The photograph is graphic. It was taken in 1904. But the question is very basic. Do people look to Christians today when they need help? Do they turn to the Church in times of need? Do they look at us as agents of justice? When all else has failed, are we the heroes? A hundred years ago this man looked to a pair of Christian Missionaries- John and Alice Harris… in his darkest hour, from the deepest well of hopelessness a man could face. And they answered him.
I’m going to start with a history lesson based at this photo. Many people have never seen this photo, or have heard its story, but it is one of the most important photographs ever taken in history. It brought the reality of brutal colonialism to the attention and consciousness of polite American and European society and helped to change, at least briefly, the system that had continued the most inhumane forms of slavery well into the 20th Century. It is estimated that the rape of the Congo cost 10 million natives their lives.
This is Nsala of Wala… and in front of him is the severed hand and foot of his 5 year old daughter. Nsala was a villager who was unfortunate enough to have become a subject of King Leopold II of Belgium. The riches of the region at the turn of the century was rubber… a raw material, transformed by a new chemical process and the introduction of sulfur and heat to the rubber tree sap, that was essential to the industrialization of the 20th century. Leopold personally “owned” the Congo… and all the Africans that lived there were his to do with as he pleased.
Nsala’s task was to tap rubber trees and retrieve the precious sap. There were strictly enforced quotas… and when you failed to meet your quota, there were consequences. There were chains and beatings… You could be beaten with a whip made of hippo hide called a chicotte that cut deeply into your back… a remnant of the Portuguese slave trade that has been retained by the descendants of colonial rule to this day. And there were amputations. Leopold’s thugs were the Force Publique- recruited from “warrior tribes” often hostile to the people they were placed over… a uniformed group brutal overseers under the loose control of Belgian authorities.
Nsala did not meet his quota and was beaten. When his wife intervened, she was struck with a rifle butt and slashed with a machete. When he protested, they cut off his daughters hand and foot. Not satisfied, the beat him more and then butchered his family. Nsala was left laying in the muddy dirt of his families bloody remains. Some accounts also give him a son that died that day. Some say that Force Publique ate parts of their victims and took trophies.
At some point he gets up from the dirt and grabs his daughter’s hand and foot and carefully wraps them. He carries them up river in his canoe to the house of British Missionaries, and kneels with the package at the feet of Alice Harris. She opens the package… and I don’t know what was said, or how it was communicated, but the moment was to change Alice and John Harris’ lives unfolded. She got her “portable” camera… A large box on a tri-pod. And posed Nsala, carefully placing the severed limbs on the steps of the porch.
She and her husband collected the stories and photo after photo… Copies of photos and stories appeared in newspapers. Letters were written to authorities in Belgium as well as to leaders and newspapers around Europe and in the US. This photo shocked the Beligian people. King Leopold couldn’t deny the power of the emotions it aroused. In 1905, the couple toured the US and Europe, showing the pictures and giving lectures. They attracted the attention of and brought to their cause, an army of middle class English and Americans, wealthy liberals on both sides of the Atlantic- who funded the tour… as well as Kings, President Taft, and former President Theodore Roosevelt, and the literary nobility, most notably Mark Twain. A picture… it was worth the life of a nation. In 1908, the Belgian government bought the king’s bloody playground… the virtual state of slavery for the indigenous population ended, and the bulk of the bloodiest atrocities ceased. And in that moment, photojournalism was born and the power of the image (well known since Paul Revere’s “The Bloody Massacre in Boston”) was affirmed.
King Leopold was forced to give up the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908… The Belgians held it as a colony until the 1960s… and since then factional bloodshed, civil wars, and incursions by neighbors have continued.
The Harrisses spent the rest of their life fighting for justice in Africa. They fought slavery and colonial deprivations. The fought for democratic self rule… and John Harris served in Parliament was even knighted for his efforts. He died suddenly at the start of World War II, with much of Africa still under colonial rule. But he never stopped being a missionary… on a job for Jesus… pursuing justice.
I don’t know what happened to Nsala. I know the photo would have put his life at risk. But I don’t know why he chose to go up river to Alice Harris’ porch that day… What was he seeking? This man was looking for justice… and so he thought of that Christian couple up river… What did he think she could do? I don’t know why Alice Harris responded as she did… or why she chose to make that photograph… Did she know how powerful an image it would be?
So today, if somebody in the midst of the worst situation imaginable… would they look to the church? Why would they think to seek out the followers of Christ? If someone was seeking justice, would they go to Christians? And if they did, would we know what to do?
In 1904 Alice Harris as a hero. Before her photo 10 million Congolese were slaughtered and no one cared. After her photo a king gave up a kingdom and millions lived.