The Congo Reforms (3 december 1909)

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The Congo Reforms is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 3 december 1909.

The Congo Reforms

The Times (3 december 1909)

Sir, — As one who has done some work on the question of Congo reform, it was with deep regret that I read your article upon the subject this morning. Perhaps you would have the courtesy to permit me to make a few observations upon it.

The history of our relations with the Congo authorities in the past has been one of flattering hopes and broken promises, and the price of our credulity has been paid not by ourselves, but by the unhappy natives.

Beginning with the Anglo-Congolese Convention of 1881 and the Berlin Treaty of 1883, there has been no connexion between a European pledge and African performance. Again and again we have been deceived. In 1905 there was a promise that the evidence given before the Belgian Commission of Investigation should published. It has not been published to this day. Finally, on the eve of Belgian annexation, a definite promise was given to the British Government that there would be instant amelioration of the lot of the native. Fifteen months have elapsed, and nothing has been done. The old Congo State in a day, by a stroke of the pen, appropriated the whole vacant lands and produce of the Congo. Surely the new Congo State could within 15 months have done something to change those laws, which had already for many years been debated in the Belgian Chamber, and were, therefore, no new problem to the Government.

With such a record we should be indeed remiss if we did not carefully scrutinize these new arrangements. If we were silent upon them, we might well give the impression that public opinion in Great Britain was satisfied with them, whereas, if we can let it be clearly understood that there are some points which are from our point of view inadmissible, and which would prevent this change from being accepted as a final settlement by this country, we may get them altered. Surely this is a complete justification for our agitation by public meeting and otherwise. What is the use of being silent now, and then being forced to start a fresh agitation after the new proposals are made into law? Now is the time to make our sentiments heard, and so possibly to influence legislation — or at least to preserve our own consistency. The objection to the reforms are only epitomized by your own Correspondent. They are, in a word, the delay in granting that freedom of trade which is not a favour, but a right, the increase in the native army, which has always been a scourge to flog the people; the continuance of forced labour, as shown by the fact that 40 per cent. of the Budget is to come from rubber, copal, &c., paid as taxation; and, finally, the absence of any adequate financial provision for the feeding of the horde who now live upon the people. These are the proposed reforms which we are criticised for not accepting with a silence would would certainly be as taken as approval. I hold, on the contrary, that these are the critical weeks, in which we must make the Belgians understand that such changes will not serve, and that they must make a clean sweep of all abuses before this country will regard the question as closed.

We have a right, too, to examine the spirit which lie these proposals, for in that spirit will they be carried out. Has there been any admission of the monstrous past? On the contrary' M Renkin's tone has been one of self-congratulation, with a denial of. all outrages. On the same steamer in which he returned from the Congo came Dr. Dorpinghaus, an ideal witness, with an appalling list of outrages, many of which he had himself seen, and some of which were of recent date. These were all drawn from a single limited district. On the top of this, Mr. Morrison, whose veracity is guaranteed by the failure of the Kasai Company to establish their libel action against him, wrote to me on September 27 a letter which you were good enough to publish, in which he gave particulars of the slave-raiding round his own mission for the purpose of supplying labour for the Grands Lacs Railway. How then can M. Renkin contend that there are no outrages in the Congo? Had he come back with an admission that the conditions were bad, and had then set to work to try to improve them, he would at once have commanded our sympathy.

Again, I would ask, why is there no question of judicial examination into the past? Baron Walus is in Belgium. He ruled the Congo for many years, during which it was such a murder State as has never been known in the civilised world. His trial and punishment would be some guarantee of the good faith of the Belgian Government. We have tried our great pro-Consuls, our Clives and our Warren Hastings, though it is a desecration to mention them in such a connexion. And the smaller agents in this tragedy, such men as Captain Arnold, condemned to twelve years' penal servitude in the Congo, and yet retaining his commission in Belgium — is there not room there for the Belgian Government to give some proof of the reality of its professions?

I repeat, then, my earnest conviction that the reforms cannot meet the situation, that outside pressure is needed to draw attention to their weakness, and that a benevolent attitude upon our part will indefinitely prolong the evil which we are trying to set right.

Yours faithfully,

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex, Nov. 29.

P.S. — I note that your Correspondent has been assured that our opposition may be humanitarian but Germany's is certainly interested. The converse is what is served to German papers. This embroiling of the Great Powers has always been one of the cornerstones of Congo policy.