E. Belfort Bax

A Chat with the Great Aborigines Protectionist

(February 1899)

E. Belfort Bax, A Chat with the Great Aborigines Protectionist, Social Democrat, February 1899, pp.41-45.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“We all know, Mr. Fox Bourne, that you are a Radical of the old school; but is it not true that you were the only editor in London who defended the Paris Commune in 1871?”

“Ah, well! that’s ancient. history, and I think not quite as you put it. If I remember rightly, there were other papers in 1871 that took pretty much the same line as the Examiner, of which I was then in charge. I am not, and never have been, in accordance with all the views of Karl Marx and his successors. But it has always seemed to me that people of every sort should have as much freedom as possible in working out their own salvation, or, if it so happens, their own damnation. The manifest crimes and blunderings of the Third Empire had warranted an assertion of their rights by the Paris Communards, even if they chose clumsy or offensive ways of trying to get those rights. This was the view we took in the Examiner, and, as I happened at the time to be a near neighbour of Marx, I generally spent an hour or two with him on Sunday afternoons, learning his views, getting so much of his latest information as he cared to give me, often meeting some of the Communists who came over in the later stages of the crisis and afterwards, and obtaining from all this a great deal of instruction, of which I tried to make fair use for the guidance of the Examiner’s readers in whatever I wrote on the subject. But I cannot claim to have been ever a disciple of Marx.”

“To come now to ‘actual’ issues, what are your views as to the present position in Central Africa?

“Well, I suppose even you Social-Democrats consider yourselves superior to African savages, but will admit that any superiority you, and the rest of us in Europe, have, only makes it the more incumbent on us to treat them with justice, and as much generosity and conciliation as their unfortunate condition may entitle them to. For thousands of years these luckless Africans have been the sport of ‘superior’ people, who found it convenient to intrude upon them. English, French, German, and other Christians are only doing now what Mahommedans from Arabia and elsewhere did long ago; or, if they are doing it more vigorously in these later days, that is only because they make more skilful use of the ‘resources of civilisation.’ Nowadays the natives are mowed down in swarms by Maxim guns and the like, instead of being killed off in fewer numbers by stray lances or in hand-to-hand combat. The deadliest business of all, of this sort, is being done nearest the real centre of Africa by the agents of the Congo Free State. But other European organisations are doing the same sort of thing all around it, if in smaller measure. Ever since the scramble for Africa began, or took vigorous form, some fifteen years ago, there has been a desperate competition for the possession of as huge slices of territory as the several competitors could contrive to seize, and so overawing the natives as to turn them into obedient and serviceable subjects of their conquerors. Of course, there is always a pretence of an intention to do this for the benefit of the natives themselves, and undoubtedly there would be advantage if we could, in proper ways, induce them to give up their cannibalism, human sacrifices, tribal feuds, and other arrangements by which their savagery is kept up. But only in rare cases is this benefitting of the natives much more than a pretence, and even when the intention is genuine it oftener leads to harm than good to them. The main incentive is the turning of Africa into a market for European commodities, and the obtaining from it of as much produce for European consumption as the surface can be made to yield, or as can be drawn from the stores of gold, iron, coal, and what not, that are supposed to lie below the surface. It is conceivable, as an ideal worth aiming at, if right methods are followed, that Central Africa will some day be infinitely more prosperous and a much better dwelling place for its inhabitants than it now is, but that can only be by the natives being honestly and effectively helped to improve their own condition. None but black men can live and thrive in most of the country. White people can never do much more than visit them, and trade with them, and teach them, or try to kill them off. Unless the visiting and trading and teaching are of sorts to advance the welfare of the people themselves nothing but mischief can result from European meddling with them – mischief which at present is greatest and most apparent in the case of the natives, but which, if it is persisted in, will inevitably react on its authors and promoters. Already the natives in most oppressed districts are beginning to rise against their oppressors, and these oppressors, in their quarrels with one another, have been several times almost on the verge of bringing about a European war.”

“Do you think Rhodes will be successful with his Cape to Cairo scheme?”

“As a financial speculation there is no reason, if he and his associates can keep up their game of bluff long enough, why it should not obtain the success which is probably about all they really aim at. If people at home having money to gamble with, or willing and able to gamble with other people’s money, will provide the funds necessary for the enterprise, it is likely enough that some sort of railway, or roadway, will be constructed from south to north. But that traffic in goods and passengers can be got in any sufficient quantity to pay the working expenses, let alone the preliminary outlay, is not to be hoped for. There are supposed political advantages which may incline the English and the Cape Governments to subsidise the project at the expense of the taxpayers, but perhaps before long the taxpayers will refuse to be burdened in its purpose. In any case, I think it is safe to predict that Mr. Rhodes and his fellow speculators will be the only persons likely to get any sort of profit out of the adventure.”

“Is a transcontinental railroad from east to west in the running now, and if so, who is likely to control it?”

“The biggest railroad as yet opened is, of course, the Congo States line from Matadi to Stanley Pool. This is rather from west to east than from east to west, its object being to get rid of the transit difficulties consequent on the impassable condition of the Congo River between these two points. It will enable King Leopold and his officials and favourites, in the stupendous monopoly he is still allowed to control, to tap an enormous area for produce which it is expected can in this way be conveyed from the Upper Congo region to the mouth of the river. Two or three projects have been talked of for other railways to serve as auxiliaries to this line of traffic; but the Congo is, along most of its course, such a much cheaper and more convenient channel of communication than any line of railway. I am not aware of any serious proposal having been made for employing the iron horse in the way you mention. It is quite possible, of course, but, if Lord Kitchener and his partner in the enterprise, Mr. Rhodes, may get on sufficiently with their Cape to Cairo scheme, they or others will attempt to construct a branch line from some junction on their main line to the neighbourhood of Stanley Falls, so as to take advantage of the Congo route. This, however, is a remote contingency, and before it comes to be a practical affair, the question of control will probably come up. Nobody, outside the Foreign Office, or the Congo Bureau in Brussels, perhaps nobody even in those nests of mystery, knows what are the actual relations between the British and the Congo Governments as regards the movements made by King Leopold’s agents for getting in touch with Lado and the Nile Valley. We have been bolstering up the Congo State for years, for some reason or other, and the most plausible reason is that we want to secure some sort of a title for possession of the Congo territory, to which France has a reversion in the event of Belgium declining to take over King Leopold’s hobby when he is tired of riding his hobby, or no longer able to do so. What will happen when the crisis, which must come sooner or later, really occurs, it would be rash to guess. Germany is not quite a ‘negligible quantity,’ but France, unless her present nightmare is succeeded by an awakening in a state of reason, will be the serious factor in the situation. The French have been going ahead recklessly for some years in the attempt to outstrip King Leopold, and forestall the English in acquiring mastery over the whole of Central Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Whatever railway or waterway or other means of communication across their four thousand miles or so may be opened up in the process of the “scramble,” it is pretty sure ultimately to come under the control of England or of France, unless, as will probably be the best issue, the natives are strong enough to keep it in their own hands.”

“What in your opinion are we to expect as developments, say, within the next ten years?”

“I am not a prophet, and can only make rough guesses which are likelier than not to be falsified. Ten years is a short limit, however, and if the threatened battle of Armageddon can be deferred so long, and if meanwhile there is as much “development” as there has been during the past fifteen, it is quite possible that by that time the whole of the interior of Africa will have been appropriated by some or all of the European nations now engaged in the ‘scramble.’ And if Mr. Chamberlain and those who think with him have their way the British Lion will get the lion’s share. But there are the natives to be counted with. The Government’s latest discovery is that, if African savages are to be effectively overawed, it can only be by enticing some of them into its service in order that they may bully the others. Colonel Lugard has lately been initiating a native force, already about 5,000 strong, with which to extend British authority in Nigeria, and it is proposed that this force, and the smaller native forces that are now being augmented in Lagos, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone, shall be organised and expanded into a powerful ‘British Colonial Army,’ available for use in any crusading that may be contemplated in the interior of our possessions near the coast. France has anticipated us in this direction with its Sengalese army; and so has the Congo State, with its ‘force publique’ and auxiliaries, composed of cannibals and others, whom Baron Dhanis employed in promiscuous raidings until they turned against him and placed him in the dilemma from which he has been trying to extricate himself for nearly a twelvemonth. The success, such as it is, of the French experiment is more noteworthy than the failure of the Congo experiment. If England joins to any great extent in its training and arming savages to shoot down other savages, and systematically bully those who have not been shot down, the wicked enterprise may serve its purpose for a time, but it is pretty sure to work out its own retribution. There are at least a hundred million blacks throughout Central Africa whom the European intruders aspire to master by putting a few hundred whites at the head of several thousands of them. This game may go on for a while, but as soon as the trained and armed black hirelings are tired of doing their masters’ bidding, they will be in fit condition to arouse and render effective any uprising that may seem to them desirable. If the result is not a veritable battle of Armageddon, with no prospect of the beatific outcome promised in the Apocalypse, I shall be surprised.”

“What do you imagine will be the immediate future of Uganda?”

“The immediate future can scarcely be other than a continuation and development of the chaos that now prevails there. If sufficient energy is shown in bringing more Indian troops into the field, or if the Egyptian troops, who have done such splendid slaughtering at Omdurman and elsewhere, can be made available, ‘order’ may sooner or later be restored in a time. But unless better means than have as yet been devised, or even dreamt of, can be found for bringing this far-off ‘sphere of influence’ within touch of the East African coast, or of Cairo, or, if you like, of the Cape, I don’t see what can be done with it, unless our Government has the courage and the honesty to abandon the woeful and hopeless experiment over which it has been blundering for so many years.”

“Now, in conclusion, what do you think of the general Soudan question, including the West Coast?”

“Haven’t I already pretty well answered that query? Of course, Lord Kitchener has had wonderful success in the work he has been pushing forward for more than three years. Gordon’s death has been “avenged” in fine style, and a “centre of government” has been set up as near the spot on which thousands of Dervishes have been slaughtered as sanitary and other requirements allow. From that centre it is expected that ‘the blessings of civilisation’ will be distributed far and near. Let us hope for the best. But it is a trite remark that we have only reached the end of the beginning. General Kitchener has planted the British and Egyptian flags in a region which merely skirts the vast Soudan district, and stretches, as your question implies, right away to the West Coast. The dervishes may have been in large numbers exterminated, and the rest of them cowed for a time; but there are more ‘savages’ of kindred race in the Soudan to be there controlled, if they can be controlled, than there are ‘civilised folk’ in Great Britain. The enterprise on which we embarked with a light heart, and which we are now so proud of, is a formidable one.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 31.3.2005