Exposing Leopold: the campaign for the Congo

Words: Ruby Cardona Senker

In 1897, a young clerk for a Liverpool shipping company found himself at the docks of Antwerp, Belgium. He was there on business, as he was regularly, to oversee the unloading of his company’s vessels. The port would have bustled with dockworkers, and soldiers waiting to be shipped off to foreign wars, but amid the flurry Edmund Dean Morel noticed something odd.

While his company’s ships arriving from the recently formed Congo Free State were mooring at the port and unloading precious cargoes of ivory and rubber, they were casting off stocked with just a few military personnel and ammunition. If this wealth was pouring into Europe but nothing of value being traded, how were these riches being extracted? The answer had to be slave labour.

Presented with this reality, Morel embarked on ‘the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century’, as historian Adam Hochschild puts it – a campaign that would ignite thousands around the world, including famous writers and an American president. Morel would later write: ‘It must be bad enough to stumble across a murder. I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman.’

That king and croniman was Leopold II, ‘King of all the Belgians’. He had been on the throne for 32 years by the time Morel stood at Antwerp’s docks, many of them spent desperately seeking African land he could call his own. After decades of persistence, in 1885 Leopold had seized an area of Central Africa to be his own personal fiefdom, a region 76 times the size of Belgium and inhabited by around 20 million people: he named it the Congo Free State.

His regime was brutal. Having discovered that precious rubber vines grew in the Congo’s vast rainforests, Leopold’s state constructed a system of forced labour to extract it. Hostage-taking was the primary method of coercion: officials seized women, children and elders and sent men to work with the threat that their families would be killed if they resisted. Sometimes entire villages were shot for refusing, and a well-documented practice of severing hands was rife among officers. 

Labourers walked for days through swampy forests as the untapped vines became further away, and many miles back to deposit their rubber, while the wealth they generated flooded to Europe and funded Leopold’s lavish palaces. Many of those not killed by violence perished from starvation or European diseases. The birth rate took a catastrophic dive. It’s now estimated that ten million lost their lives in Leopold’s Congo, a place he never stepped foot in. 

In his mid-twenties with a wife, a young child and a seemingly secure career, Morel was an unlikely person to launch a global campaign. He had no political affiliations or strong religious beliefs like those that had driven the anti-slavery campaigners 100 years before. But he could write prolifically and had a keen eye for mass media: skills that would prove vital.

After quitting his job in 1901, Morel began firing off articles and books. He discovered two outspoken critics, both African Americans, had already blown the whistle on Leopold’s abuses – George Washington Williams, a lawyer and historian, and William Sheppard, a missionary. Williams had died years earlier, but Sheppard was still in the Congo: brought there to ‘civilise’, he had instead befriended the Congolese people and demanded an end to their exploitation.

Barred from visiting the Congo himself, Morel relied on a steady stream of information from sources inside the country, ranging from outraged Christian missionaries like Sheppard to unhappy Congo State officials. They began sending material that filled the pages of Morel’s newly formed West African Mail and informed his pieces in major European newspapers. Sources smuggled out official correspondence – perhaps instructions to suppress uprisings – which, to Leopold’s horror, were published in full. Two missionaries then began sharing something even more valuable than testimony: photographs. 

Morel’s public meetings began featuring slide-shows, and soon images of young children with missing hands and villages scorched to the ground became synonymous with Leopold’s ‘Free State’. The cover of the Mail pictured earls, mayors and other high profile figures supportive of the campaign against Leopold – the way international charities today might have celebrities front campaigns. Morel formed the Congo Reform Association, uniting supporters across Britain. In just two years, the pressure resulted in a resolution passing through Parliament which urged that the Congolese people be ‘governed with humanity’. 

In 1904, the campaign crossed the Atlantic. Theodore Roosevelt met with Morel and offered his support; American chapters of the Congo Reform Association sprang up and thousands attended their public meetings. The writer Mark Twain was so moved that he personally lobbied the US government and published King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a satirical monologue written from the king’s perspective.

Feeling hounded, Leopold launched his own media operation. The Truth about the Congo, a free publication, began appearing in the carriages of luxury trains that carried the upper classes between European cities. To undermine the campaign against him, he published exposés of Britain’s own colonial atrocities in Africa and India. He employed a travel writer, Mary Sheldon, to take an all-expenses-paid tour of the Congo, who to his delight wrote on her return ‘I have witnessed more atrocities in London streets than I have ever seen in the Congo.’ Another product of Leopold’s media campaign was a pamphlet titled, a little too defensively, ‘The Congo State is NOT a Slave State.’

Watching the anger towards him spread into the US, Leopold assembled his own American campaigners. Senators, lawyers and academics, many of them on Leopold’s payroll, helped denounce Morel’s reports. He wooed major financiers and businessmen with shares of the Congo’s wealth.

But his media crusade began to unravel. One of the Americans he’d employed to lead his propaganda campaign turned against him, disgruntled at Leopold’s failure to pay an outstanding bribe. Suddenly shifting alliances, the former employee leaked damning evidence exposing a web of bribery for favourable coverage Leopold had weaved throughout the European and American press using a secretive ‘Press Bureau’. Under pressure to release a full investigation into the Congo, Leopold sent a commission to gather testimonies, draw up a report and reassure the international community that the writing published by Morel were exaggerations. On hearing them, though, the judge appointed by Leopold broke down in tears. 

Realising that his cause was lost, Leopold decided if he couldn’t keep the Congo, he would sell it – and he had a buyer in mind. Belgium’s reputation had already been damaged by its association with Leopold’s abuses, and other European powers were eyeing the colony. In 1908, Leopold signed over control to the government for the price of 25 million francs, plus 30 million in compensation to himself for the ‘trouble’ the ordeal had caused him. He died the following year.

Morel’s demands for the Congolese people to govern their own land began to make some of his former allies nervous. Britain and other global powers saw his proposals as challenges to colonial projects in general, of which they had many. In 1913, the Congo Reform Association dissolved. ‘We have struck a blow for human justice,’ Morel declared at the final gathering, and after a decade of papers, the campaign went quiet. 

Unknown to the campaigners, one day in 1908, officials working at the Congo State offices had been told to turn the furnaces on. The fires burned for eight days, pouring smoke into the sky above Brussels and destroying the Congo archives. What followed in subsequent decades was a ‘great forgetting’ of the atrocities. 

Under Belgian rule, brutality in the Congo declined – although the country remained a colony until 1960. In 2020, the events of the Congo were suddenly evoked when Belgians inspired by the international Black Lives Matter movement began protesting the numerous Leopold II statues dotted across the country. In June, one statue in an Antwerp square was unceremoniously pulled from the ground with a crane by the Belgian authorities. Now, more and more people are examining his true legacy.

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Ruby Cardona Senker holds a degree in History and has published a book for children, Women in Science: Temple Grandin.