An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo, 1890
George Washington Williams published an open letter to King Leopold that documented atrocities committed in the Congo, shattering the benign image of Leopold’s private colony and sparking an international protest against his rule.
From November 15, 1884, to 26 February 1885, representatives of thirteen European nations and the United States met in Berlin, Germany to carve up the African continent. Called by German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, this meeting, which came to be known as the Berlin Conference, marked the intensification of the “Scramble for Africa.” European powers selected their “spheres of influence,” taking ownership of African territory if they demonstrated “effective possession.” Effective possession meant the use of a number of tactics to take over African land, including the coercion of local rulers into signing fraudulent treaties, as well as the use of brute force.
The Berlin Conference also turned Belgium’s King Leopold II into the largest private landowner and the richest individual in the world, as he laid claim to the Congo Basin, a territory more than ten times the size of Belgium that was rich in minerals, ivory, and rubber. After convincing the other European powers that he was involved in humanitarian and philanthropic work in Africa (via his “International Association of the Congo”), Leopold II was granted personal possession of the Congo. He called the private territory “The Congo Free State,” also called the Independent State of Congo, and named himself its Sovereign.
The Congo Basin territory was anything but independent and free. The territory was governed from Brussels, but through a colonial administration. While Leopold never set foot in “his” territory, he appointed a Governor General of the Congo, a number of commissioners, and hired European mercenaries, organized into a private army numbering 19,000 called the Force Publique. It is through this apparatus of governance that Leopold was able to extract an extraordinary amount of wealth from the Congo. In practice and in fact, the Congo became a full fledged concentration camp, where Black workers were forced to produce rubber in savage condition and risking punishment that included amputations of hands and feet, the raping and killing of women and children, and the looting and burning of villages. More than ten million Congolese were killed during Leopold’s reign.
Few knew of Leopold’s brutalities in the Congo until they were revealed to the world through the writing of George Washington Williams. Born free in 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, Williams was a soldier, Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, editor, publisher, and writer. Often dubbed the first African-American historian, he authored the pioneering two-volume study History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens. Interest in Williams’ research led to a writing assignment in Europe where he interviewed King Leopold about the Congo. Leopold described his Congo “experiment”t as a model of benign but enlightened Christian rule. When Williams travelled to the Congo Free State he saw something else: a slave colony ruled through torture, murder, and unbridled abuse. In response, in 1890, Williams published an open letter to King Leopold that documented the actual conditions in the Congo, shattering the benign image of Leopold’s private colony and sparking an international protest against Leopold’s rule. After much pressure, Leopold, the monster king, finally gave up his rule over the Congo, but sold it to Belgium for 50 million francs. The territory became the colony known as the Belgian Congo, and its resources continued to enrich its conquerors.
Drawing on eyewitness accounts, letters, and official records, Williams’ open letter was a path-breaking investigation into human rights abuses. Today, at a moment when the Congo has again emerged as an exploitative site of extraction, Williams' writing serves as a model for contemporary, critical inquiries into the practices of imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and white supremacy.
An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo By Colonel, The Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the United States of America, 1890
George Washington Williams
Good and Great Friend,
I have the honour to submit for your Majesty’s consideration some reflections respecting the Independent State of Congo, based upon a careful study and inspection of the country and character of the personal Government you have established upon the African Continent.
In order that you may know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I implore your most gracious permission to address you without restraint, and with the frankness of a man who feel that he has a duty to perform to History, Humanity, Civilization and to the Supreme Being, who is himself the “King of Kings.”
Your Majesty will testify to my affection for your person and friendship for your African State, of which you have had ample practical proofs for nearly six years. My friendship and service for the State of Congo were inspired by and based upon your publicly declared motives and aims, and your personal statement to your humble subscriber: -- human sentiments and work of Christian civilization for Africa. Thus I was led to regard your enterprise as the rising of the Star of Hope for the Dark Continent, so long the habitation of cruelties; and I journeyed in its light and laboured in its hope. All the praisefull things I have spoken and written of the Congo country, State and Sovereign, was inspired by the firm belief that your Government was built upon the enduring foundation of Truth, Liberty, Humanity and Justice.
It afforded me great pleasure to avail myself of the opportunity afforded me last year, of visiting your State in Africa; and how thoroughly I have been disenchanted, disappointed and disheartened, it is now my painful duty to make known to your Majesty in plain but respectful language. Every charge which I am about to bring against your Majesty’s personal Government in the Congo has been carefully investigated; a list of competent and veracious witnesses, documents, letters, official records and data has been faithfully prepared, which will be deposited with Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, until such time as an International Commission can be created with power to send for persons and papers, to administer oaths, and attest the truth or falsity of these charges.
There were instances in which Mr. HENRY M. STANLEY sent one white man, with four or five Zanzibar soldiers, to make treaties with native chiefs. The staple argument was that the white man’s heart had grown sick of the wars and rumours of war between one chief and another, between one village and another; that the white man was at peace with his black brother, and desired to “confederate all African tribes'' for the general defense and public welfare. All the sleight-of- hand tricks had been carefully rehearsed, and he was now ready for his work. A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet in giving him the hand of fellowship. When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull up trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength. Next came the lens act. The white brother took from his pocket a cigar, carelessly bit off the end, held up his glass to the sun and complaisantly smoked his cigar to the great amazement and terror of his black brother. The white man explained his intimate relation to the sun, and declared that if he were to request him to burn up his black brother’s village it would be done. The third act was the gun trick. The white man took a percussion cap gun, tore the end of the paper which held the powder to the bullet, and poured the powder and paper into the gun, at the same time slipping the bullet into the sleeve of the left arm. A cap was placed upon the nipple of the gun, and the black brother was implored to step off ten yards and shoot at his white brother to demonstrate his statement that he was a spirit, and, therefore, could not be killed. After much begging the black brother aims the gun at his white brother, pulls the trigger, the gun is discharged, the white man stoops . . . and takes the bullet from his shoe!
By such means as these, too silly and disgusting to mention, and a few boxes of gin, whole villages have been signed away to your Majesty.
When I arrived in the Congo, I naturally sought for the results of the brilliant programme: “fostering care”, “benevolent enterprise”, an “honest and practical effort” to increase the knowledge of the natives “and secure their welfare”. I had never been able to conceive of Europeans, establishing a government in a tropical country, without building a hospital; and yet from the mouth of the Congo River to its head-waters, here at the seventh cataract, a distance of 1,448 miles, there is not a solitary hospital for Europeans, and only three sheds for sick Africans in the service of the State, not fit to be occupied by a horse. Sick sailors frequently die on board their vessels at Banana Point; and if it were not for the humanity of the Dutch Trading Company at that place—who have often opened their private hospital to the sick of other countries—many more might die. There is not a single chaplain in the employ of your Majesty’s Government to console the sick or bury the dead. Your white men sicken and die in their quarters or on the caravan road, and seldom have Christian burial. With few exceptions, the surgeons of your Majesty’s Government have been gentlemen of professional ability, devoted to duty, but usually left with few medical stores and no quarters in which to treat their patients. The African soldiers and labourers of your Majesty’s Government fare worse than the whites, because they have poorer quarters, quite as bad as those of the natives; and in the sheds, called hospitals, they languish upon a bed of bamboo poles without blankets, pillows or any food different from that served to them when well, rice and fish.
I was anxious to see to what extent the natives had “adopted the fostering care” of your Majesty’s “benevolent enterprise” (?), and I was doomed to bitter disappointment. Instead of the natives of the Congo “adopting the fostering care” of your Majesty’s Government, they everywhere complain that their land has been taken from them by force; that the Government is cruel and arbitrary, and declare that they neither love nor respect the Government and its flag. Your Majesty’s Government has sequestered their land, burned their towns, stolen their property, enslaved their women and children, and committed other crimes too numerous to mention in detail. It is natural that they everywhere shrink from “the fostering care” your Majesty’s Government so eagerly proffers them.
There has been, to my absolute knowledge, no “honest and practical effort made to increase their knowledge and secure their welfare.” Your Majesty’s Government has never spent one franc for educational purposes, nor instituted any practical system of industrialism. Indeed the most unpractical measures have been adopted against the natives in nearly every respect; and in the capital of your Majesty’s Government at Boma there is not a native employed. The labour system is radically unpractical; the soldiers and labourers of your Majesty’s Government are very largely imported from Zanzibar at a cost of £10 per capita, and from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Accra and Lagos at from £1 to £1/10 per capita. These recruits are transported under circumstances more cruel than cattle in European countries. They eat their rice twice a day by the use of their fingers; they often thirst for water when the season is dry; they are exposed to the heat and rain, and sleep upon the damp and filthy decks of the vessels often so closely crowded as to lie in human ordure. And, of course, many die.
Upon the arrival of the survivors in the Congo they are set to work as labourers at one shilling a day; as soldiers they are promised sixteen shillings per month, in English money, but are usually paid off in cheap handkerchiefs and poisonous gin. The cruel and unjust treatment to which these people are subjected breaks the spirits of many of them, makes them distrust and despise your Majesty’s Government. They are enemies, not patriots.
There are from sixty to seventy officers of the Belgian army in the service of your Majesty’s Government in the Congo of whom only about thirty are at their post; the other half are in Belgium on furlough. These officers draw double pay—as soldiers and as civilians. It is not my duty to criticise the unlawful and unconstitutional use of these officers coming into the service of this African State. Such criticism will come with more grace from some Belgian statesman, who may remember that there is no constitutional or organic relation subsisting between his Government and the purely personal and absolute monarchy your Majesty has established in Africa. But I take the liberty to say that many of these officers are too young and inexperienced to be entrusted with the difficult work of dealing with native races. They are ignorant of native character, lack wisdom, justice, fortitude and patience. They have estranged the natives from your Majesty’s Government, have sown the seed of discord between tribes and villages, and some of them have stained the uniform of the Belgian officer with murder, arson and robbery. Other officers have served the State faithfully, and deserve well of their Royal Master.
From these general observations I wish now to pass to specific charges against your Majesty’s Government.
FIRST.—Your Majesty’s Government is deficient in the moral military and financial strength, necessary to govern a territory of 1,508,000 square miles, 7,251 miles of navigation, and 31,694 square miles of lake surface. In the Lower Congo River there is but One post, in the cataract region one. From Leopoldville to N’Gombe, a distance of more than 300 miles, there is not a single soldier or civilian. Not one out of every twenty State-officials know the language of the natives, although they are constantly issuing laws, difficult even for Europeans, and expect the natives to comprehend and obey them. Cruelties of the most astounding character are practised by the natives, such as burying slaves alive in the grave of a dead chief, cutting off the heads of captured warriors in native combats, and no effort is put forth by your Majesty’s Government to prevent them. Between 800 and 1,000 slaves are sold to be eaten by the natives of the Congo State annually; and slave raids, accomplished by the most cruel and murderous agencies, are carried on within the territorial limits of your Majesty’s Government which is impotent. There are only 2,300 soldiers in the Congo.
SECOND.—Your Majesty’s Government has established nearly fifty posts, consisting of from two to eight mercenary slave-soldiers from the East Coast. There is no white commissioned officer at these posts; they are in charge of the black Zanzibar soldiers, and the State expects them not only to sustain themselves, but to raid enough to feed the garrisons where the white men are stationed. These piratical, buccaneering posts compel the natives to furnish them with fish, goats, fowls, and vegetables at the mouths of their muskets; and whenever the natives refuse to feed these vampires, they report to the main station and white officers come with an expeditionary force and burn away the homes of the natives. These black soldiers, many of whom are slaves, exercise the power of life and death. They are ignorant and cruel, because they do not comprehend the natives; they are imposed upon them by the State. They make no report as to the number of robberies they commit, or the number of lives they take; they are only required to subsist upon the natives and thus relieve your Majesty’s Government of the cost of feeding them. They are the greatest curse the country suffers now.
THIRD.—Your Majesty’s Government is guilty of violating its contracts made with its soldiers, mechanics and workmen, many of whom are subjects of other Governments. Their letters never reach home.
FOURTH.—The Courts of your Majesty’s Government are abortive, unjust, partial and delinquent. I have personally witnessed and examined their clumsy operations. The laws printed and circulated in Europe “for the Protection of the blacks” in the Congo, are a dead letter and a fraud. I have heard an officer of the Belgian Army pleading the cause of a white man of low degree who had been guilty of beating and stabbing a black man, and urging race distinctions and prejudices as good and sufficient reasons why his client should be adjudged innocent. I know of prisoners remaining in custody for six and ten months because they were not judged. I saw the white servant of the Governor-General, Camille Janssen, detected in stealing a bottle of wine from a hotel table. A few hours later the Procurer-General searched his room and found many more stolen bottles of wine and other things, not the property of servants. No one can be prosecuted in the State of Congo without an order of the Governor-General, and as he refused to allow his servant to be arrested, nothing could be done. The black servants in the hotel, where the wine had been stolen, had been often accused and beaten for these thefts, and now they were glad to be vindicated. But to the surprise of every honest man, the thief was sheltered by the Governor General of your Majesty’s Government.
FIFTH—Your Majesty’s Government is excessively cruel to its prisoners, condemning them, for the slightest offences, to the chain gang, the like of which cannot be seen in any other Government in the civilized or uncivilized world. Often these ox-chains eat into the necks of the prisoners and produce sores about which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound; so the prisoner is constantly worried. These poor creatures are frequently beaten with a dried piece of hippopotamus skin, called a “chicote”, and usually the blood flows at every stroke when well laid on. But the cruelties visited upon soldiers and workmen are not to be compared with the sufferings of the poor natives who, upon the slightest pretext, are thrust into the wretched prisons here in the Upper River. I cannot deal with the dimensions of these prisons in this letter, but will do so in my report to my Government.
SIXTH.—Women are imported into your Majesty’s Government for immoral purposes. They are introduced by two methods, viz., black men are dispatched to the Portuguese coast where they engage these women as mistresses of white men, who pay to the procurer a monthly sum. The other method is by capturing native women and condemning them to seven years’ servitude for some imaginary crime against the State with which the villages of these women are charged. The State then hires these woman out to the highest bidder, the officers having the first choice and then the men. Whenever children are born of such relations, the State maintains that the women being its property the child belongs to it also. Not long ago a Belgian trader had a child by a slave-woman of the State, and he tried to secure possession of it that he might educate it, but the Chief of the Station where he resided, refused to be moved by his entreaties. At length he appealed to the Governor-General, and he gave him the woman and thus the trader obtained the child also. This was, however, an unusual case of generosity and clemency; and there is only one post that I know of where there is not to be found children of the civil and military officers of your Majesty’s Government abandoned to degradation; white men bringing their own flesh and blood under the lash of a most cruel master, the State of Congo.
SEVENTH.—Your Majesty’s Government is engaged in trade and commerce, competing with the organised trade companies of Belgium, England, France, Portugal and Holland. It taxes all trading companies and exempts its own goods from export-duty, and makes many of its officers ivory-traders, with the promise of a liberal commission upon all they can buy or get for the State. State soldiers patrol many villages forbidding the natives to trade with any person but a State official, and when the natives refuse to accept the price of the State, their goods are seized by the Government that promised them “protection”. When natives have persisted in trading with the trade-companies the State has punished their independence by burning the villages in the vicinity of the trading houses and driving the natives away.
EIGHTH.—Your Majesty’s Government has violated the General Act of the Conference of Berlin by firing upon native canoes; by confiscating the property of natives; by intimidating native traders, and preventing them from trading with white trading companies; by quartering troops in native villages when there is no war; by causing vessels bound from “Stanley-Pool” to “Stanley-Falls”, to break their journey and leave the Congo, ascend the Aruhwimi river to Basoko, to be visited and show their papers; by forbidding a mission steamer to fly its national flag without permission from a local Government; by permitting the natives to carry on the slave- trade, and by engaging in the wholesale and retail slave-trade itself.
NINTH.—-Your Majesty’s Government has been, and is now, guilty of waging unjust and cruel wars against natives, with the hope of securing slaves and women, to minister to the behests of the officers of your Government. In such slave-hunting raids one village is armed by the State against the other, and the force thus secured is incorporated with the regular troops. I have no adequate terms with which to depict to your Majesty the brutal acts of your soldiers upon such raids as these. The soldiers who open the combat are usually the bloodthirsty cannibalistic Bangalas, who give no quarter to the aged grandmother or nursing child at the breast of its mother. There are instances in which they have brought the heads of their victims to their white officers on the expeditionary steamers, and afterwards eaten the bodies of slain children. In one war two Belgian Army officers saw, from the deck of their steamer, a native in a canoe some distance away. He was not a combatant and was ignorant of the conflict in progress upon the shore, some distance away. The officers made a wager of £5 that they could hit the native with their rifles. Three shots were fired and the native fell dead, pierced through the head, and the trade canoe was transformed into a funeral barge and floated silently down the river.
TENTH.—Your Majesty’s Government is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail. It buys and sells and steals slaves. Your Majesty’s Government gives £3 per head for able bodied slaves for military service. Officers at the chief stations get the men and receive the money when they are transferred to the State; but there are some middle-men who only get from twenty to twenty-five francs per head. Three hundred and sixteen slaves were sent down the river recently, and others are to follow. These poor natives are sent hundreds of miles away from their villages, to serve among other natives whose language they do not know. When these men run away a reward of 1,000 N’taka is offered. Not long ago such a recaptured slave was given one hundred “chikote” each day until he died. Three hundred N’taka—brassrod-—is the price the State pays for a slave, when bought from a native. The labour force at the stations of your Majesty’s Government in the Upper River is composed of slaves of all ages and both sexes.
ELEVENTH.—Your Majesty’s Government has concluded a contract with the Arab Governor at this place for the establishment of a line of military posts from the Seventh Cataract to Lake Tanganyika territory to which your Majesty has no more legal claim, than I have to be Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian army. For this work the Arab Governor is to receive five hundred stands of arms, five thousand kegs of powder, and £20,000 sterling, to be paid in several instalments. As I write, the news reaches me that these much- treasured and long-looked for materials of war are to be discharged at Basoko, and the Resident here is to be given the discretion as to the distribution of them. There is a feeling of deep discontent among the Arabs here, and they seem to feel that they are being trifled with. As to the significance of this move Europe and America can judge without any comment from me, especially England.
TWELFTH—The agents of your Majesty’s Government have misrepresented the Congo country and the Congo railway. Mr. H. M. STANLEY, the man who was your chief agent in setting up your authority in this country, has grossly misrepresented the character of the country. Instead of it being fertile and productive it is sterile and unproductive. The natives can scarcely subsist upon the vegetable life produced in some parts of the country. Nor will this condition of affairs change until the native shall have been taught by the European the dignity, utility and blessing of labour. There is no improvement among the natives, because there is an impassable gulf between them and your Majesty’s Government, a gulf which can never be bridged. HENRY M. STANLEY’S name produces a shudder among this simple folk when mentioned; they remember his broken promises, his copious profanity, his hot temper, his heavy blows, his severe and rigorous measures, by which they were mulcted of their lands. His last appearance in the Congo produced a profound sensation among them, when he led 500 Zanzibar soldiers with 300 camp followers on his way to relieve EMIN PASHA. They thought it meant complete subjugation, and they fled in confusion. But the only thing they found in the wake of his march was misery. No white man commanded his rear column, and his troops were allowed to straggle, sicken and die; and their bones were scattered over more than two hundred miles of territory.
Against the deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding, and general policy of cruelty of your Majesty’s Government to the natives, stands their record of unexampled patience, long-suffering and forgiving spirit, which put the boasted civilisation and professed religion of your Majesty’s Government to the blush. During thirteen years only one white man has lost his life by the hands of the natives, and only two white men have been killed in the Congo. Major Barttelot was shot by a Zanzibar soldier, and the captain of a Belgian trading-boat was the victim of his own rash and unjust treatment of a native chief.
All the crimes perpetrated in the Congo have been done in your name, and you must answer at the bar of Public Sentiment for the misgovernment of a people, whose lives and fortunes were entrusted to you by the august Conference of Berlin, 1884—1 885. I now appeal to the Powers which committed this infant State to your Majesty’s charge, and to the great States which gave it international being; and whose majestic law you have scorned and trampled upon, to call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity, Commerce, Constitutional Government and Christian Civilisation.
I base this appeal upon the terms of Article 36 of Chapter VII of the General Act of the Conference of Berlin, in which that august assembly of Sovereign States reserved to themselves the right “to introduce into it later and by common accord the modifications or ameliorations, the utility of which may be demonstrated experience”.
I appeal to the Belgian people and to their Constitutional Government, so proud of its traditions, replete with the song and story of its champions of human liberty, and so jealous of its present position in the sisterhood of European States—to cleanse itself from the imputation of the crimes with which your Majesty’s personal State of Congo is polluted.
I appeal to Anti-Slavery Societies in all parts of Christendom, to Philanthropists, Christians, Statesmen, and to the great mass of people everywhere, to call upon the Governments of Europe, to hasten the close of the tragedy your Majesty’s unlimited Monarchy is enacting in the Congo.
I appeal to our Heavenly Father, whose service is perfect love, in witness of the purity of my motives and the integrity of my aims; and to history and mankind I appeal for the demonstration and vindication of the truthfulness of the charge I have herein briefly outlined.
And all this upon the word of honour of a gentleman, I subscribe myself your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant,
GEO. W. WILLIAMS
Stanley Falls, Central Africa,
July 18th, 1890.
Further reading: John Hope Franklin. George Washington Williams: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, 1985).