Chapter 25 - The Colonial Question

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BELGIUM having been provided with a magnificent colony in the vast Congo region, not by her own merit or efforts, but by the cleverness, courage, and pertinacity of her great ruler, Leopold II, there are two points of view from which her position as a Colonial Power may be regarded. The first is as to her capacity to retain what she did not acquire by national merit or achievement, and the second is as to how far an African dependency can be successfully governed by a small parent State which has been compelled by the force of opinion and pressure from outside to accept conditions of perfection far in advance of what I would call the chronometrical stage that has been reached in the development of the African problem.

I must clinch this point to make the differentiation in my argument clear. Belgium is a small Power, she cannot escape from the position under any conceivable circumstances. The meaning of this applied to practical affairs is that she will be held more rigidly than others to the literal execution of her own program defined by the principles of somebody else. I foresee grave troubles ahead for Belgium in this direction, and so far as I have means of judging, Belgian authorities do not appreciate them. A Great Power like England may have the finest principles placed at the head of her African program, but who is to control her if she interpret them in her own way? Belgium has adopted those principles, but she will be kept to them. Her range of license and liberty in judgment and action are restricted. However, let us serious students of that dark and menacing African problem only rejoice that for a time at least the Congo controversy has been laid at rest and that one may write the name without fear of being denounced as a partisan.

We have been told that the Belgians are not a colonizing people. It might be rejoined that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when colonizing by the European Powers began, the Dutch took good care o that they should not become one. In the eighteenth century the debut of the Ostend Company was so promising that its English rival took very effective measures to cut short its life. About sixty years ago Leopold I began to point out that Belgium was growing so fast at home that she must look about for possessions across the oceans. She was exhorted to look about not merely for fresh markets, but for points of vantage that would secure fresh markets eventually. She made attempts in Guatemala, Formosa, and elsewhere. Nothing, however, came of them. In 1875, ten years after the second Leopold came to the throne, Belgium was without a colonial possession, and her flag was unknown outside French and English harbors.

The change that then took place was due to the happy inspiration of the King of the Belgians to concentrate his attention on the African slave trade question which had been brought to the front by the efforts of Sam Baker, Richard Burton, and David Livingstone. But at that moment nothing was known of the heart of Africa, and more particularly as to how it might be reached from the West Coast. It was, therefore, a very appropriate subject for a Geographical Conference, and King Leopold seized the opportunity to invite the qualified authorities to hold it in Brussels. That was the first stone on the road to an African dominion. The second was the securing and monopolizing of the services of Stanley when he attempted in vain to interest a jaded England in the discovery of the great river which furnished a water highway across the breadth of Africa. King Leopold was neither tired nor obtuse. He secured Stanley's services till the end of the century by a handsome retainer. It is needless to dwell on the untiring energy with which he created a chain of stations across the Congo valley, and obtained from the native chiefs treaties ceding to him their sovereign rights to whose validity a British Commissioner in 1884 was constrained to give reluctant testimony.

When the African Conference met at Berlin towards the end of that year the Powers were confronted with a fait accompli. King Leopold had constructed a sort of dominion. He was at least the man in possession. Who was going to turn him out? Prince Bismarck and the French Government were determined that it should not be England. The Conference ended then with the legalizing of the Belgian ruler's position in the international sense, and by clever negotiation with the neighboring States he extended that position over a vast area of Africa far beyond the widest limits explored by either Stanley or any Belgian lieutenant. In less than eight years Leopold II had acquired a colony as large as Europe, omitting Russia. He acquired it almost without firing a shot, and the diplomatists, dazed by his audacity, left the Prussian capital with the secret solace, "Well, he will never keep it!" They were wrong; he did.

The King's achievement was too great for his own subjects. In Brussels the gift of a ready-made colony was received with fear and anxiety. Had it been a little one, it might have been accepted on the ground that it did not mean much, that its possession could not possibly offend any one, and that in the course of time the Belgian people might adapt themselves to the new situation. But this colony, brought back by the King's plenipotentiaries in their portfolio, was almost a continent, a pearl of great price among Tropical lands, and a recent bone of contention among the Great Powers. The Belgians of 1885 would have nothing to do with the gift. Their Constitution was passed for home use. They preferred the freedom from anxiety without a colony, to unknown trouble and worry with one. They candidly admitted their ignorance in the matter, and professed no avidity to learn. The most they would do was to assent to their King taking the problem on his own shoulders as Sovereign of the Congo, and in that capacity he ruled it from 1885 to 1908.

It would be quite outside the purpose of this chapter to describe even in summary those twenty-three years of personal rule. What concerns our present topic is to note that Belgian opinion underwent a complete change on the subject in that period. Three main causes contributed to modify the views of 1885, and to convert the indifference of that year into the pride and pleasure of owning a valuable possession which was the dominant sentiment in 1908. These causes were the sacrifice of many noble Belgian's lives in the Arab campaigns, the sinking of a considerable sum of money by the several grants in aid made by the Belgian Government to the Congo, and the evidence acquired as to the great wealth of the African possessions in vegetable and mineral produce. For these reasons the Belgian public were not merely willing but in a hurry to take off their King's hands the Colony at which they had looked askance a quarter of a century before. Not British criticism but Belgian pressure compelled King Leopold to surrender the separate role of absolute monarch in Africa which in his closing years he undisguisedly hoped to retain with life.

When the Belgian Government and Parliament in 1908 took over the Congo State, they became for the first time a Colonial Power, and as they introduced at once a new system and new principles, the experiment was invested with double interest. While some critics have been complaining, unreasonably as every candid person will admit, that the new system has not been introduced with sufficient rapidity to please them, I would draw attention here and also in Belgium to some practical matters that in moments of keen controversy escape notice. The first matter is the probability of Belgium's succeeding as well in her colonizing mission under the new laws as King Leopold did by his own will in defiance of everybody. If she does not succeed in her mission, she will place her colony in graver jeopardy than it was in, let me say, in 1904, when the British Government was inclined to push matters to extremities. For the Belgian people the motto should be "Success at all costs."

For running a colony successfully during the stages when it is admitted that it can not pay its way on its own resources two things are necessary - men and money. Under King Leopold an equilibrium had after the first fifteen years of recurrent deficit, been established by the profits made by the concessionaire companies, and in the, let us say, last ten years of personal rule a large surplus had been derived from the produce of the Congo plantations. But the concessions have been cancelled, the companies have disappeared, and the Government finds at its immediate disposal a very limited as well as uncertain revenue. This revenue is for the present quite disproportionate to the work that has to be performed. As Belgian public opinion had to be coaxed and propitiated in every way to make the taking over of the Congo as nearly unanimous as possible, one of the official assurances given was that it would cost the country nothing. The Congo was a sound going concern with a good surplus. At the moment when this was said the statement was perfectly true, but the institution of reforms has eliminated, as we shall see, some of the most profitable and easily garnered sources of revenue.

The new Colonial Minister, M. Renkin, whose zeal in the cause of reform on the Congo deserves full recognition, realized the position, and his first budget was remarkable for the boldness with which, ignoring the possibility of a deficit, he sanctioned an expenditure far exceeding anything attempted by his predecessors. As the reward of his courage the price of rubber rose on the international market by over sixty per cent, thus averting the necessity of issuing a new Colonial loan.

The Budget for 1909 was fixed at $7,223,907, but as this was a transition year, the finances of the new regime really commence with the year 1910. The ordinary expenditure for 1910 was estimated in the Budget at $8,074,162, and the extraordinary at $6,703,355. The extraordinary expenditure was to be provided for by the issue of Treasury Bonds running for a period of not more than five years. It was estimated that the ordinary revenue would bring in $7,941,061, thus leaving only a small deficit. The principal items of regular expenditure are set forth as follows:

Administration in Africa $1,406,882

Public Force (military) 1,442,440

Marine (transport) 404,776

Health 165,240

Public Works 188,900

Customs and Fiscal Service 426,719

Agriculture 328,389

Mines 233,010

Upkeep of Domain 1,049,256

Justice 368,096

Service of the Debt 1,306,016

The items of the extraordinary expenditure include the following:

Creation of Agricultural and Breeding Establishments $ 400,000

Divers Public Works 3,385,580

Katanga Subsidy 300,000

Occupation of lands in Katanga 800,000

New Battery at Shinkakassa 400,000

New Boats 345,330

Second Annuity of Special Fund for $10,000,000 to

King Leopold 660,000

With regard to the last-named item, King Albert, declining to derive any personal benefit therefrom, caused the first annuity to be treated as the nucleus of a Pension Fund for those who have served on the Congo, which was greatly needed, and the second to be applied in the purchase of steamers. The principal items of revenue were the following:

Customs $1,411,311

Ivory (sale of) 629,200

Rubber (sale of) 2,679,500

Rubber (tax on) 259,000

Mines 504,000

Native taxes 400,000

As compared with the figures of 1909, mines and ivory show an increase, and rubber, despite its higher market value, a decrease. Customs, show a rise of fifteen per cent, and the new export duty promises to prove a valuable addition to the revenue. For the first time, too, a tax paid by the natives in cash figures in the record.

The public debt of the Congo in 1910 amounted to $24,167,040 (bonds actually issued), and the interest for the year to about $920,000, while $386,016.20 figured for redemption.

Allowing for the fact that several of the sources of revenue are of an expanding order and that the assets left by the late administration are likely to prove of great value, the financial outlook for the Congo Colony is bright and encouraging. It ought not to be very long before the Government will be able to raise the sum expended in Africa to ten million dollars per annum.

We come now to the question of the men. In 1909 the total staff of officials in Africa numbered 1,636. Thev were subdivided as follows:

Governor-General 1

Vice-Governor-Generals 3

State Inspectors 4

Commander of Public Force 1

Secretaries 5

Magistrates 60

Commissioners, etc 31

Chiefs of Zone 55

Officers of Force 175

Engineers 20

Doctors, etc 47

Postal Services 41

Captains of Steamers 51

Forest Service, etc 54

Unspecified 1,088

Total 1,636

In addition to the strictly State service 213 were employed on the Great Lakes railways, and seventy-six under the Katanga Special Committee, which is in political charge of the province. These officials are not exclusively Belgians. This will be understood when it is stated that there were in all only 1,722 Belgians in the whole of the Congo in 1908, and included in this total are at least 322 priests, sisters of mercy, women and children. The proportion of Belgians to non-Belgians seems to be about sixty per cent. For instance, of the sixty magistrates in the last table thirty-five were Belgians, eleven Norwegians, nine Italians, one Dane, one Roumanian, one French, and two Swiss.

The slow and slight increase in the white population of the Congo is a disturbing and discouraging fact. The following table gives the number of Belgians and non-Belgians in the years named:

Year Belgians Non-Belgians Total

1900 1,318 886 2,204

1901 1,465 881 2,346

1902 1,417 948 2,365

1903 1.442 1,041 2,483

1904 1,410 1,101 2,511

1905 1,501 1,134 2,635

1906 1,587 1,173 2,760

1907 1,713 1,230 2,943

1908 1,722 1.217 2,939

Among non-Belgians the numerical order of nationalities was -

Swedes 190

Italians 181

Portuguese : 143

Dutch 119

English 118

Swiss 90

Germans 63

Americans 55

Russians 55

French 51

Norwegians 48

Danes , . 29

Grand Duchy 29

Greeks 11

Austrians 9

Australians 8

Canadians 8

Transvaalers 5

Turks 1

Servians 1

Mexicans 1

Bulgarians 1

Argentina 1

Of these the British subjects and the Americans are either missionaries, or engineers and prospectors. There are none in the State service. The Portuguese, Germans, Greeks, and minor divisions are traders.

The Swedes, Italians, Norwegians, Danes, and Swiss are exclusively in the State service - so are the majority of the Dutch, French, and Luxemburgeois. At one time there were over 500 Italian officers in the State service, but the pay was low and there was no chance of promotion, so the majority resigned and retired on the expiration of their first engagement. The point of these statistics is that at least forty per cent of the 1,636 functionaries, from the highest to the lowest grade, are non-Belgians and have to be recruited where they can be obtained. It has always been the practice of the Belgians to refrain from engaging either French or Germans, and although Englishmen were utilized in the early years, none have been employed for a very long time, and it is unlikely that any will be engaged in the future. The idea is that citizens of small States are the most suitable for another small State to employ, and the services rendered by the Scandinavians, Danes, and Swiss have been invaluable and beyond all praise.

The Congo having become a Belgian colony, it is natural that one of the principal objects of the new administration should be to make the service more and more exclusively Belgian, and with this object in view the salaries for those serving in Africa have been raised to an amount sufficient to attract fully-qualified men. The new pension scheme is also another attraction. While the special services, like the transport, can be left to non-nationals (the captains of the steamers are exclusively Scandinavians), the tendency to place the general civil and military administration in the hands only of Belgians will become more marked. The officers of justice are, however, likely to remain of mixed nationalities as at present, for it is considered that this intermixture gives the Courts a greater appearance of impartiality. At all events, the remorseless critic cannot get up an agitation against Belgian judges in the Congo when they sit with a Norwegian or an Italian beside them.

Another great reform is the careful selection of the volunteer for the Congo before he is allowed to proceed to Africa. Formerly a man had only to offer to go out to be accepted and shipped off at once. It is quite certain that such a candidate possessed no special aptitude for work in the Tropics, and it was a miracle if he turned out to be any good at all. This description applies to the rank and file, and not to the comparatively few officers of the Belgian army who went out on "special mission" and helped to raise the tone of the service generally. It is now hoped to raise the standard all round to a level with the special men under the old system. There is another improvement. Formerly the men sent out were untrained ; if it were the case of a second engagement and the applicant had a good record, it was a cause of much rejoicing, for it was realized that some one useful had been secured.

But now this loose system has been radically altered ; yet it is only fair to say that the change began under the late King who founded, in the last years of his rule, the School of Tropical Medicine in Brussels, the Colonial College, the Colonial Museum at Tervueren, and the World-School, which was to have been at the same place. All these institutions, with the exception of the last named, which has been temporarily dropped, are in active work. No doctor or veterinary surgeon is allowed to go to the Congo until he has passed through the School of Tropical Medicine, in connection with which there is a hospital at Watermael for invalids from the Congo. The student has therefore training in practice as well as in theory. There were forty doctors at this school in 1909, of whom twenty-three were Italians, thirteen Belgians, two Norwegians, one English, and one French. Their special study is the treatment of the terrible malady called "sleeping sickness."

In the year named the course at the Colonial College was followed by twenty-five commissioned officers, eighty-three clerks and former agents, and nineteen non-commissioned officers. The consequence of this improved system is not merely that trained men are now sent out in lieu of untrained, but that the candidates themselves take a more serious view of their mission. Formerly men went to the Congo to a large extent to escape from debt; now it is to begin a fine career. Evidence of the change is already visible in the returns of mortality among officials. The percentage of deaths is little more than half what it was a few years ago - the figures being 4.60 per cent in 1908 as against 79 in 1901. The tours of King Albert and M. Renkin through the Congo were specially intended to demonstrate that a visit to Central Africa did not cut short one's life, and their example could not fail to embolden the timid.

The Colonial Museum at Tervueren is a splendid monument of the successful work accomplished on the Congo. The building is a magnificent structure placed in one of the most charming spots round Brussels, and the collection gives a complete picture of the ethnology, fauna, and natural products of Central Africa. Admirably arranged by its distinguished Director, Baron de Haulleville, author of the best work on the colonizing aptitudes of his fellow-countrymen, the student of the development of the Dark Continent will find here the most instructive object-lesson that could be desired. The Annates, or journal, published periodically under the Director's editorship, contain information of a high scientific value.

There is one question connected with the Belgian Congo of great interest. Can it be made a White Man's Colony ? For the greater part of the territory which is subtropical the idea is not entertained, but in the southern provinces, notably Katanga, the conditions of climate and surroundings approximate to those of Rhodesia. Here the discoveries of great mineral riches provide an attraction to the immigrant that does not exist in any other part of the Belgian colony. The pioneers of the mining movement have never ceased to represent that Katanga could maintain a large white resident population, but the Government has been obliged to proceed with great circumspection, more especially because there is one undeniable peril. This is the presence of the tse-tse fly. Even the parts of Katanga where it is not found are often rendered inaccessible by being environed by tse-tse infected districts through which cattle could not pass. The Government has established some experimental farms in districts immune from the scourge, and has lately sent out a small colony composed of constabulary to form the nucleus of a white settlement. But it is a question that can only be settled by care and caution, and perhaps not at all until the tse-tse fly has been exterminated or cattle successfully inoculated against its at present deadly sting.

The following are the statistics of trade for 1909 and the previous five years. This table shows only the "commerce special/' that is to say, exports of Congo produce and imports for use or consumption in the Congo. There is in addition a large transit trade, chiefly to the French Congo, with which we need not trouble the reader.

Year Imports Exports

1904 $4,668,800 $10,378,200

1905 4,015,000 10,606,400

1906 4,295,600 11,655,600

1907 5,036,400 11,779,000

1908 5,317,200 8,674,400

1909 4,425,398.80 11,233,400

The decline in the exports of 1908 was due to the fall in the market value of rubber, and the recovery in 1909 to the rise in price to its old figure or even higher. Belgium provided or took herself in 1909 $2,101,338 of the imports and $10,417,139.80 of the exports. Taking a general view of the commercial situation over a period of the last six years, the progress is minute, but this should be regarded as evidence not of the limited resources of the Congo colony, but of the deliberate purpose of the Belgian authorities under both regimes to proceed with great care and caution. Those who have studied the colonial problem in Belgium hold the opinion that the success so far achieved has been due to the guiding principles of not attempting too much. Still the weak points in the situation remain (1) the small white colony all told, (2) the uncertainty as to the revenue, (3) and the apparent non-expansion of trade.

Under the new conditions created by the canceling of the charters of the Concessionnaire Companies, the abolition of forced labor, and the substitution of payment in money instead of payment in goods to the blacks, it will be more difficult Lo establish an equilibrium in the finances. The surest way of doing so is to multiply the resources of the colony, which can only be accomplished by the introduction of foreign capital into the country. The Belgians, whose success up to the present has been far greater than any one could have ventured to predict in 1884, have now to decide whether they will encourage outside co-operation in dealing with the development of Central Africa, or continue to run it on the old exclusive lines. The opening of the several zones to free trade, which will be completed in another year, is an indication that co-operation will be invited and no longer repelled.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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