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Profile: George Washington Williams
George Washington Williams was a participant or observer in the following events:
George Washington Williams writes an open letter to King Leopold II of Belgium charging his government with a lengthy list of human rights violations. Williams, a black American, came to the Congo early that year interested in establishing a program through which African-Americans could come to Africa to work. He had hoped that working in Africa would offer them a better chance for advancement than in the US. His hopes were quickly diminished shortly after arriving in the Congo. His letter to Leopold makes the following charges:
Henry Morton Stanley and his men have been tricking African chiefs into signing over their land to the king. He explains: “A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand, the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet.… When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.” Another ploy commonly utilized by Stanley’s men, according to Washington, was to claim that white men have “an intimate relationship to the sun,” so intimate in fact that if a white man were to request that the sun “burn up his black brother’s village, it would be done.” According to Williams, through the use of these tactics “and a few boxes of gin, whole villages have been signed away to your Majesty.” [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 109-110] Stanley is widely feared in the Congo as a tyrant. His name “produces a shudder among simple folk. When mentioned; they remember his broken promises, his copious profanity, his hot temper, his heavy blows, his severe and rigorous measures, by which they were mulcted of their lands.” [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 110]
Leopold’s officers force the natives to provide Belgium’s military bases in the Congo with provisions. When the natives resist, “white officers come with an expeditionary force and burn away the homes of the natives.” [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 110] The king’s men treat their prisoner’s inhumanely and subject them to harsh punishments for the slightest infractions. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 110]
Despite Leopold’s claims to the contrary, his subjects in the Congo Free State are not being provided with government services. The only schools and hospitals that have been built, Williams argues, are “not fit to be occupied by a horse.” [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 110-111]
Leopold’s men have been kidnapping local women and using them as concubines. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 111]
Belgium officers have shot villagers for sport, in order to steal their wives, or in order to intimidate others into forced labor. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 111]
Despite Leopold’s alleged abhorrence of slavery, his government in the Congo “is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail,” according to Williams. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 111]
Williams’s open letter causes a stir in both the US and Europe. Leopold denies the charges. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 112] Ironically, Williams was the first American to propose official recognition of the Congo Free State by the United States. [Hochschild, 1999, pp. 106]
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