Part 3: The Horror Crescendos
When George Washington Williams died on August 2nd, 1891 in Blackpool, England, after his fiancee and mother had taken him there from London in the desperate hope that Blackpool’s fresh sea air might cure his worsening tuberculosis and pleurisy contracted during his travels in Africa, simultaneously a young lad by the name of Edmund Dene Morel was trying to make ends meet in nearby Liverpool for both himself and his ailing mother.
That same year young Edmund took a job in Liverpool as a clerk with the steam shipping line Elder Dempster, which, notably for our story, served ports in West Africa. Ironically, Elder Dempster would become the catalyst through which Edmund would carry on Williams’ efforts to expose King Leopold II’s horrors in the Congo Free State, because this very shipping line held the monopoly contract with the king to ship raw materials and supplies between Europe and the Congo, a contract that would gradually lead to shocking revelations for and consequent outrage from the idealistic, highly moral young Englishman.
Over time, Edmund, whose intelligence and hard work quickly brought him increasing responsibilities within the company as well as a better vantage point as to its workings with Congo Free State, became quite inquisitive about certain discrepancies between the latter’s shipments and “the company books”, and like a young Sherlock Holmes, whose creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would actually rally to Morel’s cause some years later, began to thoroughly investigate. To quote from Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost:
At the dockside at Antwerp, Morel saw what the Elder Dempster ships were carrying. But he soon noticed that the records he carefully compiled for his employer did not conform with the trade statistics that the [Congo Free State] announced to the public. As he studied the discrepancies between the two sets of figures, he began to uncover an elaborate skein of fraud. Three discoveries shocked him (p. 179 – Mariner Books edition of King Leopold’s Ghost, henceforth referred to as KLG).
These three discoveries were that
- massive amounts of weapons and ammunition were regularly being shipped TO the Congo;
- much more rubber and ivory were being imported from the Congo than the state’s profit returns indicated; and
- although indeed ivory and rubber were coming out of the Congo in copious amounts, few normal trade goods were headng back to the Congo that would indicate any purchasing power by the Congolese populace.
From these discoveries, made in the late 1890s, Morel deduced that the Congolese were not being paid at all for their obviously copious labor. “How, then, was this rubber and ivory being acquired?” he wrote. “Certainly not by commercial dealing. Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out” (KLG, p. 180). He would further deduce, correctly, that what he was really facing across the seas in the Congo was a massive forced labor-slave state. That explained all the shipped weapons and the dearth of regular supplies.
Meanwhile, insignificant as though it might seem at first, Morel in his early days at the shipping line was chronically short on funds, so, among other things, he took to freelance writing for business-related journals. He thereby began honing the very journalistic skills with which he would subsequently do battle with Leopold.
But at that point in time Morel was still as mesmerized as anybody with the deceptive proclamations on the glorious benefits of the Congo Free State. It would be left to others, largely the missionaries, to fill in the historical gaps between George Washington Williams’ death and Edmund Dene Morel’s sobering epiphany. Central among these was an African-American Southern Presbyterian missionary, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard.
The Good Shepherd
William Sheppard was born free in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1865 just as the American Civil War was ending. Possessed of a great drive to better himself from an early age, he worked his way through one of the first black colleges, The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, later the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), where the soon-to-be-great Booker T. Washington was one of his inspiring teachers.
Upon graduation, William, who had developed a strong inclination towards a spiritual vocation, opted to enroll in the Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now Stillman College) in Alabama, where he met his future wife Lucy Gantt. After graduation he went on to become a Presbyterian minister in Montgomery, Alabama as well as Atlanta, Georgia. All the while, however, a growing desire to do missionary work in Africa enveloped him, driven in part at least, by the suffocating nature of segregated urban life in the South. Eventually this urge led him to petition the Southern Presbyterian Church in the late 1880s to send him to Africa.
The church, however, still part and parcel of the patronizing racial bias of Southern culture, demurred from sending William unless they could find a white missionary to supervise him. After some two years long search, the “overseer” finally appeared in the form of a descendent of slave-holding Southern plantation owners, the Reverend Samuel Lapsley, whom, despite their diametrically opposed backgrounds, actually hit it off quite well with Sheppard.
Soon they were en route, the promising Free Congo State their grand destination, Lapsley being allowed the prestigious honor of gaining audiences with first President Harrison in Washington DC and then King Leopold himself in Belgium as they traveled (Leopold, of course, immediately pondering how he might manipulate the missionaries to his purposes). Sheppard, ironically, was not allowed to meet either – so much for American emancipation and Belgium’s enlightened civilizing canon of the times. Finally in May, 1890, they reached the Congo, the same year that George Washington Williams had begun his investigative travels there as well. Shepperd, by the way, was one of the first black missionaries in Africa.
They initially stayed in a mission at the seaport of Matadi near the foot of the Congo River to assemble a supply caravan for the challenging trek upriver, at, coincidentally, the same time that the soon-to-be-famous author Joseph Conrad was doing the same thing. Lapsley would cross paths with the great writer twice in the Congo.
Not surprisingly, the two missionaries bounded onto African soil with their minds full of the standard Western stereotypes of the time about Africans, that they were uncivilized savages, cannibals, ignorant, backward, childlike and lazy to name a few, but both of them would soon modify these views, growing in admiration for the tribal peoples they met as time went on. Sheppard would eventually call them “my people” and wax poetic about being in “the country of my forefathers” (KLG, p. 155). In one diary entry he wrote:
I grew very found of the Bakuba [tribe] and it was reciprocated. They were the finest looking race I had seen in Africa, dignified, graceful, courageous, honest, with an open smiling countenance really hospitable. Their knowledge of weaving, embroidering, wood-carving and smelting was the highest in equatorial Africa. (KLG, p. 157)
While Lapsley worked hard and not too successfully to “convert the natives”, Sheppard soon realized that he was not merely a missionary but also an explorer, adventurer and hunter, and found himself constantly trekking into the bush to fulfill these roles. This intrepid energy, courage and wanderlust is what would eventually lead him to discover, deep in the rainforests, many of the horrors going on in the Congo Free State behind the propaganda facade of Leopold’s “civilizing mission”, and to report on them.
Tragically, in early 1892 Reverend Samuel Lapsley died of biliuous hematuric fever while on church business back on the Congo’s west coast, one of the many hazards missionaries faced, so Sheppard was temporarily the de facto head of the mission until the Southern Presbyterians could send another “supervisor”. However, the replacement they eventually sent was, it would appear, chosen more by fate than mere churchmen, for that man, William McCutchan Morrison, was the perfect compliment to Sheppard’s growing efforts to convey the truth about the Congo.
Enter William Morrison
Morrison, a deeply religious Virginian, was himself immediately horrified by the Rubber Terror atrocities and the countless victims that he began to both hear about and witness upon and after his arrival, reacting with as much moral outrage and sense of ethical duty as Edmund Morel. Indeed, Morel and he would become good friends over time. But equally, if not more importantly, Morrison and Sheppard forged a deep partnership to expose the crimes of King Leopold’s entire, sordid enterprise, first by sending reports back to the Presbyterians in America, who would publish them in their missionary magazines, not a very large circulation of course, but enough to stoke the growing fires of resistance against Leopold, because word continued to spread.
Eventually their reports, and then speeches whenever they went abroad to speak on the Congo, would stir the great cauldron of truth, reform and justice that Morel, they themselves and soon others were slowly forging. Perhaps more than anybody, they were the eyes and ears on the ground of the international movement that would soon develop.
Morel Goes on the Attack
By the end of the 19th Century Edmund Morel had learned enough and become enraged enough about what he called “a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman” (KLG, p.181) that he began to take action. First he confronted the head of Elder Dempster, Sir Alfred Jones, with his findings, though to little avail, because the company stood to lose its heady shipping contract if it confronted Leopold at all forcefully. Instead the shipping line began to pressure Morel to drop the subject, eventually even attempting to bribe him into silence, all, in turn, to no avail.
By now Morel could see that the handwriting was on the wall at the business he had served all too adroitly for a decade, since he was not about to compromise his principles. Thus he resigned in 1901 to become, in a few short years, one of the greatest humanitarian crusaders of all time, his key weapons the power of his pen, his boundless energy and dauntlessness in the face of strident opposition, and his tremendous ability to build a strong solidarity movement against the depredations of King Leopold and his absolutist colony. He was determined, he wrote with the pen that he would wield like a rapier against King Leopold, “to do my best to expose and destroy what I then knew to be a legalized infamy” (KLG, p. 186). And he roared out how “Blood is smeared all over the Congo State, its history is blood-stained, its deeds are bloody, the edifice it has reared is cemented in blood—the blood of unfortunate negroes, spilled freely with the most sordid of all motives, monetary gain.” (source)
Edmund had already begun writing a series ofanonymous articles called “The Congo Scandal” while still employed with Elder Dempster in 1900, and now he began writing and editing full time for the new journal ‘West Africa’. However his superiors, yet again, tried to put restrictions on what he could say, so to remain unfettered, he boldly decided to establish, in Liverpool in 1903, his own newspaper, the ‘West African Mail’, through the financial aid of shipping merchant John Holt, close friend to Mary Kingsley, famed writer and explorer of, as well as scholar on Africa.
Soon word began to spread in the Congo, and beyond, that here was a man with a weekly, illustrated journal who was eager to tell the world the truth about the Congo Free State. Quoting from an article by Kenn Taylor for Nerve:
As the news of his actions spread, Morel received letters, reports, documents and photographs from employees of Leopold and many Christian missionaries frustrated with the failure of church leaders to act on their reports. Their leaders were apparently more concerned with ‘saving the souls’ of the natives than preventing their suffering in this life. (source)
Of course Leopold had not been sitting by idly for the past decade as the reports of missionaries surfaced here and there in various church publications and other periodicals in England, America and Europe. Leopold himself had eyes and ears everywhere, plus the resources and manpower to defend his assets and prerogatives. We have already seen how his agents defamed the dying George Washington Williams in 1891. He was also threatening William Sheppard and other missionaries with taxation, deportation, even arrest and imprisonment for “slandering the state” and other such tripe. He managed to completely silence the Swedish missionary E.V. Sjöblom, who had, in 1896, published a detailed condemnation of the Rubber Terror in the Swedish press and beyond, even speaking out publicly. As recounted in Wikipedia, “Congo State officials counterattacked with newspaper articles, letters, and comments from Leopold in the Belgian and British press, and quickly silenced Sjöblom. The missionary never spoke up again.” (source)
But with Morel, Leopold was facing a much more formidable character, an ethically incorruptible, fearless and tirelessly relentless foe who acted for all the world like a one-man army. One can almost imagine Shakespeare’s King Edward V urging him on with his martial exhortation to:
Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews , summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;(source)
….he [Morel] produced a huge, albeit sometimes repetitive, body of work on the subject: three full books and portions of two others, hundreds of articles for almost all the major British newspapers, plus many written in French for papers in France and Belgium, hundreds of letters to the editor, and several dozen pamphlets….He did all this while continuing to edit the “West Africa Mail” and to write much of it. Besides the articles under his byline, many columns by “Africanus” or “An Observer” seem the work of the editor himself. Before long, Morel was also editing a special monthly supplement to the newspaper, devoted solely to exposing injustice in the Congo…
Morel’s writing combined controlled fury with meticulous accuracy. Every detail in his books came from careful research, the evidence amassed as painstakingly as in a lawyer’s brief. Over the years both admirers and detractors have searched his work for factual errors, with scant success…. (KLG, p. 188-189)
In May of 1903 Herbert Samuel proposed that the British Government should confer with the signatory powers of the Berlin Act with the idea of ending the abuses which existed in the Congo State. With modified wording, the motion was passed unanimously. This marked a decisive stage in what came to be known as the Congo reform campaign, for the motion had committed the British Government to action, and to the thesis that the Congo State was not a fully autonomous state, so that its ruler was answerable to the signatory Powers of the Berlin Act for the way in which he exercised his authority. In August a circular note was sent to these Powers on the question of the treatment of Africans in the Congo State, and at the same time the British consul at Boma, Roger Casement, was sent to tour the interior and to make a report on the conditions which he found there. (King Leopold’s Congo: Aspects of the Development of Race Relations in the Congo Independent State. Ruth Slade – author, Oxford University Press)
The author underplays the significance of Roger Casement’s assignment to investigate the interior, which should perhaps be announced with horns and bodhráns, for this was a bit like sending mythical Cú Chulainn off on his legendary raid against the Cattle of Cooley, for Casement was a provocative Irishman, and he was going to raise Hell with his report and in the aftermath.
Posted: Saturday, 5 May 2012