Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
920
CONGO FREE STATE


the Independent State of the Congo on the other, as well as all the benefits, rights and advantages attached to that sovereignty.” In July 1890 Belgium acquired, by the terms of a loan to the Congo State which was granted free of interest, the option of annexing the state on the expiry of a period of ten years and six months. Notwithstanding this loan the state became involved in further financial difficulties,[1] and on the 9th of January 1895 the Belgian government entered into a treaty with King Leopold to take over the Free State with all its possessions, claims and obligations, as from the 1st of January of that year. In anticipation of the consent of the Belgian parliament to this treaty, a Franco-Belgian convention was signed on the 5th of February 1895, by which the Belgian government recognized “the right of preference possessed by France over its Congolese possessions in case of their compulsory alienation, wholly or in part.” But after long delays and a violent press campaign the ministry fell, the bill providing for annexation was withdrawn, and the chambers voted a further loan to the Free State to enable it to tide over its immediate difficulties. In 1901, on the expiry of the term of years fixed in the loan convention of 1890, the question of the annexation of the Congo State by Belgium again formed the subject of prolonged discussion. A bill was brought forward in favour of annexation, but this time it was opposed by the Belgian government, which proposed simply to let the loan run on without interest. King Leopold likewise declared himself to be opposed to immediate annexation, and the bill was withdrawn. Under the terms of the government measure, which finally passed through the Belgian parliament in August 1901, Belgium retained her right of option, though not the right to exercise it at a fixed date. Moreover, in anticipation of the time when the Congo State would become a Belgian colony, there was issued under date of 7th of August 1901 the terms of a proposed loi organique, regulating the government of any colonial possessions which Belgium might acquire.

The discussions which from time to time took place in the Belgian parliament on the affairs of the Congo State were greatly embittered by the charges brought against the state administration. The administration of the state had indeed undergone a complete change since the early years of its existence. A decree of the 1st of July 1885 had, it is true, declared all “vacant lands” the property of the state (Domaine privé de l’état), but it was not for some time that this decree was so interpreted as to confine the lands of the natives to those they lived upon or “effectively” cultivated. Their rights in the forest were not at first disputed, and the trade of the natives and of Europeans was not interfered with. But in 1891—when the wealth in rubber and ivory of vast regions had been demonstrated—a secret decree was issued (Sept. 21) reserving to the state the monopoly of ivory and rubber in the “vacant lands” constituted by the decree of 1885, and circulars were issued making the monopoly effective in the Aruwimi-Welle, Equator and Ubangi districts. The agents of the state were enjoined to supervise their collection, and in future natives were to be obliged to sell their produce to the state. By other decrees and circulars (October 30 and December 5, 1892, and August 9, 1893) the rights of the natives and of white traders were further restricted. No definition had been given by the decree of 1885 as to what constituted the “vacant lands” which became the property of the state, but the effect of the later decrees was to assign to the government an absolute proprietary right over nearly the whole country; a native could not even leave his village without The state becomes a monopolist trading concern. a special permit.[2] The oppressive nature of these measures drew forth a weighty remonstrance from the leading officials, and Monsieur C. Janssen, the governor, resigned. Vigorous protests by the private trading companies were also made against this violation of the freedom of trade secured by the Berlin Act, and eventually an arrangement was made by which certain areas were reserved to the state and certain areas to private traders, but the restrictions imposed on the natives were maintained. Large areas of the state domain were leased to companies invested with very extensive powers, including the exclusive right to exploit the produce of the soil.[3] In other cases, e.g. in the district of Katanga, the state entered into partnership with private companies for the exploitation of the resources of the regions concerned. The “concession” companies were first formed in 1891 under Belgian law; in 1898 some of them were reconstituted under Congo law. In all of them the state had a financial interest either as shareholder or as entitled to part profits.[4]

This system of exploitation of the country was fruitful of evil, and was mainly responsible for the bad treatment of the natives. Only in the lower Congo and a narrow strip of land on either side of the river above Stanley PoolCharges of maladmin-
istration.
was there any freedom of trade. The situation was aggravated by the creation in 1896, by a secret decree, of the Domaine de la conronne, a vast territory between the Kasai and Ruki rivers, covering about 112,000 sq. m. To administer this domain, carved out of the state lands and treated as the private property of Leopold II., a Fondation was organized and given a civil personality. It was not until 1902 that the existence of the Domaine de la couronne was officially acknowledged. The Fondation controlled the most valuable rubber region in the Congo, and in that region the natives appeared to be treated with the utmost severity. In the closing years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th the charges brought against the state assumed a more and more definite character. As indicated, they fell under two main heads. In the first place the native policy of the Congo government was denounced as at variance with the humanitarian spirit which had been regarded by the powers as one of the chief motives inspiring the foundation of the Congo State. In the second place it was contended that the method of exploitation of the state lands and the concessions system nullified the free trade provisions of the Berlin Act. Reports which gave colour to these charges steadily accumulated, and gave rise to a strong agitation against the Congo State system of government. This agitation was particularly vigorous in Great Britain, and the movement entered on a new era when on the 20th of May 1903 the House of Commons agreed without a division to the following motion:—

“That the government of the Congo Free State having, at its inception, guaranteed to the powers that its native subjects should be governed with humanity, and that no trading monopoly or privilege should be permitted within its dominions, this House request His Majesty’s Government to confer with the other powers, signatories of the Berlin General Act, by virtue of which the Congo Free State exists, in order that measures may be adopted to abate the evils prevalent in that state.”

In accordance with this request the 5th marquess of Lansdowne, then secretary of state for foreign affairs, issued a despatch on the 8th of August 1903 to the British representatives at the courts of the powers which signed the Berlin Act, drawing attention to the alleged cases of ill-treatment of natives and to the existence of trade monopolies in the Congo Free State, and in conclusion stating that His Majesty’s government would

  1. For an account of the loans and liabilities of the state see II. The Belgian Congo, § Finance.
  2. The British parliamentary paper Africa No. 1, 1909, contains a memorandum on the land laws in the Congo State, showing the extent to which trade was monopolized throughout its territories by the government.
  3. This concession was asserted by traders who had previously dealt direct with the natives, and by traders who hoped so to do, to contravene the provision of the Act of Berlin prohibiting any commercial monopoly in the Congo basin. The state maintained, however, that the proprietor who exploits and sells the produce of his land is not engaging in commerce.
  4. The best known of these companies are the Abir (Anglo-Belgian India-rubber and Exploration Co.) and the Société anversoise du commerce au Congo. In Katanga the companies holding concessions and the state are jointly represented by the Comité spécial du Katanga. In 1906 four new companies were formed in which British, American and French capital was largely invested. Of these companies the Union minière du Haut Katanga had for object the development of the mineral wealth of the district named, while the Chemin de fer du Bas Congo undertook to build a railway from Leopoldville to Katanga. The American Congo Company was granted a rubber concession in the Kasai basin. The fourth company, the Société internationale forestière et minière du Congo, combined mining operations with the exploitation of forest produce.