At the end of the 19th century, few Europeans thought of African colonization as an act of theft; in fact, they behaved as though Africa were an empty continent, ripe for industrialization and urban development. One of the few exceptions to this rule was George Washington Williams, an African American journalist who traveled to the Congo in 1890.
It is striking to compare the claims of Portuguese explorers in the 15th century with the claims of 19th century imperialists. The Portuguese didn’t deny that Africa was densely populated, whereas many 19th century European explorers tried to claim that there were almost no native people. This fiction was developed, in part, to bolster their countries’ rights to the land.
Williams was born in Pennsylvania, and fought in the Civil War on the Union side. He later fought in the American cavalry against Native Americans living on the Great Plains. Later on, he studied at Howard University, where he proved himself to be a great speaker and writer. Williams then founded a national black newspaper in Washington D.C., and, in 1882, he published a massive history of the African American experience. During an 1883 visit to the White House, Williams was introduced to Henry Shelton Sanford, then lobbying for U.S. recognition of Leopold’s landholdings in the Congo. Sanford convinced Williams that the Congo could be a home for African Americans.
George Washington Williams was a gifted preacher and public speaker; he was also a committed advocate of African American rights. It might sound odd that Williams would have supported an African American colony in the Congo (especially considering that white supremacists like John Tyler Morgan supported an almost identical plan). However, Williams believed that African Americans should have the right to govern themselves and be free of stigmatization and prejudice—life in the Congo, he believed, offered such an opportunity.
Williams next traveled to Belgium to write articles about the possibility of an African American colony in the Congo. He interviewed Leopold, and was dazzled with what he perceived as Leopold’s magnanimity and Christian piety. Inspired by Leopold, Williams made a deal with a Belgian company to travel to the Congo and write a book about the territory. Thanks to funds provided by an American railway baron, Williams traveled down the coast of Africa, eventually arriving in the Congo.
At first, Williams believed that Leopold was a generous, pious monarch. It’s a testament to Leopold’s deviousness that he managed to fool even Williams, who would later go on to be one of Leopold’s most important opponents on the international stage.
In Williams’s earliest letters to Leopold, sent from the Congo, it is already clear that Williams is disturbed by the state of affairs in Leopold’s territory. He criticizes the white administrators in the Congo for using superior technology to trick African people into thinking that white men are magical. He also notes that Stanley’s name provokes shudders among the Africans. Williams points out the absence of schools or churches in the Congo, and notes the murder and torture that took place under Stanley’s rule. Williams concludes that the Congo is currently a slave state, in which white soldiers use guns, torture, and intimidation to force African people to work for nothing. Three months after penning his first letter to Leopold, Williams sends a letter to the American secretary of state, arguing that the Congo state was guilty of “crimes against humanity.”
Williams immediately noticed the injustices of life in the Congo. He criticized Stanley’s use of torture and intimidation, and attacked Leopold himself for supporting a slave state in the Congo. Williams was clearly a bold, courageous man, who didn’t respect authorities like Leopold simply because they were monarchs. Williams took a bold step by going out of his chain of command and sending a letter directly to the American secretary of state. Even more strikingly, Williams attacked Leopold for “crimes against humanity”—suggesting that Williams, unlike many of the major humanitarians of the era, believed in a set of universal human rights.
Williams’s letters on the Congo were published in the New York Herald, Stanley’s former employer. Leopold was furious with Williams, and told his contacts in Europe that Williams was a liar. While some Belgian newspapers treated Williams as a fraud, others presented his findings as the truth. In Parliament, representatives vigorously debated the truth of Williams’s letters. Then, very suddenly, Williams died of tuberculosis. His death was celebrated in many Belgian newspapers, though other writers treated him as a martyr for the Congolese cause. Williams’s letters represent some of the first Western criticism of Leopold’s Congo territory— before Williams visited the Congo, almost a thousand Americans and Europeans had visited Leopold’s Congo, and not a single one had spoken out against it.
Leopold was lucky that Williams died so soon after sending out his first letters; had Williams lived much longer, it’s entirely possible that he would have done more to popularize the Congo reform movement. However, it’s a mark of Leopold’s talent for publicity and media control that he was able to undermine Williams’s campaign by relying on his allies in politics and journalism. Perhaps the most stunning thing about Williams’s story is that, before his visit, many hundreds of Westerners had witnessed atrocities in the Congo and said nothing about them.