The 1890 Brussels Act provided Europeans with the legal and humanitarian justification for the colonization of Africa. Why have so few heard of it?
The deceptive notion of “humanitarian intervention” as cover for Western imperial theft and hubris has a long history. In fact, if there’s anything that European nations and its white dominions (“the West”) are good for is looting the resources of the world and telling us that it’s for our own good. “Humanitarianism,” in the language of bringing Christianity to “savage” Africans, was the reason given by Belgium’s Leopold II, the unabashed “Monster of the Congo,” for the theft of Congo’s resources and the genocide of its peoples. Leopold’s hold on the Congo was solidified via the 1885 Berlin Conference, where European nations (along with the US) met to partition and continue their conquest of the African continent, through the principle of “effective occupation.” The Berlin Conference was effectively an agreement among thieves, and “effective occupation” gave European powers the right to claim areas of the African continent.
But there is no honor among white thieves. In 1890, European powers got together again - this time in Brussels - to settle their ongoing disputes over the African continent, and importantly, to find ways to control the trades in firearms and liquor, which they believed threatened their hold on parts of the continent. Africans with access to firearms could potentially challenge the European goal of “effective occupation,” while African access to liquor, Europeans believed, diminished their productivity as colonial laborers. At the same time, Europeans needed to consolidate their control over African land, people, and resources –and diminish the potential for more inter-European disputes. While the Berlin conference had nominal humanitarian claims - the 1885 Berlin Act had a nonbiding aim of ending the slave trade in Africa - the Brussels Conference Act loudly proclaimed itself as a primarily humanitarian venture.
Many have heard of the 1885 Berlin Act, the decree partitioning the African continent for European colonial rule. How many know of the 1890 Brussels Conference Act? And how many are aware of its role in providing the Berlin Act its “legal” and “humanitarian” justifications? Officially named the “Convention to the Slave Trade and Importation into Africa of Firearms, Ammunition, and Spiritous Liquors,” the Brussels Conference Act both laid out in detail the process of formal colonization of the African continent, and gave colonization its moral argument by framing it through a discourse of humanitarianism. We are supposed to believe that European nations who had begun, continued, and massively benefited from the transatlantic commercial trade in Africans as well as the industrialization brought about by the institution of slavery, were suddenly concerned about African welfare.
In the Brussels Act, the colonial powers explained away the establishment of the colonial administration apparatus, protecting its missionaries, while providing its corporations and trading companies with African labor – in effect, establishing theft of African land and the exploitation of African labor as an antislavery measure. A quick review of the first article of the Act tells a different story. The article calls for, among other things, the “construction of roads, and in particular railways,” “organization of administrative, judicial, religious and military services in the African territories placed under the…protectorate of civilized nations,” and “the establishment of telegraphic lines.” We are asked to accept that only European colonial rule would end the slave trade and slavery on the African continent.
We reprint the first fifteen articles of the one-hundred-article Brussels Conference Act of 1890 below in part to show how systematic the European colonization of the African continent was, and how European laws of conquest were rebranded as “international law.” Most importantly, the text of the Act also demonstrates how devilish, self-serving, and hypocritical European powers have been in covering their crimes under the veneer of humanitarianism. Readers today should be able to see that the thieves have not changed their tactics.
General Act of the Brussels Conference of 1890 or, the Convention Relative to the Slave Trade and Importation into Africa of Firearms, Ammunition, and Spiritous Liquors.
In the Name of God Almighty.
His Majesty the German Emperor, King of Prussia, in the name of the German Empire; His Majesty the Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, &c., and Apostolic King of Hungary; His Majesty the King of the Belgians; His Majesty the King of Denmark; His Majesty the King of Spain, and in his name Her Majesty the Queen Regent of the Kingdom; His Majesty the Sovereign of the Independent State of the Congo; The President of the United States of America; The President of the French Republic; Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India; His Majesty the King of Italy; His Majesty the King of the Netherlands, Grand Duke of Luxemburg, &c.; His Majesty the Shah of Persia; His Majesty the King of Portugal and the Algarves, &c.; His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias; His Majesty the King of Sweden and Norway, &c.; His Majesty the Emperor of the Ottomans, and His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar;
Being equally animated by the firm intention of putting an end to the crimes and devastations engendered by the Traffic in African Slaves, protecting effectively the aboriginal populations of Africa, and insuring for that vast continent the benefits Of peace and civilization;
Wishing to give a fresh sanction to the decisions already taken in the same sense and at different epochs by the Powers, to complete the results obtained by them, and to draw up a collection of measures guaranteeing the accomplishment of the work which is the object of their common solicitude;
Have resolved, on the invitation addressed to them by the Government of His Majesty the King of the Belgians, in agreement with the Government of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, to assemble with this object a Conference at Brussels, …
Who, furnished with full powers which have been found in good and due form, have adopted the following provisions:--
CHAPTER I.— SLAVE TRADE COUNTRIES.—MEASURES TO BE TAKEN IN THE PLACES OF ORIGIN.
Ihe Powers declare that the most effective means for counteracting the Slave Trade in the interior of Africa are the following:—
1. Progressive organization of the administrative, judicial, religious, and military services in the African territories placed under the sovereignty or protectorate of civilized nations.
2. The gradual establishment in the interior by the Powers to which the territories are subject of strongly occupied stations, in such a way as to make their protective or repressive action effectively felt in the territories devastated by slave-hunting.
3. The construction of roads, and in particular of railways, connecting the advanced stations with the coast, and permitting easy access to the inland waters, and to such of the upper courses of the rivers and streams as are broken by rapids and cataracts, in view of substituting economical and rapid means of transport for the present means of carriage by men.
4. Establishment of steamboats on the inland navigable waters and on the lakes, supported by fortified posts established on the banks.
5. Establishment of telegraphic lines, insuring the communication of the posts and stations with the coast and with the administrative centres.
6. Organization of expeditions and flying columns, to keep up the communication of the stations with each other and with the coast, to support repressive action, and to insure the security of high roads.
7. Restriction of the importation of fire-arms, at least of modern pattern, and of ammunition throughout the entire extent of the territories infected by the Slave Trade.
The stations, the inland cruisers organized by each Power in its waters, and the posts which serve as ports of register for them shall, independently of their principal task, which is to prevent the capture of slaves and intercept the routes of the Slave Trade, have the following subsidiary duties:—
1. To support and, if necessary, to serve as a refuge for the native populations, whether placed under the sovereignty or the protectorate of the State to which the station is subject, or independent, and temporarily for all other natives in case of imminent danger; to place the populations of the first of these categories in a position to co-operate for their own defence; to diminish inland wars between tribes by means of arbitration; to initiate them in agricultural works and in the industrial arts so as to increase their welfare; to raise them to civilization and bring about the extinction of barbarous customs, such as cannibalism and human sacrifices.
2. To give aid and protection to commercial undertakings; to watch over their legality by controlling especially contracts of service with natives, and to load up to the foundation of permanent centres of cultivation and of commercial establishments.
3. To protect, without distinction of creed, the Missions which are already or are about to be established,
4. To provide for the sanitary service, and to grant hospitality and help to explorers and to all who take part in Africa in the work of repressing the Slave Trade.
The Powers exercising a sovereignty or a protectorate in Africa confirm and give precision to their former declarations, and undertake to proceed gradually, as circumstances permit, either by the means above indicated, or by any other means which they may consider suitable, with the repression of the Slave Trade, each State in its respective possessions and under its own direction. Whenever they consider it possible they will lend their good offices to the Powers which, with a purely humanitarian object, may be engaged in Africa upon a similar mission.
The States exercising sovereign powers or protectorates in Africa may in all cases delegate to Companies provided with Charters all or a portion of the engagements which they assume in virtue of Article III. They remain, nevertheless, directly responsible for the engagements which they contract by the present Act, and guarantee the execution thereof. The Powers promise to receive, aid, and protect the national Associations and enterprises due to private initiative which may wish to co-operate in their possessions in their repression of the Slave Trade, subject to their receiving previous authorization, such authorization being revocable at any time, subject also to their being directed and controlled, and to the exclusion of the exorcise of rights of sovereignty.
The Contracting Powers undertake, unless this has already been provided for by their laws in accordance with the spirit of the present Article, to enact or propose to their respective Legislatures in the course of one year at latest from the date of the signature of the present General Act a Law for rendering applicable, on the one hand, the provisions of their penal laws concerning the graver offences against the person, to the organizers and abettors of slave hunting, to perpetrators of the mutilation of adults and male infants, and to all persons who may take part in the capture of slaves by violence; and, on the other hand, the provisions relating to offences against individual liberty, to carriers, transporters, and dealers in slaves.
The associates and accessories of the different categories of slave captors and dealers above specified shall be punished with penalties proportionate to those incurred by the principals.
Guilty persons who may have escaped from the jurisdiction of the authorities of the country where the crimes or offences have been committed shall be arrested either on communication of the incriminatory evidence by the authorities who have ascertained the violation of the law, or on production of any other proof of guilt by the Power on whose territory they may have been discovered, and shall be kept without other formality at the disposal of the Tribunals competent to try them.
The Powers will communicate to each other within the shortest possible delay the Laws or Decrees existing or promulgated in execution of the present Article.
Slaves liberated in consequence of the stoppage or dispersal of a convoy in the interior of the continent shall be sent back, if circumstances permit, to their country of origin; if not, the local authorities shall facilitate as much as possible their means of living, and, if they desire it, help them to settle on the spot.
Any fugitive slave claiming on the continent the protection of a Signatory Power shall obtain it, and shall be received in the camps and stations officially established by such Power, or on board the vessels of such Power plying on the lakes and rivers. Private stations and boats are only permitted to exercise the right of asylum subject to the previous sanction of such Power.
The experience of all nations who have intercourse with Africa having shown the pernicious and preponderating part played by fire-arms in Slave Trade operations as well as in internal war between the native tribes; and this same experience having clearly proved that the preservation of the African populations whose existence it is the express wish of the Powers to safeguard is a radical impossibility if restrictive measures against the trade in fire-arms and ammunition are not established, the Powers decide, in so far as the present state of their frontiers permits, that the importation of fire-arms, and especially of rifles and improved weapons, as well as of powder, balls, and cartridges, is, except in the cases and under the conditions provided for in the following Article, prohibited in the territories comprised between the 20th parallel of north latitude and the 22nd parallel of south latitude, and extending westward to the Atlantic Ocean and eastward to the Indian Ocean, and its dependencies, comprising the islands adjacent to the coast as far as 100 nautical miles from the shore.
The introduction of firearms and ammunition, when there shall be occasion to authorize it in the possessions of the Signatory Powers which exercise rights of sovereignty or of protectorate in Africa, shall be regulated, unless identical or more rigorous Regulations have been already applied, in the following manner in the zone laid down in Article VIII:--
All imported firearms shall be deposited, at the cost, risk, and peril of the importers, in a public warehouse placed under the supervision of the Administration of the State. No withdrawal of firearms or imported ammunition shall take place from such depots without the previous authorization of the Administration. This authorization shall be, except in cases hereinafter specified, refused for the withdrawal of all arms of precision, such as rifles, magazine-guns, or breech-loaders, whether whole or in detached pieces, their cartridges, caps, or other ammunition intended for them.
At the seaports and under conditions affording the needful guarantees the respective Governments may permit private depots, but only for ordinary powder and flint-lock muskets, and to the exclusion of improved arms and their ammunition.
Independently of the measures directly taken by Governments for the arming of the public force and the organization of their defence, individual exceptions shall be admitted for persons affording sufficient guarantees that the arm and ammunition delivered to them will not be given, assigned, or sold to third persons, and for travelers provided with a declaration of their Government stating that the weapon and ammunition are destined exclusively for their personal defence.
All arms in the cases provided for in the preceding paragraph shall be registered and marked by the authorities appointed for the supervision, who shall deliver to the persons in question licenses to bear arms, indicating the name of the bearer and showing the stamp with which the arm is marked. These licenses are revocable in case of proved improper use, and will be issued for five years only, but may be renewed.
The rule above set forth as to placing in depot shall also apply to gunpowder.
Prom the depots can be withdrawn for sale only flint-lock guns, with unrifled barrels, and common gunpowders, called trade powders (‘‘poudres de traite”). At each withdrawal of arms and ammunition of this kind for sale, the local authorities shall determine the regions in which these arms and ammunition may be sold. The regions infected by the Slave Trade shall always be excluded. Persons authorized to take arms or powder out of the public depots (warehouses) shall present to the Administration every six months detailed lists indicating the destinations of the arms and powder sold, as well as the quantities still remaining in the store-houses.
The Governments shall take all measures they may deem necessary to insure as complete a fulfilment as possible of the provisions respecting the importation, the sale, and transport of fire-arms and ammunition, as well as to prevent either the entry or exit thereof by their inland frontiers, or the passage thereof to regions where the Slave-Trade is rife.
The authorization of transit within the limits of the zone specified by Article VIII cannot be withheld when the arms and ammunition are to pass across the territory of a Signatory or adherent Power in the occupation of the coast, towards inland territories placed under the sovereignty or protectorate of another Signatory or adherent Power, unless this latter Powder have direct access to the sea through its own territory. If this access be completely interrupted, the authorization of transit can no longer be withheld. Any demand of transit must be accompanied by a declaration emanating from the Government of the Power having the inland possessions, and certifying that the said arms and ammunition are not destined for sale, but are for the use of the authorities of such Power, or of the military forces necessary for the protection of the missionary or commercial stations, or of persons mentioned by name in the declaration. Nevertheless, the territorial Power of the coast retains the right to stop, exceptionally and provisionally, the transit of arms of precision and ammunition across its territory, if in consequence of inland disturbances or other serious danger there is ground for fearing that the dispatch of arms and ammunition might compromise its own safety.
The Powers shall communicate to each other the information relating to the traffic in fire-arms and ammunition, the licences granted, and the measures of repression in force in their respective territories.
The Powers undertake to adopt or to propose to their respective Legislatures the measures necessary to insure the punishment everywhere of infringers of the prohibitions laid down in Articles VIll and IX, and that of their accomplices, besides the seizure and confiscation of the prohibited arms and ammunition, either by fine or by imprisonment, or by both penalties together, in proportion to the importance of the infraction, and in accordance with the gravity of each case.
The Signatory Powers who have in Africa possessions in contact with the zone specified in Article VIII bind themselves to take the necessary measures for preventing the introduction of firearms and ammunition across their inland frontiers into the regions of the said zone, at least that of improved arms and cartridges.
The system stipulated in Articles VIII to XIII shall remain in force during twelve years. In case none of the Contracting Parties shall have notified, twelve months before the expiration of this period, its intention of putting an end to it, or shall have demanded its revision, it shall continue to remain obligatory for two more years, and shall thus continue in force from two years to two years.