Joep Schenk explores how neutrality was a malleable concept and can be understood as a diplomatic tool that facilitated and legitimated the pursuit of empire in the run-up to the Berlin West-Africa Conference in 1884.

Joep Schenk

Joep Schenk is a Lecturer History of International Relations at Universiteit Utrecht and a core member of the Security History Network.His expertise in global economic and international political history allows him to examine current IR developments within a broader historical framework.

Apparently, it is just a matter of perspective whether neutrality is a requirement for or an obstacle of security. Russia demanded the ‘neutrality’ of Ukraine to maintain peace and security in the region. Sweden and Finland took steps towards joining NATO and ending their neutrality after Russia invaded Ukraine. In this brief blog, and inspired by Maartje Abbenhuis’ An age of neutrals I will explore how neutrality was a malleable concept and can be understood as a diplomatic tool that facilitated and legitimated the pursuit of empire in the run-up to the Berlin West-Africa Conference in 1884.  

The sources of conflict

Unknown is unloved, as the saying goes. But, when it comes to the Congo, the opposite was true. By the end of the 1870s, the Western world got exposed to the results of the explorations of David Livingstone to the sources of the Nile, Pierre Savorgnan De Brazza’s to the sources of the Ogooué and Henri Morton Stanley’s to the sources of the Congo. These men confirmed the existence of infinite fertile riparian lands and millions of habitants in the very center of the African continent. Importantly, Stanley’s reports corroborated the navigability of the part of the river beyond the famous Yellala Falls. These surprising and promising settings at the Upper-Congo, made the Congo estuary at the African West coast instantly loved and vulnerable for age-old territorial claims by European Powers.

The Congo Free State in 1884. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Indeed, soon Portugal worried about the French explorer De Brazza who started signing treaties with local chiefs ceding strips of land on the Congo to France. By 1882, France’s main colonial competitor Britain endorsed these worries. As a means to halt further French expansion in the region it agreed to recognize Portuguese sovereignty in the Congo estuary. Very soon however, other major sea powers were anxious to retain their commercial liberties and protested strongly against a British-Portuguese treaty.

This is how the Congo became the central verbal battle ground for conflicting European interests of commerce, humanitarianism and sovereignty. Under these escalating circumstances, neutrality as a formal and internationally recognized status of nonbelligerency in time of war gained a conceptual makeover.

Experts of neutrality

As Maartje Abbenhuis convincingly demonstrates in her An Age of Neutrals, in the 19th century, neutrality became a key diplomatic tool to reduce the risk of wars escalating to revolutionary scale. But the neutrality tool was not limited to politicians alone. The prospect that European Powers would start a conflict over the control of a resource-wealthy African river was a good occasion for many legal experts to manifest themselves and publish on the matter.

The Belgian political economist and legal expert Emile de Laveleye for example pleaded for the neutral status of the entire Congo Basin. In doing so, De Laveleye was one of the founders of the public debate throughout Europe on the Congo. In December 1882 he wrote:

“If explorers of other nations imitate the example of M. de Brazza, we will soon, on the banks of the Congo, have English, German, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch territories with their own borders, forts, canons, soldiers, rivalries, and perhaps, one day, their own hostilities.”

De Laveleye was also one of the founding members of the Institut de Droit International. The institute was established in 1873 by a group of experts on international law wishing to ensure ‘that those principles of justice and humanity which should govern the mutual relations of peoples shall prevail.’ It was this nascent Institutethat saw an opportunity to make itself relevant to the world of international affairs by picking up on the Congo. Once again, neutrality was key here, as the institute promoted itself and the principles it stood for as completely impartial. It also supported neutrality as a legal tool to limit international conflict along the Congo, albeit a bit different from how Laveleye promoted it.

In October 1883 the Institute kicked off its neutrality campaign by targeting the European ministries of foreign affairs, with a letter in which they showcased their recently issued ‘Congo resolution’. It included a memorandum by one of the driving forces behind the institute (and co-founder of the Red Cross), the Swiss Gustave Moynier on the Congo. The memorandum concurred with Laveleye’s concerns, but it shifted the focus to another source of conflict.

The danger was not only that Western people imported their rivalries to the continent. In fact, most public European concerns related to the current violent contacts between the western and the local people. Allegedly, gun fights between Stanley’s men and indigenous people already meant that missionaries did not dare to take the road between Manyanga and Leopoldville anymore. Interest groups in Europe such as Chambers of Commerce and explorers such as the German Gerhard Rohlfs started to worry about the integrity of the main transport routes for European commerce and exploration because of these quarrels. Those alarmed, Moynier observed, believed that these dangers could be averted by placing ‘the actions of whites under the collective control of civilized powers,’ by the express recognition of tutelary rules. Yet, this sort of tutelage demanded a more pragmatic implementation of the concept of neutrality. It should be directed more towards maintaining the integrity of these vital transport routes.

Freedom of Navigation

Instead of hailing the old concept of neutrality that concerned territory, Moynier pointed at the possibility of implementing the nonbelligerency principle to a river. The Treaty of Paris of 1856 between the European Powers, he showed, had opened the maritime Danube for international navigation by establishing a European Danube Commission protecting the principle of freedom of navigation. Launching a Congo River Commission with enough powers to protect against piracy, violent attacks or other breaches of the principle of freedom of navigation (such as war-blockades) would take the sting out of the potential European conflict: as the benefits would be equally accessible to everyone, always, even in times of war. Neutrality, thus would remain a matter of international obligation, buttressed by (great-power) guarantees, but applied to a much more restricted scale: a river. Thereby, the legal experts set the agenda for the Berlin West-Africa Conference later that year. The new, restricted form of ‘neutrality’ was embraced as it nicely allowed the Powers to avoid the problem of curtailing (French) territorial sovereignty along the Congo that might in itself lead to inter-imperial rivalry. This is how at the end of the nineteenth century, although different from the situation in Ukraine now, neutrality was not a fixed concept, but malleable and a political tool in the pursuit of empire.

COVER IMAGE: The Congo Free State in 1884. Wikimedia commons.

Opinion pieces have been published by the Security History Network for the purpose of encouraging informed discussions and debates on topics surrounding security history. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views of the SHN, its partners, convenors or members. 

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