This account of the meeting of Leopold II, the king of the Belgians, and Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, was done for a history class. I have taken a few liberties with history. Of course, the author was not present and can only guess what was said at that historic meeting. The meeting did take place and great effort was taken to ensure that the words which emerge from the mouths of both men are words that they would, in fact, have likely believed and known. Still, it should be noted that Leopold’s instructions at this time were not likely to have been as detailed as the story portrays. Italics signify phrases which they either wrote themselves or were reported to have said. Enjoy.
“The other day . . . I watched a fox which wanted to cross a stream unobserved: first of all he dipped a paw carefully to see how deep it was, and then, with a thousand precautions, very slowly made his way across. That is Leopold’s way!” - Leopold I, of Belgium, referring to his eldest son, the future Leopold II.
June 10, 1878:
Leopold absently stroked his long greying beard as he carefully examined the map laid out on his desk. His long index finger carefully traced pencilled-in route of Henry Morton Stanley. Leopold had meticulously followed the progress of Stanley’s trek through the heart of Africa in London’s Daily Telegraph and traced the route himself. He removed his finger from the page as his gaze wandered from Stanley’s route to the great empty continent of Africa. Leopold read the familiar names of the colonized territories along the edge of Africa’s coast. The British held Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Lagos, and South Africa; the French held Algeria, Gambia, and Gabon, while the Portuguese held Angola and Mozambique. Leopold’s eyes lighted on Stanley’s route again. No one, he smiled, no one country held that territory along that great dark Congo river.
Leopold pushed himself away from his desk and paced over to the office window of the palace. He stared out over the well-kept gardens and his smile broadened. Albert, the heir to the throne, had once said that his uncle’s expansive building projects and vast greenhouses were turning Laeken into a “little Versailles.” Leopold dreamed on a grand scale and had huffed, “Little?” Belgium, he was sure, could be a world power. All that Belgium needed was a beautiful capital, increased strength and colonies. Yes, colonies would put Belgium on the map.
“Enfin” he muttered, “enfin la Belgique deviendra une puissance coloniale européenne.” He shook his head and pursed his lips, imagining the surprise of those Hollanders when Belgium emerged with colonies of her own. Those fat Jews sitting in Amsterdam would tear their hair out. This would be worse, snickered Leopold, than when they had lost South Africa to the British. Aaah, but he admired those plucky Dutch. If a small power like the Netherlands could assert themselves as a world power, so could Belgium. The Netherlands had reaped prestige and wealth from their scattered colonies and this, Leopold grinned, was where he too was headed.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Oui?” Leopold answered, masking his excitement as best he could.
“Henri Morton Stanley, seigneur,” a voice called from behind the door.
“Excellent, laissez-l’entrer,” Leopold strode stiffly towards the door, carefully straightening his regal uniform.
The door swung open and an imperious servant held the door open for the sturdy explorer. A grizzled, anxious-looking man stepped into Leopold’s office. Stanley bowed awkwardly, his steely eyes betraying uncertainty, “C’est un honneure, seigneur.”
Leopold smiled and said in flawless English, “I am also honoured to be in the presence of such a brave man.”
Stanley’s face betrayed relief at the sound of English, “Thank you, sire.”
Leopold nodded in acknowledgement and gestured magnanimously towards some ornate wooden chairs, “Please, my friend, let us take a seat.”
Stanley bobbed his head nervously.
Leopold slunk over to his seat and slowly lowered his lanky body onto his chair as, from the corner of his eye, he watched Stanley awkwardly make his way to his seat, “I trust your trip across the Channel went well, yes?”
Stanley absently ran a finger over his brown mustache as he gingerly lowered himself into his seat, “Yes-yes. I mean it is truly remarkable how fast the steamship is. Progress, sire, is unstoppable.” Stanley’s pronouncement revealed traces of a Welsh background although he deliberately affected an American accent.
“Yes, truly it is,” Leopold nodded, “it is brave men like you who will ensure that man uncovers every corner of this globe and that progress will continue at this remarkable rate.”
Stanley’s posture seemed to straighten slightly at the compliment, “Thank you, sire, it seems that very few people appreciate the great deal of danger the exploration of such savage country exposes one to.”
“Your time in England,” Leopold asked, “how was it?”
“Fine sire,” Stanley hesitated, “Although I must confess that I do not understand Englishmen at all. Either they suspect me of some self-interest, or they do not believe me.”
“Please,” the tall king ran a finger over his beak-like nose, “what do you mean?”
“I simply mean that my contributions are not acknowledged,” Stanley’s eyebrows peaked, revealing a strange mix of resolve and pain, “For the relief of Livingstone I was called an impostor; for the crossing of Africa I was called a pirate.”
“Snobbery, I say,” said Leopold, remembering with a certain amount of amusement how one of his English friends had related one of Stanley’s unfortunate adventures in England. Stanley had been the guest of honour at a white-collar dinner attended not only by England’s upper crust, but by the Prince of Wales himself. After Stanley’s speech, all that the Prince had said to Stanley was that he was wearing his medals out of order. The fragile ego of this complex explorer, Leopold thought, was still wounded.
“These Englishmen are merely jealous. I dare say, I should like to see some of those portly English lords try to navigate through the jungle,” Leopold declared; “this is an endeavour that demands the strongest of men.”
“You flatter me, sire,” Stanley beamed.
Leopold smiled to himself; this man was putty in his hands. Leopold was fully aware of the strange mix of raw ambition and woundedness which plagued Stanley. He did not know, however, that Stanley’s pain came from his rough Welsh childhood. Born in the small town of Denbigh, his name on the register was listed as “John Rowlands, Bastard.” After his birth, Stanley’s mother fled in disgrace and left him to the mercy of an abusive grandfather. When Stanley’s grandfather died he bounced from relative to relative until he finally ended up in the St. Asaph Workhouse. At the age of twelve, Stanley finally met his mother, who instead of lovingly embracing her son, coolly regarded him with a critical eye. Not long afterwards she left the workhouse and drove Stanley further into nervous social awkwardness. The melodramatic Stanley would later make great attempts to obscure his humble beginnings in both writing and in speech.
“I try my best to tell the plain truth, as you Americans say,” Leopold crooked his fingers in front of him, “I have little use for flattery.”
“I appreciate your straightforwardness, sire,” Stanley bowed his head.
“You, no doubt, know why I invited you to talk.” Leopold watched Stanley carefully. “I am a man who regards your exploration with great interest. Belgium, as you may know, is a young nation and needs to increase its prestige. My emissaries made an offer to you when you arrived in Marseilles from your great expedition, and I realize now that you were too tired to accept it.”
Stanley cleared his throat and Leopold continued, “As much as you were disappointed by the lack of interest of the British in your exploration, I was overjoyed at their apathy. You see, Mr. Stanley, it was with much interest that I read your accounts of the vast Congo and the potential which lay in that great dark country for the light of European civilization. As you know, my interest in Africa runs deep, I established the Assocation Internationale pour reprimer la traite et ouvrir l’Afrique centrale for reasons which I’m sure the title explains.” The title Leopold had chosen was deliberately vague. When anyone asked what the African International Association was for Leopold would simply recite some vaguely philanthropic aims and leave it at that.
“As you may know, I established this International African Association at the geographical conference I held two years ago, while you were in the dark heart of Africa.” Leopold pointed a bony finger in a general southward direction. “Those of us at the conference agreed at that time to establish hospitable, scientific, and pacification bases for our philanthropic crusade into the heart of Africa.”
Stanley leaned forward, drinking in every word. Leopold paused and finally asked, “What do you say to my offer now, Mr. Stanley? What do you say to my commission?”
Stanley licked his lips, “Sire, I am thrilled that you have the vision to see the potential of this land. You see as I do, sire, that we must civilize this land. We must spread the Gospel to the darkened minds of the savages. We must end the brutal Arab slavery.” Stanley’s Welsh accent was unmistakable in his excitement. “We must develop the full potential of this unused weed-strewn garden.”
Leopold stretched his long legs in front of him, “I wish to civilize this land of barbarians, you understand, yes?”
“I have written on this very subject,” Stanley grinned. “I feel there are still pilgrims among the Europeans who could transform Africa into the new America! This unpeopled country needs the glorious touch of European civilization.”
Leopold cocked his head. “You say ‘unpeopled,’ but there are savages there, no?”
“Yes-yes,” Stanley laughed, “if they indeed count as people. You, sire, must realize that they need to be civilized, and if they aren’t willing we must use force.”
“Some say you are too quick with your gun and feel your exploration parties are too large,” Leopold thrust a calculated barb at Stanley, “but, my friend, I feel the force you use is admirable.”
“These critics don’t seem to understand that often the most convincing instruction you can give a nigger is either the crack of the whip or the sharp retort of the Snider rifle.” Stanley grimaced sternly. “the savages are hostile and the miserable slaves I used as porters are faithless, lying, thievish, indolent knaves.” Stanley sighed, “sometimes I do not think I was made for an African explorer, for I detest the land most heartily.”
Leopold observed the reddening complexion of Stanley. This, he thought to himself, was a man with a short temper. He found that passionate men were often easily manipulated. Leopold could not have known the extent of Stanley’s self-centred fury. A white officer who had served under Stanley once complained that the demanding Stanley often fell into “ungovernable fits of rage.”
“I have gained the respect of these savages, however. I’m not sure if you’ve read this, but my porters gave me the name Bula Matari which means ‘stone-breaker.’ This honourable title I received for teaching them how to quarry through rock.” Stanley smiled in satisfaction. This was true, but the natives had attached a double-meaning to Bula Matari — calling Stanley ‘breakstones’ for his relentlessly brutal discipline.
Stanley continued, his eyes lighting up, “Every cordial-face aborigine whom I meet . . . I look upon . . . with much the same regard that an agriculturalist views his strong-limbed child; he is a future recruit to the ranks of soldier-laborers.”
Stanley ran his expeditions like a military campaign and had left hundreds of dead natives in the wake of his exploration. Any sign of hostility was taken as an insult by the sensitive Stanley and any perceived insult was settled with bullets. Stanley despised his porters and doled out heavy discipline for anything remotely resembling insubordination. If men were “lazily inclined” they would pay with a vicious tongue-lashing if they were white and a harsh thrashing with a dogwhip if they were black. Any black man caught deserting was lashed one hundred times and placed in chains.
“As a king I must admire a man like yourself who isn’t afraid to use force when necessary.” Leopold stroked his great beard. Many of the white men who had accompanied Stanley on his expeditions had died. Stanley seemed to choose slightly incompetent men for his expeditions so that his own manliness was not outshone. Stanley’s diaries were filled with bitter complaints against the white incompetents, contrasted by embarrassingly sappy melodrama when these same men died.
“Thank you, sire.” Stanley relaxed his clenched fists.
“I am interested in your assessment of the Congo.” Leopold leaned his spindly body forward. “What potential do you see in this country?”
“Sire, the possibilities are endless. As I said before Africa could be the new America. Not only will we bring commerce to that dark continent, but we’ll bring civilization. Africa will be a source of minerals, lumber, ivory, rubber, and who knows what other goods,” Stanley gestured, his hands grasping the air; “we will combat slavery, we will bring clothes to the infernal nudes, and we’ll make great gains for science and human knowledge. The Congo River will be the grand highway of commerce to West Central Africa.”
“Yes, this is exactly how I feel.” Leopold leaned back. “Mainly I’m interested in rubber and ivory. You, Mr. Stanley, are the perfect man to aide me in the establishment of that very project. What more could I ask for than a man who knows the territory and has the ruthless leadership necessary for that harsh country? A railway must be built around the unnavigable section of the Congo River, and stations along the river which can be served by steamboat.”
“For now, however,” Leopold continued, “I will be content to hire you as an explorer, and believe me when I say that you will be more than compensated for your efforts.” Leopold had moved carefully, fearing that the outright establishment of a colony would be seen with hostility by the British and his dream of a Belgian colony would never be realized. Leopold knew that even if he consulted the British on his territorial ambitions, they would oppose him. The only solution was a Trojan Horse — sending Stanley to explore in Leopold’s name.
“Sire, I would be honoured to be employed in your service . . .” Stanley bowed his head; “ . . . truly honoured.”
“I have one concern, however, sire.” All signs of weakness had disappeared from Stanley’s stern features. “It is these Dutch merchants — I am concerned with their influence on the planning process. I’m not entirely sure who I’m serving here which is why I demand my pay in advance.”
Leopold was slightly taken aback: Stanley was sharper than he had given him credit for, “Aah, the Dutch House, the African Trading Company!” Leopold hid his surprise well. “These men, Kerdijk and Pincoffs, already have interests in the Congo and have generously offered their help. Free transport to the Congo, on the Congo, not to mention the generous help of his agents, who could say no?”
“It seems too good to be true,” Stanley intoned.
“Yes, it is quite unbelievable,” Leopold nodded; “but these men are quite rich. I have it on authority that Pincoffs controls over twenty million guilders in capital. These Dutchmen are sharp businessmen and I’m sure they know what they’re doing. Besides, I have a quarter of the shares myself, financed by my banker, Lambert.”
“Twenty million guilders is an unheard of amount, but I’ll keep an eye on them.” Stanley’s face was red again. His suspicions were well-founded: Pincoffs saw the African International Association as a chance to wash his hands of his bad African investments. He had merely taken funds from his other successful investments and juggled them into his poorly-performing African investment to make it appear profitable. On the 15 May, 1879 Pincoffs fled to America when his African Trading Company was unable to make payments. He dumped his bankrupt but apparently flourishing African investments into the African International Association. This problem did little to phase the wily Leopold who was now able to take personal charge of the company without any dissenting voices.
“But do not fear, I will pay you in advance 25,000 francs a year for your time in Europe and 50,000 francs a year for your time spent in Africa,” Leopold reassured Stanley.
“Thank you, sire,” Stanley smiled, “I did not doubt your good intentions.”
“When you assert my claim on this land,” Leopold said carefully, “you must remember that it is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the negroes. That would be absurd.”
“Of course not, sire,” Stanley agreed. “I feel the best way to make your claim is to buy the land off of the local chiefs, who are splintered into many tribes anyhow, and establish forts along the Congo River. Those chiefs not willing to be convinced can easily be persuaded by force of arms.”
“I must caution you, Mr. Stanley,” Leopold warned, “it is important that you keep my intent in mind. You must ensure that I am seen as a mere sponsor of your next exploration and nothing more.”
“I will make sure that your intentions are not revealed,” Stanley reassured the king.
“Mr. Stanley,” Leopold rose from his seat, “I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made so far.”
Stanley quickly jumped to his feet, “Sire, I am honoured to be working in partnership with you.”
Leopold extended his hand towards the sturdy explorer. “As am I, my friend. We will work out the further details later on. For now, I’m sure you would be happy to prepare for dinner.”
Stanley grasped the Belgian king’s hand. “Thank you sire.”
As Stanley left the room, Leopold sauntered over to the window and surveyed his gardens. He gazed into the great expanse of southern sky and he whispered to himself, “We must be careful, skillful and ready to act . . .” A flock of blackbirds streaked towards the earth in the distance, as if they were falling from the sky, “to get us a slice of this magnificent African cake.”