On January 15, 1895, a Belgian colonial official in the Congo Free State hanged Charles Stokes for trading illicitly.
A British subject who’d abandoned his humdrum Liverpool desk job to become an missionary in Africa, Stokes eventually became a merchant in the mysterious continent noted for his favorable relationships with the locals. (He had two African wives.)
In 1895, operating out of German East Africa,* his caravan was detained trading into the Congo Free State — King Leopold’s hellish personal reserve — with “Arab” slavers who colonial authorities considered rebels. That “rebel Arab slavers” bit formed the charge against him, but trading outside the royal monopoly was probably at least as egregious in Belgian eyes.
An 1895 Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad sums up the scenario.
It was alleged that [Stokes] had large quantities of arms, ammunition, and ivory, and that he had bought the ivory at a low price from Kibonge, the assassin of Emin Pasha. Captain Lothaire, an official, an official of the Congo State, with a strong force, was then advancing from Stanley Falls to attack this Arab chief Kibonge, in revolt against the Congo State.** On Lothaire’s arrival at Kilunga, Kibonge was already a prisoner in the hands of his own native subordinates, who refused to join him in fighting the State. Stokes applied to Lothaire for protection of his ivory and goods, which he desired to carry towards the East Coast. Lothaire claimed that letters were found among Kibonge’s effects which went to prove that Stokes had sold large quantities of arms and ammunition to this chief, to be used in war against the Congo State. Mr. Stokes was arrested by Captain Lothaire’s orders, brought before a court-martial composed of two non-commissioned officers and Lothaire, and sentenced to be hanged. The execution took place the following morning.
Though not surprising that the summary hanging of a European would provoke an international incident, one would hardly call it equitable given the unnumbered, unmourned multitudes of Africans whose lives were wrung dry and discarded for Belgium’s treasury. Still, the “Stokes Affair” made the headlines in both England and Germany, and for activist types struggling to gain any kind of traction for their tales of colonial horrors, it was something to work with.
Leopold paid off both countries. The trial of Lohaire for naughtily conducting the execution ended in an acquittal. Belgium set up a blue-ribbon commission of missionaries solemnly vowing to investigate abuses, which was never heard from again.
(Look for Charles Stokes’ appearance in this tale of the Belgian Congo’s woe, beginning at about 1:01:25.)
If the Stokes incident didn’t catch fire itself, it became a stick in the accumulating dry tinder that Sir Roger Casement set a spark to in the early 20th century.
And maybe a bit more than that, too.
The horror! The horror!
The Stokes hanging would be only one data point among many for those who had ears to listen to the horrors emerging from the Congo, to be sure. Still, Molly Mahood and Ian Watt have included Stokes — the gone-native ivory trader — as one of the possible inspirations for the novel and especially the Kurtz character. Lothaire himself probably offered fodder for the petty, tyrannous impunity of colonial officers who the narrator encounters on his way to meet Kurtz.
I gathered in snatches that this was some man supposed to be in Kurtz’s district, and of whom the manager did not approve. ‘We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,’ he said. ‘Certainly,’ grunted the other; ‘get him hanged! Why not? Anything — anything can be done in this country.’
* Present-day Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
** Lothaire had spent the early part of the decade wresting Belgian commercial dominance in the eastern Congo from the incumbent Arabo-Swahili elites. (The link is French.) “Arabs” in the context of the Belgian Free State meant these Moslem bantus, not (by and large) ethnic Arabs as we would think of them today.
Neither were “Arab slavers” a distinct enemy class for the Free State; those prepared to play ball with white authorities raided native settlements to obtain slaves for rubber plantations and other Belgian-authorized ventures.