In 1898, a Southern Presbyterian named Lachlan Cumming Vass II volunteered as a missionary to the Congo Free State. At the time, the nation was still under the oppressive control of Belgium’s King Leopold II. In the 1890s, Leopold’s dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine, began to exploit Congolese natural resources (including rubber, copper, and other minerals) and to forcibly employ indigenous peoples as laborers. Leopold made huge profits from these endeavors, but only through the violent physical oppression of Congolese workers, many of whom were tortured, maimed, and/or killed. Estimates suggest that this forced labor system directly or indirectly decimated the Free State’s indigenous population by 20%. Gradually, the international community learned of these atrocities, often through consciousness-raising activities of Presbyterian missionaries like William M. Morrison and William H. Sheppard. Upon his arrival, Vass quickly joined his colleagues’ efforts.
Vass’ photographic documentation of the atrocities now resides at the Presbyterian Historical Society, in the Vass Family papers collection. My partner Dan and I recently had the opportunity to process these records. As we did, I was fascinated to learn more about Presbyterians’ roles in exposing the horrors of early colonial Congo rule.
Vass spoke explicitly about the rubber worker atrocities in a 1906 letter to Stanley Hall, president of the Congo Reform Association in the U.S.:
“How bad are the conditions? . . . I am in a position to say from personal experience . . . that the conditions in the Congo have not in the least been exaggerated . . . . It would make your blood boil to see some of the treatment meeted [sic] out on these poor defenseless people . . .”
Vass was also frank about his own cultural and social baggage, having been born in the Reconstruction-era South just seven years after Emancipation:
“I am a Southern [white] man from the black belt of eastern [North Carolina] and I don’t think we are often loaded with praise for our love of the Negro . . . but I wish to protest in the strongest terms to the absolutely inhuman way these poor people in their own country are being butchered by the white man, and all under the cloak of Philanthropy. I believe confidently that there has never been such a contemptably dishonest government on the face of the earth.”
Vass and his fellow missionaries certainly suffered for their outspokenness. In fact, both Sheppard and Morrison were charged with libel after they accused the Company Kasai rubber company of malfeasance and violence against workers. (Both missionaries were eventually acquitted). Nevertheless, the actions of these Presbyterian missionaries contributed to the overall effort to topple the regime, which succeeded on November 15, 1908, when Belgium annexed the state.
What amazing activists! You can learn more about Vass II and his work in the Congo by checking out the Vass Family Papers at PHS.
[Excerpts above from L.C. Vass, letter to G. Stanley Hall, September 4, 1906, Vass Family Papers, 1:14, Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia, Pa.).]