HL Deb 03 July 1906 vol 159 cc1568-89

rose to call attention to the recent Decrees issued by the Government of the Independent State of the Congo, and the correspondence respecting its administration: Africa, No. 1.(1906.)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the first place I wish to call your attention to a Circular Despatch of the noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Lansdowne), dated August 8th, 1903,. which gives a very clear statement with regard to the Congo situation. Lord Lansdowne states in the Despatch that— The sentiments which undoubtedly animated the founders of the Congo State and the representatives of the Powers at Berlin were such as to deserve the cordial sysmpathy of the British Government, who have been loath to believe either that the beneficent intentions with which the Congo State was constituted, and of which it gave so solemn a pledge at Berlin, have in any way been abandoned, or that every effort has not been made to realise them. But the fact remains that there is a feeling of grave suspicion, widely prevalent among the people of this country, in regard to the condition of affairs in the Congo State, and there is a deep conviction that the many charges brought against the State's administration must be founded on a basis of truth. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government are of opinion that it is incumbent upon the Powers parties to the Berlin Act to confer together and to consider whether the obligations undertaken by the Congo State in regard to the natives have been fulfilled; and, if not, whether the Signatory Powers are not bound to make such representations as may secure the due observance of the provisions contained in the Act. The next important document in connection with affairs in the Congo was a very-able Report by one of His Majesty's Consuls, Mr. Casement, dated December 11th, 1903. It was probably that document and the despatch of the noble Marquess which led the Government of the Congo to appoint a Commission of Inquiry in July, 1904. The next important document is the Report of the Commission of Inquiry, which was issued on October 30th, 1905. Immediately after that Report had been issued, the Congo Government appointed another Commission to examine the Report of the Commission of Inquiry.

The evidence received by the Commission of Inquiry, and the Report of the second Commission have not been published. The reasons given for the refusal to publish the e documents are not convincing, and it is certainly to be regretted. But we are told that the conclusions of the second Commission were"in general harmony" with those of the first Commission. That Report may, therefore, be considered to have an authoritative character. There can be no doubt that the Berlin Act gives to His Majesty's Government, as one of the parties to that Act, the right to claim that the obligations undertaken by the Congo State should be fulfilled. I admit that interference with the internal affairs of a foreign State should be sparingly exercised, but from the Report of Consul Casement, and the Report of the Commission of Inquiry, it is quite clear that exceptional circumstances fully justified the remonstrances of His Majesty's Government, which have been endorsed by public opinion in this country.

The next important document is one which appeared on June 3rd—a Report to the Sovereign of the Congo State, by the three Secretaries, Mr. de Cuvelier, Mr. Droogmans and Mr. Liebrechts. That Report is accompanied by a series of extremely important Decrees. Everything depends on the spirit in which these Decrees will be carried out by the officials of the Congo State. Great difficulties have been experienced in the organisation of the Civil Service of the Congo State, and we have a right to expect that continuous efforts will be made to improve the status of officials, who have a very difficult task to perform in such a large territory. With regard to the financial condition of the Congo State, we have not sufficient data to form an adequate judgment. Greater publicity in this respect similar to that which obtains with the accounts in our Colonies would be to the advantage of the Congo State, and would disarm legitimate criticism.

I now wish to call attention to some of the Decrees. The first Decree establishes the right of the natives to the lands they occupy according to local customs. The rights of occupation are to be scheduled in accordance with regulations to be issued by the Governor-General. This involves, of course, a survey. In every village the extent of land occupied by natives is to be trebled, and even a further extension can be sanctioned by the head of the State. If necessary, expropriation will be applied in order to give effect to this rule. The natives are not allowed to alienate their property without the previous sanction of the Governor-General. Seed and plants are to be placed gratuitously at the disposal of the cultivators, and they will receive guidance with respect to proper cultivation. Their rights in the forests and fisheries are recognised with proper safeguards. This Decree is certainly a step in the right direction, if it is carried out properly, especially in that part of the territory in which companies have obtained concessions, as well as in the national domain and in that of the Crown.

The next Decree has reference to direct and personal taxes. It is left to the Governor-General to settle the tax, keeping in view the resources of the different districts and of the population and the condition of the natives. The tax cannot be less than six francs or more than twenty-four francs annually. Therefore, it will always be less than one pound. The tax can be paid in produce or in labour. The heads of districts determine what produce will be received in payment and its value. They also settle the labour and its value. It must not in any case exceed forty hours a month. The Decree states that in order to create in the natives a taste for work they will receive for produce and for labour such remuneration as takes into account the value of the produce and the standard of wages in the district. The remuneration will be paid in kind or in vouchers, which will be exchanged in kind at the warehouses of the State. I need hardly point out that the efficiency of this reform depends on the effect given to this Decree by the Administration. Forced labour is open to abuse, and the sooner it disappears the better. If the valuation of produce and labour is made on a liberal scale, the abuses which undoubtedly have been proved will tend to disappear.

The Despatch of Sir Edward Grey, dated January 9th last, ought certainly to be carefully considered in this connection. In that Despatch it is pointed out that if the tax is employed for commercial operations it remains open to the imputation of constituting a form of servitude. Sir Edward Grey says— But the labour demanded of the Congolese natives in the from of a 'tax' is not, for the most part, employed for objects of general utility in which they are themselves interested; it is employed by the State, or by the trading companies, to whom the right to levy the 'tax' is delegated, for the advancement of commercial operations, in which the native has no interest, und from which he can receive no benefit. That delegation, I believe, will be no longer possible under this Decree which repeals Article 35 of the Decree of the 18th November, 1903. Sir Edward Grey proceeds— A system which compels the personal service of the citizen for such a purpose as this—and it is to be observed that the provisions in Article 34 of the Law of the 18th of November, 1903, enabling the native to fulfil his obligations to the State by other means, have proved in the Congo to be almost entirely illusory—must always, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, remain open to the imputation of constituting a form of servitude, differing in essence but little from actual slavery. With that opinion of the Secretary of State I entirely agree. Then he further proceeds to say— His Majesty's Government are not aware of any grounds for supposing that the natives of the Congo, if provided with land for cultivation or offered employment as labourers, would show less willingness to work for the same object, and the habit of work thus acquired would, no doubt, in the Congo as in British Africa, eventually conquer their natural indolence and lead them to engage in the cultivation of the soil and in trade, not merely to fulfil their obligations to the State, but to ameliorate their own position. While protesting, however, against the theoretical justification of the existing system, which is contained in the Report—a system resulting in the substitution in the Congo of forced labour for the hired labour, by means of which the development of the other parts of Africa is effected—His Majesty's Government are glad to note that the Commissioners consider that, in practice, no native should be compelled to pay his contribution to the State in the form of labour if he can find the means to pay it in money or produce. His Majesty's Government earnestly commend this suggestion to the favourable consideration of the Congo Government, but they would point out that the reality of the reform, doubtless aimed at by the Commission, consists not so much in the proposed amplification of Article 34 of the existing Law as in removing the obstacles which at present preclude the natives from taking advantage of it. Whether the Decree will fully give effect to this advice given by Sir Edward Grey I admit is open to doubt, and I think it would be well to enforce this advice on every occasion which will be given to His Majesty's Government to enforce it.

The next Decree deals with the collective tax. The native chiefs are made responsible for the collective tax, which is assessed on a group of individuals. The chiefs are salaried and exempt of the tax. It is obvious that abuses may easily arise if the chiefs are inclined to act arbitrarily in the collection of the tax, and strict supervision will have to be exercised. An important reform is that the collection of taxes will only be carried out by officials of the State, and that private individuals will no longer be allowed to act as collectors. The system of armed sentries is abolished with regard to the collection of taxes. Individual assessment will be the rule, and collective assessment will only be tolerated where individual assessment is impracticable. The improvement of communications is mentioned in the Report as necessary in order to facilitate transport. This is self-evident, and necessitates expenditure on a large scale.

The next Decree I wish to allude to is that on the tribal chiefs. It appeared that both Commissions were of opinion that the recognition of the authority of the tribal chiefs was important for the better government of the State. The Government of the Congo itself is convinced of t-ho importance of maintaining the tribe under the authority of its chief, and, what is of even greater importance, of its customs. They are of opinion that this institution strengthens the authority of the State and improves the social condition of the natives. The chief has no other rights than those which are stated in the Deed of Investiture. Among other duties, he is bound to assist the local authorities in the levying of militia and of labourers, and in providing the supplies which are required. It is quite clear that without sufficient control abuses may easily arise. If it is intended that the native chief should protect the members of his tribe, and that he should be punished for any illegality he may commit, the system may be accepted. In the absence of a sufficient number of trained officials, there is no alternative. Provision should be made for training the heirs of chiefs, so that they should be able to discharge their duties when called upon to succeed.

Both Commissions were of opinion that for public works—roads, railways, fortifications—forced labour was justifiable. A Decree limits the liability to such labour to a period of five years. In this case, again, the conditions under which this Decree is applied must affect the criticism of a measure which in principle must be considered opposed to sound economics. A Decree has been issued, in accordance with the recommendations of both Commissions, to distinguish between police and military operations. In the Report of the second Commission it is also laid down that care should be taken that companies and private individuals should not engage in armed expeditions, which is already prohibited. The Decree does not allow a military expedition to be undertaken until an effort has been made to restore order by other means. It is admitted in the Report that the number of European officers—one to fifty men—ought to be doubled in order that strict supervision may be exercised. The Report states that this will be done as soon as the public exchequer can dispense the necessary funds.

Inspectors are to be appointed to secure to the natives their lawful rights, and to see that their mutual relations, and those with State officials and private individuals should be in accordance with the regulations. They will exercise their duties especially in the territories owned by or leased to private companies. The inspectors will receive complaints from and against the natives and will inform the judicial authorities of any breaches of the law. If these inspectors are carefully selected, and if they are sufficiently numerous, they may be able to prevent and put a stop to arbitrary proceedings. But in Sir Edward Grey's Despatch of January 9th the root of the evil is dealt with. Sir Edward Grey says— In dealing with the question of the concessionary companies, the commissioners express the view that the ideal remedy for the abuses noted within the concessions would be to deprive these companies of all administrative power. His Majesty's Government hold that the exercise of administrative functions by persons or companies who have acquired the whole trade of the area which they are called upon to administer must lead to grave irregularities, and they would have welcomed a declaration by the Commission condemning the association of trade and administration, whether in the person of concessionary companies or in that of the State itself. It is much to be regretted that the Commissioners should have ignored altogether the evils of State-trading, and failed to recommend, in the case of the companies, the practical adoption of the remedy which they themselves recognise as 'ideal.' I need hardly say that I am in cordial agreement with the advice here given to the Government of the Congo State by the Foreign Secretary, and it certainly is to be regretted that in these Decrees there is nothing showing that any effect has been given to that advice.

The strictures of the Commission of inquiry on the judicial system have led to a Decree, which establishes circuit courts. The recruitment of trained jurists is difficult, but their increase is clearly required for the effective administration of justice. We must I think accept these Decrees as evidence of the recognition by the Government of the Congo State that reforms were urgently needed. These reforms are tentative, and must lead to further reforms in the same direction.

As regards trade, in the Circular Despatch of August 8th, 1903, it was stated that— Article 1 of the Berlin Act provides that the trade of all nations shall enjoy complete freedom in the basin of the Congo; and Article V. provides that no Power which exercises Sovereign rights in the basin shall be allowed to grant therein a monopoly or favour of any kind in matters of trade. In the opinion of His Majesty's Government, the system of trade now existing in the Independent State of the Congo is not in harmony with these provisions. The Despatch further stated that— His Majesty's Government will be glad to receive any suggestions which the Governments of the signatory Powers may be disposed to make in reference to this important question, which might perhaps constitute, wholly or in part, the subject of a reference to the tribunal at the Hague. I wish to ask my noble friend the Undersecretary whether any suggestions have been received, and whether reference to the Tribunal at the Hague is considered by His Majesty's Government as a possible solution.

It should be noticed that Belgium is not responsible in any way for the affairs of the Congo. Belgium is one of the best-governed countries on the continent, and its prosperous condition is the result of its wise Government. I will quote the opinion of M. Beernaert, the eminent Belgian statesman, than whom no one can express an opinion of greater weight on the affairs of the Congo. M. Beernaert stated in the Belgian Chamber on March 1st that— Belgium to-day has no right whatever to take over the Congo, and it is deliberately, voluntarily, but against my wishes, that she renounced that right under the form of an ill-defined adjournment. Freely also, and after examination, did Parliament renounce all control and all demand for information which the preceding Convention assured to our country, and gave to the Congo State its full liberty of management and borrowing powers. Then he added— These are matters which we may regret, and I need hardly tell the House that this is my personal feeling. That is a very authoritative expression of opinion with regard to the affairs of the Congo, and I can only add that I hope that His Majesty's Government will be able in the future as in the past to exercise its due influence so that in the Congo State an administration may be introduced worthy of its founders and worthy of the virtues of the Belgian people, with whom, although it has no legal link, it is certainly in many respects connected and will ultimately become more closely related.


My Lords, there is a very wide interest felt in this country in the question which has just been brought forward by my noble friend in his comprehensive speech. He has sketched very correctly the history of the matter in its main lines. It is not necessary, therefore, that I should take up the time of your Lordships by explaining the nature of the successive Commissions—the Commission of Examination and the Commission of Reform, which have been dealt with by my noble friend; but I would like to take the earliest opportunity of paying a deserved tribute of respect and admiration to an eminent British Civil servant, a member of the Consular Service, whose work was preliminary to that of both the Commissions. It is within the knowledge of many of your Lordships that at an earlier stage in these transactions Mr. Robert Casement was sent to the Congo to make a Report, so that the Foreign Office might be informed whether or not they could attach credence to the statements made by gentlemen in this country and others who had taken up the question of the government or, as they called it, the misgovernment, of the Congo State. Mr. Casement had an exceedingly difficult task, and was subject to all those perils of flood and field which a man who has work to do in the interior of Africa has to encounter. He had, moreover, to carry on an inquiry which could not fail to be more or less disagreeable to those concerned, and to make him an object of suspicion and dislike to them. It is, as has been pointed out, unfortunate that the Report of the first Commission was not accompanied by the evidence, but the Report is sufficient to vindicate Mr. Casement. That gentleman has been the object of many unjust attacks, and I am sure I am giving utterance to the feelings of all here when I express the hope that Mr. Casement, whom reasons of health have compelled to retire from an appointment which he held at Lisbon, will have an opportunity of adding further services to those with which his name is already associated.

My noble friend has placed before your Lordships a considerable number of details in regard to the work of the second Commission. Although we have the Decrees, of which I have placed a considerable number of copies in the Library, we have not the text of the Report on which they were founded. But the documents we have are quite sufficient. If I desired—not that I do so—to take up the time of the House by a long indictment of the Government of the Congo Free State as Mr. Casement found it, I am quite satisfied with one simple fact. The Quarterly Review— a great English literary and political organ, not addicted to being the too ready recipient of every tale which the missionary or humanitarian may bring from distant parts of the world—placed on record in a most complete and carefully written article, published in January, the opinion that in many of these large districts in the Congo, and especially in the Abir district, worked by the so-called Abir Company, such a condition of things has existed, and to a certain extent exists still, that the old Government of the Arab slave traders had some features which entitled it to a more favourable opinion from civilised persons than the Government of the Congo Free State, which dispossessed and succeeded the Arab Empire.

Turning to the condition of things described by my noble friend, I may say that I have done my best to make myself master of the net result of the Decrees. The first thing that strikes me is that one of the most important recommendations of the Commission, basing itself on the Report of the earlier Commission, has not been carried out, and it is a very vital one. The Commission recommended that the Procureur-D'Etat, who has now become Procureur-Général, should be absolutely independent of the Governor-General as regards the prosecution of the offenders, except in cases where the security of the State was at stake. The Government of the Congo have refused to adopt that recommendation, and by leaving the previous legislation unaltered have confirmed the power of the Governor-General to stop legal proceedings which he considers inopportune.

I am willing to grant that if one takes the mere letter of these bulky Decrees and isolates them from the surrounding circumstances, and regards them as operating under a Government able and willing to enforce them, the position of the native in the Congo Free State might really be regarded as so idyllic that some of your Lordships on leaving this House might almost be disposed to take a ticket immediately for the Congo. But I cannot say that the matter really works out in practice in that way. No doubt it may be said that the native of a rubber-bearing district in one of the big concessions will live on the extensive lands which had for centuries been in the occupation of his tribe under the authority of his chief. That is what the Decrees seem to contemplate. He will pay a tax of between 4s. 10d. and. 19s. 4d. a year, which sum he will procure either by the sale of his rubber to the highest bidder among the traders, who will be free to set up their establishments on the native reserves, or by working as the hired labourer of the concessionary company for a fair wage —the companies are to be induced to pay wages in money as much as possible—until he has earned the necessary sum, or, if he is foolish enough to prefer this roundabout way, by working out his tax in not more than forty hours' labour a month on the concession. The tranquillity of his existence is broken perhaps once by compulsory service as a paid labourer on a work of public utility for five years, or seven years in the army, and occasionally by a slight corvée of short duration. If a European ill-treats him, he has easy access to one of the travelling magistrates, who can deal with the case by himself, if it is trivial, and if not send it before a territorial Court, or if the offence is very grave, before one of the four new Courts of first instance. If the European is sentenced and appeals, the native need not go to Boma to be present at the trial on appeal, as the Appeal Court will judge sur pièes. If he has a dispute with his employer about his wages, the travelling magistrate can decide the question, if the amount involved is under £4, without appeal. If the native is idle and will not provide himself with the money to pay his tax, he is given two warnings, at intervals of a fortnight (if his tax is payable monthly), and then, if he has not paid, he may be imprisoned with hard labour at the nearest Government post for not more than one month in the case of a first offence and not more than three months in any case. No official inferior to a chef de secteur may order his imprisonment on this account, and the company's agents have no say in the matter at all. His wife cannot be imprisoned for his own failure to pay.

If this were really to be the happy existence of the natives, the concessionary companies would, to say the least of it, find their profits enormously reduced, and very quickly reduced, an eventuality which the State will not be too anxious to permit. The delimitation of the lands to be accorded to natives is left entirely to the discretion of the Governor-General, and the State, be it remembered, is still to take half profits in the company concessions besides being an immense owner itself. Therefore, while the opportunities of ill-treating the natives are slightly lessened, the chance that the opportunities still left will be made the most of is as great as it ever was, seeing that the State is still the chief trader in the country, and that there is still no real guarantee that offenders will be brought to justice.

Some more admirable laws have been added to the statute-book of the Congo State. There was, perhaps, not a great deal to be said before against many of the laws. A fairly ideal picture could have been drawn under the old state of things; but the conditions which made former legislation in practice absolutely useless for the protection of natives remain, so far as I am able to judge, substantially unaltered. If the spirit of the law had been observed before, the Congo would have been a paradise; if the spirit of the law were observed now, it would be a paradise, with a few extra attractions thrown in. It is difficult, however, to see why or how the law should be carried out as long as the conditions to which I have already referred exist, as long as the State is itself the principal trader, while at the same time the Governor-General is the judge of the extent of the native lands, and the administration of native justice, though organised in a faultless manner on paper, does not afford any real or substantial security. I am afraid that I must say that under these circumstances the ticket to the Congo, which I referred to just now, had better, perhaps, on grounds of ordinary prudence and foresight, be a return ticket.

The question will, of course, be asked, What under these circumstances is the position of His (Majesty's Government? I am glad to think that here again we are able to look back with complete agreement upon the policy of our predecessors. This country has certain rights in regard to what goes on in this vast territory. But our rights are hedged about in various ways which give rise to diplomatic difficulties. The noble Marquess opposite, when Foreign Secretary, issued the appeal to which reference has been made. But so far as I know the only Sovereign who really sent anything like a real reply to that appeal was the Sultan of Turkey, who stated that he felt a great interest in this question. That is one of the ironies of the situation. Yesterday your Lordships were discussing Macedonia; to-day we are discussing the Congo.

Under the Berlin Act we, in common with the other signatories, have certain rights which cover the vast basin of the Congo which nothing except a further Act of the signatory Powers can alter or change. I might compare the position of the ruler of the Congo State, on coming into his kingdom, to the position of a man buying or inheriting an encumbered estate. He finds that there are mortgages upon it. He finds also, perhaps that it is subject to a variety of casements and serving rights, which he is bound to recognise. I need not again enumerate the main conditions of the Berlin Act, but I would desire to remind the House that amongst them is the right of the Powers to establish an International River Commission on the Congo, which I have always believed, if established, would be the means, like the Danube Commission was, of upholding the flag of civilisation by its presence in these waste and neglected regions of the earth. But we have other rights under the Convention of 1884 which first recognised the existence of the International Association of the Congo out of which the Free State grew. One of the most important of these is the right to establish Consular Courts. It may be said that this would not directly benefit the natives. Nevertheless, when we are aware that a British subject, the Rev. Mr. Stannard, a missionary of high character, to whose reputation testimony has been borne by the officials of the Congo State, amongst whom he has lived and had his being for a considerable time, has only quite recently been placed upon his trial, and when we are expecting hour by hour to know what the result of that trial may be, and remembering what took place at the trial of Mr. Stokes, which was one of the most disgraceful judicial farces which ever sullied the annals of what purported to be a Court of justice, we can have no intention of abandoning our right to establish Consular Courts in the Congo State, and we on the contrary attach great importance to that right.

When the Congo Free State first came into existence it was placed before the world as a great philanthropic enterprise; and when acting as Under-Secretary to Lord Granville, I was the mark for many attacks by those who thought that I was indifferent to this great philanthropic enterprise that was to carry civilisation into the heart of Africa. And now, twenty years after these events, I find the writer in the Quarterly Review using these words— Whoever they may he—British, Belgian, German, or what not—the names of the directors of the Abir Company should be published in full; and the owners of those names should then and there retire into private life as the only expiation they can make for having, consciously or unconsciously, left so dark a stain in the heart of the Congo Free State. They have directed a policy which has resulted in the death of several thousand defenceless savages, the mutilation of many more, the outraging of women, the destruction of homes, and the depopulation of a once well-peopled land. After the events that have occurred in the Congo, every right this country possesses, diplomatically or morally, is a right that we ought to stand upon. But in all these matters we have not only to bear in mind what our rights are, but the time and the opportunity. I am inclined to think that we shall be upon firmer ground, when the time comes for more active interference, by now standing upon what I may call the broad equities of the situation, rather than upon comparatively small legal points. But for the moment our duty is to indicate the great gaps which exist in the scheme of reforms, and to do everything we can to encourage the Government of the Free State to give as real and as wide an operation as possible to these reforms.

There was an idea on the Continent of Europe at one time that the campaign of the Congo Reform Association in this country was either the action of a few misguided enthusiasts, or only the work of some Protestant fanatics. No doubt the action of those who laboured in this cause was very greatly hampered by that impression abroad. Now, fortunately, those ideas have entirely disappeared. In Catholic as well as in Protestant countries, and in Catholic as much as in Protestant circles in Belgium, it is now recognised that this campaign was in no manner either the work of misguided fanaticism or of Protestant bigotry. One of the most eloquent denouncers of what has been done has been that eminent Roman Catholic statesman, who some time ago was the much respected Prime Minister of Belgium. I refer to M. Beernhart. This great Belgian statesman, himself gave voice to the feelings of outraged humanity upon this question. Among the severest critics of the Congo State are not only M. Cattier, the eminent Belgian jurist, and M. Vandevelde, the great Parliamentary Labour Leader, but also Father Vermeesch, a well known Roman Catholic ecclesiastic. It is therefore our duty to believe that public opinion in Belgium, which is much more powerful, because nearer, is rapidly bringing to bear on the official heads of the Congo State a pressure which will cause not only the enforcement of these Decrees, but their re-issue in a revised and far more drastic form.

It is our interest and policy in this country to support the legitimate action of Belgian opinion, and to be most careful not to suggest by word or deed that any attack is being made on the Belgian Government or people. We desire that it should be theirs to move in the matter, and they know best when the circumstances are favourable. Whether this matter is one which can be brought before The Hague Conference is a question to which I cannot give a positive answer. The sphere of work of the future Hague Conference is still a topic of consideration among the Powers; and I cannot hold out too great hopes. But the idea is present to the mind of the Secretary of State, and no opportunity to press forward this question will be lost. But, on the other hand, I hope and believe that the extremely complicated character of the task which His Majesty's Government have in Africa and the Congo will be recognised.


My Lords, I do not desire to add many words to the statement to which we have just listened. My noble friend has spoken strongly, but not at all too strongly, of the manner in which the Government of the Congo State has discharged the responsibilities which, in a moment of mistaken confidence, were thrown upon it by the Great Powers. The attitude of the Congo State has been unsatisfactory throughout, and I am bound to say that I do not think it has ever been more unsatisfactory than it is at the present moment. I learn from my noble friend's statement that His Majesty's Government will watch events in the Congo with care, that it is their intention to insist upon our treaty rights, and that we shall certainly not admit the extravagant pretensions which have recently been put forward by the ruler of the Congo State to deal with these vast territories as if they were a private chattel of his own, and without guidance or direction from outside.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has lately announced that he claims for the signatory Powers the right to take such steps as they may consider called for to ensure the observance by the independent State of its obligations; and I trust that he may be successful in inducing the other Powers to act with us in this matter. I can scarcely bring myself to believe that, however reluctant they may be, they will be content to acquiesce in the claim of the Sovereign of the Congo State in the shape in which it has been most recently presented to the public. Nothing could, I venture to think, be more humiliating to the Great Powers than to acquiesce in such a position; and nothing certainly could be more humiliating to us; for we may fairly claim that it is this country which from the first has taken a leading part in endeavouring to obtain redress for the wrongs of this misgoverned people.

It was the outburst of indignation in this country which first called attention to these occurrences. Then came the mission of Mr. Consul Casement, to whom my noble friend referred in terms of commendation which were thoroughly well deserved. Mr. Casement's report certainly had the effect of raising a corner of the curtain behind which were shrouded the iniquities that had been going on for many years. It led to the Commission of Inquiry whose report was very valuable, although it was given to the world—in spite of the assurances that had been obtained— without the all-important evidence on which it was founded. That report, even if allowance be made for the fact that in remote regions of this kind a certain amount of hardship and rough usage is inevitable, disclosed a condition of things more deplorable than anything which we could have ventured to imagine for ourselves. We have had discussions in this House as to what is and what is not slavery; but there was certainly brought to light in Mr. Casement's report and in the report of the Commission of Inquiry the existence of bondage under the most barbarous and inhuman conditions, and maintained for mercenary motives of the most selfish character.

What is the latest phase of these transactions? We are presented with a collection of Decrees which, no doubt, contain the outline of many reforms such as might be of great advantage if full effect were given to them; but it is, I believe, the universal opinion that these Decrees still leave room for the existence of some of the worst abuses which have prevailed in recent years in the Congo. They contemplate, although perhaps in a modified form, forced labour; and forced labour under the supervision of the officials of the Congo Government is forced labour in its very worst shape. Then, again, as I understand them, they leave the local courts subject to the interference of the Executive Government —a state of things which is not very likely to conduce to the administration of justice.

Again, they contain, as far as we are aware, no provisions rendering it necessary that the accounts of these provinces should be made public. It is to information as to the financial condition of the country above everything else that it is desirable that the public should have access. We know that these concessionaire companies are making enormous profits. I see it stated that the £20 shares of some of them are quoted at £600. These huge profits are wrung out of the suffering population of the Congo, and there is no moans of ascertaining how much or how little of the money thus extorted is devoted to expenditure for providing proper administration. We are told that by these Decrees plots of land owned by these wretched villagers are to be increased. But we all know that it is not out of the little village patches which they cultivate that they earn a livelihood, but that it is on their forest rights upon which these companies have so mercilessly encroached that they are dependent for their existence.

It has been truly said that it is not to the letter of these regulations that we have to look, so much as to the spirit in which the laws and regulations are administered. On that point there is a grain of comfort in these decrees. Three inspectors are, I believe, to be appointed; but they will have 300,000 square miles of territory apiece to look after, so that the grain of comfort is a small one. I trust that His Majesty's Government will keep an eye on the inspectors.

Something has been said as to our right to interest ourselves in these matters. I cannot admit that there is any doubt whatever as to our right. We rely on the spirit as well as the letter of the Berlin Act. What does it say? It lays down that no Power exercising sovereign rights in the above-mentioned regions should be allowed to grant a monopoly or favour of any kind in matters of trade. I believe that the whole country is covered with monopolies, and that each of the concessionaire companies has been given a monopoly of the most objectionable character.

The next clause in the Act states that all the Powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the territories bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes and their moral and physical well - being, and to help in suppressing slavery and the slave trade. These words, read by the light of what we know to be going on in the Congo, seem almost to be ironically written. I say, therefore, that our right is perfectly clear. But I may add, quite irrespective of any right we enjoy under the letter of these Acts, that we have a moral right to interfere which comes to us in consequence of the false pretences—I cannot use a gentler word—under which the Congo State has acquired its privileged position in that part of Africa. There can be no doubt that when this country acquiesced in the original arrangement most people believed that what they were doing was to give to the Belgian Government a certain control over the regions in question. We know how great a difference there is between the Government of Belgium— the enlightened and wise Government of Belgium—and the Administration of the Congo Independent State.

One word as to the remedies to which it is possible for us to look in the hope of contributing something towards the introduction of a better state of things. We entered into a specific agreement in 1884—an agreement executed between Sir E. Malet and the representative of the then Congo Association—under which we were guaranteed the most-favoured-nation treatment in the Congo, and under which we especially reserved the right to exercise consular jurisdiction within it. I agree with my noble friend that this was a very important reservation; and all I can say is that I hope, if these abuses continue, we shall claim our right to appoint consuls in the Congo. I do not care in the least whether there are British subjects to look after or not; but what I do feel is that the presence of half a dozen Englishmen located in the centres of trade within the Congo will be worth more than a whole row of inspectors or officials belonging to the Administration of the Congo Free State.

But besides this, I should certainly not abandon the hope that, should these abuses continue, the Powers, who are signatories of the Berlin Treaty, will consider, in a favourable spirit, a proposal that a conference should be again summoned to examine the whole question, and how far the promises, held out to these Powers at the time when the Congo Government was created, have been fulfilled or not. The assembly of such a conference would, I am confident, have the effect of leading to proposals which would result in a better state of things. I repeat that I guard myself, as the speakers who have pro-ceded me have done, from being supposed to make any complaint or criticism of the Belgian Government. I believe, on the contrary, that the Belgian Government, or the members of it, abhor and regret these occurrences as much as we do. Personally, I should be delighted to see the Congo State transferred to the Belgian Government. I hope it may some day be so transferred; and if it is, I trust it will be transferred under conditions which will give the Belgian Government an absolutely free hand to deal with this concessionaire region, within which the worst abuses prevail, and which claims for itself a kind of immunity from all interference or supervision. The only other remark I will make is this. I trust that we may have some at all events of the Papers to which reference has been made in this debate and in the public Press.


My Lords, I rejoice to think that the speeches delivered here this evening will find an echo outside, not in England only, but beyond the sea, and not least in Belgium itself. The story of these Congo misdeeds is as extraordinary in its character as it is melancholy in its incidents; and it is a strange dénomoument that what was originally regarded as a great philanthropic enterprise should a few years afterwards become a source of bewilderment to those of us who have no special opportunity of being conversant with the details of matters of this kind.

In this ignorance of the precise facts as to what is going on wise men always shrink from being ready to lend themselves too readily to some obvious popular outcry about something which may be only imperfectly understood. That danger, real at all times, is increased when we are dealing, not merely with a question of administration in some savage or semi-savage country, but with what may be supposed at all events to concern the administration of a civilised and friendly State. But the story has now been revealed to the world, not by mawkish sentimentalists or by unbalanced enthusiasts who are raising some mere fanatical outcry, but by an investigation carried on by competent men. It has taught us that cautious as we ought to be not to join too readily in an outcry which may often prove to be exaggerated or baseless, we ought, on the other hand, to be cautious lest we too readily put down to fanaticism or prejudice the protests which we sometimes treat too lightly because we think that the facts alleged are too bad to be true. That is the moral we have to remember on one side as well as on the other when we read of what is taking place in the Congo State.

But to-night's speeches will do very real good in this matter. From noble Lords on each side of the House who are in the best possible position to know all the facts, we have had wise and weighty words both as to the present condition of things and as to the possibility of moving in the direction of amendment. I rejoice to hear the voice of those who speak from Foreign Office experience on each side of the House proclaiming that it is clearly at this juncture the duty of Great Britain to use every right which the country possesses, diplomatic as well as moral, and to stand on those rights. We are dealing with broad considerations of principle rather than with legal technicalities. In what we are urging, we are anxious to make it clear that our criticism is directed not in any sense against the Belgian Government, which is not, as a Government, concerned or responsible. We are denouncing offenders, be they many or few, against whom a protest is here raised for wrongs which the whole world has felt to be intolerable, and which must not be allowed to continue. It is the earnest hope of every thoughtful man that the effort will be crowned with success.


My Lords, I rise to emphasise not only to your Lordships, but to those to whom the words of this debate may go, the absolute unanimity which exists on both sides of the House as to this question. There has been no difference of opinion expressed. Noble Lords who have spoken have spoken with authority, and they are all agreed both as to the general course of policy and the steps which the Government are likely to take. We have a great responsibility in. this matter, and I also declare that the Powers who signed the Act of Berlin have a great responsibility in common with us. I regret that the appeal made by my noble friend to the other Powers met with but indifferent success, but the policy which dictated that appeal is as much the policy of the present Government as it was the policy of noble Lords opposite when they were in power. I welcome the advance of public opinion in Belgium on this matter, and I think that we are bound to do nothing that would check the free expression of that public opinion. The Belgian people have great interests involved in this matter, and your Lordships may be sure that the course His Majesty's Government will pursue will not be one calculated to promote any jealousy in the Belgian Government, who have little or no responsibility in this matter, except the moral responsibility of being, as it were, indirectly connected with it. But that, my Lords, will not deter His Majesty's Government from pursuing a course which they may think to be right for the purpose of maintaining and discharging their own responsibility.

I am very glad to find that my noble friend opposite feels, as we feel, that we have still in reserve, whenever we may think fit to exercise it, a very valuable power in connection with the appointment of consuls in the Congo. I make no declaration as to the time when a step of that kind may be taken; but I do think it is an excellent thing that there should have gone forth from this House to those in other countries who are interested in this matter, and have grave and serious responsibilities in respect to it, an absolutely unanimous declaration as to policy in this question.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Seven o'clock, to Thursday next, half-past Ten o'clock.