Thus, he used Sanford to convince Chester A. Arthur that the Congo would become “the next Liberia”—a place where former slaves could live in peace. The “back to Africa” movement, which originated in America in the late 19th century, proposed sending millions of former slaves back to Africa. The idea had very broad-ranging support, including from white supremacists, supporters of African American equality, and President Chester A. Arthur. The strange bedfellows of the back to Africa movement and Belgian imperialism show just how convoluted Western ideas about Africa were.
Throughout 1884, Sanford continued his work as a Washington lobbyist for Leopold’s cause. He wined and dined American politicians and businessmen, and found a powerful ally in John Tyler Morgan, a white supremacist senator from Alabama who had supported a plan to send former slaves (many of whom had lived their whole lives in the United States) “back” to Africa. Sanford convinced Morgan that, by recognizing the existence of Leopold’s Congo landholdings, the U.S. would have a way to establish economic connections between itself and Africa, perhaps opening up a new market for Alabama’s cotton surplus. Morgan introduced a Senate resolution recognizing Leopold’s Congo claims, and in April 1884, the U.S. became the first country to officially recognize King Leopold II’s claim to the Congo. The Secretary of State made a statement in which he confused the IAC and the IAA, showing that Leopold’s strategy had worked perfectly: America couldn’t be sure if Leopold’s landholdings were philanthropic or colonial.
John Tyler Morgan was a white supremacist senator at a time when many prominent American politicians were openly racist. Morgan was an active supporter of the “back to Africa” movement—he despised African Americans, and wanted to expel them from their own country. Sanford effectively convinced Morgan that, by supporting Belgium in the Congo, he would have a resettlement colony for African Americans in the decades to come. The passage also shows how Leopold used confusion, jargon, and obfuscation to further his ends—by using acronyms and confusing terminology, he was able to trick people into thinking that his philanthropic organizations and his imperialist ventures were one and the same. Therefore, many believed that his colonies in the Congo must be humanitarian.
U.S. recognition of the Congo immediately strengthened Leopold’s position in Africa. Leopold scored another victory when he convinced France to formally recognize his landholdings, as well. In order to accomplish this, Leopold launched a journalistic campaign, paying writers to pen long stories praising his humanitarian work in the Congo. The French government wasn’t concerned about Belgium threatening France’s power in Africa; in fact, France believed that, by recognizing Belgium’s colonial holdings, it stood a better chance of buying those holdings at some point in the future. American and French recognition launched a domino effect—within a few years, a long list of countries recognized Leopold’s claim to the Congo. Leopold’s greatest challenge was convincing Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany to recognize the Congo. Von Bismarck immediately doubted that Leopold would establish an independent state in the Congo. However, he eventually agreed to recognize Leopold’s claims to the Congo because he was worried that, if he did not, Britain or France would claim the territory for itself.
Notice how cunningly Leopold pitted the countries of Europe against one another: he frightened them into thinking that, unless they protected Belgium now, another European power would be able to annex the Congo in the near future. One could even make the argument that Leopold was able to control the Congo largely because of the greed of the other European nations (and, furthermore, the racism of American politicians). Hochschild argues that it would be wrong to blame Leopold alone for the atrocities in the Congo. Cruel though he was, Leopold only succeeded in enslaving the indigenous Congolese because he had the cynical backing of the most powerful people in the Western world.
In 1884, von Bismarck hosted the famous Berlin Conference, in which the leaders of Europe’s great powers met to discuss the division of Africa. King Leopold did not attend the conference, because, officially, the Congo was under the control of the IAC, which was a private society. However, many of Leopold’s followers were present at the conference, including Sanford (acting as ambassador from America), and Stanley. Leopold instructed his allies to include Belgium in a series of trade agreements, further cementing the Congo’s status as a legitimate territory.
Leopold continued to use well-placed agents and allies to further his interests—at the Berlin Conference, for instance, he ensured that the European powers would officially recognize Belgium’s holdings in the Congo through trade, which cemented the political legitimacy of Belgium’s claim to the Congo.
On May 29, 1885, Leopold, now fifty years old, officially declared his landholdings to be the Congo Free State. In spite of the changed name, the land remained under Leopold’s private control.
Tragically, the name “Congo Free State” proved inappropriate: there was nothing “free” about Leopold’s landholdings in Africa. On the contrary, they comprised a slave state.