George Washington Williams Headstone

Letter to King Leopold II from George Washington Williams, African American Historian

We have heard about Joseph Conrads’ book, the Heart of Darkness published in 1899 depicting the horrors of colonial rule by King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. We may have heard about Roger Casement and the Casement Report in 1904, that was instrumental in Leopold finally relinquishing his private holdings, the Congo Free State.

What about George Washington Williams who wrote  wrote “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo” on July 18, 1890?

Background

Belgium had laid claim to the Congo at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, in what is called the ‘Scramble for Africa’, but seen by many as a ‘Carve up’.

King leopold II employed the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to set up the trading routes along the Congo River. The king acquiried sole jurisdiction over the Congo Free State, his own private estate 60-70 times the size of Belgium. A private army, the Force Publique made up of mercenaries, managed the estate. They murdered, mutilated, raped, burnt down villages, coerced people to work on the King’s rubber plantations. The King became the richest man in the world.

The British were involved, and in particular John Thomas North. The Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) was founded by British and Belgian capital.

“ABIR had exclusive rights to all forest products from the Maringa-Lopori basin for 30 years and had police powers within the limits of the concession to enforce the collection of rubber as a tax.”

The British were involved until1898, after North’s death.

The King and his supporters tried to discredit Williams, but Williams continued to campaign internationally. Eventually the Belgian Government took over the running of the Congo Free State in 1908. By that time 10 million Congolese people had died through starvation, mutilation, murder and worked to death. Genocide.

George Washington Williams

George Washington Williams’ history starts out in Bedford Springs in Pennsylvania where he was born in 1849 to poor parents, he had little education. He went on to join the Union Army during the American Civil War. Wounded in 1868, he was discharged and went on to college to study theology and then became a Baptist minister. Later he was the first African American elected to the Ohio state legislature from Cincinnati in 1880. He later became an Historian and published two books, The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880 published in 1882 and A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion (1861–1865) published in 1887.

Like Casement and Conrad, Williams too travelled through the Congo Free State. He had met King Leopold II in Belgium at informal interview. Williams had initially been impressed by the King:

Williams was impressed, not only with the man – a towering six-footer ”carrying no superfluous flesh” – but also with Leopold’s high ”ambition . . . . to serve the cause of Christian civilization, and to promote the best interests of his subjects.” Williams’s warm appraisal of Leopold won the approval of Collis Huntington, who shared the King’s lively interest in the economic development of central Africa. It was not long before Huntington agreed to underwrite a trip by Williams to the Congo. But Williams wanted additional backing for his expedition. Before leaving for Africa, he hurried home to gain the support of President Benjamin Harrison, who was contemplating American participation in an antislave-trade consortium. 

New York Times Soldier, Scholar, Statesman, Trickerster Nov 17th 1985 – George Washington Williams A Biography. By John Hope Franklin

Having done much research, taken many testaments and seen with his eyes, George Washington Williams wrote, “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo By Colonel, The Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the United States of America,” 1890

Good and Great Friend,

I have the honour to submit for your Majesty’s consideration some reflections respecting the Independent State of Congo, based upon a careful study and inspection of the country and character of the personal Government you have established upon the African Continent.

It afforded me great pleasure to avail myself of the opportunity afforded me last year, of visiting your State in Africa; and how thoroughly I have been disenchanted, disappointed and disheartened, it is now my painful duty to make known to your Majesty in plain but respectful language. Every charge which I am about to bring against your Majesty’s personal Government in the Congo has been carefully investigated; a list of competent and veracious witnesses, documents, letters, official records and data has been faithfully prepared, which will be deposited with Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, until such time as an International Commission can be created with power to send for persons and papers, to administer oaths, and attest the truth or falsity of these charges.

Black Past relays the whole letter, a harrowing account

Williams continued to Campaign and expose the atrocities until he fell ill and travelled to Blackpool in England. His funding had dried up because he had spoken out. In Cairo he had contracted tuberculosis and pleurisy and died these diseases on August 2, 1891. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Layton Cemetary in Blackpool. In 1975, a tombstone was placed at his grave by an American historian and local supporters, commemorating Williams as an “Afro-American historian”.

Further reading

We’re History: America for the Americans Now George Washington Williams: A Historian Ahead of His Time

Arocities in the Congo Free State Wikipedia

George Washington Williams Wikipedia

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