The New Africa Trading Company and the Struggle for Import Duties in the Congo Free State, 1886-1894
In 1857, a group of several businessmen from Rotterdam started trade contacts near the mouth of the river Congo. These trade contacts evolved into the AHV (Afrikaanse Handels Vereniging or African Trading Company), becoming one of the regions greatest European trading companies.
Vegetable oil was the most important trading item, followed by coffee, cotton, and later ivory and rubber. Vegetable oil was the key item as Europe used it as the raw ingredient for many products. In exchange for these goods, the Europeans traded a vast range of different goods, including textiles, weapons and liquor.
Until around 1870, Europe had little political interest in Africa, or the Dark Land as it was commonly called. However, this changed due to one man – Leopold of Belgium. It was Leopold who saw the opportunity of this region of the Congo to acquire colonial property. In 1876, Leopold organised the Geographical Conference in Belgium which led to the establishment of the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA). “Geographical and humanitarian interest were the foundation of the Association, but at the background there was Leopold’s interest for colonial property inspired by his desire to obtain for Belgium a source of income. Leopold saw an example of successful source of income in the Dutch East Indies under the culture system”.
The AHV went bankrupt in 1879, losing influence of what was going on for the time, and soon lodged a complaint against the way the AIA contracts were being entered into. A year later, the New African Trading Company (NAHV) continued on with their work, keeping a sharp eye out on Leopold.
The Congo Free State had been looking for ways to supplement their sources of income since import duties were forbidden due to the Act of Berlin. In February 1889, the Congo Free State was able to reach an agreement with “Hamed Ben Mohamed, the most important of Arab traders, better known as Tippo Tip, by which he entered the service of the Free State as governor of the Stanley Falls district. Tippo Tip would uphold the authority of the Free State and suppress the Slave trade; in exchange for this he was free to expand his trade. It was soon to become clear that the relation with Tippo Tip had the side effect that the Free State started to buy ivory. This led to difficulties between the NAHV and the Free State”.
For some afterwards, there was friction between Tip and other Arab dealers who wished to challenge his rule. In January 1889, he was sent a shipment of weapons from Anton Greshoff, a representative of the NAHV. When he was forbidden to travel to Stanley Falls by J. Becker, the relationship between the Congo Free State and the NAHV cooled considerably.
This issue and the refusal of the Arab traders to trade ivory were brought up by the NAHV at the ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Hague. “The Dutch ambassador in Brussels was ordered to ask for an explanation. The ambassador, too, was told that the Free State had to cover its expenses. He also heard a sharp criticism on the behavior of Greshoff, who was accused of inciting rebellion. It was clear that the government of the Congo took protests very light. For on 17 October a decree was isssued forbidding the free acquisition of rubber in certain regions, the so called “Domaines d’Etat”. For that acquisition concessions had to be given by the Congo government. This decree made barter with the local population impossible, because it also forbade the free tapping of the product in the “domaines d’Etat”. Again the NAHV protested at the Hague, but the Dutch minister saw no reason to intervene: granting concessions was a normal way of behaviour for a colonial government!”
The relationship between the Congo Free State and the NAHV deteriorated considerable over the next few years; ivory that was meant to be traded was confiscated or merely ‘disappeared’. However, with Europe loudly discussing the issue of slavery, the NAHV shifted its attentions to different parts of the Congo, knowing that their own interests could no longer be served in this region.
Obdeijn, Herman (1983) The New Africa Trading Company and the Struggle for Import Duties in the Congo Free State, 1886-1894, African Economic History, African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.