Ought King Leopold to Be Hanged?
W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, September, 1905)
For the somewhat startling suggestion in the heading of this interview, the missionary interviewed is in no way responsible. The credit of it, or, if you like, the discredit, belongs entirely to the editor of the Review, who, without dogmatism, wishes to pose the question as a matter for serious discussion. Since Charles I’s head was cut off, opposite Whitehall, nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, the sanctity which doth hedge about a king has been held in slight and scant regard by the Puritans and their descendants. Hence there is nothing antecedently shocking or outrageous in the discussion of the question whether the acts of any Sovereign are such as to justify the calling in of the services of the public executioner. It is not, of course, for a journalist to pronounce judgment, but no function of the public writer is so imperative as that of calling attention to great wrongs, and no duty is more imperious than that of insisting that no rank or station should be allowed to shield from justice the real criminal when he is once discovered.
The controversy between the Congo Reform Association and the Emperor of the Congo has now arrived at a stage in which it is necessary to take a further step towards the redress of unspeakable wrongs and the punishment of no less unspeakable criminals. The Rev. J. H. Harris, an English missionary, has lived for the last seven years in that region of Central Africa – the Upper Congo – which King Leopold has made over to one of his vampire groups of financial associates (known as the A.B.I.R. Society) on the strictly business basis of a half share in the profits wrung from the blood and misery of the natives. He has now returned to England, and last month he called at Mowbray House to tell me the latest from the Congo. Mr. Harris is a young man in a dangerous state of volcanic fury, and no wonder. After living for seven years face to face with the devastations of the vampire State, it is impossible to deny that he does well to be angry. When he began, as is the wont of those who have emerged from the depths, to detail horrifying stories of murder, the outrage and torture of women, the mutilation of children, and the whole infernal category of horrors, served up with the background of cannibalism, sometimes voluntary and sometimes, incredible though it seems, enforced by the orders of the officers, I cut him short, and said:-
“Dear Mr. Harris, as in Oriental despatches the India Office translator abbreviates the first page of the letter into two words ‘after compliments,’ or ‘a.c.,’ so let us abbreviate our conversation about the Congo by the two words ‘after atrocities,’ or ‘a.a.’ They are so invariable and so monotonous, as Lord Percy remarked in the House the other day, that it is unnecessary to insist upon them. There is no longer any dispute in the mind of any reasonable person as to what is going on in the Congo. It is the economical exploitation of half a continent carried on by the use of armed force wielded by officials the aim-all and be-all of whose existence is to extort the maximum amount of rubber in the shortest possible time in order to pay the largest possible dividend to the holders of shares in the concessions.”
“Well,” said Mr. Harris reluctantly, for he is so accustomed to speaking to persons who require to be told the whole dismal tale from A to Z, “what is it you want to know?”
“I want to know,” I said, “whether you consider the time is ripe for summoning King Leopold before the bar of an international tribunal to answer for the crimes perpetrated under his orders and in his interest in the Congo State.”
Mr. Harris paused for a moment, and then said:- “That depends upon the action which the king takes upon the report of the Commission, which is now in his hands.”
“Is that report published?”
“No,” said Mr. Harris; “and it is a question whether it will ever be published. Greatly to our surprise, the Commission, which every one expected would be a mere blind whose appointment was intended to throw dust in the eyes of the public, turned out to be composed of highly respectable persons who heard the evidence most impartially, refused no bona fide testimony produced by trustworthy witnesses, and were overwhelmed by the multitudinous horrors brought before them, and who, we feel, must have arrived at conclusions which necessitate an entire revolution in the administration of the Congo.”
“Are you quite sure, Mr. Harris,” I said, “that this is so?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Harris, “quite sure. The Commission impressed us all in the Congo very favorably. Some of its members seemed to us admirable specimens of public-spirited, independent statesmen. They realized that they were acting in a judicial capacity; they knew that the eyes of Europe were upon them, and, instead of making their inquiry a farce, they made it a reality, and their conclusions must be, I feel sure, so damning to the State, that if King Leopold were to take no action but to allow the whole infernal business to proceed unchecked, any international tribunal which had powers of a criminal court, would upon the evidence of the Commission alone, send those responsible to the gallows.”
“Unfortunately,” I said, “at present the Hague Tribunal is not armed with the powers of an international assize court, nor is it qualified to place offenders, crowned or otherwise, in the dock. But don’t you think that in the evolution of society the constitution of such a criminal court is a necessity?”
“It would be a great convenience at present,” said Mr. Harris; “nor would you need one atom of evidence beyond the report of the Commission to justify the hanging of whoever is responsible for the existence and continuance of such abominations.”
“Has anybody seen the text of the report?” I asked.
“As the Commission returned to Brussels in March, some of the contents of that report are an open secret. A great deal of the evidence has been published by the Congo Reform Association. In the Congo the Commissioners admitted two things: first, that the evidence was overwhelming as to the existence of the evils which had hitherto been denied, and secondly, that they vindicated the character of the missionaries. They discovered, as anyone will who goes out to that country, that it is the missionaries, and the missionaries alone, who constitute the permanent European element. The Congo State officials come out ignorant of the language, knowing nothing of the country, and with no other sense of their duties beyond that of supporting the concession companies in extorting rubber. They are like men who are dumb and deaf and blind, nor do they wish to be otherwise. In two or three years they vanish, giving place to other migrants as ignorant as themselves, whereas the missionaries remain on the spot year after year; they are in personal touch with the people, whose language they speak, whose customs they respect, and whose lives they endeavor to defend to the best of their ability.”
“But, Mr. Harris,” I remarked, “was there not a certain Mr. Grenfell, a Baptist Missionary, who has been all these years a convinced upholder of the Congo State?”
“‘Twas true,” said Mr. Harris, “and pity ’tis ’twas true; but ’tis no longer true. Mr. Grenfell has had his eyes opened at last, and he has now taken his place among those who are convinced. He could no longer resist the overwhelming evidence that has been brought against the Congo Administration.”
“Was the nature of the Commissioners’ report,” I resumed, “made known to the officials of the State before they left the Congo?”
“To the head officials – yes,” said Mr. Harris.
“With what result?”
“In the case of the highest official in the Congo, the man who corresponds in Africa to Lord Curzon in India, no sooner was he placed in possession of the conclusions of the Commission than the appalling significance of their indictment convinced him that the game was up, and he went into his room and cut his throat. I was amazed on returning to Europe to find how little the significance of this suicide was appreciated. A paragraph in the newspaper announced the suicide of a Congo official. None of those who read that paragraph could realize the fact that that suicide had the same significance to the Congo that the suicide, let us say, of Lord Milner would have had if it had taken place immediately on receiving the conclusions of a Royal Commission sent out to report upon his administration in South Africa.”
“Well, if that be so, Mr. Harris,” I said, “and the Governor-General cuts his throat rather than face the ordeal and disgrace of the exposure, I am almost beginning to hope that we may see King Leopold in the dock at the Hague, after all.”
“I will comment upon that,” Mr. Harris said, “by quoting you Mrs. Sheldon’s remark made before myself and my colleagues, Messrs. Bond, Ellery, Ruskin, Walbaum and Whiteside, on May 19th last year, when, in answer to our question, ‘Why should King Leopold be afraid of submitting his case to the Hague tribunal?’ Mrs. Sheldon answered, ‘Men do not go to the gallows and put their heads in a noose if they can avoid it.”