Congo Free State - Scandal
For almost the entire period of the Congo Free State (1885-1908), the peoples of present-day Zaire/DR Congo were subjected to a staggering sequence of wars, repression, and regimentation. The impact of this colonial experience was so devastating, and its aftereffects so disruptive, because the initial shock of European intrusion was followed almost immediately by a ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources. In terms of its psychological impact, the state left a legacy of latent hostility on which subsequent generations of nationalists were able to capitalize; on the other hand, the sheer brutality of its methods generated a sense of fear and hopelessness, which, initially at least, discouraged the rise of organized nationalist activity.
Protestant missionaries were the first to alert international public opinion to the extent of cruelties visited upon the African population, and with the creation of the Congo Reform Association in 1904, the public outcry against the Congo Free State reached major proportions.
Europe was indignant. Public opinion, especially in England, was roused. Woeful tales were told of Congo cruelties which created an atmosphere of crusades. The natives were ill treated, underfed and overtaxed. Robbed of their lands, they were compelled under the threat of severe punishment to collect rubber for the Belgians and their King. The moral and material regeneration, as Leopold II had termed his work in the Congo, was proclaimed to be nothing but the work of oppression. A crusade was preached. The crusade was preached in England. The Congo atrocities were too heavy a burden for the European conscience.
As early as 1896 the Aborigines Protection Society, having repeatedly and in vain appealed to the Government at Brussels, turned to the British Government for protection. Sir Charles Dilke brought the Congo question forward in the House of Commons in 1897, requesting Her Majesty's Government to convene an international conference with a view to securing just and humane treatment of the natives. The Government having declined the suggestion, the promoters of the Congo protection scheme endeavoured to rouse public opinion.
The King of Belgium was compelled to give way, and on June 23rd, 1904, he appointed a Special Enquiry Commission. The Report of the Commission was published in November, 1905. It has been styled a "marvel of diplomatic evasion of facts". The Commissioners admitted that much good had been done in the Congo State, but they could not deny the existing abuse, and they did not hesitate to stigmatise the system under which the concessionaire companies were working. Reforms were necessary. The proposals for reforms were made by a special Commission in June 1906.
Not until 1908, however, did the Belgian parliament vote in favor of annexation as the most sensible solution to the flood of criticisms generated by the reform movement. The Colonial Charter provided for the government of what was thereafter known as the Belgian Congo. This charter permitted the king to retain a great deal of authority and influence over affairs in the colony through power of appointment and legislative authority, but his power was constitutional rather than personal and, therefore, limited. The main purpose of the charter was to prevent the establishment of a royal autocracy in the colony similar to the one that had existed in the Congo Free State.
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