Part 3: The Horror Crescendos
Amazingly enough, young Roger Casement, just like Edmund Morel, also wound his way to Liverpool as a down-on-his-luck teenager, although arriving a decade earlier and sojourning all the way from his homeland of Ireland. He, also like Morel, found employment as a clerk at Elder Dempster, the very shipping line that would later become so heavily enmeshed with King Leopold and the fortunes of the Congo Free State, and through whose employ during the 1890s, Edmund Morel would come to discover that Leopold was running a forced labor/slave state.
But unlike the more sedentary Morel, Roger had a strong streak of wanderlust and, as many an adventurous young man did in the 1880s, decided to explore mysterious Africa, signing onto a steam freighter bound for the Congo, the Elder Dempster’s own SS Bonny, as a ship’s purser in 1883.
He would make four round-trip cruises on the Bonny, becoming more fascinated with the Dark Continent each time, until he finally decided to establish himself as a surveyor for the International African Association in the Congo basin region, the very organization that King Leopold had spearheaded the creation of to ostensibly explore, study and “civilize” Africa, although in reality it served as an initial front for Leopold’s machinations to stake out the Congo for himself. The invisible web of ironic associations between Casement and Leopold thus expanded, the former, in a very small way, now helping to enable the very Frankenstein monster that he would later attempt to destroy.
Roger Casement spent much of the rest of the 80s surveying, learning and observing the often chilling goings-on in the Congo, when he was not enhancing his reputation with such idiosyncratic claims to fame as being the “first white man who ever swam across the crocodile-infested Inkisi River.” (p. 196 – Mariner Books edition of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild)
He also randomly crossed paths or shared journeys in the Congo with such characters as famed explorer and author Henry Morton Stanley, the sadistic Force Publique officer Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, infamous as a collector of African natives’ severed heads, and the great novelist Joseph Conrad, who spoke well of Casement in his diary, describing him thus: “….Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.” (ibid., p. 196)
Casement eventually returned to his native Ireland for a respite, but as bullish on Brittania at the time as anyone basking in the glow of the never-setting Union Jack, he soon found himself gravitating toward employment with the British colonial administration, quickly returning to Africa in 1892 to work first as a surveyor for the Niger Coast Protectorate, before also becoming its Acting Director-General of Customs in what was apparently a collateral appointment to his surveying duties, an appointment that also demanded that he send reports back to Britain.
After three years in Niger he again returned to Britain, to learn, to his surprise, that one of his reports had been elevated to the status of a White Paper for Parliament, quite an honor, leading the Foreign Office to zealously snatch him and send him off in 1895 as the new consul to Portuguese East Africa, headquartered at Lorenco Marques, now Maputo, the capital of modern Mozambique.
Unfortunately, the climate and Lorenco Marque only served to depress and sicken him, forcing him to return home ill twice before the Foreign Office decided to transfer him to West Africa in 1898 to investigate charges of abuses against British subjects in the region (source).
Then in 1900 he was tasked with setting up the first British consulate in the Congo Free State at Boma, and this became the occasion, while en route from England to Africa, for his first direct meeting with King Leopold in Brussels, who, as usual, wanted to host (and secretly charm, manipulate and vet) any prestigious diplomat who was headed out to his private fiefdom. Invited to lunch, Casement was inundated with the king’s standard spiel about uplifting the natives in the name of civilization while simultaneously making excuses for any unsavory reports about the Congo Free State that had recently been surfacing. “Unlike most visitors,” writes Hochschild, “Casement appears not to have been charmed by Leopold. He had already seen too much.” (ibid., p.198)
Indeed, Casement, who had already spoken out on occasion about colonial mistreatment of natives in Africa, was the last person who was going to shill for Leopold, and once settled into his new consular position, was soon writing fresh reports for the Foreign Office about the plentiful abuses in his new area of responsibility. Thus by by mid-1903, as Morel’s crusade in England was bringing outrage against Leopold to a boiling point in Parliament, Casement was already primed and ready to execute the Foreign Office’s August, 2003 directive for him to proceed into the Congolese interior to investigate charges of human rights abuses. At this point his and Edmund Morel’s life paths began to merge.
Scotching the Snake
As Casement prepared for his trek into the rubber-extracting regions of the Congo, he wrote to a friend that, “A man doesn’t go among thorns unless a snake’s after him or he’s after a snake,” adding that “I’m after a snake and please God I’ll scotch it.” (ibid., p. 200).
For Casement, going “among thorns” would literally mean traveling by small steamboat up the Congo river and its tributaries (sometimes via canoe), a dangerous undertaking, to visit rubber concessions and directly state-run rubber operations, as well as marching into the bush to visit villages, missions and singular witnesses, taking notes and writing furious dispatches that slowly meandered back to the Foreign Office as he went. He even penned scathing condemnations addressed to Congolese authorities, while also inspiring many of those he met during his trek to take up their own investigations and protests against what he denounced as an infamous, shameful system. A typical diary entry gives you the flavor of his investigative findings from day to day:
August 29: Bongandanga…saw rubber “Market,” nothing but guns – around 20 armed men…The popln. 242 men with rubber all guarded like convicts. To call this “trade” is the height of lying. (ibid., p. 202)
Most disturbing was the plethora of severed hands and other limbs, even penises, that he continually witnessed or was informed of, along with the gruesome stories describing the bloody details and motives.
By late 1903 Consul Casement had completed his investigations and returned to London to finalize his factually explosive report to Parliament. But we must not forget that Leopold, who was already dreading the content, had a coterie of spies, sycophants, sympathizers and cultivated friends in England who, whether with or without prompting, could be counted upon to sabotage or obstruct anyone threatening a royal personage and patron such as himself. Now some of them began to act.
First it was Sir Constantine Phipps, British minister to Brussels, desperately working to delay the report’s release; then it was Sir Alfred Jones, head of Elder Dempster, attempting to soften the tone or get a copy for Leopold, not to mention the squeamishness of the Foreign Office itself at the prospects of pillorying a king who was a cousin of Queen Victoria. Consequently the Foreign Office did monkey-wrench what became known as “The Casement Report” by removing all names of persons and places and replacing them with initials, which lent an air of unreality to the official forty pages of Parliamentary Papers and twenty pages of individual eye-witness statements meticulously recorded by Casement. And corroborating, for example, the testimony of “A.B.” in “B.” suddenly becomes a laughable affair legally and journalistically. The only saving grace for Casement was that he had already had the foresight to speak to the newspapers before being confronted with this conundrum, so some of his findings were already in the public eye.
Even so, when his truncated report was finally issued in early 1904, Casement, with a fiery Irish temperament, was understandably angry and upset, and quickly put on the defensive as the many minions of King Leopold in the press, politics and beyond began to counterattack with all manner of slander, denial and rationalizations.
It was as if, metaphorically speaking, the Foreign Office had sawed off the rudder of a frigate assigned to Casement to do battle in against the Free Congo “ship of state”. However Casement’s extensive and detailed report was also, fortunately, like navy grapeshot, filled with myriads of hard metal ball facts that were bound to hit something as they burst outwards, no matter how erratically the frigate was steering, and Casement, although not really aware of it initially, had just slashed Leopold’s foremast in half.
Yet while Casement, taking blow after blow from Leopold’s ranks, was even threatening to resign from the suddenly toothless Foreign Office, the inevitable alliance ordained by history now occurred. Edmund Morel, well-aware of all the intrigues going on, stopped by for dinner with him, an exceedingly lengthy dinner as the conversations about the Congo went on into the wee hours of the morning. Casement’s graphic descriptions of the horrific scenes from his report had a cathartic effect on Morel:
He (Casement) told me that he had been amazed to find that I, five thousand miles away, had come to conclusions identical with his in every respect….An immense weight passed from me. (ibid., p. 206)
Thus began the historical collaboration and friendship between the two that would last until tragedy struck each of them separately during World War I. Each inspired the other to new heights of zeal and commitment to end the misrule of the Belgian king, and within a few weeks’ time they and Morel’s wife, Mary, had jointly agreed that a new organization was needed, one singularly focused on stopping Leopold. Since Casement was still working for the Foreign Office (although with much chagrin) and had to stay formally aloof from obvious partisanship, Morel was under no such constrains and officially launched, along with another reformer, Dr. Henry Grattan Guinness of the famous Guinesss missionary family, the Congo Reform Association in March, 1904. Casement, meanwhile, became a silent partner and financial contributor and fundraiser.
The Congo Reform Association, or CRA, would attempt to follow in the footsteps of the two consecutive British Anti-Slavery Societies that had, in the 19th Century, led the battle against human bondage, the first one ending the nefarious institution within the British Empire, the second incarnation doing much to help abolish slavery worldwide over time.
The CRA was quickly off to a good start, its very first meeting on March 23, 1904 attracting a thousand plus people. British citizens of all shapes, sizes and classes had shown a strong moral revulsion against racial injustice in the past, and Morel and the CRA quickly found that they would so again against the outrages of the “Free” State, as preachers, housewives, Members of Parliament, businessmen, mayors, Lords and factory workers all joined what soon took on all the fervor of a new anti-slavery crusade.
Morel adroitly sustained this crusade intellectually and journalistically through his continued publishing of the West African Mail and his personal outpouring of books, pamphlets, letters and articles at an incredible rate, writing, for example, some 3700 letters in the first half of 1906. In turn, his successes in publishing spurred on missionaries, officials, soldiers, journalists and others in the Congo and even beyond, past or present, to provide him with yet more information, articles, letters and sources, as well as something Morel put to particularly good use, vivid photographs of the Rubber Terror’s horrors, all of which kept fanning the fires of protest against Leopold. And, of course, Morel continuously used Roger Casement’s report, abbreviations and all, to great effect internationally, because now the Congo Reform Association was finding its way into print in newspapers around the world, even in the Belgian press, not to mention the all-important American press.
Moreover, such famous writers as Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Anatole France and Mark Twain all lent their literary talents to the CRA to powerful effect. Mark Twain lampooned Leopold mercilessly in his dark satire, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which begins:
If I had them by the throat! [Hastily kisses the crucifix, and mumbles] In these twenty years I have spent millions to keep the press of the two hemispheres quiet, and still these leaks keep on occurring. I have spent other millions on religion and art, and what do I get for it? Nothing. Not a compliment. These generosities are studiedly ignored, in print. In print I get nothing but slanders – and slanders again – and still slanders, and slanders on top of slanders! Grant them true, what of it? They are slanders all the same, when uttered against a king. (source)
Meanwhile, Morel and his associates were soon encouraging the growth of local branches of the CRA throughout England and Scotland to augment and multiply the political effectiveness of the national organization, all of them holding meetings, promoting speakers, raising funds and lobbying the British government. Later on, branches and affiliates would blossom in France, Germany, Norway and elsewhere. Speakers would denounce Leopold even in Australia.
In fact, the CRA’s extensive use of powerful, moving speakers was auspicious and far-reaching, speakers such as the Baptist Missionaries Rev. John Harris and his courageous wife Alice, who had herself taken some of the most scathing photographs of the Rubber Terror. Together or separately they made some 600 speeches on the Congo in just two years in Great Britain.
King Leopold, who was never without information as to what his enemies were up to, was duly alarmed by this great onslaught.
King Leopold’s Free Congo ship of state was now beginning to take on water, so he had little left to do but man the pumps, plug the leaks and counterattack by every means available.
To plug the leaks, orders went out from Brussels to his colonial administration to spy on all the missionaries in the Congo who were not deemed loyal to the State, for it was mostly missionaries who continued to provide the most damning evidence against Leopold’s cruel enterprise. When it could, it infiltrated Protestant meetings, intercepted communiques or had anti-government “agitators” arrested or harassed for alleged infractions. Such was the tragic case of Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, an African born in 1894 as a British subject in what is now Nigeria, who began working for the colonial administration with naive enthusiasm as a young man, went to Belgium to get “Westernized”, give favorable-to-Leopold lectures and then return to the Congo to become one of the few successful black businessmen of the time there.
But around 1903, he had a change of heart, silently contacted Roger Casement about abuses against his fellow Africans and later began secretly supplying an eager Morel with more evidence, including a major coup – the court records of a “show” trial of a low-level rubber concession henchman named Charles Cauldron that roundly embarrassed Congolese officials when they were published in the West Africa Mail.
But then Shanu went too far and attempted to recruit the police chief of Boma as yet another informer for Morel, but the police chief quickly turned on them, condemning Morel publicly and accusing Shanu of being an informant himself, perhaps his intention all along. Morel, alarmed, tried to get Shanu out of the Congo, but it was too late. Although not arrested, he was intimidated relentlessly and his businesses ostracized mercilessly. A broken man, he committed suicide in July, 1905.
Leopold, however, put his greatest efforts into manipulating the international media and bribing, pressuring or employing various individuals to sway governments and checkmate reformers. Morel may have been brilliant at utilizing the press, but so was the king. For example, he dispatched his men to British colonies to uncover dirt, which was plentiful, on human rights abuses there, to then be swiftly printed in articles underscoring British hypocrisy. He threatened Sir Alfred Jones with ending Elder Dempster’s shipping contract with him if he didn’t do more to help him, and Jones dutifully responded by hiring two writers to go on Potemkin Village-type tours of the Congo and write glowing accounts afterwards. These also quickly found their way into the public eye.
Indeed, Leopold became quite the PR impresario, creating his own stealth press bureau, quaintly hidden behind various front organizations, which was soon publishing its own propaganda periodicals, magazines and pamphlets while simultaneously bribing editors and journalists of legitimate newspapers, when not actually subsidizing the papers themselves, in both Europe and America. Money, as usual, talked, and talked loudly, as the world began to see a not so subtle shift in editorial opinion from anti-Leopold to pro-Leopold sentiment in various countries, particularly in Germany, where the bribery was, apparently, prolific.
The king’s biggest challenge, though, would be to counter Morel’s growing crusade in America, which had been, embarrassingly thanks to the masterful con-job by Leopold’s lobbyists in Washington on the gullible Arthur Administration, the first country to naively recognize the king’s claims to the Congo back in 1884. Now, Morel argued after sailing to the United States himself in 1904, was America’s chance to make amends for this gross error by working to end Leopold’s tyranny, an idea well-received by many luminaries in the country such as Stanley Hall, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington, the latter two of whom actually met with President Theodore Roosevelt to attempt to sway him toward their newly created American Congo Reform Association. Meanwhile, Rev. Harris and his wife, following in Morel’s wake, took to the podium in yet another marathon speaking engagement, giving over two hundred well-received speeches in 49 cities as petitions, telegrams, letters and resolutions began to cascade into Washington DC.
A Lobbyist too Far
Leopold knew he had to stop Morel’s and the CRA’s campaign in America just as clearly as Robert E. Lee knew he had to stop General Grant’s siege of Petersburg in the Civil War, and he pulled out his “big guns” accordingly. In other words, he went after some of the biggest king-makers and earth-shakers in American politics to try to win their support. The list of prominent politicians, professionals, public leaders and businessmen he or his agents and lobbyists approached and attempted to make power-deals with in varying degrees of success included such prominent leaders as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, John D. Rockerfeller, Senator Nelson Aldrich, Bernard Baruch, Cardinal James Gibbons and a host of other lesser lights. And as he done in Europe, Leopold again set up a massive lobbying and media campaign, now bribing and conniving his way into American magazines and newspapers as, magically, pro-Congo Free State articles began to materialize across the American print landscape.
Anxious to maximize his lobbying efforts, he also turned to an American lawyer he had already personally invited to Belgium as a close friend of his son, Prince Albert, the friendship, however, having been cultivated by said lawyer. Our attorney’s name was “Colonel” Henry I. Kowalsky, headquartered in rich and decadent San Francisco during its still Barbary Coast-flavored days prior to the Great Earthquake of 1906. He was actually born in Buffalo, New York, but his parents had relocated the family to the West Coast when he was young. Energetic, as a young man he tried his hand at various ventures, including even magazine publishing before finding his calling as a lawyer, where he developed a large and varied practice peppered with the defense of colorful, even underworld characters. His own public persona kept pace with the glamor of his clientele and the financial successes of his practice until he became a sort of 19th Century F. Lee Bailey, in a phrase, a Barnum and Bailey (pun intended) show-trial lawyer. His title of Colonel was honorary. He had never served in the military, having been “appointed and served as Judge Advocate General with the rank of Colonel, on the Staff of the late Governor R. W. Waterman [of California].” (source)
By the time Leopold had met him in Ostend, Begium the Colonel had become a classic San Francisco character on the order of the “Emperor of the United States”, Joshua Abraham Norton, or of his own fellow lawyer, Abe Ruef, better known as Boss Reuf, the de facto power behind the throne (Mayor Schmitz’s office) in San Francisco at this time.
Leopold, for once dazzled by someone else’s polished manure, decided that the Colonel was just the man to rout the Congo Reformist Association in America and gave him a handsome contract to move to New York City and become his chief congressional lobbyist. No sooner had he moved East though then other jealous and skeptical members of Leopold’s nebulous network began to scrutinize and undermine him, denigrating him to the king.
Suddenly the Colonel was being asked to travel far abroad, avoid giving speeches without higher approval, as well as various other slights. After his one-year contract was up, Leopold refused to renew it, although Kowalsky made so much noise that the king, typically, put him on retainer and added what amounted to a bribe to leave New York. But is it ever wise to scorn an egomaniac trial lawyer with an unscrupulous nature and a triumphant reputation to maintain? Adam Hochschild details what happens next in King Leopold’s Ghost:
On December 10, 1906, readers of William Randolph Hearst’s New York American picked up their newspapers to find a front-page expose on the workings of the American Congo lobby. KING LEOPOLD’S AMAZING ATTEMPT TO INFLUENCE OUR CONGRESS EXPOSED…..FULL TEXT OF THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN KING LEOPOLD OF BELGIUM AND HIS PAID AGENTS IN WASHINGTON. (ibid., p. 248)
Kowalsky, had apparently, although he claimed they were stolen, sold all of his correspondence with Leopold and his minions to Hearst.
All Hell broke loose against Leopold now, and an orgy of hitherto ignored and repressed articles and garish atrocity photos flooded America’s newspapers. Officials’ heads rolled and Henry Cabot Lodge, with sudden contrition perhaps for ever having shared a dinner with Leopold, pushed for an international investigation of the Congo Free State, while Teddy Roosevelt’s White House now shifted course from ambivalent into attack mode against the Roi-Souverain.
Leopold had just seen his ship of state’s bowsprit blasted off by one of San Francisco’s finest scoundrels.