WHM: Official Documents Exercise Question 4 - Who was the primary audience for the document?



Be the Historian!

Who was the primary audience for the document?

All official documents have specific audiences. Treaties, official statements, and decrees especially are directed at the international community. As a result, such documents provide valuable insight into how a government wants to be seen by the international community, as well as its intentions or strategies. These documents, however, may not provide accurate information about issues.

At times, this means that documents deliberately misrepresent events or processes. Historians, who have consulted other sources such as contemporary and historical books and articles, can often see through the document’s projected meaning, to understand the meaning behind the words on the page.

Many such misleading documents were issued by King Leopold II of Belgium’s government in the Congo. King Leopold II created the Congo Free State, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1885. His regime as “King of the Belgians, Sovereign of the Independent State of the Congo” lasted until 1908. He was well known for consistently defending his “civilizing mission” in the Congo to the international community. His standard rhetorical response to critics was to promise to open the Congo for the sake of “pierc[ing] the darkness which hangs over entire peoples.”

The Task:
First, read the “Decree of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, Sovereign of the Independent State of the Congo, Regarding Settlements for African Children,” issued on July 21, 1890. Try to answer the following questions: What might have been King Leopold II’s real motivations regarding African children? How might his intended audiences have shaped the decree? How might his audiences have responded to the decree? Then, read the document again and listen to Professor of History Benedict Carton analyze the document. Compare your response to his.

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