Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Historian Kevin Grant rediscovered and reprioritized missionaries as key actors in the reform movement, not just supporting cast. They created popular outrage and support for reform through hundreds of atrocity meetings, held mostly at churches from 1905-08. He further argues that the missionaries turned around a failing reform campaign, countering the dominant Morel-centered narrative. Grant’s work is an important corrective to the neglect of the 1980s and 1990s, but it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, as previous chapters have shown. Missionary involvement did help to create a mass movement through the sheer number of meetings and the missionaries’ ability to tap into deep wells of religious feeling. However, these meetings and the founding of auxiliaries had an incremental, not revolutionary, impact on the organization’s finances and the CRA was not failing before they joined the movement. This section highlights the ways several missionary organizations contributed to or hindered the cause. Readers interested in further details should consult the detailed descriptions of Daniel Lagergren, Ruth Slade, and Robert Burroughs.
Previous chapters have analyzed the Regions Beyond Missionary Union’s many contributions to the reform movement: introducing Sjoblom to Fox Bourne in 1896, Guinness’s role in the CRA’s founding and his many creative ideas, testimony about conditions in the Congo, speakers, and, most of all, loaning the Harrises to the CRA, which boosted the campaign and affected the future of overseas humanitarianism. On the other hand, Guinness was unreliable, controversial, and unable to help the movement build connections into the churches.
Starting in 1909, the RBMU stopped supporting the reform movement, attributable to its efforts to work with the new Belgian administration and severe internal problems. For years, the Guinness missions had raised ?20,000- ?29,000 annually to run its global missions and its East London Training Institute, whose main operations were Harley House or Harley College (for men), and Doric Lodge (for women). With the death of Guinness’s father, Rev. Henry Grattan Guinness, in 1910, revenues fell significantly. In addition, the RBMU confronted dissension in the Congo missions and at Harley House, where an attempt to dismiss the principal alienated students and staff. Guinness compromised at Harley House and went to the Congo in 1910 to conciliate insubordinate missionaries, contracting the illness that was to kill him in 1915.
His efforts were ineffective; the malcontents, led by Congo reform stalwarts Rev. Somerville Gilchrist and Rev. Harry Whiteside, agitated against Guinness until 1913, supported from London by John Harris. The RBMU directors addressed these problems by diluting Guinness’s power and saving money by selling a steamer and closing Doric Lodge and Harley House. In the midst of all this, the British Vice-Consul discovered that Guinness’s son-in-law was smuggling rifles into the Congo to trade for ivory. It is no wonder that Morel heard almost nothing from the RBMU after 1909. Not only was the RBMU working with Belgium to obtain new missions, its personal conflicts, institutional controversies, and financial worries distracted its beleaguered leader.
The American Baptist Missionary Union (ABMU) had close ties with the RBMU. The many ABMU missionaries, including Murphy and Sjoblom, had trained at Harley House. In the 1890s, after ABMU missionaries failed to interest local officials in their stories of rubber-related atrocities, Rev. Charles Harvey and Dr Aaron Sims alerted the mission’s American headquarters, which sent their report via the US State Department to Van Eetvelde, the head of the Congo government in Brussels, on the commonly held assumption that Leopold’s wayward officials were spoiling his benevolent intentions. Van Eetvelde played into this, feigning ignorance of the circumstances. He promised an investigation and punishment for the guilty. He also pointed out that Sims had previously made light of the rubber collection problems and had praised the Congo Free State. This introduces a common problem in the early Congo reform agitation: the ambivalence of missionaries. Knowing a limited territory, dependent on Congo officials, focused on conversion, and often willing to countenance coercion, many missionaries had said favorable things about the Congo Free State. As even Morel admitted, some Congo officials were men of good will toward the local people and thus earned missionary praise on their own merits. For missionaries stationed in areas not subject to rubber collection or coercive requisitioning, the stories told by their brethren or native refugees were just hearsay. The Congo government used these favorable comments to great effect in its fight against the reformers, even when the missionaries had clearly changed their opinions.
The ABMU missionaries were the most active in reporting Congo misrule in the mid-1890s, but they muted their criticism from 1898-1903 in the hope of reforms, out of respect for the BMS’s advice, and out of concern for the safety of the missions. Leopold had even appointed the ABMU’s own Dr Sims to the Commission for the Protection of the Natives. Unlike Grenfell, Sims thought the Commission boded well and that Leopold had heard their criticisms. But the Commission, designed to be powerless, turned out to be useless. After meeting with Rev. William Morrison of the Presbyterians in 1903, the ABMU leadership decided to speak out again even if it jeopardized their missions. Its missionaries appeared at Congo meetings in Britain and America. Thomas Barbour, the ABMU’s Foreign Secretary, rallied other American missions, organized the US Congo Reform Association and worked closely with Morel. The ABMU’s early involvement helped instigate the Congo campaign in the 1896-97 and intensify it in 1903-04. Its officers and missionaries were mainstays of the American agitation until it ended in 1909.
Already a century old and with long experience on the Congo, the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) of Great Britain was well placed to aid the reform movement, if it chose to do so. Unlike the ABMU, which operated on the lower Congo up to Stanley Pool, the BMS had stations along the upper Congo between Stanley Pool and Stanleyville at the great bend in the river. While there was no rubber collection in the immediate vicinity of the river, the government demanded military recruits, porters, fuel, and food of the local people. The BMS Congo missions had distinguished personnel who could command public attention if they wished, including the explorer-missionary Rev. George Grenfell and his colleague Rev. William Holman Bentley, author of Life on the Congo (1887) and Pioneering on the Congo (1900). In London, the redoubtable BMS Secretary, Alfred H. Baynes, exercised firm leadership and considerable diplomatic skills.
For a long time Grenfell and Bentley refused to believe that misgovernment was widespread. Grenfell responded to personal testimony, however, as we saw in his 1896 meeting with Sjoblom. Traveling with Casement in late 1903 shattered his last illusions. He resigned from the Commission for the Protection of the Natives, but without much effect. Not only had the powerless Commission not met in six years, its legal basis had expired in March 1903. Nonetheless, his resignation freed him to take a stand against Congo misgovernment in a 1903 letter to The Times, in 1904 Commission of Inquiry testimony, and, most dramatically, when he repudiated the rank of Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, causing Harris to exult, “Mr Grenfell has thrown the State completely over!” Grenfell’s new attitude did not prevent Congo apologists from citing him as a supporter for years to come.
BMS missionaries who had assisted Casement or testified at Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry began to come forward, joining the ABMU and CBM missionaries in publicly denouncing the Congo State. Even then, Baynes refused to change his policy when Morel asked for information, preferring to deal privately with the Congo government. In 1905, Rev. K.H.C. Graham, on the lower Congo, wrote to his fellow BMS missionaries urging them to send information to Morel and “like Weeks and Scrivener ignore instructions from home.” In Britain, the Baptist Union’s President, Rev. John Clifford, moved against Baynes and secured his retirement in late 1905. Officially, this was for health reasons, but his exit was slow; he worked in tandem with his replacement until 1907, but his influence dwindled. Sir George W. Macalpine, BMS Committee Chairman, initiated cooperation with the CRA in January 1906. He gruffly chided Morel for complaining about the BMS’s previous reticence, but Morel and Meyer showed him that these descriptions were accurate. Macalpine threw himself into the cause, personally donating over ?86 to the CRA and making BMS missionary Kenred Smith available to address public meetings in March 1906, the first of nine BMS missionary lecturers. Smith assured Morel, “You will be glad to know that the Baptist Missionary Society is now thoroughly in sympathy with Congo Reform.”
With the support of Macalpine and Baynes’ successor, Rev. C.E. Wilson, the BMS worked closely with the Congo reform movement. They paid the price of having their applications for new mission stations denied by both the Congo Free State and then Belgium. The Baptist Missionary Society, the last missionary organization to officially join the cause, ironically stayed with it longer than any other.
The American Presbyterian Congo Mission (APCM), active in the Kasai river valley, was important to the movement at several key moments. As previously discussed, Morrison, its local head, had protested about slave-raiding and the imposition of heavy taxes by local officials in 1898. Morrison came to Britain and spoke at one meeting, the only APCM missionary to do so. After the CRA’s founding, Morrison, Sheppard, and Rev. L.C. Vass sent Morel stories of misdeeds in the Kasai. Chapter 7 tells how the Kasai Company’s libel suit against Morrison and Sheppard backfired, producing reams of positive publicity for the reformers.
After the trial, the APCM dropped out of reform history. The mission forced Sheppard into retirement ostensibly for health reasons, but really because of evidence of repeated adultery. Morrison wrote to Morel just once after this, congratulating him on his 1911 testimonial.
Other missionary societies, such as the Plymouth Brethren, the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, and the Swedish Missionary Society, played minor parts in the reform campaign, usually by providing evidence to Morel or to their home offices. Most notably, on 11 January 1906, they joined the other Protestant Missions in an appeal to the world about Congo misrule. Fifty-two missionaries signed, representing not only the UK and US, but also Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It was a rare show of unity. As the Belgian regime eliminated the worst abuses and worked with the missions, cooperation lapsed, the victim of distance, competition, and internal concerns.
The collaboration of the missionary societies and the CRA was a marriage of convenience. The CRA aimed to enshrine rights and justice in laws and administrative practices, but the missionary societies’ primary goal was to bring Christianity with as few impediments as possible. Morel’s own feelings about the missionary societies reflected Mary Kingsley’s hostility to their interference with
African culture and his difficulties obtaining their cooperation. The Executive Committee, even with its religious element, was not useful in securing missionary alliances despite the presence of Guinness. The BMS’s long hesitation and Guinness’s vacillation did nothing to alleviate suspicions. Even in late 1906, during the time of greatest cooperation, Casement fretted that the missionary societies were trying to turn the Congo question to their own interests. This was not a marriage for better or worse. If the viciousness of Leopold’s regime had temporarily united the missionaries and the CRA, the reform of that regime quickly exposed their divergent interests. The controversies and frustrations should not blind us to the benefits of their collaboration. Bound together by a common enemy into a difficult relationship, the CRA’s alliance with the missionary societies, while it lasted, was enormously productive for the Congo reform movement.
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