George Washington Williams didn’t travel to the Congo in 1890 intending to expose King Leopold II of Belgium as a gross violator of human rights. If anything, Williams hoped the king’s venture there would offer an opportunity for Williams to fulfill his own quest. Ever since he graduated from seminary 16 years earlier, Williams had sought a place in the world where black men like him could make a difference for the black people still living on the African continent. What Williams found in the Congo, however, was a far different story, one almost too terrible for words. But he had the courage to try to tell the world what he had seen. In an open letter to the king from a base at Stanley Falls, Williams—who had already published his monumental History of the Negro Race in America in 1883—became the first investigative journalist to reveal the hypocrisy of one of the most exploitative rulers of the late-19th century, a European king whose designs on the resources of the Congo set off a furious, and notorious, “Scramble for Africa.”
Contrary to what most might think, the first whistleblower about Belgian atrocities in the Congo wasn’t the famous novelist Joseph Conrad in his 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, but Williams, an African American writing from the heart of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State.” You can bet Leopold tried to trash Williams for his shocking exposé, but to W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Williams was “the greatest historian of the race.” In anguish, he blew the doors off one of the cruelest frauds in history, not long before his own story came to a tragic end.
‘The Congo Free State’
Williams learned of Leopold’s efforts to modernize the Congo while visiting President Chester Arthur at the White House and, in support of the move, urged the Senate to join the international community in recognizing the association Leopold had founded to lead the mission. It was at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-1885 that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had given Leopold a free hand in running the Congo. Leopold himself had learned about the Congo from reading of the exploits of the notorious Henry Morton Stanley, a correspondent for the New York Herald who, in 1871, found the missing Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone in the Congo, greeting him with the famous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Leopold had made his own presumption about the lands “discovered” by Portuguese traders in the 15th century, calling the area a “magnifique gâteau africain,” as Paul Vallely explains in a 2006 piece for the BBC, “Forever in Chains: The Tragic History of the Congo.”