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The War ofWords in the Courtroom

The Congo Free State provided ammunition for the rhetorical arsenal of the reformers, who quoted official bulletins, trade statistics, reports of warfare, and legal actions. Of these, legal actions were the most sensational, including libel trials against critics of the regime and the trials of Congo officials for abuses. In this record, three libel trials against people who had spoken ill of the Congo Free State loom large: Burrows (1903-04), Stannard (1906), and Sheppard (1909). The conviction of Captain Guy Burrows for libel in a British court seemed to damage the reformers, though unfairly, as Morel argued. Burrows was a former Congo officer who had defended it against Salusbury’s accusations, but turned against it when his request for reappointment was refused. He then published a book, The Curse of Central Africa (dismissed by Morel as of no value), that made accusations against another officer that he was unable to substantiate in court when the Congo government sued for libel.[1] The apologists used the Burrows trial for years to cast doubt upon all Congo criticism, even though his book contained a damning section by another former Congo employee, Edgar Canisius, that no one questioned.

The trial of Rev. Edgar Stannard for libel against the Congo State had a mixed outcome. Stannard, under instructions from Guinness, would not call any witnesses. Guinness, defying Morel, intended for Stannard to lose to show that justice was unobtainable in the Congo.[2] Instead of a lawyer, Vice-Consul Armstrong was his chief on-the-spot advisor. Stannard ignored Armstrong’s advice to answer questions briefly, instead helping the prosecution with long, evasive replies that “invariably” contradicted what Armstrong told him to say.[3] Stannard lost the case when it became obvious that his accusations against a Congo official were hearsay.[4] However, on appeal, without Stannard present to botch his own defense, the court overturned the sentence, assessing Stannard one franc in damages.

In contrast, the Sheppard trial was a triumph for the reformers. In January 1908, Sheppard wrote an article about atrocities for the mission’s local publication, the Kasai Herald.[5] The Kasai Company sued Morrison and Sheppard for libel.[6] Emile Vandervelde himself came to the Congo to defend the men. The court dismissed the case against Morrison on a technicality, but Vandervelde secured acquittal for Sheppard while exposing the hypocrisy and venality of the Kasai Company and the entire Congo edifice.

Trials of Congo officials highlighted the weakness of Congo justice. Courts were more likely to convict lower-level employees than more senior officials, who often went out of the reach of the Congo Free State by traveling to Belgium, apparently with official connivance. On appeal, judges reduced or eliminated sentences. No matter what the verdict, every trial was an opportunity for the reformers. If the judge found the defendant guilty, this confirmed the violence inherent in the system. If the judge acquitted the defendant, the Congo Free

State had perverted justice to protect itself. The escape of a defendant to Belgium spoke for itself.

The Congo reform movement was not a spontaneous public outcry, but a widespread agitation fostered by reformers to exert pressure on the government by spurring and embodying public opinion, which needed care and feeding if it was not to wither away. It was not enough to present the facts to the public. The Congo was too far away and its situation too unfamiliar. The reformers needed to make their vision of the Congo and of Britain vivid to the public through words and images.

The reformers tapped into long-established tropes of Britain as compassionate, just, and responsible to remind or convince the British that their virtues would lead them to act on this issue. They invoked multiple meanings of humanity as reasons for action. Their strategy helped their compatriots to reimagine themselves as nobler, more humane, and more just. Like other Europeans before them, they invented a new Congo.[7] To overturn the carefully crafted image of the Congo Free State as a philanthropic enterprise, the reformers conveyed a dissenting image of a sordid and bloody tyranny that enslaved, tortured, and murdered indiscriminately while reducing people to the status of expendable tools for the accumulation of wealth.

By 1906, the reformers had triumphed in the battle of representation; Leopold’s apologists had become the dissenters from the new trope. Their continued defense helped Leopold maintain his competing truth claims right through his surrender of the Congo to Belgium. Dunn argues that the reformers succeeded in part by reviving the original picture of the Congo as a place of evil and depravity. It seems, rather, that the locus of evil had shifted from the Congolese, now seen as victims, to Congo Free State officials and concession companies. Belgian annexation made this rhetorical battle more difficult as Morel and others had foreseen. They could not demonize Belgium the way they had demonized Leopold, even when Belgium seemed to be continuing the Leopoldian system in the first year after annexation. Yet Belgium had to act to secure reform.

The rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the British people lasted from the first complaints right through the final stage of reforms. Morel, the Harrises, and other leading reformers proved to be indefatigable in the war of words and images, which was necessary if the public were to act on the construction of British virtues. They used venues, technologies, and practices previously deployed by humanitarians, crusading journalists, religious campaigners, and political reformers to make their reimagined Britain and Congo a discursive reality for a large section of the British public. Through the press as well as the written resolutions passed at meetings, they were able to claim to represent public opinion and thus brought weight and legitimacy to the issue in the eyes of the politicians and bureaucrats.


  • [1] Morel to Councillor W. Denton of Liverpool, 30 March 1904, F10/9:722.
  • [2] Armstrong to Nightingale, 27 April 1906 FO 881/ 8786, 158; Morel to Wilkes, 8February 1907, F10/15:135.
  • [3] Nightingale to Grey 17 August 1906, FO 881/8923:54-6; Armstrong to Grey, 8October 1906, FO 881/8923:76.
  • [4] Nightingale to Morel, 18 August 1906, F8/119:17.
  • [5] Pagan Kennedy, Black Livingstone (New York: Viking, 2002), 162-3; Slade, EnglishSpeaking Missions, 368; Kasai Herald, January 1908.
  • [6] FO 881/9530.
  • [7] Dunn, Imagining the Congo, 48.
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