Saturday, July 18, 2009

Prince Albert Visits the Congo, 1909

In Albert, King of the Belgians (1929), Evelyn Graham provides an account of the expedition to the Belgian Congo undertaken by Prince Albert (future King Albert I) in 1909. A year earlier, the area, formerly the "Congo Free State," a private possession of King Leopold II, had been annexed by Belgium. The reports of atrocities and abuses suffered by the indigenous people under the Congo Free State had deeply distressed Prince Albert, and he was determined to embark upon a program of reform.
Probably the most notable event in the years following Prince Albert's becoming Heir- Apparent was his journey to the Congo in 1909. There is no doubt that the ceaseless agitations, and the unsparing criticisms of the administration of Congo affairs, had troubled Prince Albert considerably more than they had disturbed King Leopold. There was an entire contrast between their outlook on life, for whereas Prince Albert always recognized that his first duty was to his country, King Leopold seemed, in certain actions at all events, to consider his duty to himself paramount.

For several years previous to Belgium's annexation of the Congo, Prince Albert had studied with the closest attention all questions relating to the State. He was a frequent visitor to the Colonial Museum, reading everything of importance published on the subject of the Congo and its development. He lost no opportunity of meeting and conversing with all persons whose experience had put them in a position to enlighten him on any matter regarding affairs in the "Dark Continent," as it was called.

Being highly conscientious in his treatment of all men, the allegations regarding the treatment of Congo natives grieved and distressed him. He knew, of course, that many of the reports of wrong-doing were exaggerated, but he felt that any doubt at all as to the matter was a slur on the fair fame of Belgium, and something in the nature of a challenge to himself as its future ruler.

He had many conversations with King Leopold on the subject — one or two of them being of a very piquant nature. In these interviews the Prince spoke his mind with a freedom and courage that his uncle by no means relished. King Leopold was always impatient of criticism in any form, and, to the day of his death, he never admitted that there had been any defects in his administration of the wonderful colony which he had gained for his people.

Prince Albert welcomed the appointment of M. Renkin as Colonial Minister, for the reason that he had always shown himself zealous in all manner of reforms on the Congo. M. Renkin and the Heir to the Throne held lengthy discussions as to the best means of putting these reforms into practice. M. Renkin's first Budget surprised the country, for, with great boldness and a supreme faith in the future of the Congo, he sanctioned an outlay far in excess of any sum hitherto assigned to the administration of the colony. In this Budget there was allowed for administration in Africa over 7,000,000 francs ; for health, nearly 900,000 francs ; and for justice nearly 2,000,000 francs. It may be added that M. Renkin had his reward in seeing the price of rubber rise by over fifty per cent, by which rise Belgium was saved the necessity of raising another Colonial loan. His foresight and courage were therefore rewarded financially as well as in improving the condition of the Congo.

During M. Renkin's tenure of office, Prince Albert achieved what had been for several years his great ambition — he toured the Congo. Over and over again he had expressed his wish to make this visit in order that he might see for himself what truth there was in the constant charges against King Leopold's administration, and that he might consider what could be done to put matters on a more satisfactory basis. In Court circles, it was well understood that the only thing that had prevented the Prince hitherto from carrying out his desire was the attitude
of King Leopold himself.

Although Prince Albert was his direct heir, the King's grasp on the reins of government was tenacious to the very hour of his death. He knew and acknowledged — not only in public speeches made for the world's ears, but in private conversations not meant to pass beyond the walls of the room in which they were held — that his nephew had in him the makings of a successful ruler. He realized that the Prince was highly popular with his future subjects, and that he had qualities which would enable him to fill the throne with dignity, firmness, and courage. At the same time King Leopold seemed determined that Prince Albert should have no added opportunities of demonstrating his fitness for the position he was destined to fill.

In the end, however, the Prince had his way ; defeating his uncle's stubborn anger and mocking cynicism with unwearying persistence, he held to a firm resolve to further the ends of justice, and do what he considered his duty to his future African subjects.

In the spring of 1909 he set out for the Congo.

It was arranged that M. Jules Renkin should accompany him, but, in order that the survey might be thorough, it was decided that the Prince should traverse the country from east to west, while the Colonial Minister should start from the west. The Prince, accompanied by Baron de Moor, left Southampton on April 3rd, 1909, and spent the following four months travelling throughout the length and breadth of the Congo. He covered nearly 3,000 miles — partly by land, partly by river, and, in a lesser degree, by rail. Only the members of his suite can really appreciate the thoroughness of his investigations. He was not content with seeing things and asking questions. He had his staff supplied with notebooks, and saw that they used them, while he himself filled book after book with his own personal comments. These copious notes helped him greatly in the reforms which he inaugurated subsequently.

On foot, in a steamer, in a train, he passed day after day, seeing all that was to be seen. He inspected the hospital ; he attended service in the churches ; he visited the schools, and made friends with the scholars at once ; and called at several of the mission posts.

Prince Albert talked with everyone with whom he came contact. Often these conversations were of the most informs character. It was useless for officials to wait upon him with written reports, expecting him to accept them without further investigation. It was more than useless to attempt to put him off with ready-made information. Prince Albert had come to make his own discoveries in his own way, and he accomplished his task.

The European residents and officials were delighted with his visit for, tired though he might be, yet not so tired as certain members of his staff, he responded with characteristic courtesy to all their efforts to entertain him. Officials and their wives, many of them now retired and scattered in different parts of the country, still speak with pleasure of the tour when Prince Albert was among them, and made so gallant and gracious a figure at the receptions at which they were presented to him.

But it was to the natives that Prince Albert paid the greatest attention. When it was learned — and the news spread in the amazing way peculiar to native communities — that King Leopold's heir was coming among them, the chiefs of every tribe clamoured for an audience. They besieged him with the story of wrongs which demanded to be redressed. With untiring patience, the Prince listened, questioned, investigated the truth...and promised to see that just grievances should be put right and each man have his due. These promises he redeemed with scrupulous care on his return.

His fine stature and kingly bearing impressed greatly the Congolese. They conferred upon him a native title meaning "Tall Man, Breaker of Stones," There is no doubt that Prince Albert's tour of the Congo State did much to reconcile the natives to the new regime and to give them confidence in the future.

The Prince who, as has been mentioned, had been greatly troubled by the reports of Congo atrocities, was determined that he would take not merely European statements on these, but would get the natives to talk freely. To the consternation of his staff, he would often disappear, and be found later in the native quarters, surrounded by a group of Congolese, all intent upon pouring their life histories into his attentive ears.

On one occasion he was discovered squatting upon the ground before the hut of a native chief, vis-a-vis with his host, who, in somewhat peculiar English, was recounting his version of the history of the past decade. The Prince, with the unfailing notebook open on his knee, was endeavouring to translate the story into the kind of language that could be written down.

It was this eagerness to obtain first-hand information that deepened the respect which the natives had been prepared from the first to accord to one of Royal rank. They realized that he had a brotherly nature and was anxious to help them to the best of his ability.

The tour, interesting though it was, offered many discomforts and even hardships, not to mention the difficulties peculiar to tropical climates. M. Renkin's health suffered greatly from the trials of the tour, but Prince Albert faced it all unperturbed. His robust frame and excellent constitution enabled him to withstand the heat, to ward off the tropical fevers to which the white visitor succumbs so often, and to finish his tour in as good health as when he set out. Again and again he had to "rough it"...

The Belgian people and the Press had welcomed the prospect of Prince Albert's travels with enthusiasm. They had had no part in whatever malpractices had occurred in the Congo, but the world's criticism had been directed against Belgium, and they felt that Prince Albert's visit would do much to remove any grounds for the campaign of bitter criticism which was being conducted not only against their Sovereign but against his people.

When the date of the Prince's return was announced, Antwerp prepared a wonderful welcome for the Prince, on the occasion of his joyeuse entrée, as one Antwerp paper called it. The Congo steamer, the Bruxellesville, was due on Monday, August 16th, 1909, and from the earliest hour Antwerp was packed with sightseers from the surrounding district, anxious to greet their Prince. They desired to express their gratitude publicly for the labours he had undertaken...


MadMonarchist said...

In a way, some of those exaggerations proved useful. So many lurid tales had been told about the troops of the Force Publique that during World War I the German colonial forces were terrified of them such a fearsome reputation they had gained in the telling and retelling. Even the British forces native contingents did not want to camp too close to the FP for fear they might become "supper". None of it was true of course, by that time the Belgian colonial army was a very well organized, efficient and disciplined force -but in war it never hurts to have your enemy a little spooked at the outset lol.

May said...

Well, I am not sure. Both the genuine crimes and the exaggerated stories have done great harm to Belgium. How many times have I seen people hastily dismiss Belgium and the Belgian monarchy because of the controversy over Leopold II! His faults are remembered, while the sincere and painstaking reform efforts of Albert I and later, Leopold III, are ignored and forgotten. All too often, the whole family gets the reputation of being merely selfish exploiters.

The Belgian colonial forces were very brave during World War I, and commanded respect, even without the lurid tales. But I agree, it is funny that the fearsome reputation of the FP ended up playing this unexpected role!

MadMonarchist said...

That is true and many (the great mass who don't want to be confused with the facts) ignore the fact that early on very few if any Belgians were actually involved. The troops were all natives and the officers were generally Scandinavian mercenaries. In any event that all changed after the CFS became the Belgian Congo. The Germans themselves judged the Belgian colonial forces as the best of their enemies. After the successful campaign against Tabora the Force Publique could have gone further but the British prevented it for fear that Belgium might claim more than what they considered an appropriate share of spoils after it was over.

I can understand your frustration though (similar things have happened to ther countries around the world). One of the things I admire about King Baudouin was that he ignored the unfair criticism and also warned the Congolese that with independence would come great responsibilities. Some jeered at him but I think the sad history of that country since has shown his advice should have been heeded more carefully.

May said...

Very true.