Liverpool and the Congo

early 20th century poster advertising Elder Dempster Lines ships to West Africa

Elder Dempster poster from Merseyside Maritime Museum's collection

In 1895 the Liverpool shipping company Elder Dempster signed a contract with King Leopold II to ship goods to and from the Congo. However Edmund Dene Morel, an astute shipping clerk recognised that while rubber was arriving in Europe, large amounts of armaments were being shipped in the opposite direction. Morel realised that this could be of no benefit to the inhabitants of the Congo, rather it was a means to strengthen Belgian colonial rule. Morel subsequently became a leading human rights campaigner and lobbied against Leopold’s regime. 

Another activist, Roger Casement, had published the Casement Report in 1904 which had been commissioned by the British government to investigate the human rights situation in the Congo Free State. The report highlighted the atrocities taking place, and along with Morel he founded the Congo Reform Association (CRA) in 1904. 

Casement persuaded Morel to serve as the Honorary Secretary of the CRA, financially backed by Liverpool traders such as John Holt. Approximately 2,000 people attended the inaugural meeting which was held on 23 March 1904 at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall. The Committee determined that its central task was to disseminate information about the Congo Free State through meetings and publications, and proposed forming local chapters around Britain and alliances with humanitarian groups overseas. The first chapter was established in Liverpool in March 1906.