Redefining the enemy: paganism or commercial thuggery?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Volume 26

Harry Grattan Guinness’s journey from preaching to politics.

By Catherine Guinness

Above: Dr Harry Guinness—great-grandson of Arthur, the brewer, and son of the missionary Henry Grattan Guinness.

Henry Grattan Guinness is a charismatic figure well known to many, a leader of the evangelical revival of the mid-nineteenth century, an eschatologist and founder of a faith mission group, the Regions Beyond Missionary Union. A grandson of Arthur Guinness, he took a very different road in life from his brewery cousins. Not so well known is Henry’s son, Dr Harry Grattan Guinness, whose story takes one into the ‘heart of darkness’—the Congo under King Leopold II of Belgium.

A decisive challenge to the gross mismanagement of the Congo was conceived by three men in London in December 1903. Roger Casement was just back from his fateful reporting assignment in the Congo when he arranged to meet Harry Guinness and Edmund Morel. On that day plans for the Congo Reform Association were made, seeding one of the first human rights campaigns of the twentieth century. Researchers now estimate that upwards of ten million Congolese lost their lives under the administration of the Congo Free State: the reformers were determined to turn this genocidal state around.

My interest in this campaign is a personal one: Harry is my grandfather. Unravelling the background to Harry’s invitation to meet with Casement has taken me back in family history to the days when the Grattan Guinness family became involved with missionary work in the Congo. Could I throw more light on the response of the Congo Balolo Mission to the shocking humanitarian tragedy that unfolded around their mission stations in Upper Congo? Would my discoveries moderate my scepticism about missionary work? My curiosity led me into a huge story.

Missionaries’ dilemma

In committing himself and his missionary organisation to the reform campaign, Harry was acutely aware of the dangers both to his staff in the Congo and to his organisation’s standing with King Leopold. The Balolo people amongst whom the missionaries lived and worked were subject to shocking exploitation by the rubber companies, intent, like Leopold, on squeezing the maximum amount of rubber ‘tax’ from the villagers for the least cost. To expose the human rights abuses being perpetrated—harsh beatings, amputations, small- and large-scale murder and the torching of villages—would bring the mission up against the powerful rubber barons on whom the missionaries depended, the agents of the state who controlled the army and the courts, and the king himself, whose word could expel them from the Congo at a moment’s notice.

Such threats were trifling compared to those experienced by the villagers. Missionaries who had been registering their complaints about the abuses at a local level had got nowhere. Harry had gone personally to the king to pass on evidence of abuses, but in time had concluded that the king’s assurances that he would take appropriate action were only hollow words. Increasingly missionaries, especially those working for American evangelical missions, publicised first-hand reports of abuses, which could not be ignored as isolated instances of misconduct.

Morel’s discoveries

While missionary complaints were discredited as hearsay or as extreme cases, evidence of a very different nature was brought to light by Edmund Morel, whose brilliant investigative instincts led him to uncover the truth behind trade with the Congo Free State. He worked as a clerk for Elder Dempster, the Liverpool shipping firm that held the contract for the trading run between Belgium and the Congo. At the Antwerp docks he made a shocking discovery that led him to resign and to take up full-time writing and campaigning. Morel found that the steamers regularly shipped to the Congo prodigious quantities of rifles and ammunition, while the amount of rubber and ivory brought home greatly exceeded the amounts indicated in official Congo government returns. What were the arms used for? Who pocketed the surplus value of the merchandise? And if the imports into Congo were not being used for trade, what were the Africans getting? Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out. This was, he concluded, but another form of slavery.

The evidence was damning, and Morel committed himself to accumulating more information to feature in his newspaper, the West African Mail. It was while seeking articles that Morel wrote to Harry Guinness for first-hand accounts of mistreatment of Africans. Guinness wrote back:

‘We have a great deal of information on the cruelties, but what precisely we shall do with it is a point that I am hoping to bring before our next Congo Council. The difficulty is to do good without doing harm.’

Above: E.D. Morel—his brilliant investigative instincts led him to uncover the truth behind trade with the Congo Free State.

Meanwhile, Roger Casement, a veteran of twenty years in Africa and working as the British consul in the Congo, had been instructed by the British government to go into the interior and to send reports back. They needed substantial independent evidence to back up the many claims that were accumulating against Leopold. Casement’s report was devastating. He found that whole districts that he knew well from his previous work were now without a human being; others ‘were reduced to a handful of sick or harassed creatures’.

Knowing full well that he would pay dearly for it, Casement decided to speak out at all costs. When he returned to England he told a friend:

‘I saw some revolting things and I mean to speak the truth from the heart. The result will be Hades, and I shall come in for the most relentless personal abuse from Brussels … for me personally there could come only bitter days, much keen regret at breaking friendships and in the end perhaps ruin—if I told the truth.’

Congo Reform Association

Not trusting the Foreign Office to take strong enough action in response to his report, Casement met first with Guinness and then with Morel to persuade them to set up an organisation to galvanise a massive public outcry to protest the Congo regime. Guinness and the Congo Council had by now decided to make public the reports that were accumulating from their 40 mission staff, and Guinness was ready to join with Morel on the founding committee of the Congo Reform Association.

As Casement predicted, Guinness was the right man to gather a huge public following for the cause. In addition, he was king of the magic lantern. When Casement handed him a packet of photos fresh from the Congo he knew exactly what he would do with them. He was already a well-known evangelist, using his oratory to garner support for mission work: the Congolese were, he explained, weighed down with the fear of witchcraft and sorcery and needed the light of the Christian message to free them. Now he rewrote his message to incorporate Morel’s analysis and focus on the outrageous abuse of Africans by the Free State regime, and revised his lantern show to include the atrocity photos from missionaries at the front. The new show, ‘A Reign of Terror on the Congo’, was designed to shock the audience into repulsion against the cruel rubber industry and the Congo government, and to galvanise the public into supporting the reform campaign.

His extensive network of contacts throughout the UK enabled Guinness quickly to gather thousands to hear his new message. When his colleague John Harris returned to England, he took over this work and was loaned to the Congo Reform Association to work full-time with Morel on the campaign. Harris’s wife, Alice Seeley Harris, was a fine photographer and captured some of the most telling images of the atrocities. To consolidate the public-speaking work, Harry documented missionary evidence of maladministration, and included the testimonies of the Congolese to focus attention on the people who were suffering. Congo slavery was published in 1904. He appealed for action:

‘The pitiful story speaks for itself and calls upon the civilised world to restrain the hands of those who have lost sight of all humane considerations in gratifying a feverish lust for gold.’

Above: Nsala of Wala staring at the remains of his daughter, murdered by the rubber company.

In my quest to understand the part played by my grandfather and the Congo Balolo missionaries, I became aware of contributions made by many other activists involved in the struggle. Their stories enable a more general assessment of missionary humanitarian activism. One lingering doubt concerns whether missionary responses were muted and delayed by their vested interest and their long collaboration with King Leopold and his regime.

The picture of missionary response is not uniform. On the one hand, there were those missionaries working in the Congo who became whistle-blowers, fearlessly making public statements and being harassed by the Congo State as a result. The first to speak out in public were American Baptist and Presbyterian missionaries. On the other hand, there were clear instances when reaction was slow. This was true of the missionary headquarters in the UK. Reluctant to see King Leopold as a villain and aware of their agreement to do only spiritual and non-political work, they chose not to jeopardise Leopold’s support, on which their presence in Congo depended.

Above: A Congolese female victim of the atrocities. Researchers now estimate that upwards of ten million Congolese lost their lives under the administration of the Congo Free State.

The contribution of missionaries was a crucial element in the protracted but eventually successful Congo Reform Campaign. They lived closest to the people bearing the brunt of the atrocities, and they used their position to bear witness to the horrors and to support the Congolese to speak directly to the authorities. They challenged the authorities in the Congo, both the rubber companies and the agents of the state. They became impatient with headquarters prevarication and went public with their stories, using print media and public meetings to expose the atrocities. They were so successful in their attacks that they suffered retribution from the state and the companies, including threats of violence, withdrawal of services such as mail and food supply, and accusations of libel ending in court cases.

Reports coming back from the missions were used by the Aborigines Protection Society, in parliament, by Morel and the Congo Reform Campaign, by the churches and in numerous publications on the Congo atrocities. Morel benefited from the partnerships of Harry Guinness and John and Alice Harris of the Congo Balolo Mission to recruit huge public support for reform. This popular campaign, part grass-roots indignation and part evangelical fervour, forced parliament to take missionary reports seriously and to dispatch Casement to investigate. After the Casement Report there was no turning back, and parliament pushed for reform until the Belgian government took over the administration of the Congo and implemented reform.

It was the Christian missionaries who not only witnessed the atrocities but also had the moral integrity to stand up against these human rights abuses. This experience carried them beyond the confines of theology into secular political engagement, where they found a significant measure of common cause with secular humanists.

Catherine Guinness is a community worker focusing on human rights and social justice.

Read More:
From brewers to evangelists
Morrison: witness to massacre


  • C. Guinness, Rubber justice (Melbourne, 2017).
  • A. Hochschild, King Leopold’s ghost (New York, 1999).
  • A. Mitchell, 16 Lives: Roger Casement (Dublin, 2013).

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