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Off to the Congo


1908 was an interesting time to be considering a trip to the Congo. Stories about the country were appearing every week in the New York Times, the New York Herald, the New York American, and other local papers. Congo was in the process of being annexed by Belgium, after a lengthy international campaign protesting the policies of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, whose private property the Congo Free State was. Leopold gained enormous wealth by extracting from the Congo as much ivory and rubber as possible, controlling all commerce, levying outrageous tariffs, and, most profitably, using the entire population of all rubber-producing areas as free forced labor, supervised and "recruited" by a private army called the Force Publique, whose cruelties were legendary.

Chapin would have come across the prolific war of words that had been waged between the Congo Reform Association, headed by Edmund Dene Morel and dedicated to ending the King's brutal regime, and King Leopold's propagandists, who wrote books and pamphlets refuting the testimony of dozens of missionaries, consular agents, traders, and former military officers in the Congo who since 1890 had published eyewitness accounts of forced labor, kidnapping, maimings and other atrocities toward the Congolese. One of Morel's best sources for information was Roger Casement (later Sir Roger Casement), the English consul in the Congo. Casement had been sent on an investigative trip up the River to check on allegations of cruelty, and returned with an exhaustive and damning report, published recently in The black diaries by Singleton-Gates and Girodias.

Morel printed photographs of maimed Congolese children in several of his books and used them as slides in his lectures - these photographs, most by a missionary named Alice Seeley Harris, are some of the earliest photos ever used in a human-rights campaign. These photos appear again and again in Congo reform movement literature. Mark Twain printed some in King Leopold's soliloquy, a satirical diatribe that sold for twenty-five cents. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also contributed literature to the Congo Reform Association: he wrote The crime of the Congo in 1909. Twain and Conan Doyle were but two of the celebrities recruited by Morel to lend glamour to the movement.

The American Museum itself became embroiled in the Congo controversy in 1907, when, as reported in the New York Times, King Leopold gave the AMNH some 3,500 artifacts from the Congo. This was a particularly inauspicious time to be accepting gifts from the King of the Belgians, as the U.S. State Department and President Roosevelt were both working with Great Britain to pressure Leopold to enact reforms in the Congo Free State or else give up his fiefdom in Africa.