By Kenn Taylor
Edmund Morel – Pioneer for Global Justice
BBC Two recently screened a documentary entitled ‘Congo: White King, Red Rubber and Black Death’ as part of their ‘Africa Lives’ season. It showed how Edmund Morel exposed the stripping of the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo) of its main natural resource, by its European rulers at the end of the 19th century and the terrible suffering the Congolese people had to endure as a result.
Edmund Dene Morel was born in Paris in 1873, son of an English mother and French father. He moved to Liverpool at the age of fifteen, where he found employment as a clerk for the Elder-Dempster shipping line. As Morel spoke both English and French he was made liaison officer between the line and officials in Belgium, covering trade with the Congo Free State. The African territory had been controlled by Belgium’s ruler King Leopold II since 1870 and was part of his personal assets rather than an imperial territory of Belgium. It was whilst on his many visits to Antwerp from Liverpool to check records that Morel began to realise that a great fraud was being committed, and that even worse things were happening.
While rubber was arriving at Antwerp, massive amounts of armaments were being shipped from Antwerp to the Congo, along with other cargo, much of which was of no benefit to the natives of the state itself, but was instead used to prop up the administrative system. Morel questioned how these goods were being paid for when the natives were not allowed to use money and were being sent nothing useful in return for the labour and the resources of their land. So he decided to investigate.
The terrible truth, he was to discover, was they were not being paid at all. Leopold had virtually all the natives as slave labour in his lucrative operation, which netted him billions of pounds in today’s money, as rubber was one of the most in-demand natural resources at the turn of the last century.
Morel took his concerns to the chairman of Elder-Dempster but was offered a bribe to stay quiet so he resigned in 1900 and published a series of articles in ‘The Speaker’ magazine ‘The Congo Scandal’ and in the newspaper ‘West Africa’.
Even here though there were limits to what he could publish so in 1903 he set up his own newspaper – the ‘West African Mail’ – from his base in Liverpool, detailing the goings on in the Congo. As the news of his actions spread, Morel received letters, reports, documents and photographs from employees of Leopold and many Christian missionaries frustrated with the failure of church leaders to act on their reports. Their leaders were apparently more concerned with ‘saving the souls’ of the natives than preventing their suffering in this life.
Agents of Leopold enslaved Congolese males and ran the Congo as if it was one big gold mine, even creating a mercenary private army.
In his publications, Morel detailed how, if men were unwilling to be enslaved, it was policy to send ‘sentries’ into a settlement, who would loot all animals and items of value, destroy all buildings and capture all women and children. They would then be imprisoned in stockades until the men would work. Many of them returned from these periods of forced labour to find the women had been raped by the soldiers and/or died of malnutrition.
Morel also documented how soldiers had to account for the use of each bullet, producing the severed hand of the person it had been used to kill. When they did ‘waste’ bullets they would frequently cut off the hand of someone living so as to avoid punishment.
Slowly Morel won the support of politicians, religious leaders and businessmen, through remarkable skill, hard work and determination. In 1906 alone he sent out 15,000 brochures, wrote 3,500 letters and published ‘Red Rubber’ – a book detailing all his findings. Though this kind of action is common in these days of ‘Make Poverty History’, Morel was a true pioneer.
In 1908, Leopold was forced to hand over administration of the Congo to the Belgium government, though only after he had taken back substantial assets and received a ‘goodwill’ gesture of £2,000,000 It would not be until 1913 that the last remnants of Leopold’s regime were dismantled. The population of the Congo dropped massively during Leopold’s reign and, while not all this can be blamed on him, figures suggest that up to 10 million people died as a result of his policies.
Morel became involved in the Liberal Party following his successful campaign, and stood as the candidate for Birkenhead. But by the time of World War I he found himself disagreeing with his party’s actions, stating that the situation in Europe had been made worse by the ‘secret diplomacy’ going on between nations. He set up a group called the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) to fight against this and to argue that post-war peace terms should not humiliate the defeated nation nor should borders be artificially altered for one country’s gain.
History has proved this to be true, but the ‘Daily Express’ ran a hate campaign against him and the UDC, denouncing them as ‘Pro-German’ and encouraging its readers to attack and break up UDC meetings. Morel himself was violently assaulted on several occasions. Police investigated the organisation and found nothing illegal, but in 1917 Morel was jailed for violating the Defence of the Realm Act. On his release Morel joined the Independent Labour Party but was denied high office and in 1924 he died after a heart attack.
The legacy in the Congo is sadly like that of many former European colonies. Even after it was freed from the oppressive regime of Leopold it was to continue under the less obvious sufferings of an imperial colony. In 1960 the Congo finally threw their Belgian occupiers out. But the first democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba was overthrown with the connivance of the US, and Lumumba was assassinated. Today the Congo is still being plundered for its rich resources, by Western corporations.
As well as ending the suffering of millions in his time, Morel left perhaps an even greater legacy – the birth of the international human rights movement as we know it today. It is hard to imagine organisations like Amnesty existing without him, and perhaps we should ask why Liverpool still has streets named after slave traders yet there is no tribute to this adopted resident and his work.