Red rubber in sepia: Slavery, memory and representation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Katie Donington

As part of the Antislavery Usable Past project I am digitising a collection of 509 photographs produced by a British missionary Alice Seeley Harris. The images have achieved an iconic status in the representation of the human suffering that occurred in the Congo Free State when it was under the control of King Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century.

During the period in which Leopold wielded personal control he sanctioned an unprecedented regime of expropriative labour and violence in order to produce rubber – a commodity that had increased hugely in value due to European enthusiasm for both cycling and the automobile. To increase production Leopold set quotas for the villages and used his personal army – the Force Publique – to enforce the labour regime. Failure to meet the quota resulted in harsh punishments included whipping, torture, mutilation, kidnap, rape and death. Perhaps most notoriously soldiers were instructed to prove they had not wasted bullets by producing the hand of their victims as proof the shot had not been wasted. Estimates of the death toll vary from 50% of the population to around 15%. The number is invariably quoted in the millions with Adam Hochschild putting the death toll at around 10 million people.

Young Borassus

Alice Seeley Harris, ‘Young Borassus palm at Leopoldville’, MSS. Brit. Emp. S. 17 / B1 (Box 2). Unusually Alice herself features in this photograph. Image © Antislavery International.

In 1886 private accounts of the brutal regime were sent by British missionary Reverend George Grenfell to the Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. He chose not to make his views public because he didn’t want to compromise his mission in the Congo. Some of the more powerful missionary groups chose to remain silent rather than risk expulsion from the territory. African-American missionary George Washington Williams was the next to sound the alarm this time appealing publicly to both Leopold and President Harrison of the United States via letter in 1890 but his untimely death laid to rest his accusations. By 1891 reports by former British members of the Force Publique began to filter through to the Foreign Office. The Aborigines Protection Society and their Parliamentary ally Sir Charles Dilke lobbied the British government, with Dilke raising the issue in the House of Commons for the first time in 1897.

As rumours of abuse, exploitation and unfair trading practices circulated British political and commercial interest was piqued. In 1904 the British Consul in the Congo Roger Casement and Liverpool shipping clerk E. D. Morel formed the Congo Reform Association. They began to campaign to raise public awareness of conditions. Despite initial enthusiasm their efforts stalled until they joined forces with British missionaries Alice Seeley Harris and her husband Rev. John Harris. Alice and John had been stationed at the Congo Balolo Mission since 1898. Her images depicting missionary life had appeared in the Mission’s magazine Regions Beyond regularly but it wasn’t until 1903 that her atrocity photography was included in the publication. In 1905 the Harrises arrived back in Britain on furlough. They offered their own solution for reanimating the campaign – a lantern lecture tour that would showcase Alice’s photography alongside a lecture that documented the terrible suffering of the Congolese. The lecture was also used to drum up support for the mission. The show toured both Britain and America and was so popular that the slides and lecture were reproduced so anyone could deliver the show.

Director of Temvo.jpg

Alice Seeley Harris, ‘Director of Temvo Plantation with family’, MSS. Brit. Emp. S. 17 / B4 (Box 4). Image © Antislavery International.

The circulation of these images came to define the representation of the Congo during the period. Lauded as an early example of ‘humanitarian crisis photography’ the images raise issues about representation, consent, power, voice and intention. Part of my work for this project is thinking through what the ‘usable past’ of these images might be. Rooted in the relationship between humanitarianism and empire, this work is centrally concerned with the ways in which past antislavery visual culture sustained racialised tropes that, far from anti-colonial, were bound up with the imperial project. In analysing the pamphlets, literature and lecture notes that featured and accompanied the images the project considers how the politics of the civilising mission shaped their meaning (re)producing the racial hierarchies that authorised colonial rule. The problematic nature of these photographs, framed as they are through an imperial and ethnographic lens, form part of a highly racialised visual economy that continues to persist within current humanitarian campaigning.

Petna CIFF

Petna Ndaliko Katondolo and Chérie Rivers Ndaliko of Yole!Africa with participants at the Congo International Film Festival. Image © True Africa.

How then to negotiate the digitisation and display of this archive? Partnerships with Congolese organisations and individuals offer one route to countering the colonial gaze. We have built a partnership with Yole!Africa – an arts-based learning organization in Goma. Artistic Director and film-maker Petna Ndaliko Katondolo will organise a series of workshops in which he will work with local people to consider what the usable past of these images is for people living in the DRC today. They will debate and discuss the relationship between history, memory and identity, using the photographs as a starting point for a wider conversation and about the relationship between past and present. During the workshops the participants will be invited to reflect on the processes of building an archive and will begin to shape a strategy for categorising and tagging the images so that they are searchable for online users. In flipping the power relations of an academic project to cede control over the meaning of the images to local communities we see this project as contributing towards a decolonisation of the archive.

Together we will co-curate a new exhibition, learning resources, catalogue and film, for and with the local community. The learning activities associated with this project will be integrated into the curriculum at Yole!Africa and will be distributed to local schools, community groups, universities and NGOs. The material will also be incorporated into the activities of the Congo International Film Festival which brings together 14,000 people in Goma. The resources produced (film, exhibition, catalogue and education materials) and local responses will be archived and made available via the Antislavery Usable Past digital archive. This will give an international platform for Congolese people to be heard and we hope that their experiences and voices will shape a more critically aware culture of representation within NGOs operating in the DRC.

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