George Washington Williams, the Congo Genocide and “Crimes Against Humanity”

Political cartoon from 1906 showing King Leopold of Belgium entangling the Congolese in rubber coils


So who coined the phrase “Crimes Against Humanity?”  Was it first defined at Nuremberg by the victorious allies?  Or was it used by someone before?

Yes, it was.  It was used by an African American man named George Washington Williams and he spoke those words to Leopold,  King of the  Belgians.  Truth to power.

How did this come to pass, this meeting between an African American man and a foreign King?

“At the very beginning of the twentieth century there was an unquenchable demand in America and Europe for an amazing new technology—air-filled rubber tires. The Age of the Railroad was ending. Henry Ford was making cars by the million, bicycles were pouring out of factories, freight was moving in gasoline-powered trucks, and they all ran on rubber. The Congo had more natural rubber than anywhere else.

To meet this demand King Leopold II of Belgium, in one of the greatest scams in history, tricked local tribes into signing away their lands and lives in bogus treaties that none of them could read. He sold these “concessions” to speculators who used torture and murder to drive whole communities into the jungle to harvest rubber.

The profits from the slave-driving concessions were stupendous. Wild rubber, as well as elephant ivory for piano keys and decoration, was ripped out of the forests at an incredible human cost. Experts believe that ten million people died. It is the great forgotten genocide of the twentieth century.

One witness was an African-American journalist named George Washington Williams. He coined the phrase “crimes against humanity” to describe what he saw.”

So who was George Washington Williams?

An African-American, he was born in 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, the eldest of the four children of Thomas and Ellen Rouse Williams.  After a limited education he took up barbering.

Williams enlisted in the Union Army under an assumed name when he was only 14; he fought during the final battles of the civil war.  After Appomatox, Williams joined the Mexican Republican army under the command of General Espinosa, fighting to overthrow Emperor Maximilian. He received a commission as lieutenant, learned some Spanish, got a reputation as a good gunner, returning to the U.S. in the spring of 1867.

Back home, he enlisted for a 5-year stint in the army. While serving in the Indian Territory, he was wounded in 1868. He remained hospitalized until his discharge.

In 1870, he began studies at the Newton Theological Institution. and In 1874 he became the first African American to graduate from Newton.  He met Sarah A. Sterrett during a visit to Chicago in 1873, and they were married the following spring.  They had one son.

After graduation, Williams was ordained as a Baptist minister. He held several pastorates, including the historic Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston.  With support from many of the leaders of his time, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Williams founded The Commoner, a monthly journal, in Washington, D.C.

Williams studied law under Alphonso Taft, father of President William Howard Taft and became the first African-American elected to the Ohio legislature in 1880.

“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.

In 1889, the journalist Williams was granted an informal audience with King Léopold II of Belgium. At that time, the Congo Free State was the personal possession of the King. He employed a private militia to enforce rubber production by natives and there were widespread rumors of abuses.

In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to see the conditions for himself. 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, sent to the Congo by the King, in tricking and mistreating local Congolese.

Williams reminded the King that the crimes committed were all committed in his name, making him as guilty as the actual culprits. 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 …” – for they were “crimes against humanity.”

While traveling back from Africa, George Washington Williams died in Blackpool, England, on August 2, 1891, from tuberculosis and pleurisy. He is buried in Layton Cemetery, Blackpool,”

It’s over one hundred years later and slavers are still in the Congo.  Armed thugs still run the place. More fortunes are being made, more people are being brutalized, and slave-produced commodities are still feeding the demand of new technologies. It’s not rubber this time though— instead slaves wielding shovels clear-cut forests and tear away hilltops to expose the grubby gray-brown pebbles of coltan.

Coltan – for your smart phone .and computer batteries Everyone wants their smartphones, and multinational corporations need coltan, making it the new oil or a “black gold” of sorts.

Congo is rich in natural resources and arguably should be wealthy like Saudi Arabia, but instead it is among the world’s poorest nations. This is because, in Central Africa, coltan is a conflict mineral — not unlike blood diamonds in Sierra Leone and Liberia — and are controlled by armed rebels and gangsters in connection with the unrest. Although the last Congo War ended in 2003, the conflict and bloodshed continue, with a legacy of child soldiers and sex slaves, over 200,000 women and children raped, and over 5 million dead — 40 percent children — and as many displaced.

For Congolese, mining is the only ready source of income, because the work is consistently available, even if only for a dollar a day.  The work is laborious; miners can walk for days into the forest to reach the ore, scratch it from the earth with hand tools and pan it. About 90% of young men  in Congo do this at least for awhile, many beginning as children.   Research found that many Congolese leave farming because they need money quickly and cannot wait for crops to grow. Farming also presents its own obstacles; the lack of roads in the Congolese interior makes it extremely difficult to transport produce to market and harvests are routinely seized by militias or the military.  With their food gone, people resort to mining to survive. But the mines are run by corrupt militias.

The Congolese mine coltan with few tools, no safety procedures, and often no mining experience.  No government aid or intervention is available in spite of the abusive circumstances. Miners consider coltan mining the only way to provide for themselves in the face of widespread war and conflict and a government that couldn’t give a rat’s ass for their welfare.

“Once smuggled out of the Congo, the mineral will be transformed into “legal” Rwandan coltan and lawfully exported. It’s magical geology; Rwanda has few coltan deposits but has become one of the world’s biggest exporters of the mineral. It’s going to take more than an alert shipping clerk to expose the human slavery at the heart of this trade—the thugs are better at hiding these days. But the truth is out there in the rain forests and protected habitats suffering the onslaught of slave workers driven by rogue militias.”

Now it’s your phone and not your car’s tires that is made with slaves.

But hey – who cares -as long as it’s cheap and Apple and Microsoft stock continue to go up.  God forbid we should have to pay a few dollars more so that people we don’t know might have a better life

George Washington Williams spoke truth to power, first calling it is what it is, “crimes against humanity” he saw with his own eyes.  Nothing has changed.  It’s just invisible.   And you thought the world began with Steve Jobs.

P.S. – No one is defacing the statue of George Washington Williams.  Oh wait!  There are no memorials to George Washington Williams.




About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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7 Responses to George Washington Williams, the Congo Genocide and “Crimes Against Humanity”

  1. beetleypete says:

    An interesting history of a fascinating man. Thanks, Frank.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathy Elam says:

    Interesting not thought in schools. That is one of the problems in America Not Telling Its Truth.
    Would like to have a printed version.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. K. Elam says:

    Kathy Elam
    Was able to print. Thank you for the article Toritto.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating read, I tell George’s story often as I am a cemetery tour guide at Layton Cemetery in Blackpool England. It was our mayor at the time James Howarth who paid for his funeral as he died insolvent. Our infamous Baptist minister Samuel Pilling delivered his funeral service. Both of these gentlemen are also buried at Layton Cemetery.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. toritto says:

    Hi Deborah! Thank you for the kind words and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed. You do have to tell me however – why was your Baptist Minister Samuel Pilling “infamous”?


    Best regards from Florida.


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