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E.D. Morel and writing for a change

10 July 2009

It might seem eccentric, or even insane for a middle-class, ordinary “first world” type to just decide to become an expert on another part of the world, on its culture, economics and politics.  Even odder is when the person takes up the task without any academic of institutional support, but — entirely as a self-taught journalist and — publishes on the foreign culture full time, depending on nothing but contributions to eke out a marginal existence while  becoming an acknowledged  expert in his field.

If there are any such people out there, their role model (or, perhaps patron saint)  has to be Edward Dene Morel, who was born today, 10 July, 1873.

morel

The Good: E.D. Morel, about 1920

His father, a French civil servant, died when Edward was four years old, but his English mother had stayed on in Paris for several years, working as a tutor until she could raise the money to send the boy back to England.  When Edward was 15, the money ran out, but he was able to obtain a position as a clerk with the Elder-Dempster shipping line in Liverpool, which appreciated not so much that Morel could do double entry bookkeeping, but that he was fluent in French.  The pay wasn’t so hot at Elder-Demster, and to supplement his income, Morel began moonlighting for the British financial press, writing on French trade policy: which, in those days, meant colonial shipping.

Elder-Demster handled shipping for Association Internationale Africaine, the corporate shell company set up by Leopold II King of the Belgians, to run the Congo Free State. The English have never been known for their mastery of other European languages, and someone needed to go over the invoices with Leopold.

Elder-Dempster handled the freight traffic fot the Belgian Congo, and Morel, going over the books, noticed something strange.  The goods coming from the colony — rubber and ivory especially,  had a much higher value than that on the books.  Worse, the exports to the colony were not food, medicine, building supplies, or anything of value… merely copper trinkets.

leopoldII

The Bad: Leopold II, CEO and rat bastard

Besides the millions in unaccounted for francs (Switzerland was even then a good tax shelter, even for kings), there was something even more disturbing on the books.  There were too many guns and too much ammunition being shipped, either for the Free State itself, or various trading companies (all controlled by Leopold himself, as CEO of the interlocking businesses).  Morel realized a full 80 percent of the goods shipped to the Congo were “administrative overhead” and no money was going into the Congo.

Which led Morel to a rather disturbing conclusion.  He knew, from the little he knew about French colonial activities, that money wasn’t used by the African colonial subjects.  They weren’t being paid… which meant they were being enslaved.

In 1900, Morel — who’d never shown any interest in politics up to this point, began publishing his research in Britigh magazines.  Despite having risen through the ranks at Elder-Dempster, accusing your own company of being involved in the slave trade certainly didn’t sit well, and by 1902, he was out of  a job.

By 1903, he was publishing the “West Africa Mail”.  They didn’t have the internet in those days, but an ” illustrated weekly journal founded to meet the rapidly growing interest in west and central African questions,” was a close as you’d find in those days.

And the ugly:  Congolese "workers"

And the ugly: Congolese "workers"

It was a shoestring operation.  Morel wrote most of the paper himself, joined by a few other writers who didn’t — as he did — have to support a family on contributions to a small circulation publication.  A small, but influential circulation.  Early readers, like Irish parliamentarian Sir Roger Casement and a Polish sea captain named Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski took an interest in West African affairs and through their own work, exposed the horrors of the granddaddy of all multi-national corporate exploitations of third world resources to the world.   Readers like Anatole France, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle made Morel’s “West Africa Mail” the “Daily Kos” of the anti-imperialsm set.

Morel became a leader of the Congo Reform Association, which lobbied the Belgian government to take direct control of the Colony… which it eventually did in 1908 — though not much changed overall (and the Congo is still a mess as a result of Belgian misrule and exploitation).  Morel continued pushing for reforms in the Congo, in Africa and in business relations with Africa, as well as for decolonization for the rest of his career.

Having opposed British entry into the First World War, he was imprisoned, but upon his release, ran for parliament as a candidate for the new Labour party, winning a seat against Conservative candidate Winston Churchill.  But, like so many that make their living from hand-to-mouth writing and political activity, he was not to have a long life,  suffering a massive heart attack in 1924.

If there are any people out there crazy enough to plug away writing on decolonization, or third-world worker rights, or multinationals and their sins, or going up against kings and C.E.O’s and the “mainstream media”  my sombrero is off to them… they’ve got their work cut out for them, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll do a little something worthwhile in this world.  Like E.D. Morel.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    10 July 2009 8:22 am

    Bravo, Richard. Thank you for telling Morel’s story.

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