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921
CONGO FREE STATE


“be glad to receive any suggestions which the governments of the signatory powers might 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.” This despatch failed to evoke any response from the powers, with the single exception of Turkey, but the public agitation against the Congo State régime continued to grow in force, being greatly strengthened by the publication in February 1904 of a report by Mr Roger Casement, then British consul at Boma, on a journey which he had made through the middle Congo region in 1903 (described as the “Upper” Congo in the report). The action on the part of the British government resulted in considerable correspondence with the Congo government, which denied the charges of systematic ill-treatment of the natives and controverted the contention that its policy constituted an infringement of the Berlin Act. In July 1904, however, King Leopold issued a decree appointing a commission of inquiry to visit the Congo State, investigate the condition of the natives, and if necessary recommend reforms. The commission was composed of M. Edmond Janssens, advocate-general of the Belgian Cour de Cassation, who was appointed president; Baron Giacomo Nisco, president ad interim of the court of appeal at Boma; and Dr E. de Schumacher, a Swiss councillor of state and chief of the department of justice in the canton of Lucerne. Its stay in the Congo State lasted from the 5th of October 1904 to the 21st of February 1905, and during that time the commissioners ascended the Congo as far as Stanleyville. Report of the Commission of inquiry. The report of the commission of inquiry was published, minus the minutes of the evidence submitted to the commissioners, in November 1905. While expressing admiration for the signs which had come under its notice of the advance of civilization in the Congo State, the commission confirmed the reports of the existence of grave abuses in the upper Congo, and recommended a series of measures which would in its opinion suffice to ameliorate the evil. It approved the concessions system in principle and regarded forced labour as the only possible means of turning to account the natural riches of the country, but recognized that though freedom of trade was formally guaranteed there was virtually no trade, properly so called, among the natives in the greater portion of the Congo State, and particularly emphasized the need for a liberal interpretation of the land laws, effective application of the law limiting the amount of labour exacted from the natives to forty hours per month, the suppression of the “sentry” system, the withdrawal from the concession companies of the right to employ compulsory measures, the regulation of military expeditions, and the freedom of the courts from administrative tutelage. Simultaneously with the report of the commission of inquiry there was published a decree appointing a commission to study the recommendations contained in the report, and to formulate detailed proposals.

Naturally the development of the charges against the Congo State system of administration was followed with close interest in Belgium. Little or nothing was done, however, Renewed movement for annexation in Belgium.to advance the bill brought forward in August 1901, providing for the government of the Congo State in the event of its becoming a Belgian colony. The existence of this measure was recalled in a five days’ debate which took place in the Belgian parliament in the spring of 1906, when the report of the commission of inquiry and the question of the position in which Belgium stood in relation to the Congo State formed the subject of an animated and important discussion. In the resolution which was adopted on the 2nd of March the chamber, “imbued with the ideas which presided over the foundation of the Congo State and inspired the Act of Berlin,” expressed its confidence in the proposals which the commission of reforms was elaborating, and decided “to proceed without delay to the examination of the projected law of the 7th of August 1901, on the government of Belgium’s colonial possessions.” The report of the reforms commission was not made public, but as the fruit of its deliberations King Leopold signed on the 3rd of June 1906 a number of decrees embodying various changes in the administration of the Congo State. By the advocates of radical reforms these measures were regarded as utterly inadequate, and even in Belgium, among those friendly to the Congo State system of administration, some uneasiness was excited by a letter which was published along with the decrees, wherein King Leopold intimated that certain conditions would attach to the inheritance he had designed for Belgium. Among the obligations which he enumerated as necessarily and justly resting on his legatee was the duty of respecting the arrangements by which he had provided for the establishment of the Domaine de la couronne and the Domaine privé de l’état. It was further declared that the territories bequeathed would be inalienable.

The fears excited by this letter that King Leopold desired to restrict Belgium’s liberty of action in the Congo State when the latter should become a Belgian colony were not diminished by the announcement in November 1906 of four new concessions, conferring very extensive rights on railway, mining and rubber companies in which foreign capital was largely interested. This was immediately before the opening in the Belgian chamber of a fresh debate in which the history of the Congo question entered on a new stage of critical importance not only from the national but the international point of view. It had become evident, indeed, that things could not continue as they were. In reply to an influential deputation which waited upon him on the 20th of November, Sir Edward Grey, speaking as the representative of the British government in his capacity as secretary of state for foreign affairs, expressed the desire “that Belgium should feel that her freedom of action is unfettered and unimpaired and her choice unembarrassed by anything which we have done or are likely to do”; but he added that if Belgium should fail to take action “it will be impossible for us to continue to recognize indefinitely the present state of things without a very close examination of our treaty rights and the treaty obligations of the Congo State.”

The debate in the Belgian chamber opened on the 28th of November and was not concluded till the 14th of December. It was largely occupied with the consideration of the relations between Belgium and the Congo State from the constitutional point of view. A resolution was finally adopted by 128 votes to 1, thirty Socialist members abstaining from voting. In this resolution the chamber took note of “the replies of the government, according to which the declarations contained in the letter of the 3rd of June do not constitute conditions but ‘solemn recommendations,’ while ‘the convention of cession will have no other object than to effect the transference and define the measures for its accomplishment, and the Belgian legislature will regulate the régime of its colonial possessions in unrestricted liberty.’ ” In conclusion the chamber, “desiring without prejudice (sans préjuger sur le fond) that the question of the annexation of the Congo should be brought before the chamber in the shortest possible time, in accordance with the intention expressed by the government,” recorded its desire that the central committee charged to examine the draft law of the 7th of August 1901 should “hasten its labours and lay its report at an early date.”  (J. S. K.) 

For the purpose of considering the proposed colonial law the central committee was changed into a special commission, which from the number of members constituting it became known as the Commission of XVII. The Progress of negotiations. commission held its first meeting on the 31st of January 1907, and did not complete its labours until the 25th of March 1908. Taking as the basis for discussion the draft loi organique of 1901, it elaborated a measure laying down the principles applicable to the Congo State when it should become a Belgian colony. The draft bill of 1901 had left the autocratic power of the sovereign unchanged; the colonial bill as passed by the commission completely reversed the situation, replacing the absolutism of the king by thorough parliamentary control. This result was only achieved after a severe struggle and after an emphatic declaration by Sir E. Grey that the British government would regard any other solution as inadmissible (see infra).