Henry Morton Stanley was the illegitimate son of a housemaid. His Welsh mother abandoned him as an infant, leaving him with his grandfather and uncles, who in turn paid another family to take him in. When this arrangement fell apart, Stanley was sent to the St. Asaph Union Workhouse, where he would remain until running away at fifteen. He stays with a succession of relatives, before boarding the Windermere and heading for America. The ship arrives in New Orleans, where he changed his name to Stanley and worked for a cotton Broker. He changes not just his name, but his entire history, claiming, inaccurately, that he escaped the workhouse during a violent mutiny and that his employer adopted him as a son. In 1862, Stanley fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, but was captured and sent to Chicago on the second day of fighting. He got out of the prison camp by enlisting in the Union military, and worked as a clerk on the ship Minnesota before deserting in 1865. Now, he sets his sights on becoming a freelance journalist, and travels across the country recounting the Indian Wars. His work attracted the attention of James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of the New York Herald, who sent him to Africa to search for the missing explorer Livingstone (although it seems likely now that Bennett sent him to Africa to cover a different story, and Stanley just made up the instruction to search for Livingstone).
Stanley, with a group of porters, guards, and guides, marched in from the east of Africa. After only eight months, Stanley claims to have found the lost explorer, saying the famous phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”. Stanley was the sole source for news of the whole trip, as Livingstone supposedly chose to stay in Africa and died soon after, so he painted it as a heroic and fully successful adventure. Due to the huge buzz of his first African expedition, both The New York Herald and a British newspaper agree to finance his trip across the entire African interior. This trip did not go as smoothly, although it did end well for Stanley. In order to keep prevent the possibility of anyone taking his spotlight, Stanley chose three unqualified American traveling companions (they all died on the journey). They traveled with 356 other people, mostly Africans, to help porter their boat across rivers and navigate. For the first half of the journey Stanley sent tales back to Europe. He converted the Emperor of Uganda to Christianity, massacred local tribes, and doled out strict punishments for his own people. However, he found this first part of the journey enjoyable compared to the latter half. Once he passed the point where he had found Livingstone before, and communications were no longer possible, he followed a large river in hopes it was the beginning of the Nile. However, as the terrain became increasingly treacherous and the waters more tumultuous, he decided it was actually the Congo. Determined to follow it to its mouth to prove this, he lost many men due to the harsh conditions. By the time he arrived at the coast, the party was down to 115.
Stanley’s feat of crossing Africa was of great interest to King Leopold. He summoned Stanley to his court in order to speak with him about Africa. Agreeing to pay him today’s equivalent of $250,000 a year, Leopold ordered Stanley to begin building a road from Africa’s western coast into the interior. The King managed to keep his true intentions of creating an imperial colony a secret by having his underlings going around the world and talking about his philanthropic plans for the Congo. Stanley worked on the road in the Congo for five years. He fell sick several times, with both malaria and other unknown fevers. In 1882 he was forced to briefly return to Europe to recuperate, but insisted on going back once he was better. As buzz surrounding the Congo spread, other countries began trying to stake their claim.
France, most notably, sent a naval officer named Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to take a strip of the northern shoreline. Brazza and Stanley entered into a feud that the Paris newspapers loved. Under Leopold’s directions, Stanley signed “treaties” with nearly 450 tribes up and down the Congo that granted Leopold their lands and a complete trading monopoly. When Stanley was finished with his work and returned to Europe, he saw that the grab for Africa had begun. Needing another country to recognize and legitimize his claim to the Congo before some other nation takes it, Leopold sends Sanford to talk to the American president. Through careful lobbying of senators and promising the president free trade with the Congo, Sanford was able to get America to recognize Leopold’s claim. A different man made a similar deal with France, and other countries followed. A conference was held with all major royalty interested in colonies in Africa, and Leopold’s Congo was solidified. He renamed it the Congo Free State and began to drop pretenses of his philanthropic intentions.
However, with the need to build a gigantic transportation system in the Congo before he could begin making money, Leopold soon ran out of money. At a philanthropic conference, Leopold convinced the other leaders to agree to allow import duties into the Congo, much to Sanford’s horror. Sanford had helped Leopold under the illusion that the Congo would be open to free trade, but his opinion of Leopold quickly changed after the conference, and Sanford died not a year later. Still needing more funds now, Leopold also convinced the Belgian government to loan him twenty-five million francs, under the promise that he would leave the Congo to Belgium in his will.
An opportunity to expand his territory in the Congo arose when rebels overthrew the British government in the Sudan. The governor of Sudan’s southernmost province managed to hold out, and asked Europe for help. In response, Stanley led an expedition to battle the rebels, paid for by the British Royal Society and various newspapers. Leopold told him to convince Sudan’s remaining province’s governor to make the territory part of the Congo. The relief expedition was a disaster: the party trekked through previously uncharted parts of the rainforest where they died by the hundreds from disease, malnourishment, and Stanley’s mistreatment and terrible leadership. They arrived to find that the rebel threat had already receded years before. The half of the expedition that survived talked about the things they saw and did in the Congo, inciting public outrage at the atrocities committed.
The first person to speak openly about the even greater horrors being committed under Leopold’s direction was an African American man named George Washington Williams. Williams fought on the Union side of the Civil War as a young man, later enlisted in the fight against Leopold’s brother in law Maximillion to take back Mexico, and briefly fought in the Indian Wars. Needing a new career, he turned to the seminary where he was an apt student, and became a pastor after only two years. He didn’t stay in the position long, though, and went to Washington where he got a jot at a newspaper. When the newspaper went under he returned to the church, and also was the first African American in the Ohio State Legislature, although he only served briefly. When he heard about what Stanley was petitioning for (the Congo to be recognized as Leopold’s), Williams thought the labor needed for his colony would be the perfect opportunity for African American men to work somewhere where they were respected and treated as equals. He petitioned to have Leopold’s claim recognized, and once it was, he traveled to the Congo to see the conditions.
Once he got there, however, he was immediately shocked at how the white officers treated the Africans. He saw kidnapping, murder, trickery, and realized that Leopold’s entire operation relied on forced labor. Williams then wrote an open letter to Leopold laying out all of his grievances for these crimes against humanity. When newspapers published some of his letter, some of the public started to question Leopold’s intentions. The king was angry, and began trying to undermine Williams’ message. He highlighted Williams’ claim in the letter that he was a colonel, when in actuality he was only granted the honorary title of a colonel from the VA. Williams planned to leave Africa to spread the word about the horrors in the Congo. Before Williams could lead the cause against Leopold, however, he caught tuberculosis in Egypt and later died in England. His British fiancee and her family buried him in an unmarked grave, and he was largely forgotten by history.
Another traveler in the Congo to point out these atrocities is much more well known, although he did not say anything about what he saw there until nearly ten years after his return. Joseph Conrad was a polish man who signed on with one of the companies getting ivory from the Congo, under the same assumptions as Williams that Leopold’s actions there are entirely philanthropic. When he got there, however, he encountered white officers who tormented the Africans there, and later wrote about his short travels there in his pseudo-memoir Heart of Darkness. One of the most famous pieces of 20th century literature, the book is almost exclusively discussed for its literary quality, and its historical accuracy and meaning is rarely acknowledged.
The first outsider to gather actual evidence of the atrocities happening under Leopold’s rule in the Congo was a young European named Edmund Morel. Morel worked for the shipping company that had the monopoly on bringing goods to and from the Congo. While going through the records, and observing what was coming on and off the ship in Africa, he noticed that next to nothing was being brought from Europe to pay for the large amounts of rubber and ivory coming out. This indicates that forced labor must be the method Leopold is using to gather these goods. Morel published his findings and the shipping documents as proof that slavery was being used, and gathered hundreds of other Europeans to his side. One of his most notable allies was Roger Casement, an Irish government worker. Unhappy soldiers and missionaries returning from the Congo gave Morel photographs, private letters, and classified briefings from military leaders, which he published as further evidence. Eventually his work caused the Belgian parliament to reform some of their policies in the Congo.
By 1905, the international public had turned against Leopold and his actions in the Congo, despite his continual efforts to curb people's’ opinions. This public outcry caused Leopold to give the Congo to the Belgian parliament, who annexed it in 1908 as the Belgian Congo. Leopold died not long after in 1909. Despite the Belgian government promising huge reforms on policy in the Congo, little actually changed in the way that the Congo was governed. World War I focused public attention on new horrors, and the Congo was largely forgotten on the world stage for many years after. Slavery and forced labor in the Congo only truly started to die out when the ivory was all gone and commercial rubber farming took over wild rubber harvesting as the most cost effective method. The Congo did not gain full independence until 1960, when it became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.