06 April 2015

William Henry Sheppard and King Leopold's Congo Free State

I'm currently teaching a course in World History since 1600, and when working up the syllabus, I decided to have the students read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, (2006 Mariner edition) which is a story of terror in the Belgian Congo during the decades that straddled the turn of the twentieth century. I read this book a few years ago, but because I had assigned it for this class, I decided to reread it to refresh my memory. The appalling nature of what went on at the time was not a surprise for me to say the least, and my memories were pretty fresh regarding most of the events.

To make a long story short, King Leopold was a king who felt his lack of an empire made his little country of Belgium, well, little. Wanting to increase his standing on the world stage, he was able to use people like Henry Morton Stanley to work his way into the Congo and get the United States to recognize his own personal colony. What followed in this attempt to "improve" the region was a level of death and destruction that ranks up there with that perpetrated by some of the more famous butchers of history. Hochschild and other writers have estimated that nearly 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of the Force Publique and other minions of a variety of companies that traded, first in the ivory, and then in the rubber, that the region produced.

Of course, in addition to civilizing the Congolese, many people in Belgium appreciated that Catholic missionaries would be let in. In many instances, these priests did little to stop the atrocities in the early years. Some of the biggest outcries against the regime came from Protestant missionaries. One of the earliest to attempt to bring attention to Leopold's personal colony of what he termed the Congo Free State (an ironic name considering that forced labor was the rule, rather than the exception in the colony) was a Presbyterian missionary from the United States, William Henry Sheppard.

Sheppard was an African American who endeared himself to the Congolese among whom he worked. He was paired with Samuel Lapsley for the Southern Presbyterians. When his superior, Lapsley, died, Sheppard effectively took over the mission in a capacity he would not have been afforded in his home country. Over time, he became aware of the violence that occurred daily and published an account for his denomination. As it was published in the Congo Free State, Sheppard was guilty of breaking the law, but he was acquitted in the trial. His report, along with others by missionaries and secular humanitarians, eventually contributed to the transfer of the colony to the Belgian people. Sheppard will probably not come up in many of the leading general works on American church history, but his impact on the Belgian Congo was quite important.