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Light on the dark continent: the photography of Alice Seely Harris and the Congo atrocities of the early twentieth century.

In 1905 Mark Twain published King Leopold's Soliloquy, an imaginary rumination by the Belgian king on the troubles caused him by those campaigning against his administration in the Congo Free State. Part of Leopold's fictional meditation is on the difficulties caused him by the evidence of the camera. Twain has him lament: "The Kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us.... The only witness I have encountered in my long career that I couldn't bribe."'

A few years earlier, in 1902, the Scottish missionary James Stewart delivered his Duff Missionary Lechires in Edinburgh. Reflecting on the atrocities in the Congo at the time, Stewart observed: "There is always a suspicion that details of this kind [about mutilation and other atrocitiesil are sensationally exaggerated. Photographs, however, generally tell their story with brutal fidelity, being unable to do otherwise, and readers will find some that will illustrate the nature of the administration beyond dispute." (2)

Almost certainly both Twain and Stewart were speaking specifically of the photographs of Alice Seely Harris, an English missionary with the Congo Balolo Mission. Harris took hundreds of photos during this period, many of them documenting atrocities carried out either directly or indirectly by the Congo authorities in their haste to maximize profits from the fast-developing rubber trade.

Alice Seely was born in 1870 and married John Harris in 1898, just before both of them departed from England as missionaries to the Congo. At that time the nature of Leopold's rule in the Congo was beginning to emerge in Europe and North America. A host of personalities, many of them well-known internationally, helped to bring the Congo atrocities to the attention of a wider public. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote a pamphlet, The Crime of the Congo. (3) Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness--today one of the mostdiscussed African texts in postcolonial studies--was based on six months he spent in the Congo in 1890. (4) William H. Shepherd, the first African-American to become a Presbyterian missionary to the Congo and the subject of the recent book Black Livingstone, reported so frankly on the atrocities he witnessed in Kasai Province that in 1909 he and his colleague William M. Morrison were put on trial in the Congo (and later acquitted). (5) Roger Casement, the Iris h-born British diplomat later executed by the British for treason during the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, carried out a thorough investigation in 1903 into allegations of brutality and wrote a detailed report for the British government that had considerable impact on future British policy. (6) Finally, E. D. Morel, the key figure in the fight against Leopold's policies in the Congo, founded the Congo Reform Association, which did much to bring about the eventual transfer of the Congo from Leopold's personal control to the Belgian government.

In the light of such an array of talent and endeavor, the contribution of Alice Harris (or indeed that of her husband, John) to the cause of Congo reform might seem of limited significance. In fact, her contribution to the struggle both in photograph and in print was substantial. Harris's photographs were featured on several continents both as book illustrations and as magic-lantern slides, the latter often at huge public meetings to protest Leopold's policies in the Congo.

The process colloquially known as the scramble for Africa accelerated after the Berlin Act of 1885, signed by the major European powers. Earlier, however, King Leopold of Belgium had already begun to establish in the Congo what was, in essence, a personal fiefdom financed by others. The expenses of Leopold's Congo were largely borne by the peoples of the Congo itself and by the Belgian populace; the profits went substantially to Leopold himself. On April 22, 1884, the United States became the first major country to recognize Leopold's claims. (7) Some months later, in November 1884, the Berlin Conference recognized the legitimacy of the International Association of the Congo, which soon became the Congo Free State. Ironically, the title in French was 1'Etat Independant du Congo, the Congo Independent State. What this meant in practice was that Leopold wanted the Congo to be independent of all outside control and criticism. Neither the Congolese peoples nor the Belgian parliament were to have any effective con trol over his actions there.

Leopold employed a whole range of explorers and adventurers to help him explore and exploit the Congo. One of these was Henry Morton Stanley, after whom several natural features of the area were subsequently named. In the first few years of occupation, the main export from the Congo was ivory, but by the early 1890s Leopold had become aware of the hugely expanding world market for rubber, mainly because of the invention of the inflatable rubber tire by John Dunlop in Belfast in 1890. Inflatable tires were used first for the bicycle and subsequently for the automobile.

In the twentieth century in other parts of Africa and in Latin America, cultivated rubber was to become a major cash crop. In the Congo of the 1890s, however, the rubber Leopold sought to exploit was wild rubber, growing in the form of vines in the forest and harvested with much difficulty. Wild rubber could be harvested in commercially significant amounts only with the labor, voluntary or otherwise, of the local populations. They were paid a pittance, usually in kind rather than cash, and as the task became increasingly unpopular, the colonial administration or its commercial arms developed more and more extreme methods of coercion to maintain the level of rubber exports.

Monthly quotas were set for each village. Failure to meet these quotas would lead to sanctions of varying severity. First there was beating with the chikoti, a painful whip made of hippopotamus hide; then women were held hostage and sometimes raped to ensure that their husbands harvested rubber. In extreme cases, though the practice became increasingly common, people were killed as an example to their own or other villages. Since European company officials seldom ventured far beyond the main towns, a grotesque culture grew up for ensuring both that the requisite punishments had been carried out and that the forest guards had used their bullets "officially" on humans, rather than for shooting game for their own pots. To be certain about the use of bullets, the guards were instructed to cut off the right hand of each person they killed and return it to the European officials, who would tally the hands against the number of bullets used. Since the return journey could take many days, if not weeks, severed hands were usually smoked over fires to preserve them. In fact, as many of Alice Harris's photographs later showed, clever forest guards would simply cut off the hands from living people and save their cartridges for other purposes.

Accounts of these atrocities began to filter back to Europe and North America during the 1890s. George Washington Williams, an African-American Baptist pastor, journalist, lawyer, and first African-American to serve in the Ohio legislature, visited the Congo in 1890. As a result of his visit he wrote an open letter to King Leopold, highly critical of the king's administration. He also wrote a report for President Harrison and, in a letter to the U.S. secretary of state, used the phrase "crimes against humanity," (8) a depressingly common formulation in our own day, but a highly unusual turn of phrase at the end of the nineteenth century.

Missionary Photographer

Within a short time of arriving in the Congo in 1898, both Harris and her husband began sending home written reports on many aspects of life there and taking a wide variety of photographs. Their photographs were ethnographic, botanical, and political (in the sense of being images that could be used to put political pressure on various groups, including the British government).

Alice Harris's photographs were already being used in Regions Beyond, the magazine of the Congo Balolo Mission, before the Harrises returned to Britain on furlough in 1902. In 1904, however, following Roger Casement's consular report on the subject, Regions Beyond began to write openly about the atrocities, and Alice Harris's photographs began to be used more widely. In the same year Mrs. H. Grattan-Guinness, wife of the editor of Regions Beyond, published the pamphlet Congo Slavery, again using many of Harris's photographs. (9)

In 1904, following a private meeting the previous December with Roger Casement, E. D. Morel formed the Congo Reform Association. The next year the Harrises toured the United States, addressing more than 200 meetings in forty-nine cities. In this period at the beginning of the twentieth century, the use of the magic lantern for large public gatherings was at its height. While John Harris usually spoke at these meetings, Alice Harris's visual images made the biggest emotional impact. In an age well before television, when photographs were still rare in daily newspapers and when world travel in the modem sense was an opportunity open only to few, the magic lantern was one of the most popular means of visual communication.

Frequently repeated modern images of war, famine, and destruction, which appear almost nightly on our television screens, have perhaps blunted our sense of outrage and shock at inhumane acts. However, I still remember vividly the emotional shock of encountering mutilated children on the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the recent civil war there. Imagine, then, the shock for audiences 100 years ago of being confronted by Harris's harrowing photographic images of mutilated men, women, and children in the Congo.

Other missionary photographers also documented the results of the vicious regime of Leopold in the Congo, but both in their quality and in their distribution, Harris's photographs had a greater impact than those of any other missionary (or indeed, nonmissionary) of the period. Multiple copies of her photographs were made into magic-lantern slides, accompanied by explanatory text. (10) The slides found their way not only to Britain but to Europe and North America as well. In addition, her photographs appeared in many books. Indeed, some editions of Mark Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy used her photograph "Nsala of Wala with his daughter's hand and foot." The same photograph appeared in Morel's book, King Leopold's Rule in Africa (11) and in Mrs. Grattan-Guinness's Congo Slavery.

In 1906 the Harrises began working for Morel's Congo Reform Association. She took most of the photographs that Morel used in the publicity for the association. In addition she helped her husband write several of the books that he published, though she is never credited as a coauthor. Her one independent publication (as far as I am aware) was The Camera and Congo Crime, a pamphlet containing twenty-four of her photographs. (12) Quite a few of her photographs from this period still exist, either as original prints or as magic-lantern slides. Some are in the archives of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society at Rhodes House in Oxford; others are at the headquarters of Anti-Slavery International in Brixton, London. (13)

Momentum for Reform

By this time, pressure for reform was growing in both the United States and Britain. In 1905 Leopold set up his own commission of inquiry that he hoped would largely absolve him and his administration from blame and vindicate his rule in the Congo. The opposite happened, despite Leopold's handpicking of the commission. The commission's negative report further increased the pressure for major reform. In December 1906 the daily New York American ran a week of articles on the Congo atrocities, using Harris's photographs to illustrate them. (14)

Eventually Leopold agreed to hand over administration of the Congo to the Belgian government. This transition took place officially in November 1908. The shift in governance was not a revolutionary, or even a radical, solution, but it did ensure the cessation of the most inhumane of Leopold's policies and a greater degree of accountability for the future. The Harrises were aware that what had been won was one small battle, rather than the war. Perhaps for this reason John Harris in 1910 became organizing secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society, for which he continued to work until his death in 1940. Though Alice Harris held no official position with the organization, she was, in effect, a cosecretary. She also continued with what today would be called her documentary photography.

In 1911-12 the Harrises returned to Africa, including the Congo. During this visit Harris took hundreds more photographs, most of which have survived. (15) Only a handful of these later photographs are of what one might call atrocities. Overall, the Harrises saw "an immense improvement" in the situation in the Congo, yet they were not naive about ongoing injustices. Indeed, John Harris wrote a long report on the latest commercial development, the extraction of palm oil. He criticized the fact that the rights of indigenous peoples were ignored in the process and later produced a book, Present Conditions in the Congo, illustrated with his wife's photographs. (16)

Yet the zenith of the Congo Reform Association's influence had passed. Leopold had handed over control of the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908, and just over a year later, he was dead. While much remained that was wrong with the colonial administration of the Congo, the emotional moment had passed, and support for further Congo reform began to wane. In 1913 Morel decided to discontinue the Congo Reform Association. Alice and John Harris were both on the platform at its final meeting in London on June 16. In his speech Morel commented, "We have struck a blow for human justice; that cannot and will not pass away." (17) That a considerable part of that blow was due to the photography of Alice Harris cannot be doubted. The impact of her work was partly due to her skill with a camera, but it was also partly due to the nature of her subject, namely, the harrowing and highly symbolic nature of physical dismemberment. Cutting off human hands and feet brought forth a particularly strong emotional reaction that has remained, even until today.

Critical Exposure

In recent years there has been much criticism of mission photography. The case has often been made that it helped to reinforce European stereotypes of the barbaric and savage other, that it was used to set up a talse dichotomy between civilization and savagery and between Christianity and heathenism. Unfortunately, there is much truth in such criticism. With the exception of Shepherd, most of the missionaries involved in publicizing the Congo atrocities could not be called stridently pro-African, certainly not in the religious or cultural sense of the term. Yet they had a deep and basic concern for human dignity and were prepared (to varying degrees) to fight against injustice and inhumanity. That such injustice was perpetrated largely by their fellow Europeans (18) was yet another twist to the story, though criticism of the colonial policies of a country other than one's own was not by any means unknown.

What was unusual was the international nature of the campaign against Leopold's rule. The campaign was due to the work of many people, some of whom have been mentioned in passing. Several of them, such as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were already figures of international repute; others such as E. D. Morel and William H. Shepherd became famous as a result of the campaign. Some, like Alice Harris, remained comparatively unknown throughout the struggle. Yet in many ways she contributed as much as anyone (with the exception of Morel, and even he remained in her debt). That her textual contribution was largely subsumed under the name of her husband was unfortunate. Her photographic contribution was unique and deeply significant.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Alice Harris undoubtedly threw light on the Dark Continent. The light was the exposure (in both senses of that word) of the photographs she took. The darkness was not the natural condition of the continent--as so many outsiders of the period might have wanted to argue--but the evil imported into Africa from Europe through the greed of men such as Leopold. Almost 100 years after they were taken, Alice Harris's photographs still stand as a beacon of light against such injustice.


(1.) Mark Twain, King Leopold's Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, 2d ed. (Boston: Warren, 1905), pp. 39-40.

(2.) James Stewart, Dawn in the Dark Continent (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Henderson, & Ferrier, 1903).

(3.) Sir ArthurConan Doyle, The Crime of the Congo (London: Hutchinson, 1909).

(4.) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: 1902); see Jim Zwick, ed., "Reforming the Heart of Darkness," <>.

(5.) Pagan Kennedy, Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (New York: Viking, 2002), pp. 177-87.

(6.) Roger Casement, Correspondence and Report from His Majesty's Consul at Boma Respecting the Administration of the Independent State of the Congo (London: Harrison & Sons, 1904-5).

(7.) Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), p. 81.

(8.) Ibid., pp. 111-12.

(9.) Mrs. H. Grattan-Guinness, Congo Slavery: A Brief Survey of the Congo Question from the Humanitarian Point of View (London: R.B.M.U. Publication Dept., 1904).

(10.) British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society Archives, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, England. Hereafter BFA-S & APS Archives.

(11.) E. D. Morel, King Leopold's Rule in Africa (London: Heinemann, 1904), p. 144. In a caption the photograph is wrongly attributed to John Harris, rather than Alice. Onp. 444 an appendix points out that John Harris was not present when the incident occurred. The photograph was definitely taken by Alice.

(12.) Alice Harris, The Camera and Congo Crime (London: ca. 1909). I am grateful for this reference to Kevin Grant, whose detailed article "Christian Critics of Empire: Missionaries, Lantern Lectures, and the Congo Reform Campaign in Britain," Journal of Imperial and Commonweal History 29, no. 2 (May 2001): 27-58, covers some of the same ground as my much shorter article.

(13.) Two of Alice Harris's photographs may be found at <http://> and <>.

(14.) Newspaper Collections (microform), New York Public Library.

(15.) BFA-S & APS Archives.

(16.) John H. Harris, Present Conditions in the Congo (London: Denison House, 1911).

(17.) Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, pp. 273-74.

(18.) Directly contradicting statements made by supporters of King Leopold, a number of missionaries in the Congo signed affidavits stating that the practice of cutting off hands and feet was not a traditional custom in the areas in which they worked and that it had been introduced by Europeans.

Jack Thompson, Senior Lecturer in the History of World Christianity at New College, University of Edinburgh, is presently researching the impact of missionary photography in Africa.
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Author:Thompson, Jack
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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