Thursday, 19 November 2009

Congo Free State

Travelling back to work after visiting the Hidden Histories exhibition, I spotted a letter in the Guardian drawing attention to the fact that "Today marks 100 years since the Archbishop of Canterbury led the great Congo demonstration that met on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall to call for justice in the Congo Free State."

The Congo Free State was a private colony set up by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo basin in the 1880s. For nearly 25 years the country was looted for its natural resources and became notorious for the way the locals were killed or mutilated in a brutal system of slave labour. Meanwhile, Leopold amassed a huge personal fortune.

Apart from the fact that the Royal Geographical Society is just around the corner from the Albert Hall, it is worth mentioning that the exhibition doesn't shy away from the ethics of exploration and Henry Morton Stanley's involvement with the Congo.

Following his success in 'finding' David Livingstone, in 1871, Stanley, the journalist, reinvented himself as an effective explorer discovering and charting central Africa's lakes and making a horrendous journey from east to west Africa. He was then employed by Leopold to help establish the new state and while he may not have been responsible for the horrendous crimes, Stanley's association with it was to leave his reputation severely tarnished.

As an aside, what went on in the country was fictionalised in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, centred on the evil trader Mr Kurtz, although there is debate as to whether or not this was modelled on Stanley.

One of those calling for justice in the Congo was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as can be seen in this Manchester Guardian report from November 1 1909.

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