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The Man Who Wasn’t There – E D Morel in the Congo

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

E D Morel (courtesy of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh, Wikimedia Commons)

Several anniversaries of E D Morel’s life are imminent: 2022 is the 100thanniversary of his election as a Dundee Member of Parliament, 2023 is the 150th year of his birth and 2024 is the 100th anniversary of his death as a sitting MP for Dundee.

Morel’s early death in 1924 attracted large memorial services in Dundee, London and New York, prompting the French writer Romain Rolland to say of him that “Morel will tower above the age as the years pass”. Yet his current place in our history exemplifies Hughes Mearns’ 1899 poem, The Man Who Wasn’t There. He remains almost wholly forgotten by the general public, including Dundonians. Yet his efforts stand alongside those of earlier 19th-century notables such as William Wilberforce who were committed to the cause of anti-slavery.

The bare facts of Morel’s life are as follows. He was born Georges Edmond Pierre Achille Morel Deville to a French father (who died when he was four years old) and an English mother, becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1896. As a young man he worked for a Liverpool-based shipping line which had the contract for carrying all the cargo to and from the (Belgian) Congo. He noticed that no normal goods were being shipped: rubber and ivory came from the Congo and guns and ammunition went into it. He spent most of the rest of his life uncovering, publicising and campaigning against the horrors of what was happening in that part of Africa. At the time, it was run as a personal fiefdom by King Leopold, where millions lost their lives as slave labourers: estimates suggest at least double the numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War.

Leopold acquired his free hand to exploit the Congo thanks to his active involvement in the Berlin Conference held in November 1884, which effectively carved up the remaining uncolonised lands in Africa. Thanks to the support of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Leopold was able to gain the agreement of the other participants in the conference to allow him to run the Congo as a ‘free state’, effectively as his personal fiefdom free of any supervision by other powers, including his own Belgian government. In a short time, he turned this free hand into a means of exploiting the people and resources of the Congo, importing troops, guns and ammunition, and exporting rubber and ivory, in the process killing millions of Congolese, who had found themselves enslaved without any rights of redress.

Morel was a clerk with the Liverpool shipping line, which had the monopoly on Congolese imports and exports, and as a young man he recognised that the lack of ‘normal’ imports to and exports from the Congo demonstrated the nature of the regime under Leopold’s control. Remarkably, this young man with no personal resources on which to draw, set up and ran a campaign to publicise and change the situation for the people of the Congo. He could not himself gain entry to the country but from 1898 both within Europe and the United States for the next decade he was the overall driver of the campaign to lift the Congo from its slavery and murder under Leopold. He founded The West African Mail in 1903 with the help of funding from local Liverpool businessmen, to publicise activities in the Congo, and starting with very little help gradually built up his campaign, recruiting some notable names in the process such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His primary motivation seems to have been a desire to get people to realise, in 19th and early 20th century terms, that Black Lives Matter. As Adam Hochschild says, “it was this smouldering sense of outrage that led Morel to become, in short order, the greatest British investigative journalist of his time”.

He determined to uncover and publicise all he could about Leopold’s administration of the Congo, producing a huge body of work on the subject: three full books and portions of two others; hundreds of articles for almost all the major British newspapers, plus many written in French (he was bilingual) for papers in France and Belgium; hundreds of letters to editors; and several dozen pamphlets, doing all this while editing his own newspaper on West Africa and writing much of it. Eventually, Morel was editing a special monthly supplement to his newspaper, devoted solely to exposing the injustice in the Congo. He attracted some powerful supporters to his cause, including Sir Charles Dilke, Mary Kingsley and, ultimately, the most influential of them all, Roger Casement, whom the British Government sent in 1903 as a consul to investigate the situation in the Congo.

Casement’s 1904 report was so full of graphic accounts of how the Congo was being exploited and its people enslaved and killed, that the signatories to the Treaty of Berlin were finally able to force Leopold in 1908 to hand his administration of the country over to the Belgian government to be run as a formal colony. This did not of itself resolve all the problems besetting that country, but the Congo Reform Movement saw this as the culmination of its campaign, led or more accurately driven by Morel.

In literature, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recounts the experiences of Marlow, the narrator, on encountering Kurtz, epitomising the murderous activities in the Congo. Conrad’s story lent support to the successful campaign led by Morel to draw the world’s attention to the horrors of Leopold’s regime, forcing the Belgian Government to assume responsibility for running the Congo as a formal colony. However, both during Morel’s life and subsequently, the Belgian Government has done its best to try to obliterate all mention of Morel and his work to this end from the public record. Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost, published in 1998 and revised in 2013, provides amore accurate historical record.

As the title of Donald Mitchell’s bookThe Politics of Dissent suggests, Morel did not confine the causes he promoted to the Congo. During the First World War he set up the only effective British anti-war movement and for his pains he spent six months doing hard labour in Pentonville Prison. He was adopted by the Labour Party in Dundee as their candidate for the 1922 General Election, and in a double member constituency got elected along with Edwin Scrymgeour of the Scottish Prohibition Party, ousting Winston Churchill as one of Dundee’s sitting members. Morel’s unexpected death was attributed by friends to the effects of his penal servitude. Given the attempts being made to remove statues of British people whose charitable deeds are seen as tainted by their involvement in slavery, it would be heartening to see a memorial erected to commemorate Morel’s efforts to lift the burden of slavery from the people of the Congo.

Written by Tony Jackson, Honorary Research Fellow, Town & Regional Planning, University of Dundee, adapted by Steve Connelly. Based on an article ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ first published in St Andrews In Focus Nov/Dec 2021.


Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Mariner Books 1998, revised 2013)

Donald Mitchell, The Politics of Dissent: A Biography of E D Morel (Silverwood Books, 2014)

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