Analyzing Causality: What Led to Congo Reform?

Causality is a fraught category of analysis; if one event preceded another in time, it did not necessarily cause the succeeding event to occur. In Geoffrey Elton’s formulation, the historian can avoid this pitfall through “argument backwards.”[1] In this view, causality is best understood not by looking forward from some occurrence, but in looking backward from the outcome and tracing how it came to occur.

In examining the question of how the movement caused change, there are several potential pitfalls to avoid. The first mistakes temporal sequence for cause and effect. For instance, the movement’s internal dynamics and growing popularity, altered decisively by the Harrises in 1905-06, had nothing to do with Grey’s becoming Foreign Secretary. Yet it was the accession of a committed reformer that changed British foreign policy in 1906, not the Harrises’ activities. A more complicated example concerns the ebbing of the movement in 1910, a time when the Harrises left the CRA, the number of lantern lectures fell, and Morel added other interests to his Congo activism. The Harrises’ departure did not cripple the movement; their move to Anti-Slavery enabled better cooperation with Morel. As the present work has shown, the falloff in CRA meetings and donations followed two key events: the 1909 Belgian reform program and the Parliamentary Committee’s mid-1910 decision to adhere to Grey’s policy of watching and waiting. Had the Belgian reforms failed, the MPs, the CRA, and Anti-Slavery could have revived the campaign.

The second pitfall is to overlook the transnational component of the movement, particularly American involvement and, even more importantly, the Belgian reformers who played critical roles at several junctures, both privately, as when Wauters and Cattier influenced the powers of Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry, and politically, where Vandervelde, Lorand, Beernaert, and others altered the annexation process to limit Leopold’s influence, making reforms possible. Speyer, Cattier, Vandervelde, and Lorand advocated the same reforms that Grey and the CRA did.[2] This section will seek to avoid both the misreading of causality and a narrow focus on Britain in delineating the chain of causality from 1913 backwards.

The main sequence of events that led to the improved conditions of 1913 includes the following milestones:

1903 May: The Samuel Resolution passed by the British House of


  • 1904 February: Casement Report published
  • 1904 July: Commission of Inquiry launched
  • 1905 October: Commission of Inquiry report published
  • 1906 December: Belgian consensus to annex the Congo
  • 1908 November: Belgian annexation of the Congo
  • 1909 October: Reform plan announced
  • 1910-12: Belgian reforms put into effect
  • 1913 June: British recognition of annexation and dissolution of the CRA.

In 1913, atrocities had largely ended, and the reform program was in place. The participants had different understandings of how this occurred. Belgian Colonial Secretary Jules Renkin adamantly maintained that the reforms were largely his own idea, implemented because the colony needed new rules to reflect current conditions, needs, and goals. The CRA, on the other hand, trumpeted how the conscience of the British public had overcome opposition from Leopold, Belgium, and the British Foreign Office to obtain needed remedies. These competing narratives helped everyone—promulgators and audiences alike—understand what had occurred in the context of their own goals and beliefs. Renkin, defending Belgian sovereignty and hoping to become Prime Minister one day, could not give any credit to the British reform movement or government.[3] Similarly, most reformers, having worked so hard for so long, had difficulty acknowledging that the initiative had passed to the Foreign Office and Belgium years before.

The following section reads the chain of causality backwards to identify the most influential factors in creating the outcome. The Belgian reform program had addressed most of the reformers’ demands and created change for the better. The symbolic representations of this consensus included the formal British recognition of the Belgian annexation on 27 June 1913, the vote to dissolve the CRA on 16 June 1913 at London’s Westminster Palace Hotel, the Parliamentary debate of 29 May 1913 where MPs endorsed recognition, and, the step that paved the way for all the others, the CRA Executive Committee vote to support recognition on 25 April 1913. Grey had given the House of Commons the consular reports, fulfilling his promise that Parliament would have the chance to review the situation before Britain ended its pressure for reforms. These actions resulted from the favorable reports of the British consuls.

While the reforms were not perfect, the colonial government worked to ensure that the new rules took effect through instructions, administrative changes, and inspections. The Colonial Council included men such as Cattier, Speyer, and Vandervelde who reminded Renkin of the need for real improvement. Until 1913, British consuls were the watchdogs, reporting progress and problems through Grey to the Belgian government; implementation of the reforms was more thorough because of their voluminous reports. Grey also applied judicious pressure to encourage completion of the reform program by making suggestions, such as recommending that Belgium replace the top officials of the colony, by posing questions, such as his inquiries about the fate of the concessionary companies, and by delaying recognition until he had favorable reports in hand for all reformed areas, despite Belgian hints about earlier recognition.[4] Leopold’s inhibiting effect on the process ended with his death in December 1909.[5]

Between the November 1909 and June 1913, the CRA undertook initiatives such as the massive 19 November 1909 Albert Hall demonstration, the April 1910 Parliamentary Memorial, and at least 25 reports, resolutions, memorials, and other letters Morel sent to Grey. However, in terms of causality, these initiatives had no impact on the structure, pace, or effectiveness of the Belgian reforms. During these years, the CRA played a secondary role without direct impact on how the reforms unfolded.

As previously described, the reform program was effective in successive Congo regions in July 1910, July 1911, and July 1912. The minor changes in regulation and bigger changes in tone that occurred between annexation and July 1910 had the salutary but limited effect of a reduction in atrocities, according to the British consuls.

Because Renkin’s reform program announced on 29 October 1909 essentially went into effect without modification from 1910-12, it is important to understand what led to it. The Belgian annexation was the necessary, but not sufficient, precondition. Before annexation, in a communique of 12 July 1908, the Belgian government had committed to several major reforms as soon as the Belgian Parliament voted for annexation and the Colonial Law: eliminating the labor tax, ending abuses, expanding village land rights, and allowing the Congolese people to trade freely.[6] The CRA was right to be skeptical; contrary to this commitment, no reform program appeared when the Chamber of Deputies approved annexation on 20 August 1908 or when annexation occurred three months later, on 15 November.

The Belgian government was not prepared to follow up on the promise of reform made in the 12 July 1908. Leopold still influenced the government and particularly Renkin, though Cattier and Speyer had confidence that Renkin and Belgium would do the right thing in the end.[7] Although Hardinge later described Renkin as determined to implement reforms, if only out of selfinterest, he seemed more focused on the political present.[8] On taking office, he denied systematic or widespread misrule in the Congo Free State, but acknowledged reforms were needed, reforms that no outside power could dictate, thus precluding recommendations from Grey and the CRA. He knew he had to act. Prince Albert, soon to be the next King, “had frankly admitted that the King’s system of administration had given rise to grave abuses, which would have, for the sake of Belgium’s good name as a civilised and progressive State, to be removed.”[9] After Albert spent three months in the Congo in 1909, his interest in reform became common knowledge.[10] Renkin also examined Congo conditions in person; he was absent from Brussels for six months (22 April to mid-October 1909) on his own voyage of inquiry to the Congo, leaving the Belgian foreign minister to deal with the increasingly impatient Grey.

The year-long delay may have suited Renkin’s purposes as a middle course between inaction, favoring Leopold and his cronies, and aggressive change as advocated by Albert and the reformers. However, by delaying, he gambled with possible diplomatic or even military hostilities between Belgium and Britain. Unbeknownst to Renkin or to Morel, Grey had won the British Cabinet’s support for stronger measures just before Renkin presented his reforms.

Though Renkin never admitted as much, the reform program appeared to owe much of its substance to the proposals from Grey, the CRA, and Cattier. At key moments, Cattier came to Britain to ask the Foreign Office and the CRA to keep up the pressure.[11] While Cattier’s prominence in Belgium lent weight to his ideas, the pressure applied by Grey ensured that they would be included. The British could play the heavies while Cattier and Speyer could be more supportive. In direct communiques and less formal messages sent through Hardinge and Lalaing (the Belgian ambassador to Britain), Grey conveyed what Britain expected in a reform program and emphasized that the country’s patience was not inexhaustible.[12] In this light, Grey’s unusual promise on 25 February 1909 that he would consult with Parliament before recognizing the annexation was part of a strategy to pressure Belgium, preventing him from recognizing the annexation for anything less than a fully effective program.

Belgian annexation had made this possible; the Congo Free State had to end for reforms to occur. However, annexation occurred two years after 13 December 1906, when the Belgian government announced the pending reprise. At issue were the terms on which Belgium would annex the Congo. Leopold demanded the continuation of his system, a role in colonial governance, personal control over Congo Crown Domain lands, respect for existing concession contracts, and large financial commitments to himself, his family, and his building programs. The king’s position weakened as negotiations continued through a parliamentary election and three prime ministers, each less sympathetic than the last. The final terms included none of Leopold’s initial demands except scaled- back financial commitments.

In the two years from the Belgian commitment to annexation in December 1906 to the actual annexation of November 1908, the most important changes occurred in Belgium with British and American support.[13] Britain’s involvement was at first somewhat muted; Grey’s error, never forgiven by Morel, was to agree with the Belgians that detailed reform plans could wait until annexation. However, this missed opportunity did not preclude other forms of British involvement. The Belgian opposition went so far as to invite British and American pressure on the government during the annexation debates.[14] King Edward’s

1908 speech seems to have reminded the Belgian government of the urgency in the international arena.[15] As Grey became more impatient, his messages became more specific; by May 1908, he had given the Belgian government an outline of the desired reform program.[16] Interestingly, the timing of Belgium’s August 1908 vote to annex was Hardinge’s doing; the Belgian government had taken his suggestion to call a special summer legislative session to deal with the Congo question.[17]

The British reform movement contributed to the erosion of Leopold’s position in these years. During the Belgian debates of December 1906 to October 1908, the CRA published and rallied and thundered with all the gusto of an organization at the peak of its popularity and prowess. Although it had played little part in educating Belgian public opinion, the British campaign ensured that the Belgian Parliament and people stayed aware of their country’s embarrassment. Other than this, it had little effect on the course of events in Belgium in these two years. This should not be surprising; the CRA’s prime target was the British government. More than 1,300 resolutions inundated the Foreign Office and the desks of MPs in 1907-08, supporting Grey’s calls for annexation, urging him to convene an international conference, and demanding stronger action to convince the Congo Free State to start reforms even before annexation. The last demand failed, but the CRA’s analysis and information helped the Foreign Office and its publicity conveyed how strongly British public opinion wanted improvement.

The Belgian consensus on annexation in late 1906 was a pivotal event in the story of Congo reform, completely reversing the positions that had prevailed through 1905. Until this moment, the Belgian cabinet had supported Leopold’s plan to keep the Congo for life and insisted that Congo affairs were not Belgium’s concern. No parliamentary party except Beernaert’s Young Right endorsed annexation, and the matter barely registered in public opinion.

The dramatic Belgian change resulted from the confluence of domestic and international events from October 1905 to December 1906 that removed the scales from their eyes regarding the king and his Congo Free State and made annexation inevitable. The avalanche began with the long-delayed release of the report of Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry on 30 October 1905. Despite Leopold’s best efforts to occlude the report’s content and spin what could not be hidden, it condemned the Congo system of rule, even while praising its accomplishments. In the ensuing 12 months, the campaign’s most influential books appeared. The CRA issued at least a dozen publications, including the damning (and popular) “Evidence Laid before the Congo Commission of

Inquiry” in French and English. Morel wrote his most famous book, Red Rubber, at this time. However, it was not Morel’s work that awakened Belgian opinion; they had ignored his denunciations for years. Belgian authors woke sentiment in Belgium and turned the ripple caused by the Commission’s report into an irresistible force.

The first volley came from Wauters in the Mouvement Geographique of 19 November 1905, condemning the Congo Free State based on the Commission’s report and the missionary evidence published by Morel. ByJanuary, the Catholic religious press had begun to turn against Leopold, stung by accusations that Catholic missions had ignored Congo misrule and to some degree had been complicit in it.[18]

In February, Cattier’s Etude de la Situation de I’Etat Independant du Congo analyzed the Commission’s report, linking it to his previous book and contradicting its conciliatory tone. Unlike the Commission, Cattier highlighted Leopold’s rule as the heart of the problem. He advocated Belgian annexation and revealed that the Congo Free State had borrowed far more money from Belgium than it needed to cover its early deficits, leading to suspicions of financial shenanigans.

Cattier’s book caused a sensation in Belgium and helped convince Vandervelde to support annexation.[19] When the Socialist party, not surprisingly, would not accept this remedy, Vandervelde asked for and received permission to advocate for annexation separately from the party. On 20 February, quoting from Cattier’s book and revealing specifics of the Press Bureau’s corruption of a Belgian paper, Vandervelde launched what became the five days’ debate beginning 27 February in the Chamber of Deputies.[20] Also influenced by Cattier, the Belgian Liberals decided to demand annexation, forming a united opposition that spanned the political spectrum from Vandervelde through the Liberals to Beernaert’s Young Right party. They voted to examine previous Belgian legislation that had set the legal framework for a Belgian takeover.

Shortly thereafter, Father Vermeersch’s La Question Congolaise appeared. Although he was more careful than Cattier to praise Leopold, his status as a Jesuit and his access to reports from Belgian Catholic missionaries gave his book additional weight among the Catholic population of Belgium and the conservative Catholic Party.[21] Later that year, Speyer reissued his 63-page booklet, Comment Nous Gouvernerons le Congo, and Vermeersch wrote Les Destinies du Congo Belge. The three professors stirred Belgian public opinion against Leopold and the Congo situation far more effectively than British reformers could.

Slow to understand the gravity of the situation, Leopold further inflamed political opinion in a June 1906 royal manifesto that dismissed annexation and claimed that his rights over the Congo were the fruits of his own expenditure and labors, contrasting with Cattier’s narrative that he had used Belgian money to build a colonial empire using the forced labor of Africans.[22] Leopold also announced onerous conditions for annexation, when and if he consented. He managed to alienate many members of the monarchist Catholic party, who joined the opposition by November 1906 in demanding annexation. Fox Bourne sent a well-timed letter to Belgian deputies endorsing Belgian annexation, a tactic that, combined with Grey’s similar statements, finally laid to rest most Belgian fears of British intentions.[23]

Though Leopold still had the support of the prime minister and Cabinet, trouble brewed in the international arena. Clemenceau’s French government announced some tepid reforms to its concessionary regime in French Congo in conjunction with its settlement of its dispute with Britain.[24] On 6 December, the Belgian prime minister and leading members of the Cabinet, deeply concerned about the international situation, asked the king to agree to annexation to forestall what the foreign minister believed was the imminent danger of a conference and partition, though Leopold met their demand with an ambiguous reply.[25]

The impetus to the king’s capitulation in the days after 6 December came from the United States.[26] The American Congo Reform Association had prepared the ground for two years since Morel’s 1904 visit with meetings, with literature, and by publishing Twain’s sarcastic King Leopold’s Soliloquy at Morel’s urging.[27] The Harrises had stirred up the public as they lectured in the US in late January and February 1906, generating thousands of telegrams, petitions, and letters to the Senate. Roosevelt, who had been sympathetic, if inactive, since Morel’s visit, indicated in November that he was considering joint diplomacy with Britain.[28]

What tipped the scales in the US was the exposure of the American Congo lobby in early December 1906 by disgruntled apologist Henry Kowalsky, including the revelation that the lobby had bribed a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member. Events moved quickly after the revelations appeared in print on 9 December. Senator Lodge put forward a motion on 10 December to support the President in any action he might take, and the US officially offered to cooperate with the British on 11 December. On 13 December, Leopold publicly assented to annexation, the quicker the better. The next day, with the blessing of the king and the prime minister, the Belgian Chamber voted to annex, with 128 votes in favor, 2 against, and 29 abstentions. Any temptation Leopold had to reverse or fight this decision was smothered by his visit to Paris on 16 December 1906, where the new prime minister, Clemenceau, seems to have conveyed that Leopold could expect no help from France.[29]

Absent a threat to bring down the government, the majority Catholic party and especially Leopold’s ally, Prime Minister Smet de Nayer, would not have brought annexation to the Chamber unless the king agreed. Stengers demonstrates that foreign pressure made the difference.[30] The king’s reversal on annexation was a triumph for the British reformers. The CRA had succeeded in its efforts to create a clamor in Britain and beyond, particularly through the US, which gave added weight to Grey’s insistent diplomacy.

The Belgian reformers played a crucial role that has been underappreciated in most historical writing. They changed the mood in Belgium and, together with the CRA and Grey, had made possible the decision to annex in December 1906. Without such a decision at this time, when Belgian interest and international fears peaked, other outcomes would have become possible due to flagging Belgian public interest, British impatience, and royal intransigence. The international consensus that Leopold and the Belgian foreign minister feared might have come to pass.[31] Contrast their panic with the British Foreign Office’s perspective of its own limited power and options. Britain was acting alone, except during US cooperation from December 1906 to March 1909. Foreign Office information indicated that other countries were at best neutral on the Congo question, despite occasional criticism of Leopold.

The Commission of Inquiry’s report appeared nearly a year after it had completed its journey. The CRA’s 96-page “Evidence Laid before the Congo Commission of Inquiry” pamphlet, made possible by Cadbury’s ?600 gift, contained missionary testimony not otherwise available.[32] This prompted the Congo authorities to issue the long-delayed Commission report on 30 October

1905; without directly quoted testimony and laden with compliments to the Congo government, it must have seemed less dangerous than the CRA’s popular booklet. Thus the report’s publication resulted from the CRA’s activities.

The creation ofthe Commission in 1904was a direct result ofoutside pressure. Lansdowne, Cattier, Warners, and Fox Bourne capitalized on Leopold’s misstep of mentioning an inquiry to turn what everyone thought of as a whitewash into a thorough re-examination of the areas Casement had covered.

The Casement journey and report resulted from the Congo debate and Samuel resolution of 1903. Although the resolution’s supporters hoped for an international conference, the debate and resolution of 1903 set the process in motion. These vital first steps were entirely the result of the overlapping and collaborating campaigns of Fox Bourne, Stead, and, most importantly, Morel.[33] There is irony in the realization that the reformers’ greatest success, achieved contrary to the wishes of the Foreign Office and without the help of Belgian reformers, occurred before the formation of the CRA.

The CRA’s first two years, when it was at its weakest in terms of members, public meetings, and finances, were also the years of its greatest importance to the cause. With Lansdowne in the Foreign Office, the impetus for reform and the spread of the message came primarily from the Congo Reform Association. When Grey became Foreign Secretary, its importance changed because of his commitment to reform; its prodding was less important, but it educated him and influenced his positions from 1906-09. Its effect on events decreased as time went on, until, by late 1909, its ability to alter the outcome had almost vanished. This is not to say that its activities after 1909 had no value. It kept public opinion alive to the Congo question, maintained an active agitation in the press, gave Grey the cover of public dissatisfaction to pursue his policies, and alarmed the defenders of the old regime. The Association spurred international interest and supported Belgian reformers. Nonetheless, this section has shown that its direct role in bringing about the critical events of Congo reform diminished over time.

  • [1] Geoffrey R. Elton, Return to Essentials (New York: Cambridge University Press,1991), 7.
  • [2] Granville to Grey, 1 November 1909, FO 403/410:199-200.
  • [3] Harding to Grey, 8 December 1909, FO 881/9854 268-70.
  • [4] Grey to Hardinge, 15 April 1910, FO 881/9730:109; Grey to Granville, 13 July1910, FO 881/9854:7; Hardinge to Grey, 15 July 1910, FO 881/9854:14-16; Grey toVilliers, 17 July 1912, FO 881/10245:7.
  • [5] Hardinge to Grey, 4 February and 13 March 1910, FO 881/9730:17, 84.
  • [6] Enclosure, Davignon to Lalaing, 12 July 1908, Africa No. 4 (1908), Cd. 4178.
  • [7] Cattier to Morel, no date, F9/3:54-5; Hardinge to Grey, 3 February 1909, FO881/9530:49.
  • [8] Hardinge to Grey, 8 December 1909, FO 881/9691:268-70.
  • [9] Hardinge to Grey, 17 May 1909, FO 881/9530:195-6.
  • [10] Liverpool Daily Post, 18 December 1909, 11.
  • [11] Cookey, Britain, 157.
  • [12] Grey to Hardinge, 27 March 1908, Africa No. 2 (1908), Cd. 4079, 2; Grey toDavignon, 4 November 1908, Africa No. 5 (1908), Cd. 4396, 1; Grey to Davignon, 11June 1909, Africa No. 2 (1909), Cd. 4701, doc. 2; Hardinge to Grey, 1 October 1909, FO881/9691:155.
  • [13] FO 881/9309.
  • [14] Hardinge to Grey, 24 April 1908, FO 881/9309:193.
  • [15] Hardinge to Grey, 4 and 8 February 1908, FO 881/9309:89ff.
  • [16] Hardinge to Grey, 9 May 1908, FO 881/9309:201-11.
  • [17] Hardinge to Grey, 13 May 1908, FO 881/9309:216.
  • [18] “Belgian Catholic Censure,” WAM, 19 January 1906, 1024.
  • [19] Wilson to Secretary of State, 5 March 1906, Papers Related to the Foreign Relationsof the United States, Part 1 (1909), 89,
  • [20] “Verbatim Report of the Five Days’ Congo Debate,” 16 December 1906, 59thCongress, Senate 2nd session, no. 138,
  • [21] Morel, Great Britain, 89; Vermeersch, La Question Congolaise, 179, 267ff.
  • [22] Emerson, Leopold, 255.
  • [23] Cookey, Britain, 166-8.
  • [24] Cookey, Britain, 180.
  • [25] Stengers, “Vers la reprise du Congo par la Belgique: La decision" Congo, Mythes etrealties (Paris: Duculot, 1989), 171-2.
  • [26] Emerson, Leopold, 256-7.
  • [27] Morel to Park, 9 May and 20 June 1905, F10/12:217, 307.
  • [28] Cookey, Britain, 170.
  • [29] Stengers, “Vers la reprise" 173-4; Cookey, Britain, 177.
  • [30] Stengers, “Vers la reprise" 173.
  • [31] Stengers, “Vers la reprise" 173-4.
  • [32] Morel to Beauchamp, 10 July 1905, F10/12:375.
  • [33] Emmott to Morel, 31 December 1903, F8/53:34.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >