Spirit of the past inspires Congo campaign

Activists re-enact London demonstration to commit to fighting new injustices

One hundred years ago today, a crowd gathered at the Royal Albert Hall in London to be told of atrocities in the Congo. Luminaries such as Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury were joined in their public outrage by scores of peers and MPs. The demonstration was the culmination of an extraordinary campaign by a former shipping clerk, Edmund Morel, to reveal the truth about King Leopold's Congo Free State.

This morning, a new generation of activists will gather at the same venue, in Kensington, west London, to highlight the continued suffering in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The demonstration will attempt to redraw a link, established forcefully in 1909, between the actions of the rich world and the fate of millions of people in a distant stretch of central Africa.

As the Archbishop argued a century ago: "We know, that, in whatever way it has come about, a great wrong has been done and is now being done, to a helpless race in a vast area of the earth, that we are ourselves in part responsible for."

The exploitation of a century ago took the form of massacres, slavery and plunder under the veil of free trade. Today eastern Congo is routinely described as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis", beset by the aftermath of civil war and genocide and an epidemic of rape, where mineral riches are the modern counterparts to the stolen ivory and rubber of old. Both have led to mass killings: late 19th-century estimates start at 5 million people, while estimates from the 1990s onwards start at 4 million people.

The renewed focus on injustice in central Africa would have pleased the late E D Morel, who was the prototype for today's investigative journalists and human rights activists.

Morel was the son of a French trader and an English Quaker who went to work for a Liverpool shipping firm in 1891. He oversaw his firm's business with Leopold II, King of the Belgians, and his trade with what was then touted as a visionary alternative to conventional colonies. Congo Free State was a neutral sovereignty but run by a holding company, of which Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman. It was in effect the world's only colony claimed by one man.

According to his own PR machine, the "philanthropic monarch" had defeated slave traders there, and he was feted for investing his fortune in good works for Africa.

But Morel was unconvinced. As a French speaker, he was sent to Belgium to supervise the unloading of the Congo ships, and he noticed they arrived heaving with ivory and rubber, but would return to Africa with only guns, ammunition and soldiers.

Adam Hochschild describes Morel's eureka moment in his brilliant history book King Leopold's Ghost: "As Morel watches these riches streaming into Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realises there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labour."

Taking up his pen, the clerk becomes first a journalist, then a full-time campaigner starting the first great human rights movement of the 20th-century.

"Seldom has one human being," Hochschild writes, "impassioned, eloquent, blessed with brilliant organising skills – managed to put one subject on the world's front pages for more than a decade."

It was a titanic struggle. The resourceful Belgian King hired his own publicity machine to dispute his critic's conclusions.

Morel would draw literary greats from Mark Twain to Conan Doyle to his cause, as well as a young Joseph Conrad who travelled to the Congo to find "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience".

5m

Deaths in late 19th-century Congo Free State due to slavery.

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