The atrocities in the Congo Free State – the private kingdom ruled by the Belgian monarch Leopold II – gave rise to an international humanitarian campaign, with Britain as a particular hub of activism. Campaigners lobbied the government to help end Leopold's regime, which they denounced for its use of violence and force labour. At the organisational level, the cause of Congo reform was initially promoted by missionaries and older humanitarian groups, but from 1904 onwards, the Congo Reform Association – an organisation founded by journalist E.D. Morel and diplomat Roger Casement – became a driving force behind the campaign.
The Congo Reform Association established a presence in several British cities. On 2 October 1906, a large-scale event took place at the Newcastle YMCA (located on the present-day site of Eldon Square Shopping Centre), resulting in the formation of the association's Northumberland and North Durham branch. Dr Thomas Hodgkin – banker, historian and member of a prominent Quaker family – became the president. Protagonists from the national campaign participated in the Newcastle event. Morel was one speaker; another one was John Harris, the Baptist missionary who had played a key role in documenting the colonial cruelties in Central Africa. In their local efforts, activists in Newcastle could count on links to the local churches. This was reflected in an event on 23 March 1908, held under the auspices of the Bishop of Newcastle and featuring clergymen of different denominations.
In October 1908, the Belgian parliament responded to international pressure and took the Congo out of the hand of its monarch, formally annexing the territory that had been under Leopold II's personal rule. Yet, many British campaigners doubted whether these changes would prove sufficient. They articulated their concerns at a large-scale event at Newcastle Town Hall on 8 November 1909. Again, the religious influence was prominent: the Bishop of Newcastle chaired the meeting, and he was joined by the Bishop of Durham and the representatives of nonconformist churches. E.D. Morel returned to Newcastle for this occasion and brought along another famous speaker: Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who went on to denounce the events in the Congo as 'the very greatest crime that has ever been committed in the history of the world'.
In terms of its scale and impact, the movement for Congo Reform certainly has the hallmarks of a successful campaign. However, it is also worth noting that humanitarian motivations went together with a variety of aims and ideas. For instance, the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce backed the campaign but mostly denounced King Leopold's violation of free trade provisions. Meanwhile, as the speeches at the Newcastle meetings indicated, Congo reformers themselves often held problematic assumptions about empire, the role of Christianity in Africa and the nature of the so-called 'civilising mission'.
PRIMARY ACCOUNTS: 'Atrocities in the Congo Free State', Newcastle Daily Journal, 3 October 1908; 'Northern Bishops and the Congo Cruelties', Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24 March 1908; 'The Congo Question', Newcastle Daily Journal, 8 November 1909; 'Congo Atrocities', Newcastle Daily Journal, 9 November 1909.
SECONDARY TEXTS: Dean Pavlakis, British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015); Kevin Grant, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926 (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 38-78 [both with a specific focus on Congo campaigning in Britain]; Daniel Laqua, The Age of Internationalism and Belgium, 1880-1930: Peace, Progress and Prestige (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pages 45-79 [on the Congo, humanitarianism and internationalism more generally].