A few years ago, I wrote about the human rights crises in Congo throughout the 19th and 20th century. There, I have failed to mention a few details about the photo accompanying the post (reproduced above). The photo showed a man named Nsala Wala with his daughter’s hand and foot. Alice Harris, working as a missionary in the Congo, took the photo in May 1904, after he had come into her mission at Baringa with a small package containing the severed body parts. Both his wife and child had been killed and mutilated.
Cutting off hands was a common practice by the Force Publique, the police authorities of the Belgian Congo, to prevent theft and to terrorize the planters into harvesting more rubber. Deeply shocked to learn this, Alice and her husband John sent the photo back to Britain with a comment, “The photograph is most telling, and as a slide will rouse any audience to an outburst of rage.”
Many at home dismissed the photo as an anomaly, practiced by a few bad apples. The Harrises sent back a few more photos. One showed two anonymous Congolese men — flanked by John Harris and his friend Stannard — holding the severed hands of their friends Bolenge and Lingomo. Another showed a young boy Epondo with his mutilated hand (below, rightmost) . The couple also toured Europe and America on a lecture tour denouncing Congo atrocities. They showed photos showing chicotte (whip made from hippopotamus hide) being used on laborers and and female hostages held in chains by a forest guard.
What followed was the first successful human rights campaign in history. The photos were reproduced in many papers and books, including Nsala’s photo which appeared in a popular pamphlet by Mark Twain. King Leopold who owned the colony tried to discredit the photos by claiming that protestant Harris was ideologically motivated against his Catholic colonialism. In Epondo’s case, the colonial officials claimed that his hand was amputated because of a gangrenous boar bite. However, the scale of photos spoke for themselves and the public opinion was vehemently against the practices in the Congo. Leopold finally relinquished the colony to the Belgian State in 1908.