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When Harmony Went to Hell: Congo Dialogues – Alice Seeley Harris

This darkly startling photographic exhibition currently running in London is the story of a forgotten holocaust. It takes its title "When harmony went to hell" from a phrase used by Mark Twain in his anti-Leopold satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy published in 1905: 

The kodak has been a sole calamity to us. The most powerful enemy indeed. In the early years we had no trouble in getting the press to “expose” the tales of mutilations as slanders, lies, inventions of busy-body American missionaries and exasperated foreigners.... Yes, all things went harmoniously and pleasantly in those good days.... Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak –and all harmony went to hell! The only witness I couldn’t bribe.

Alice Seeley Harris. This picture represents a Swedish Missionary and a little Congo boy mutilated by a rubber Sentry in the employ of a Concessionaire “Company” in the Upper Congo, c. 1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

Twain was directly and profoundly influenced by the photographs taken by Alice Seeley Harris. This exhibition features a lantern slide collection dating from 1904 – the first public display for over a century - produced from the photographs of Alice Seeley Harris. She apparently had no previous experience of photography and there is no evidence that she used her camera for campaigning purposes after her return from the Congo. Nonetheless her images vividly capture the abject misery of those who endured colonial rule. She and her husband, Rev John Harris, were English missionaries who went to the Congo Free State in 1898. She was a founding member of the organisation Anti-Slavery International. The stark images became part of a campaign to bring to public attention the profoundly awful violence perpetrated by agents of the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. 

King Leopold had declared the Congo Free State a free trade zone in 1885, part of the "scramble for Africa" following the conference convened by Bismarck in Berlin in 1884 to discuss the future of Africa. The Congo Basin was rich in natural resources, notably rubber, and Leopold wished to exploit them as quickly and as fully as possible. For this he needed an endless supply of compliant Congolese labour. The methods used to guarantee that the regime’s quotas were met were truly horrifying. For me, the image of Nsala, blankly contemplating the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter is the most haunting in the exhibition. The rest of her body had been used to make a feast by cannibal sentries, themselves conscripted by the Belgian regime. Other images show the results of mutilation, flogging, execution, burning, rape on a widespread scale. Men saw terrible things done to their families if they failed to meet their quotas. Yet there is no trace of sentimentality in the images – they simply constitute important empirical evidence.

Alice Seeley Harris. Nsala of Wala, with the hand and foot of his five-year old little girl – all that remained of a feast by cannibal “sentries”, Congo Free State, c.1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

The lantern slides were used by the Congo Reform Society as part of a travelling campaign to put pressure on the regime of King Leopold II who had sought to project the image of a benevolent colonial master. The graphic images of violence done to victims confirmed other anecdotal evidence of the atrocities and was of such power that enormous international political pressure was quickly brought to bear on the King. Having long treated the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom, and unable any longer to deny complicity in the atrocities, he was obliged to give up absolute rule over it in 1908. 

No one would claim that such a swift end to the atrocities was entirely due to Alice’s work.  Her husband was one of a number of missionaries who along with journalists and explorers ensured that the truth about Leopold’s violence on a grand scale gradually filtered home. Alice’s photographs however provided incontrovertible evidence of these horrors of empire. The fact that Leopold lost his unfettered control so soon after Alice’s photos were made widely available to the public in Europe tells its own story.

This archive is displayed to good effect alongside the contemporary photographic work of Sammy Baloji, a contemporary Congolese, who uses the medium to explore current political concerns. He warns that "the past is forever haunting the future." His work argues that ancient atrocities have left deep scars on the people, that they still cast deep shadows over the nation’s politics. Foucault’s question is posed: "Should not the analysis of power be first and foremost an analysis of the mechanics of repression?" Baloji "refuses to allow the path of Congolese history to be swept clean" as some would want. "There is no new beginning."

Alice Seeley Harris. Manacled members of a chain gang at Bauliri. A common punishment for not paying taxes, Congo Free State, c. 1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

Today’s tyrants are not monarchs. They are industrialists, land speculators, Chinese and Lebanese among others, resource-hungry entrepreneurs, their Congolese partners, the state. The vivid colour pictures show a desolate post-industrial landscape and unimaginable poverty. A few brightly coloured modern developments startle us against the background of grim, plastic-festooned urban wastelands. Baloji’s photo of the Congolese Office of Post and Telecommunications in Kinshasa, taken very recently, resembles the back of a dirty and chaotic garage empty of anything which might do the job of communicating.

A visit to these companion exhibitions is a sobering experience, and not one which can easily be cast aside as you make for the exit. As you enter the gallery you are given a dire warning: 

"Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is the trigger. If that explosive trigger bursts, it’s the whole Africa that will explode." Attributed to Frantz Fanon

The exhibition is extremely well staged. The images of the atrocities are very sensitively handled; they create shock but not inertia. They are supported by the recording of a lecture which supplies further information about the life and work of Alice Seeley Harris and Leopold’s regime. The exhibition even offers a recording of an interview with her. The juxtaposition of Baloji’s work  Alice’s images lends the whole a great contemporary relevance, and one that extends beyond Congo to the African continent.

The exhibition is sponsored by Autograph ABP, a charity which works to confront human rights abuses around the world particularly through the medium of photography. Anti-Slavery International is celebrating its 175th anniversary with a series of events of which this forms a part.

If you should be in London before March 7, you would do well to make the trip to Rivington Place before you go to any of the larger London galleries. After all, some of them were, at their foundation, implicated in the terrors of empire. Immediately after my visit to this exhibition I went to another exhibition, a large retrospective in one of London’s leading galleries. But on the journey home my mind was filled with Alice – such courage, intelligence, compassion.

Mrs Alice Sealy Harris being protected by ABIR (Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company) security guards, Congo Free State, c.1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

Mrs Harris with Africans carrying sling, tramping through the Ikelemba-Juapa watershed, Congo Free State, c.1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP exhibition, Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA

Main image: Alice Seeley Harris / J.H. Harris. Mrs Alice Seeley Harris with a large group of Congolese children, Congo Free State, c.1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP

Michael Pearson taught ethics, philosophy and spirituality at Newbold College in the UK for many years. Recently retired, he is currently working on several writing projects including a manuscript on Adventist spirituality and a conference paper on the ethics of Adventist participation in World War I.

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