A COUPLE of “interfering missionaries,” one armed with an “incorruptible Kodak,” revealed one of the worst stories of colonial barbarity – the slavery, torture, massacres and shocking corruption of the Belgian rule over the Congo.
Alice Seeley Harris, the “meddlesome missionary” whose shocking photographs revealed the extent of the cruelty and horrors of the Belgian occupation, was born in Frome. Her great-grand-daughter, who still lives in the town, was at Rook Lane Chapel for The Meddling of Mrs Harris, a dramatic reading and question and answer session which explored the legacy of this key figure in the anti-slavery movement of the 20th century.
Alice, who was born in 1870, and died exactly a century later, married John Harris and travelled with him to the Congo as a missionary. In 1904 two men arrived at the mission from a village that had been attacked by “sentries” of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company because they had failed to provide the required rubber quota. One of the men, Nsala, held a small bundle of leaves – when he opened it, the missionaries saw the severed hand and foot of a child. The sentries had killed and mutilated Nsala’s wife and daughter.
Alice persuaded Nsala to pose with the pathetic remains of his child on the veranda of her home. This picture would become one of the most shocking – and most influential – images in the Seeley Harris collection.
Over the next few years, Alice photographed and recorded other stories of horrific brutality and became a prominent early human rights campaigner with her Harris Lantern Slide Show, which she toured tirelessly around Europe and the US. Her talk and even more her photographs showed the world the reality of the exploitation, murder and slavery in the Congo.
In 1905, Mark Twain published King Leopold’s Soliloquy, an imagined set of musings – with a typically Twain satirical edge – in which the monarch cites his divine authority, claims that he is bringing Christianity to the “savages” and defends the massacres, torture and other atrocities on the grounds that “in business there are winners and losers.”
The part of the king was read by Peter Clark, who added the occasional contemporary comment – “Fake news” to criticise the diary records of Roger Casement, who was working in the Congo at that time, and the reports sent by the missionary to European and American newspapers.
There is a chilling sanctimoniousness about the King’s self-justification. It is estimated that more than 10 million people died in the Congo over a 20 year period at the end of the 19th century. It was said that Leopold, who claimed to be “saving souls” was “the king with 10 million murders on his soul.”
Leopold believed, according to Mark Twain, that he could invoke God and bribe his way into securing the support – or at least the non-intervention – of other western powers. But he could not bribe the Kodak camera. “This incorruptible Kodak,” he says, “was the only witness I have not been able to bribe.”
When they returned to England, John Harris became Liberal MP for Hackney. Alice became a director of the Anti-Slavery Society, later Anti-Slavery International – her photographic human rights campaign was a primary reason slavery in the Belgian Congo was abolished.
The event, arranged by writer Crysse Morrison and Rosie Finnegan of Nevertheless Productions, was part of Frome Festival. Rosie told the audience that she is keen to see a proper memorial to Alice Seeley Harris in Frome.
Pictured: Rebecca Seeley Harris and Peter Clark (in his Mark Twain (/King Leopold costume).