In the summer of 1902, Alice Seeley Harris walked out on her front porch to meet a sobbing man in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The visitor, Nsala de Wala, gave Alicia a package wrapped in banana leaves.
Years later, while speaking to an audience in Surrey, England, Alice said: “To my own horror, two small pieces of human anatomy fell; a tiny child’s foot, a tiny hand.”
Nsala de Wala was unable to muster his quota of rubber for the day, and Belgian-appointed overseers killed his wife and daughter and handed over the girl’s amputated limbs to him. He took the gruesome remains to Alice, a missionary for a British Baptist organization.
Alice took out her camera, a rare device for that time and place, and captured an image that would eventually help undermine King Leopold II of Belgium, who was carrying out a reign of terror in what was then called the Congo Free State. . Alice’s photo of the tiny body parts and other images documenting Belgian brutality helped spearhead reform efforts in the region.
Remembering the powerful impact of this diminutive Englishwoman is a great way to mark International Women’s Day, with its Embrace Equity theme, on March 8. In an era where women were expected to take a backseat, Alice chose to speak up and act for the rights of a disempowered and persecuted population. Her voice and her photos helped change the world.
Born in 1870 and raised in Somerset, England, Alice always had a heart for people suffering from poverty and injustice. She found a like-minded man in John Hobbis Harris, and they set sail for the Congo four days after her marriage in 1898, intent on teaching literacy to isolated rural tribes.
John and Alice soon noticed an unusual number of children and young adults missing hands, legs, and feet. They wondered if the missing limbs were the result of disease or religious rituals. Instead, they learned that Congolese workers were often mutilated for failing to meet rubber collection quotas or other minor infractions. Brutality was routine in the Congo Free State, which was the private property of King Leopold.
Using a mercenary army called the Force Publique, Leopold essentially enslaved the locals, using rape, torture, and murder to enforce his authority. Force Publique’s brutality was so horrifying that it could have wiped out roughly half the population in just a few years. It is difficult to know how many people died under Leopold’s control: estimates range from one million to 15 million.
John and Alice Harris had no idea of Leopold’s brutality before they came to Africa. But when they recognized the scope, Alice, an amateur photographer who had packed a camera to document insects and wildlife, turned the lens on her to document the abuse.
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Photography was rare and prohibitively expensive at the time, but Alice recognized the potential of the visual medium to document suffering in a way that would reach the masses. Possessing the eye of an artist, she took hundreds of photos, many of them with victims cradling stumps of arms in white linen.
Alice and John and other witnesses to the brutality began letter writing campaigns, contacting reporters, politicians and other people in power. They sent glass slides of her photographs along with letters from her and eventually traveled throughout Europe and America, showing Alice’s photos and giving lectures on the situation. Those photos helped attract the attention of influential people like Mark Twain, who wrote a damning pamphlet, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” to raise awareness of the brutality.
Despite being harassed and threatened by Leopold’s allies, John and Alice continued to speak up and display their photos to alert the world to the atrocities. International outrage grew and Leopold was forced to leave the Congo Free State in 1908.
John was knighted in 1933 for his role in exposing abuse, but Alice’s role was less celebrated at the time. Alice lived to be 100 years old and spoke publicly about Congo atrocities until she was 90 years old. But her heroism had all but faded until historians recently began to recognize the power of her photographs.
Some of Alice’s photographs appeared in a 2021 book, “What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999,” which won the prestigious Kraszna-Krausz photography prize. Her life was chronicled in a 2014 biography, “Don’t Call Me Lady,” by Judy Pollard Smith, and a play about her is in the works.
Alice’s photos and life story continue to bear witness to the abject cruelty suffered by millions of people in the Congo. And they also illustrate the difference one woman can make in the fight against cruelty and for equity.
Ray Stanton is the author of “Out of the Shadow of 9/11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation.”