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Africa during the Scramble: Belgians in the Congo part 1

By Gary Oswald

1890 map of the Congo Free State from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol. 1

The history of Slavery in Africa is one going back thousands of years. In this it's much the same as every other continent. Slavery varied in both the details and in the prevalence across the world but most polities to ever exit have used slaves. In terms of those details, I don't ever want to imply any slavery wasn't evil but certainly slaves tortured and sacrificed in Vodun ceremonies would be worse off than a house slave in the Benin Empire normally would be. Likewise there's a difference between the way slaves in certain empires, such as the Songhai or Kongo, had a decent chance of earning their way out of slavery during their lifetime and places like the sugar plantations of South Morocco where not only was slavery permanent but children born into slavery would likely also see their children die as slaves.

The use of slaves increased from the 1100s onwards thanks to European and Arab trade. Arab and European goods were valuable, African Goods often were not. African Slaves, however, were. The result was thousands of traders emerging in Africa who captured slaves in huge numbers to sell in exchange for European goods. This was utterly ruinous for Africa in a way slavery within the continent was not. Huge numbers of people were removed from the continent depriving their countries of their manpower and intellect and they would, with very few exceptions, never return. Moreover raids and inter-tribal warfare increased in order to provide these slaves, damaging inter-continental trade and causing more destruction.

And the desire for European goods was such that African rulers were unable to prevent their own people from participating. Those Kings who did try and stop it were often overthrown and replaced while other rulers wrote pleading letters to Europe begging their traders to stop buying slaves. When Abolitionism began to arise as a serious movement once again, it was understood that convincing the Africans to not sell slaves was impossible due to the difference in value of goods. It was more achievable to convince the Europeans to stop buying.

By the time of the Scramble for Africa, the Atlantic Slave Trade had mostly been stamped out. There were still New World countries that had slavery but they were no longer importing them. The ships of men heading out of Africa to be worked to death in a Brazilian Sugar Field were no longer leaving. But Slavery obviously still existed. None of the African countries had stopped owning Slaves after all.

To some extent, this wasn’t initially considered a major problem by European Abolitionists. Their main concern was the sins of white Christians and if other races wanted to sin that wasn’t really their business. One of the earliest anti-slave treaties the British signed in East Africa was one where in the Ibadi Muslims of Zanzibar agreed to not sell any slaves to white Christians but were still able to sell them to other Muslims. Likewise in Dahomey abolitionists encouraged the Vodun traders to open palm oil plantations as an alternative export to slaves, even though those plantations had to be run by Slaves. The aim was much more to end the Christian trade in slaves than to actually free slaves.

In fact European colonies in Africa were often still buying slaves right up until the 1890s just using them in Africa rather than exporting them. It wasn’t often called that, it tended to be recorded as exchanging goods for labour with friendly kings but you still saw Slaves shipped in from the surviving Kingdoms to Portuguese and German colonies long after the trade was officially abolished.

During the years of the Scramble however, as Christian missionaries travelled further into Africa, African Slavery and in particular the Arabic Slave trade became much more of a cause celebre. Europe, and Britain in particular, had learned to be appalled by slavery and so there was moral pressure for it to be ended. Men like David Livingstone called for humanist intervention in Africa. What this meant in practice was often that the all-powerful British Navy would bomb slave ports like Algiers, Porto-Novo and Zanzibar and British diplomats would attempt to demand abolitionist laws in treaties, much as they had done in Europe. Sometimes the diplomatic efforts worked, the Boer States freed their slaves in 1852 in return for British recognition of independence, but it mostly didn’t. The Sultans of Zanzibar had a habit of agreeing treaties that banned slavery and then not enforcing them and most polities in North or West Africa flatly refused to discuss abolitionism due to the cultural and economic importance it had taken.

Leopold II, King of Belgium

One of the motives for the Scramble was to use military force to end slavery. The Wars in Africa were often marketed back in Europe as humanist, liberal interventions which overthrew Tyrants and the banning of slavery was a key part of that. Some of this was genuine as a motive, the good intentions which paved the road to Hell. A lot of it was not but rather men with interest in Africa for economic or prestige reasons using the anti-slavery crusade as a fig leaf to justify their conquests. Two of the most notorious of the latter were Benito Mussolini, the fascist prime minister of Italy who justified his invasion of Ethiopia due to the fact it still had slaves, and Leopold II of Belgium, who ended up ruling nearly a million squares miles of African soil, the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, as a personal fiefdom, based on the public promise that this was a humanist mission to end slavery in the region.

The atrocities committed in the Congo by Leopold’s men more than anything have come to signify the failure of this humanist intervention. Because European control of Africa did not end slavery. What happened instead was Africans went from being the slaves of black Kings to the slaves of white businessmen. This happened in every major colonial empire. In the aftermath of Herero and Nama wars, the Germans used their prisoners of war as slave labour for several years during which they were worked to death under appalling conditions. This practice of making slaves out of those you’d defeated in battle would be familiar to the African Kingdoms and was common in the European empires.

Moreover you had Corvée labour, wherein peasants were forced to provide free labour for European companies instead of paying taxes. This was common throughout French and Portuguese Africa and was often more exploitative than the slavery it had replaced. David Dacko and Jean-Bédel Bokassa, cousins who would later become the First President of the Central African Republic and the First Emperor of the Central African Empire respectively, grew up in the Lobaye basin wherein the French Forestière company held sway. This company would impress whole villages for forced labour and take hostages to ensure the workers would obey. When Bokassa’s father tried to free these hostages, he was beaten to death in the village square as an example to the others.

In French run Madagascar, the use of forced labour was notorious and there were various struggles to ban it. Under Vichy control during WW2, wherein Madagascar was described as the closest thing to a Nazi colony in Africa you could get, slavery was bought back in full under the justification that this was the natural way of things in Africa and it had been wrong to attempt to force the European way of things upon the Malagasy, who had, after all, had slaves prior to French conquest.

One of the most notorious British businessmen in Africa was William Hesketh Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, who manufactured soap from vegetable oils, and to that end ran palm oil plantations in west and central Africa. He was notorious for the uses of forced labour and wanton cruelty towards his workers. In British Africa you also had labour imported from India. These workers were paid but they were locked into five year contracts which they had no hope of breaking and often didn’t know what they were signing when they’d joined up.

Slavery, by other names, was common throughout all the European Empires. This is not to say that all of the old cruelties of African Slavery continued after the Scramble. The trade of slaves to Arabia was successfully stopped as was the sacrifices of slaves in religious ceremonies. But this great humanist crusade was responsible for putting more people in chains than it freed from them.

And nowhere was that more true than the Congo Free State. Under King Leopold, hailed in Europe as his age’s greatest philanthropist, the heart of Africa became one giant slave plantation wherein whole villages were brutalised and forced into unpaid labour and the death toll possibly reached as high as ten million. European Empires had been built on African Slaves before, after all that was how the New World colonies of France, Spain, Portugal and the UK had worked, but Leopold did it while draping himself in the flag of abolitionism.

Leopold was a con man. He lied, double crossed and plotted for years to get to a position wherein the other major powers would agree to him running his own state in Africa. Positioning himself as an opponent of slavery was just one more lie he needed to tell to gain international support. If any other man had been King of Belgium, Belgian Rule in the Congo would never have happened, certainly there was no interest in it by the Belgian Government. Without Leopold the Congo would have probably been divided between the main colonial powers, France and the UK and possibly Germany and Portugal as well. A neutral power such as Spain or the USA (the latter is particularly tempting because they were the first country to recognise the Free State partly because they viewed the promised ‘civilised’ Congo as a good destination for sending American blacks) could have played on the Franco-British rivalry to claim the area on the basis that at least the other side wouldn’t get it as Leopold did. But this was an extraordinarily difficult game and few other leaders with both the skill and the single minded focus on Africa existed.

Of course getting the Americans and Europeans to recognise his claim was only half the battle, he needed to actually conquer the land too. The Slave traders whom Leopold had been given the land with the mission to subdue were largely Swahili warlords operating under the flag of the Omani colony of Zanzibar. They had come into area for the same reason Leopold would, there was no large organised state to stop them. The saying in Zanzibar was that ‘the gun was the sultan of the hinterland’.

Leopold’s Force Publique would provide their first major opposition. The Force Publique, a private army of 19,000 men would be Leopold’s main tool in taking control of the Congo. The men were largely African conscripts or mercenaries hired from other colonies, the Officers were normally soldiers on leave from other European militaries. Even among the officer class, this was a multinational force. While many were Belgian, they were just as likely to be British, German, Italian or Scandinavian. And these soldiers were busy, the Congo Free State existed for 23 years from 1885 to 1908 and it was at war for pretty much of all that. Just because the people of the Congo tended to be organised in small states didn't mean they couldn't fight. The Yaka, the Chokwe, the Boa, the Sanga, the Kasi and the Budja all fought long wars against the Belgian Invaders before finally being subdued. Superior fire power and existing conflict preventing the Africans from making a grand alliance made their defeats however largely inevitable.

The better chance for an African army capable of defeating Leopold’s men was the Force Publique itself. The army, being largely reliant on conscripts who were basically slave soldiers and not only often not paid but also often brutally flogged and killed on the whim of their officers, was dogged by mutinies. Two major mutinies in 1895 and 1897 saw around 4,000 soldiers turn on their officers. This posed a particular threat because these men were armed with European weapons and because they had been forced into forming a unit that went across tribal lines. The rebels eventually were driven by superior numbers into German lands where they laid down their arms and settled but it illustrates the house of cards on which the system was built. It is certainly possible for a more widespread mutiny to destroy the Force Publique entirely.

Tippu Tip as photographed by the Coutinho brothers in 1890

Because of the weakness of this Force and the number of wars it was fighting elsewhere, when Leopold’s men first encountered the most powerful of the Swahili warlords and slave traders, Tippu Tip, rather than fight him he was instead offered a job. The various Zanzibari warlords would largely remain in place, only they’d fly Leopold's flag and sell slaves to the Free State instead of to Oman. Tippu Tip would become governor of the Eastern Congo and Leopold would buy 7,000 slaves, who he conscripted into his Army. The offer was accepted. The man who had gained a state in Africa on his promise to end Slavery had never had any intentions to do so.

This Alliance lasted five years, until the arrival of more European traders into the Swahili area meant local conflict started without anyone higher up demanding it and the newly more powerful Force Publique invaded the Eastern Congo in response. And over the next two years, they destroyed the Swahili warlords, killed thousands of civilians and burned various slave markets to the ground. This largely ended for good Zanzibari power in the Free State. Perhaps if this conflict was delayed a few years more until it coincide with the mutinies, it would weaken the State’s ability to respond to the mutineers.

In the South East of the lands Leopold had claimed there were much larger Kingdoms who had largely been protected from both the Arab and Atlantic Slave trades. The prosperous Kuba Kingdom in Kasai numbered around 400,000 people. Their isolation however counted against them, they neither had firearms nor much military experience and so were easy prey for the Force Publique. Much more warlike was the Yeke Kingdom of Katanga under Msiri. Msiri was one of the most successful of the Swahili warlords who extended the writ of Zanzibar into the Hinterland. He was also the first who Leopold would attack, largely to prevent Cecil Rhodes from beating him to it.

Msiri as drawn by Capello and Ivens

Msiri had been a long-time ally of Tippu Tip. We must remember that Africa during the Scramble was a time of African Imperialism as well as European. The Herero of Namibia had been faced with an invasion by the Nama before they faced the Germans. Many Southern Africans had had to defend against the Zulu and the Boers prior to British arrival. And In the Eastern Congo it had been Swahili invaders who had pre-empted the Belgian ones. Inland Africans such as Mirambo and Mwata led resistance against the Swahili but were defeated. Msiri carved out his own empire out of the defeated Luba and Lunda peoples, until he ruled a Kingdom as large as Great Britain. It was a rich land and Msiri ran a profitable trade in minerals and ivory as well as slaves.

To some extent, Msiri is Leopold writ small. He was a foreign conqueror with an army of conscripts and there’s reports of all the cruelties the Free State would become known for also happening in the Yeke Kingdom. The keeping of hostages, the use of forced labour, the decorating huts with decapitated skulls and even the chopping of hands. To an extent these reports, which came largely from men in the Free State's employ, are unreliable but the Swahili rule in the Eastern Congo was as resented and contested by the natives as the European rule in the West. The disadvantage Msiri had in comparison was that he relied on his guns to give him an advantage over the natives and he didn’t produce his own gunpowder. Because of this, he was much less capable of ruling by pure force than the Free State was and so he did make some effort to create bonds with his new subjects, marrying a woman from each village to blend his lineages with them. But this was not enough, by 1891, a rebellion had broken out among the Basanga that threatened to overthrow Msiri entirely.

It was against the background of this crisis that the agents of the Free State arrived. They offered to supply Msiri with all the gunpowder he needed to defeat the rebels if only he accepted the same offer Tippu Tip had and took a job as governor in Leopold’s State. Msiri refused, he had worked for the Sultan of Zanzibar before becoming his own King and he had no desire to work for another man ever again. The Force Publique, unwilling to take no for an answer, shot him and looted his capital. Msiri’s position was precarious enough that the Yeke Kingdom surviving is unlikely, if you remove Leopold he’s probably just going to fall to a British expedition, prevent that and he’s entirely likely to be killed by the Basanga.

Msiri became a famous example of the African slaver. His death was trumpeted in Free State propaganda, that it only happened because he refused to work for them was quietly skipped over, as an example of their victories in the crusade against Slavery. But more than anything he represented just how weak the African Polities in the Congo were, both in the way he conquered so much land for himself with relatively primitive firearms and in how easily he was defeated. It is difficult to think of how you can avoid their conquest by somebody. Africans had their best chance of survival when they were connected to the outside world, able to obtain weapons and information easily. They also had their best of chance when there were large united polities capable of joint resistance, rather than individual villages warring with each other. In order to create those circumstances in the Congo basin, you need to go back to the 17th century and prevent the collapse of the Kingdom of Kongo. By the 19th century, it was too late.

The real question is what happens once the Congo has been conquered. In the next article we will discuss the crimes committed by the regime Leopold set up and to what extent they would have happened if another power had taken the region, instead.


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