Friday, July 8, 2016

George Washington Williams

George W. Williams
Recently, I read a review of the new movie, The Legend of Tarzan. Among the list of characters is George Washington Williams (played in the movie by Samuel L. Jackson).  The movie uses some of the events associated with the Belgian administration of the Congo adulterated by Hollywood and London scriptwriters.  When the film begins, Tarzan is now living in England as  "Lord Greystoke." Through the British Prime Minister, Greystoke is invited by King Leopold to visit the Congo and report on its development by Belgium. An American envoy, George Washington Williams, urges Greystoke to go. Tarzan/Greystoke initially declines the invitation. However, Williams suspects that the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese population, and persuades him to accept it in order to prove his suspicions. Williams' character is based on the real George Washington Williams (October 16, 1849 – August 2, 1891) who was an Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer on African-American history.
Williams enlisted in the Union Army under an assumed name when he was only fourteen and fought in the Civil War from October 1863 to April 1865. He wrote A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion based on his experiences.
After the war, he went to Mexico and joined the Republican army, which was fighting to overthrow Emperor Maximilian. He received a commission as lieutenant, learned some Spanish, got a reputation as a good gunner,
Williams returned to the US in the spring of 1867 and enlisted in the army for five years. In 1868, he was wounded in the Indian Territory. He remained hospitalized until his discharge.
After leaving the military, he briefly attended Howard University in Washington, DC. He entered the Newton Theological Institution near Boston, Massachusetts in 1870. In 1874, Williams became the first African American to graduate from Newton. After graduation from Newton Seminary, Williams was ordained as a Baptist minister. He served as pastor at several Boston churches, including the historic Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston.
Williams moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he studied law and became the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, serving one term 1880 to 1881.
In 1885, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Williams as "Minister Resident and Consul General" to Haiti, but he never served in the post.
In addition to his religious and political achievements, George W. Williams wrote groundbreaking histories about African Americans in the United States: A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880. The latter was the first overall history of African Americans, showing their participation and contributions from the earliest days of the colonies.
King Leopold II
In 1889, King Léopold II of Belgium granted an informal audience with Williams. At that time, the Congo Free State was the personal possession of the King. He employed a private militia to enforce rubber production by the Congolese and there were widespread rumors of abuses. In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to examine personally the conditions.

Victim of Congolese Attrocities

From Stanley Falls, he addressed "An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo" on July 18, 1890. In this letter, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment the Congolese were suffering at the hands of Europeans and Africans supervising them for the Congo Free State. He mentioned the role played by Henry M. Stanley, who was sent to the Congo by the King, in deceiving and mistreating local Congolese. Williams reminded the King that the crimes committed were all committed in his name, making him as guilty as the perpetrators. He appealed to the international community of the day to "call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity ..."
Williams included the following charges against the Belgian Government:
1.     The government "is deficient in the moral military and financial strength, necessary to govern a territory of 1,508,000 square miles, 7,251 miles of navigation, and 31,694 square miles of lake surface." "Cruelties of the most astounding character are practised by the natives, such as burying slaves alive in the grave of a dead chief, cutting off the heads of captured warriors in native combats, and no effort is put forth by your Majesty’s Government to prevent them. Between 800 and 1,000 slaves are sold to be eaten by the natives of the Congo State annually; and slave raids, accomplished by the most cruel and murderous agencies, are carried on within the territorial limits of your Majesty’s Government which is impotent."
2.   The government "has established nearly fifty posts, consisting of from two to eight mercenary slave-soldiers from the East Coast. These piratical, buccaneering posts compel the natives to furnish them with fish, goats, fowls, and vegetables at the mouths of their muskets; and whenever the natives refuse to feed these vampires, they report to the main station and white officers come with an expeditionary force and burn away the homes of the natives."
3.     The government "is guilty of violating its contracts made with its soldiers, mechanics and workmen, many of whom are subjects of other Governments."
4.     The government courts "are abortive, unjust, partial and delinquent. The laws printed and circulated in Europe 'for the Protection of the blacks' in the Congo, are a dead letter and a fraud. I know of prisoners remaining in custody for six and ten months because they were not judged."
5.     The government "is excessively cruel to its prisoners, condemning them, for the slightest offences, to the chain gang, the like of which can not be seen in any other Government in the civilized or uncivilized world."
6.     "Women are imported into your Majesty’s Government for immoral purposes. They are introduced by two methods, viz., black men are dispatched to the Portuguese coast where they engage these women as mistresses of white men, who pay to the procurer a monthly sum. The other method is by capturing native women and condemning them to seven years’ servitude for some imaginary crime against the State with which the villages of these women are charged. The State then hires these women out to the highest bidder, the officers having the first choice and then the men. Whenever children are born of such relations, the State maintains that the women being its property the child belongs to it also.
7.     The government "is engaged in trade and commerce, competing with the organised trade companies of Belgium, England, France, Portugal and Holland. It taxes all trading companies and exempts its own goods from export-duty, and makes many of its officers ivory-traders, with the promise of a liberal commission upon all they can buy or get for the State."
8.     The government violated the General Act of the Conference of Berlin by firing upon native canoes; by confiscating the property of natives; by intimidating native traders, and preventing them from trading with white trading companies; by quartering troops in native villages when there is no war; ... by permitting the natives to carry on the slave- trade, and by engaging in the wholesale and retail slave-trade itself."
9.     The government "has been, and is now, guilty of waging unjust and cruel wars against natives, with the hope of securing slaves and women, to minister to the behests of the officers of your Government."
10.  The government "is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail. It buys and sells and steals slaves."
11.  The government has a contract with the Arab Governor at this place for the establishment of a line of military posts in territory to which the government has no legal claim.
12.  The agents of the government "have misrepresented the Congo country and the Congo railway. Mr. H. M. Stanley, the man who was your chief agent in setting up your authority in this country, has grossly misrepresented the character of the country. Instead of it being fertile and productive it is sterile and unproductive. The natives can scarcely subsist upon the vegetable life produced in some parts of the country. Nor will this condition of affairs change until the native shall have been taught by the European the dignity, utility and blessing of labour."
While traveling back from Africa, George Washington Williams died in Blackpool, England, on August 2, 1891, from tuberculosis and pleurisy.
I think that Williams' life would make a great story by itself.  The Ohio Statehouse has a film on his life.

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