Mr. Francis to Mr. Frelinghuysen.
Lisbon, May 15, 1883. (Received May 31.)
Sir: Some interesting details of the occupation of Ponta Negra by the French forces are given in a letter dated at the Zaire, on the 28th March, and published in an Oporto journal of consideration, the Co-mercio do Porto, of the 9th May. It may be well to give the principaL passages of this narration, as so many and various versions of the circumstances have been given in the European press.
Early in March there appeared off the Congo coast (says the correspondent referred to) a French war vessel, bearing no name upon her stern, but which her commander declared to be the Oriflamme. This vessel succeeded in effecting a landing of troops, which occupied Loango in the first instance and ultimately Ponta Negra.
The French flag was hoisted on shore, and the native chiefs were notified that these territories were henceforward to be considered as French. All this was accomplished without the slightest difficulty, as the inhabitants had no means of resistance. Subsequently the vessel unmasked, and acknowledged herself to be the Sagittaire, the departure of which vessel for the western coast of Africa had been announced sometime since by the journals of Europe.
These occurrences caused great indignation among the Portuguese established at the two points mentioned. A few days later, upon the arrival of the Portuguese gunboat Bengo, her commandant protested to the commandant of the Sagittaire against the violence practiced by the French forces, a protest in which united all the Portuguese residents [Page 740]with two exceptions. These were two Portuguese houses, the one established at Loango and the other at Ponta Negra, that not only abstained from protesting with the rest of their countrymen, but even powerfully aided the French commandant in the execution of his projects. This action has aroused the indignation of even the negroes, and their establishments are now guarded by French soldiers to protect them from popular hostile manifestations. At the same time the native chiefs not only protested against the French occupation, but have formally rejected presents of great value which the officers of the Sagittaire offered them. This circumstance will appear to all who understand the character of the negro as being of the highest importance, as it is well known that with presents anything desired can usually be obtained from them. The truth is that the negro chiefs would accept nothing, and satisfied themselves with the reply that they are Portuguese; that they know no language but the Portuguese, and that they would submit to no other authorities than the Portuguese authorities at Ponta Negra. At the time the French troops were landed the negro chiefs hoisted the Portuguese flag, and have kept it flying night and day despite the orders issued by the officers of the Sagittaire to strike it.
In point of fact it is incontestable that Ponta Negra as well as Loango are situated to the north of Molembo; that is to say beyond the limit over which the Portuguese exercise an effective sovereignty. It is still true, however, that the Portuguese have never failed to exercise their authority to a certain extent in those regions.
It is but a few months since the Portuguese corvette Duque de Terceira was summoned by several of the foreign houses there established to settle a dispute which had arisen between these houses and the natives, and it may be asserted that on this occasion the commandant of the corvette concluded with the negro chiefs a treaty recognizing Portuguese authority. Aside from this circumstance there is that of priority of discovery, which must be conceded to them. Besides, the Portuguese language is the only one known, and the great majority of European establishments known on this coast are Portuguese, which inevitably gives them great influence, while at the same time there is not one French citizen resident. It may well be asked what rights does France possess to impose by violence its authority upon these tribes.
It would appear from the foregoing substance of the letter referred to that the occupation of the territory coveted by France and the execution of de Brazas projects may not be accomplished in as pacific a manner as has been hoped in Paris.
The deductions drawn by the writer of the letter under consideration as regards the possible rights of France to the occupation of these points on the coast are not without value, and it is to be observed that the facts which he relates of the absolute predominance of the Portuguese element and Portuguese influence in the neighborhood of Loando is true to a still greater extent (if we may credit his statement) of the territory of the Congo itself, where, as he alleges, of the eighty-eight commercial establishments which exist on the banks of that river from its mouth as far up as Vivi (the first of the stations of the International African Association, under the patronage of the King of the Belgians, with Stanley as director), that is to say upon the navigable portion of the river below the grand cataracts, there are not less than fifty-four Portuguese factories and other European establishments belonging, in numerical order, to the following nationalities: Dutch 15, English 7, French 7, Belgian 4.[Page 741]
Another fact, the writer continues, must not be lost sight of: That, while in the Portuguese factories there are none other than Portuguese? Portuguese form the majority of the personnel of all other establishments, particularly so of the Dutch houses, and it may be asserted that the foreign commerce of the Congo to a large extent is transacted under Portuguese influences, while disputes arising between foreigners and the native chiefs are usually submitted to their jurisdiction.
It is precisely this situation of things which constitutes the strongest argument in favor of the rights of Portugal to the sovereignty of these territories.
The writer expresses the belief that in fact three methods of settlement only would appear to be feasible or possible for this question of the Congo, which day by day is becoming one of the most interesting and important international questions of the times. Of these the proposition which declares the regions about the mouth of the great river independent would create upon the shores of the Congo a condition of threatening anarchy, in the midst of which the foreign element could not maintain itself. So this proposition could not be seriously entertained by any one possessing a sincere interest in the progress of civilization in Africa opening to the productions of European industry the immense extent of Central Africa, with the Congo constituting the chief avenue of access. As regards the establishment upon the banks of this great stream of the absolute and exclusive domination of any one of the great European powers, a solution in this manner does not appear to offer assurances of security and, above all, of that commercial liberty necessary to the ulterior development of the trade of which the Congo is the inevitable artery. Besides, nothing indicates that such control could be established without protestation, and even opposition, on the part of the other powers of Europe, and that any settlement sought for in that direction would not lead to war and devastation, the very first consequence of which would be to disgrace the European element—the white element—in the minds of the blacks, and to ruin among them European influence.
Finally, there remains the support and loyal acceptation by Europe of the Portuguese domination over the Congo, not because nothing better can be offered, but as being representative of the only authority really recognized for centuries by the natives; the only one whose exercise is possible within these regions the only one really the continuance of which can be effectually profitable and useful to the progress of civilization and the development of commerce. Probably the establishment of a great power on the banks of the river Congo could not but result disadvantageously upon the development of commerce of the other European nations in those regions, while nothing of the sort need be feared as the result of Portuguese domination.
The foregoing are the principal statements of fact and the argumentative deductions by the writer referred to. His communication has received considerable attention here, from the fact that the narration of occurrences as given by him has been verified by the Portuguese minister of foreign affairs, Señhor de Serpa, as substantially correct.
Referring to the pending treaty negotiations between Portugal and Great Britain on the Congo question, Sir Charles Lennox Wyke, the British minister here, recently expressed his doubts whether, in the present state of popular feeling on this subject in the two countries, any treaty England might assent to would meet the wishes or acceptance of Portugal.
I have, &c.,