A man who helped to bring about the end of a brutal empire, whose tireless campaigning laid the groundwork for groups like Amnesty International, and who defeated Winston Churchill in an election – but who nobody has heard of – surely deserves the accolade “Unsung Hero”. This is why today we celebrate Edmund Dene Morel, who died on this day in 1924.
Morel’s story begins with the invention of the pneumatic tyre, and the ensuing popularity of bicycles – which led to an enormous demand for rubber. That rubber was produced in the Congo, and shipped to Europe. The Congo was at that time known as Congo Free State, and was effectively King Leopold’s of Belgium’s personal property, which he ruled with his own private army.
Morel was a shipping clerk in Liverpool. Having emigrated to England from France in his childhood, his fluency in French meant he was employed extensively in the Congo. Morel noticed that the ships were travelling from the Congo to Europe laden with rubber, but making the return voyage filled with soldiers and firearms – instruments that enforced a brutally unequal exchange.
Morel was outraged. He realised that the discrepancy meant forced labour and the theft of natural resources. Workers that failed to make quota faced having their hands amputated; rape, mutilation and murder were commonplace. Indeed, Leopold and his forces are today estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 15 million Congolese.
The authorities tried to bribe Morel, then to coerce him, but he instead resigned from his job and started campaigning tirelessly to “expose and destroy what I knew then to be a legalised infamy… accompanied by unimaginable barbarities and responsible for a vast destruction of human life.”
Morel armed himself with a camera, and brought back graphic images of mutilated children and piles of bodies that countered the official propaganda of the time. He wrote a book, “Red Rubber”, and also founded a newspaper, The West African Mail, which served as vehicles to expose and publicise what was happening. Most significantly, he set up the Congo Reform Association – the first mass human rights campaign. Other high profile people supported the CRA, notably Irish revolutionary and diplomat, Roger Casement, and authors Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. The tide of public opinion eventually forced other Western governments to bring pressure on Belgium, and in 1908 Leopold sold his stake to the Belgian state at great personal profit. Reform was promised, but the atrocities continued. Morel and his Congo Reform Association continued to agitate for change for another four years.
As the Congo campaign ended, clouds were gathering over Europe. Morel returned to England and was selected as a Liberal Party candidate for the Birkenhead constituency. Concerned about how behind-the-scenes diplomacy was only making matters worse, he formed the Union of Democratic Control. This organisation became the biggest and most effective anti-war movement of the first world war.
Morel was hated by the jingoistic press who did everything they could to smear him. And smear him they did. UDC meetings were frequently disrupted, Morel was physically attacked several times, he was deselected as a parliamentary candidate by his own party, and, finally, arrested on order of the Home Secretary – despite the police being unable to find any evidence of criminality. Morel spent 6 months in Pentonville prison under such harsh conditions that he would never fully recovered from his ordeal.
After the war, Morel was an outspoken critic of the Treaty of Versailles, prophetically warning that its humiliating and restricting terms would lead to another war. He left the Liberal Party and joined the newly formed Independent Labour Party. Selected as a candidate for Dundee, he defeated Winston Churchill to win a seat in the first ever Labour Government. Beating Churchill gave him great pride:
“I look upon Churchill as such a personal force for evil that I would take up the fight against him with a whole heart.”
It was widely expected that Morel would be given the post of foreign secretary, but Ramsay MacDonald took the unusual step of appointing himself to the role. In an attempt to keep him quiet, senior Labour figures nominated him for the 1924 Nobel Peace Prize. Once again, Morel proved to be intractable, speaking out against his party’s policies when he saw them as immoral. His influence led to the British Government recognising the new Communist government of Russia – something that the right wing press seized upon – and Labour in due course lost the next election. Morel retained his seat, but died of a heart attack a couple of weeks later.
In 1946, George Orwell recalled “this heroic but rather forgotten man” – but even the mighty pen of Orwell could not save Morel’s legacy from obscurity. And so, to this forgotten man on the anniversary of his passing, we remember and express our gratitude for his indefatigable efforts to expose gross and rampant abuses that would prove to be such a valuable blueprint for today’s human rights movements.
[Written by Paul Sharp]
It’s really wonderful to read a piece about E.D. Morel that encapsulates in a small space the life of the man, and the reasons why he ought to be celebrated, and seen as ‘a prophet without honour’. Not only did The Congo Reform Association achieve some good for the people of the Congo, it also provided the model for Amnesty International and many another movement for fighting injustice. His work went on; first, at trying to stop the First World War…then, at keeping up his anti-war stance throughout the conflict and…finally, and hopelessly, pleading for terms that did not humiliate the vanquished at Versailles and thus plant poison seeds that would result in another war, can be seen in hindsight as totally prophetic and wise. Perhaps that is the reason he is ‘forgotten’. He’s an embarrassment to the celebrated figures who got their way and made ordinary people in their tens of millions pay the ultimate price.
However, I would prefer to see Morel not so much forgotten as a ‘hidden stream’. God knows, we have need of such people now. Historical amnesia is everywhere extant: from the fruitless invasion of Afghanistan – ignoring the lessons of British and Russian history – to the mawkish stories we tell ourselves of our rectitude in the past and present. Forget people like Morel and history becomes distorted, and enters the realm of myth.
However, there is hope for Morel’s memory. Adam Hochschild in his book ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ brings Morel’s achievement to the fore. There in a stained-glass memorial to Morel at West Kirby (Merseyside) library, and there is plenty to explore on the internet. And, if you can get there, the London School of Economics library has the Morel archives.
Other useful sources of information are contained in any of the biographies of Roger Casement (especially the one by Brian Inglis). There are also two biographies of the hero: ‘E.D. Morel The Man and His Works’ by F.S. Cocks, and ‘E.D. Morel – The Strategies of Protest’ by Catherine Cline. The former, written during Morel’s lifetime, is a hymn of praise; the latter, written as a Ph.D thesis, a little underwhelming. There are rumours that there is a more comprehensive biography in the pipeline.
Thanks for that, Mr Sharp.
Please contact asap. Mary Kenny would like to get in touch with you.
Richard (Duncan Society)
Funny how Main Stream buries the lives of those who did so much good. It is ironic that those who claim to have done good for history, likely have weaved their own web that unfortunately is taken up mainline by the masses for fact.
Hello my name is Andrew Morel I am the great grandson of E D Morel my grandfather was his eldest son Roger Morel. I would very much like to get in contact with his grand daughter Mary Kenny (she would be the cousin of my late father Anthony Morel). I would appreciate any help you could give in this matter.
In response to the above messages I am pleased to be able to write that my biography of Morel, ‘The Politics of Dissent’, is now complete and will be published by SilverWood Books towards the end of January 2014. The manuscript has been read by a number of people including Morel’s grandchildren, Mary Kenny and Stasia French, both of who have given it their seal of approval. If you would like to be kept informed about its progress or would like to order a copy please let me know. Please also let others know who you think would be interested. Happy New Year – Donald
In the middle of reading “King Leopold’s Ghost.” Just got to the chapter on Morel and found your site on Google. I wish there were a way for fearless, good people to NOT be punished so severely. Does anyone know of a way? I shall read your biography of Morel. Will you publish it on kindle?
A truly remarkable man. One of those who shared a platform with him when condemning the Congo atrocities in 1907 was the Rev. J.R.M. Stephens who was a Baptist Missionary -who is remembered on the family headstone in Brockley cemetery SE London. I lighted upon E.D. Morel when researching some of the deceased buried in the cemetery & he is deservedly remembered above .
A great man, indeed.