Red Rubber: Atrocities in the Congo Free State in Confidential Print: Africa

The conviction this month in The Hague of Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, for forcing children to fight in his army in the early 2000s is merely the latest in a long line of cases of abuse of this kind that have blighted what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The civil wars which began in 1996 bled out of the nation’s borders to involve, in time, eight other African countries – leading to the label ‘Africa’s world war’ – as well as numerous unofficial militias, of which Lubanga’s was one. By the time a peace of sorts was established in 2003, about five and a half million people had died due to the fighting and the disease and starvation it caused.

King Leopold II of Belgium

This conflict is thought to be the bloodiest since the Second World War, but is tragically echoic in this respect of a previous episode of the Congo’s modern history. The state was set up in the 1880s and by the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of concerned humanitarians and muck-raking journalists, had been exposed as a factory of human misery existing to line the pockets of one man: Leopold II, King of Belgium. Our recently published resource Confidential Print: Africa contains rich information on the establishment of the Congo, British relations with it, and the news of atrocities that emanated from it in its early decades and which shocked a colonial world generally convinced of its civilising influence on the "dark continent".

The ‘Congo Free State’, its almost derisive official name, was established under the aegis of the International Congo Society, an ostensibly humanitarian organisation controlled by Leopold. In 1885 Leopold secured the agreement of the major European powers at the Berlin Conference (see files FO 341/1-2) that 900,000 square miles of the Congo basin would pass under the rule not of Belgium but of his society. Staffing the new state with men sent from Europe, Leopold directed that two thirds of the whole country should consist of his private land, in which the inhabitants were not only forbidden to sell goods to anyone else, but in which they were compelled to provide quotas of goods at a price the state had fixed.

Enforcement of the quotas was through violence, and failure to achieve them punishable by death. With the aim of preventing their soldiers from wasting ammunition the officers of Leopold’s Force Publique police ordered that they provide one of the victim’s hands for every bullet spent; since the quotas, inflated by the demands of the 1890s rubber boom, were often unachievably high, the basket of human hands was to become a symbol of the nightmare the Congo had become for its people. In a terrible but logical twist, because hands were often easier to gather than rubber – which under Congolese conditions could not be tapped, but had to be laboriously stripped from vines – there is evidence of whole villages going into battle, the victors presenting the Force Publique with dozens of the losers’ hands in lieu of their own harvest.

Punch Magazine Congo Rubber Plantation cartoon

But the very forces of trade and communication which had opened up the Congo to this exploitation caused knowledge of the abuses there to leak out. In 1900 a long memorandum was published by the British Government in its Confidential Print series (see file FO 403/304), setting out various abuses, usually of labourers who had travelled to the Congo from British territories, which had been brought to its attention throughout the preceding decade. In 1891 a group of workers brought from Lagos had been left at the harbour for six weeks without any shelter; what was more,

They had been fed upon very poor fare, which, with the long exposure, had caused them all to suffer from frequent and often serious illness. Some of them had been flogged to death […].

Such outrages were not isolated:

On 10th March, 1892, the Colonial Office sent a copy of a Report to the Acting Colonial Secretary at Sierra Leone […], who had been instructed to enquire into the treatment of Sierra Leone labourers in the Congo State. Mr. Porter considered that the quantity of food supplied to these men was sufficient, but that the fish and meat were rotten and unfit for food. When Mr. Porter mentioned to M. Goffin, the Secretary of the Railway Company, that he had heard that the men were sometimes kicked, whipped, and chained by their necks, M. Goffin shrugged his shoulders and said that was nothing.

Indeed, by the developing standards of the Congo Free State, it was nothing, or very little.

On the 1st June, 1897, Consul Pickersgill drew up a Report on the "Congo Atrocities," in which he stated that on the 10th October, 1896, the Congo State soldiers attacked the village of Bandakea Wijiko because the rubber brought by the villagers to the State was not of the best quality. Fifty natives were killed and 28 taken prisoners. […] All the bodies of those who were killed had the right hand cut off. At Lulonga the natives had collected the quantity of rubber required of them, but had been prevented from delivering it at the Government post through finding an intermediate town at war with the State. An English missionary, named Bandall, undertook to write to the Commissaire to explain the delay. Instead of a reply to his letter a party of soldiers arrived, who were so bent on bloodshed that he only succeeded in preventing it for a few moments by insisting on their leader taking note that the rubber had been collected. Whilst this brief check was occurring, the soldiers spread through the village and began to fire.

There follow in this and the following file direct statements from Congolese victims of, and witnesses to, various abuses, and extracts from legal cases connected with them.

The British consul in the Congo in the early 1900s was Roger Casement (see FO 403/338 and 351), later to be executed for treason for his efforts to persuade Irish POWs in Germany to fight Britain during World War I. By this time news of many abuses was surfacing from reports of missionaries and of campaigning journalists; leading this last group was E. D. Morel, a clerk with a shipping firm who had first concluded something was amiss in the Congo when he noticed that ships arriving in Belgium laden with rubber and ivory departed full of weapons. Casement was therefore asked to investigate the situation and write a report for the scrutiny of Whitehall; when presented to Parliament, this caused such disquiet that Britain demanded of Belgium that it enforce the civilising mission entrusted to the Free State by the powers at Berlin. The Belgian government eventually managed to wrest control of the Congo in 1908, by which time the depredations of Leopold’s regime had caused the population to shrink by anything – scholarly opinions differ – between 15% and a half, and the phrase ‘red rubber’ had entered the vernacular as a shorthand for the horrors committed there.

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