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Moyen-Congo - The Concessions

There was no single colonial policy during the period before World War II, and a number of different administrative formulas were tried in the French African territories. Some of the early policies, such as the program of concessions to private companies for the commercial exploitation of the area, grew out of the desire for the colonies to be self-supporting. At other times colonial policies were modified according to changes in the political situation within France itself.

After the founding of the colony of French Congo, which com-prised Gabon and the Congo, in 1882, sharp differences arose regarding the proposals for developing the territory. Brazza, who had been named commissioner of French Congo, urged that the colony be developed through the use of public funds, but, in the interest of economy, the French government opted to grant concessions to private companies for the exploitation of the region.

Because of his opposition to the proposed concessions, Brazza was removed from his post in 1898. That same year the Commission of Colonial Concessions was established to pave the way for the granting of exploitation privileges to private French companies. Through the concessionary system France granted the companies exclusive rights to the exploitation of assigned territories for a period of thirty years and outright ownership of developed lands and rubber forests after that time. The government collected fees according to the size of the concession and levied a 15 percent tax on profits. In the agreements the companies were directed to uphold the welfare of the Africans, reserving certain territories for them, build roads, and maintain public order. In effect, the companies con-trolled the colony.

By the turn of the century, forty companies had been granted concessions covering 95 percent of the entire land surface of the colony, an area larger than the country of France. To a great extent the companies concentrated on short-term profits and exploited both the human and natural resources with no regard for the future. Reports of shocking brutalities reached Europe, arousing public opinion and demands for reforms. In an attempt to quell the public furor and respond to charges of French violations of the rights of Africans as defined in the Act of Berlin, Brazza was appointed to head a commission of inquiry. He went to the Congo to conduct the investigation but died of illness in September 1905 on his return trip to France. Although it refused to publish Brazza's full report, the French government was moved to alter its colonial policies.

The government of France had considerable difficulty in reasserting its authority in the Congo, but its struggle was eased by the financial difficulties of a number of the companies, which had found the area less wealthy than they had supposed. By 1911 almost half of the concessionary companies had been eliminated, and those that remained accepted some revision to their concessions. Large combines, however, continued to control a total area of 1,470 square miles.

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