Leopold, Emperor of the Congo

Home » W.T. Stead and The Review of Reviews » Leopold, Emperor of the Congo

Leopold, Emperor of the Congo

W. T. Stead (The American Review of Reviews, July, 1903)

It is the rule in these character sketches always to describe the subject as he appears to himself at his best, and not as he appears to his enemies at his worst, but it is impossible for me in this case to do either; the resources of the English language are inadequate to describe Emperor Leopold as he appears to himself at his best moments. An artist who could dip his brush in the radiance of the setting sun might possibly portray the angelical figure of the halo’d monarch who conceals his wings beneath his epaulets and lingers for a while in the midst of an ungrateful world. On the other hand, the blackest ink would fail to depict the same man as he appears to his enemies at his worst. If we look over the efforts of the mediaeval artists when they exhausted the resources of their imagination in picturing the enemy of mankind with horns, hoofs, and tail complete, we can get some far-away, faint resemblance of the monarch who was to have made the Congo Free State a paradise, and who has converted it into a hell.

In this brief article, therefore, I shall neither attempt to describe Emperor Leopold at his best nor at his worst, but merely put together briefly, in plain, unvarnished fashion, some of the leading facts concerning the sovereign who, as the result of the debate in the British House of Commons on Mr. Herbert Samuel’s motion, now stands impeached before the bar of Christendom for his high crimes and misdemeanors against humanity, and more especially for his violation, wholesale and retail, of the provisions of the international act drawn up at Berlin in the years 1884-85.

In this sketch I shall not deal in the least with Leopold II., the King of the Belgians. Belgium is a little state, prosperous, industrious, pacific, whose inhabitants by sheer dint of hard work and applied intelligence have been able to build up almost as large a trade per head as any of the world-swaggering empires who have annexed and colonized continents. As a constitutional monarch, I have nothing to say about Leopold II., King of the Belgians. In this sketch I wish to deal with him solely as the founder of an immense empire in Central Africa, an enterprise which, I am willing to admit, was begun at first with a very laudable ambition, but which, unfortunately, has come to be associated with all the horrors of a new slave trade, and which has as its chief corner-stone the most cynical of international obligations to be recorded in the history of our time.


Louis Philippe Marie Victor, to give him his full title, is the son of King Leopold I. and of Princess Louise, the daughter of Louis Philippe, the citizen king of the French who had to skip from his kingdom in 1848. From his father he inherited great political acumen, and a tradition of intimacy with the English court which has continued to the present day. So close was this intimacy that he made it his invariable rule, as long as our late Queen lived, to write a letter to her every week – a letter to which she seldom replied, but which she always read with that keen interest with which she always followed the movement of international affairs. As he was born in 1835, he is now sixty-eight years of age. His wife, who died last year, was the daughter of the late Archduke Joseph of Austria, he married her when only eighteen, and spent the first years of his married life in traveling through Italy, Austria, Palestine, and Greece. He was created Duke of Brabant when only eleven years old, and served in the army, rising from the rank of sub-lieutenant to that of lieutenant-general. He became a member of the Belgian Senate on obtaining his majority, and early distinguished himself by the keen interest with which he followed all debates relating to the development of Belgian trade and industry. From the time he was twenty-five till he was thirty he spent most of his time abroad, and has probably traveled more widely than any other crowned head in Europe. In 1860, he went to Constantinople; in 1862, he went to Spain and Morocco. When he was barely twenty he had first touched upon Africa, when he visited Egypt on his way to Palestine. In 1862, he went again to Egypt, and traveled through Algiers and Tunis. In 1864, he took further flight, and spent nearly two years in British India and China. Very soon after his return, his father died, in December, 1865, and he became Leopold II., the King of the Belgians. Four years later, he lost his only son, Crown Prince Leopold, and his brother Philippe, Count of Flanders, became heir to the throne.

His reign has been comparatively uneventful; but in the year 1870, when the Franco-German War burst out, the draft of the secret treaty was published which showed the peril which threatened the little kingdom, when he entered upon a period of considerable anxiety. England stood as his friend in those days and the danger passed; all that he had to do was to guard his frontier and to intern such troops as strayed from France into Belgian territory.

In 1874, he founded a yearly prize of $25,000 for the best work on a given subject announced five years in advance. But the King, even although he varied in the due discharge of his duties as constitutional monarch by his visits to Paris, where he early established a certain reputation, did not satisfy his ambition. No one who has met the King, and certainly no one who has ever done business with him, could doubt that he is a man of very great capacity, especially in the driving of hard bargains and looking after the main chance.


His eager spirit chafed against the comparatively narrow limits allotted him by the kingdom which he inherited, and at the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century he conceived the idea of carving out a great empire for himself in the heart of Central Africa.

M. Descamps, in the very interesting and important work, “New Africa,” which was published in English, last month, by Sampson Low & Co., reminds us of what most people, even in Belgium, had forgotten – that even before his accession to the throne, Leopold, as Duke of Brabant, had repeatedly reminded the Senate that “Belgium has not sufficiently remembered that the sea washes one of her boundaries.” He was an advocate of the expansion of Belgium long before Seeley wrote his “Expansion of England,” or the Germans had discovered that their future lay upon the sea. In 1860, he declared: “I believe that the moment is come for us to extend our territories. I think that we must lose no time, under penalty of seeing the few remaining good positions seized upon by more enterprising nations than our own.” Again, in 1861, he exclaimed: “Imitate your neighbors; extend beyond the sea whenever an opportunity is offered. You will there find precious outlets for your products, food for your commerce, … and a still better position in the great European family.”


Sir Henry M. Stanley’s explorations led to a conference in Brussels in 1878, which resulted in the formation of an association called Le Comité d’Études du Haut Congo. This committee sent out Sir H. M. Stanley in 1879. He returned to Europe in 1882, and was sent out on his second expedition at the end of that year. In 1883, he succeeded in so far establishing the authority of the Association Internationale du Congo, which had absorbed both an earlier association of 1877 and the committee of 1878, that on April 22, 1884, the United States Government, from its sympathy with the humane and benevolent professions of the International Association of the Congo, “recognized the flag of the International African Association as the flag of a friendly government.”

The English Government favored the extension of the Portuguese authority to the southern bank of the Congo. To this both Germany and France objected, and, after negotiations, an International Conference was held in Berlin. Its first sitting was held on November 15, 1884; the tenth, and last, on January 26, 1885.


At this conference fourteen powers were represented – Germany, France, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Sweden and Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Turkey, and the United States of America. To these was added, at the final sitting, the newly recognized International Association of the Congo.

From this conference issued the Berlin Act of 1884-85, which remains to this day as the Great Charter of the Congo Free State. Its general purport has been well summarized by Mr. Demetrius C. Boulger, who is an enthusiastic and almost semi-official eulogist of the King’s policy. He writes in his book “The Congo State”:

Europe did not say to the King or his representatives, “You have done so well in Central Africa, you have established so clear a title to its possession, that we assign you the Congo region as your fair share in the partition of Africa, and leave you to govern it as you deem fit.” The powers, I say, did nothing of the kind. They acquiesced in what had been done, and they sanctioned the creation of the State, but they laid down the strictest regulations for its conduct, and they defined the work it was to accomplish. It was to introduce civilization into the vast region it had to administer, not as a mere phrase, but as a substantial reality represented by free trade, the Postal Union, and the extirpation of the slave trade at its very source.

This paragraph from Mr. Boulger’s semi-official work is the best answer to the mendacious pretense, published in the Journal de Bruxelles on May 26, that “owing to the initiative of King Leopold, a settled form of government existed in the Congo Basin before the Berlin Conference, which merely gave its official recognition to what was already an accomplished fact,” and that therefore the King had already a right to administer his own possessions according to his sovereign will and pleasure. This is sheer impudence, unworthy of serious reply.

It is sufficient to note Prince Bismarck’s declaration on closing the conference. He said:

The resolutions that we are on the point of sanctioning secure the commerce of all nations free access to the center of the African Continent. The guarantees which will be provided for freedom of trade in the Congo Basin … are of a nature to offer to the commerce and the industry of all nations the conditions most favorable to their development and security.

“Guarantees” is not a word that would be used if the resolutions of a conference depended for their efficacy upon the sovereign will and pleasure of King Leopold.

In view of the contention of the King and his official scribes that –

The freedom of commerce stipulated in the Berlin Act does not imply an abandonment of the right inherent in sovereignty to administer its own possessions; in other words, a state has full liberty to exploit or cause to be exploited any part of the public domain should it be found expedient to do so,

it may be as well to quote the provisions of the Berlin Act on the subject:

Article 1. – The trade of all nations shall enjoy complete freedom. (1) In all the regions forming the basin of the Congo and its outlets….

Article 4. – Merchandise imported into these regions shall remain free from import and transit dues. The powers reserve to themselves to determine after the lapse of twenty years whether this freedom of import shall be retained or not.

Article 5. – No power which exercises or shall exercise sovereign rights in the above-mentioned regions shall be allowed to grant therein a monopoly or favor of any kind in matters of trade (en matière commerciale). Foreigners, without distinction, shall enjoy protection of their persons and property, as well as the right of acquiring and transferring movable and immovable possessions, and national rights and treatment in the exercise of their professions.

As the precise meaning of this article has been the subject of some controversy, and as it has since acquired enormous importance, the words of the committee responsible for it, of which the Baron de Courcel and Baron Lambermont were the principal members, are worth noting. “No doubt whatever exists,” it was stated, “as to the strict and literal sense that should be assigned to the term ‘en matière commerciale.’ It refers exclusively to traffic, to the unlimited power of every one to sell and buy, to import and to export natural produce and manufactured articles. No privileged situation can be created in this respect; the way remains open without any restriction to free competition in the sphere of commerce. To develop commerce it is not enough to open ports and dispense with custom-house barriers. Without merchants there is no commerce.”

Add to this the provisions of the Anglo-Congo Convention of 1884:

British subjects shall have at all times the right of sojourning and establishing themselves within the territories which are, or shall be, under the government of the association. They shall enjoy the same protection which is accorded to the subjects or citizens of the most favored nation in all matters which regard their persons, their property, the free exercise of their religion, and the rights of navigation, commerce, and industry. Especially they shall have the right of buying, of selling, of letting, and of hiring lands and buildings, mines and forests, situated within the said territories, and of founding houses of commerce, and of carrying on commerce and a coasting trade under the British flag.

Not only have these express stipulations been violated, but as the Rubinek case shows, any foreigner who ventures to trade in the districts in which the King has created a monopoly, granted to the concessionnaire company, who give him 50 per cent. of their profits, is promptly arrested, ill treated, and done to death.

And quite right too, argues the Journal de Bruxelles, because the King, being sovereign, has an indisputable right as sovereign to ignore every provision in the international charter to which he had given his adhesion, and to trample out all foreign trade in the regions which were formerly consecrated forever to free trade. That I am not exaggerating is clear from this quotation:

In its legal aspect, the sovereignty of the basin of the Congo has been duly recognized by the powers. Now, one of the indisputable attributes of all sovereignty is, as has been well said by M. Descamps, the right to regulate the judicial position of all property within its territorial limits, to fix the legal titles to the acquisition of such property, to settle the mode and conditions of transfer, as well as to determine the limits of these operations as may be dictated by the necessities of the public weal. The sovereign is the supreme legislator and executor from this point of view. If he desires to dispose of land which is unoccupied or without other claimant to ownership he has the incontestable right to do so.

What is the use of decreeing that the door shall forever remain open if this impudent claim of the right of the ruler to shut it is declared to be an “indisputable attribute of his sovereignty?” And where is the sense of declaring a territory free to the trade of all nations if it is the absolute right of the King to declare that everything in which trade can be done is his own personal property, which no one has any right to buy and sell save himself and his partners?


Emperor Leopold is a wily bird. No one knows better than he how to exploit either public sentiment in Europe or the India-rubber fields in Central Africa. Himself a cynic, he is ever posing as a philanthropist. No one is more expert in the distinctively English quality of unctuous rectitude. He never does wrong without making protestations of pharisaic perfection. If he establishes the new slavery with one hand, with the other he subscribes to anti-slavery societies. He receives eulogistic addresses from Baptist missionaries in Brussels, and bows, bespattered with the flattering eulogiums of Sir H. Gilzean Reid, at the very moment that his agents are dispatching cannibal hordes throughout the Congo regions in order to compel the unhappy natives to bring in rubber – on penalty of death. The Emperor of the Congo may have levies whose officers exact due tale of smoked hands, and whose commissariat department replenishes its larder with the bodies of the slaughtered victims of the cannibal soldiers, but he is scrupulous to use a small proportion of the heavy dividends thus earned in the service of art, philanthropy, and religion. This acts both as a salve to his conscience and as a blind to the public.


It is impossible not to feel a certain degree of compassion for the unfortunate sovereign who now stands solemnly impeached before the Tribunal of Civilization for having been guilty of one of the most shameless breaches of trust of which even a crowned head has ever been guilty. If there were such thing as criminal prosecutions in international affairs, then assuredly a true bill would be found against the sovereign who obtained, not a paltry sum of money, but a whole empire by false pretenses.

The Congo Free State, although previously recognized by some of the signatory powers, acquired its international status by its formal acceptance of the principles and provisions of the Act of Berlin, and in doing so came under the surveillance and control of the powers whose conditional mandate it accepted.

The assembled powers, believing his solemn protestations that he wished for nothing but to abolish slavery, suppress slave raids, put down cannibalism, defend the rights and the property of the natives, develop trade, and open the heart of Central Africa to the commerce of the whole world, recognized his right to reign on the Congo. To-day, after eighteen years, the astonished world has been rudely wakened up to the fact that in the Congo Free State this sovereign, Emperor Leopold, has established a system which, at every point, is the exact antithesis and negation of every principle laid down at Berlin.

In place of disinterestedness, we see dividends. In place of the old indigenous slavery, there is a new slavery infinitely more detestable. The Arab slave-raiders have been suppressed, but the state has taken over their methods, and carries on raids to acquire “slaves of the state” throughout the whole enormous domain. Instead of suppressing cannibalism, the hateful practice has been carried by its soldiers into regions where human flesh was never eaten. Instead of defending the rights and properties of the natives, the state has at one blow annihilated all their rights, confiscated all their properties, and converted them into the unwilling bond-slaves of the state. Instead of developing trade, it has suppressed it. Instead of throwing the door open to the traders of the world, it treats every foreign trader as a thief who dares to buy and sell within the regions within which it has established monopolies expressly forbidden by the charter of its existence.


Fortunately, the attempt to throw dust in the eyes of the nation has failed. On May 20, the House of Commons, on the motion of Mr. Herbert Samuel, and with the assent of Mr. Balfour unanimously passed the following resolution:

That the government of the Congo Free State, having, at its inception, guaranteed to the powers that its native subjects should be governed with humanity, and that no trading monopoly or privilege should be permitted within its dominions, this House requests His Majesty’s Government to confer with the other powers, signatories of the Berlin General Act, by virtue of which the Congo Free State exists, in order that measures may be adopted to abate the evils prevalent in that State.

The evils prevalent in the Congo State are, therefore, now unanimously declared by the House of Commons to be so grave as to call for international action.


The question whether there is any need for such action can only be answered by contrasting the Congo Free State as it is today with the Congo Free State as it was proposed that it should be.

In his “Civilization in Congoland,” Mr. Fox Bourne has set forth the story of the way in which the authorities of the Congo Free State have violated all the more important provisions of the Act of Berlin. In his “Affairs of West Africa,” Mr. E. D. Morel tells the same story from a somewhat different standpoint. In those two books will be found chapter and verse for each count in the indictment against the Congo government. Mr. Fox Bourne and Mr. Morel tell the story of how year after year, by stealthy encroachments and bold usurpations, the Congo Free State has been converted into the Congo Slave State; how its territories, which were supposed to be dedicated forever to free trade, have been given over to shameless monopolies; how the open door guaranteed by international law has been closed and bolted in the face of the world, and how a state created for the purpose of protecting and civilizing the natives has practically become a gigantic agency for slave-raiding, forced labor, forced military service, systematized oppression, and the importation of firearms throughout the whole of the vast region intrusted to its care. The pamphlet entitled “The Case Against the Congo Free State,” published at a penny by the International Union, British branch, Mowbray House, contains in brief the substance of the impeachment which the Emperor of the Congo has to answer.


The question as to the kind of action that should now be taken is still left open. It is to be hoped that, as the powers unanimously declared at The Hague, that disputes as to the interpretation of international conventions are specially fit and proper subjects for arbitration, that the question as to whether the closing of the open door in Central Africa is a violation of the Berlin Act will be referred to the Hague Court of Arbitration for adjudication as proposed by the American minister to Belgium.