E. Belfort Bax

The Congo [1]

(August 1885)

The Congo, Commonweal, August 1885, pp.70 & 71.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Where it not for our Socialism – for our conviction that the present, like every previous world-order, must pass away as tale that is told – a book such as this of Mr. Stanley’s would leave upon us a settled melancholy only to be relieved by the hope that astronomical research might before long be in a position to assure us of the absorption of this planet by the sun at an early date. “Ewige vernichtung nimmt uns auf”, sing the crew of the Flying Dutchman in their weariness of the continuous round of a pleasureless and purposeless existence – a cry which the Stanleyised savage will, we imagine, before long be expressing in eloquent Congolese as he looks back to the time before commerce, Christianity and civilisation had done their dire work or, shall we say, to the time ere the European trader and missionary had begun to take a kindly interest in him.

“Short as was my view,” says Mr. Stanley, (Vol.1 page 130) “of this concourse of bronzed aborigines, I foresaw a brilliant future for Africa, if by any miracle of good fortune I could persuade the dark millions of the interior to cast off their fabrics of grass clothing and don the second-hand costumes made, say, at Whitechapel. See what a ready market lies here for old clothes, etc.” That’s, the style! Brilliant future, old clothes, cheap spirits, last of all, the “factory system!” Mr. Stanley talks of persuading “the millions of the interior,” to adopt the vile European shoddy which, as he must be well aware, means deterioration of physique, if not death, to the savage used to natural conditions. We all know what that persuading signifies. There is a crescendo in the market hunters persuasion which culminates in the roar of Gatlings and the rattle of Schneider rifles. After this, freedom of trade in cheap goods is established, deterioration more or less slow, but none the less sure, succeeds the rougher and readier war carnage.

The band of harpies, traders and missionaries who have followed in the track of Mr. Stanley’s marauding expedition may be estimated by the following extract from the preface to the present volumes:

“Besides the work of the International Association, of which these volumes are the record, the English Baptists have carried the banner of peace up the Congo beyond the equator; and the American Baptists, taking up the work begun by the Livingstone Congo Mission, are urging on the civilising work side by side with their English brethren. London and Church Missionary Societies have planted their Christian flags on lakes Victoria and Tanganika. The African Lakes Company and the Free Kirk of Scotland are earnestly at work on Lakes Nyassa, and are advancing to Lake Tanganika. Serpa Pinto and Weissman have crossed Africa; Iven and Capello have performed remarkable journeys to the east of Angola. Monsieur de Brazza has given France a West African Empire; Germany has entered the field of colonial enterprise and has annexed all the territory in South West Africa, between Cape Frio and British colonies in South Africa, the Cameroons territory and a fertile province in East Africa; Italy has annexed territory on the Red Sea; Great Britain has annexed the Niger Delta; and Portugal now possesses 700,000 square miles o£ African territory.”

Thus the plundering goes merrily on. The explorer reconnoitres the ground, the missionary prepares the soil, the trader “works” it. The time is then ripe for protectorates and annexations, followed by the wholesale conversion of the refractory nation, by fire and sword it other means fail, to the gospel of “old clothes.”

The present volume narrates the process of wheedling and hocussing native chiefs in preparation for the “pounce.” “The fact of my arrival at Ulundi has become generally known, and various chiefs have sent their boys to me to say I must expect friends and visitors. It is politic to submit to any trifling delay of this kind, for I shall presently have to obtain workmen from them to make the great waggon-way into the interior.” (Vol.1 p.164.) The italics in this passage are our own, but only one picked out haphazard which illustrates the process above referred to.

Well nigh every page of the book expresses the hope and faith of the market-hunter’s pioneer, that the redemption of Africa by international capitalism draweth nigh. Mr. Stanley of course takes great interest in “Christian missions.” But we will do him the justice to say that he can hardly deceive anyone as to the special reasons for his interest in them. Christianity, it is perfectly obvious, is to Mr. Stanley the indispensable handmaid of the great religions of the nineteenth century, commercial enterprise, and for this reason alone is to be respected. It is true he baptises a chief now and again, but there is no serious attempt to disguise the fact that the water of baptism; as received from Mr. Stanley’s, hands, is a sign that the devoted chief is possessed of the faith the moves “old clothes” rather than Mountains. We could hardly fancy Mr. Stanley with an ineffable sweetness on his countenance and the open Bible on his lap, majestically ordering a couple of rebel chiefs to be taken from his presence and hacked to pieces. This belongs to the art which conceals art, and the genius that can reduce humbug to such a fine art as this is made up of a rare combination of qualities. Mr. Stanley would probably exhibit less calm in the settlement of refractory chiefs. But in spite of Mr. Stanley’s humbug being rather crude, it appears to go down well with the frequenters of Exeter Hall. The Baptists give him dinners and meetings, in return for which he offers them chaffing patronage and the protection of his name.

In the chapter on Europeans in Africa Mr, Stanley rails at certain adventurous young men who have gone out under his auspices, and of whose failure through personal deficiencies he holds strong opinions. In perusing his strictures one would like to hear the opinion of these young men on Mr. Stanley and his “association”. We know of one case in which a young man who would of course be put on Mr. Stanley’s black list as a person of intemperate habits and a failure, was sent out with promise of large salary which should have been duly paid to his account at Banana, and who died some two years afterwards. Did the wife and child ho left behind in England get any of the money due to him? Not a single franc. We do not venture to suppose for an instant that Mr. Stanley himself is anything less than the soul of honour in things commercial, as befits the pioneer of civilisation in the benighted regions of the earth. But the morality of the Congo Association would certainly appear to be minus quantity and “intending emigrants” lured by its specious promises, would do well to take note of this fact. Yet after all, it is admitted that only a tolerably well-marked product of the nineteenth century, is a fitting instrument, under Providence as embodied in Mr. Stanley, to exploit the new territory. On p.376 of Vol. II. we read, “It is specially with a view to rouse the spirit of trade that I dilate upon advantages of the Congo basin, and not as a field for the pauper emigrant ... It is the cautious trader ... the enterprising mercantile factor ... the European middleman” – he is the man who is wanted.. “These are they”, says Mr. Stanley, “who can direct and teach the black pauper,” etc. “They are the missionaries of commerce adapted for nowhere so well as the Congo basin, where are so many idle hands and such abundant opportunities all within a ring fence.” We can quite believe it; the Congo basin must afford at this present moment a virgin field for the exploits of this description of rascaldom – we beg pardon, for the earnest zeal of such missionary types of the commercial spirit as those above indicated.

Mr Stanley certainly preaches his gospel of enterprise (as he himself terms it) with the zeal of an apostle. He is doubtless wise in his generation.

As regards style this book will probably please those who affect the second-rate American reporter. As an attempt to be didactic is fatal to Mr. Stanley from a literary point of view. He then twaddles away in the manner of a lower-form schoolboy thus:

“There is a law of nature which has decreed that a man must work. The diving law declares that only by the sweat of his brow shall a man eat bread. There is a law pretty generally recognised among the advanced nations that every honest labourer is worthy of his hire, but only the conspicuously meritorious deserve special commendation. The stern practice of the world is that a man shall not obtain his food for nothing. Unless he labours in his vocation neither shall he receive wages.”

The above is culled from the preface which we have already referred to.

“I now commit my work,” says Mr. Stanley, “to the public, in the hope that it will effect a happy change for Africa, and give a greater impetus to the true civilising influences which are seen in the advancement of commerce and in the vitality o£ Christian missions.”

This conclusion to the same precious document sounds as if Mr. Stanley had some faculty for sarcasm, but perhaps he is only naive. At all events; the whole book sings the same song. We take leave of Mr. Stanley with this quotation, and resign him and his “association” to the final verdict, not of the Civilised world of to day, but of the Socialised world of to morrow.




1. Review of The Congo; or, The Founding of a Free State, by Henry M. Stanley.


Last updated on 12.3.2004