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Alice Seeley Harris was a missionary from England who discovered the use of photography as a powerful aid for human rights campaigns. Her work in the Congo Free State exposed the atrocities committed under the rule of Belgian King Leopold II. It also established documentary photography as an important tool in exposing human rights abuses.

Early Years and Marriage

Alice Seeley was born in Malmsbury, Wiltshire, England on May 24, 1870, to parents, Alfred and Caroline Seeley.[1] In 1889, Alice Seeley joined the Civil Service. She volunteered in her free time at Lambeth’s Christ Church, and Pack Chapel in Regent, where she conducted mission work with Frederick Brotherton Meyer.

After leaving the Civil Service, Seeley began studying at Doric Lodge a missionary training college run by the Region Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU). There she met her future husband, John Hobbis Harris and, in 1897, the RBMU gave Seeley permission to take a mission trip to the Congo Free State.[2] On May 6, 1898, the couple married.[3] They bore four children, Noel Lawrence, Katherine Emmerline, Margaret Theodora, and Alfred John.[4]

The Congo Free State

Alice and John Harris left for the Congo Free State with the Congo Balolo Mission on May 10, 1898. The SS Cameroon arrived three months later in the Congo. From 1898-1901, Alice and her husband lived at the Ikau Mission Station. They had a brief break between 1901 and 1902 before returning to the Baringa Mission Station to serve in a local village, now a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Alice Seeley Harris worked as an English teacher in the Congo. She photographed her surroundings with a Goerz-Anschutz Folding Camera, possibly given to her by Harry Guinness.[5]

Photographic Evidence

The Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) had attacked their village when the villagers failed to meet the company’s rubber collection quota.[6] King Leopold II of Belgium invaded the Congo shortly after John Dunlop invented inflatable, rubber tires. He armed Italian, Swedish, British, and African soldiers who then forced the locals to harvest rubber to sell in Belgium.

The image of Nsala’s daughter’s tiny hand and foot photographed next to her father by Alice Seeley Harris became an iconic symbol for her fight against slavery.

The soldiers put the Congolese to work for weeks without a break. They maimed, raped, kidnapped, murdered and ate the native families. Alice photographed the aftermath of these human rights abuses. The couple returned to England in 1902 and the Congo Balolo Mission’s magazine Regions Beyond, showcased the photos.[7]

Two Congolese men arrived at the mission in 1904. One of the men was Nsala. Nsala carried a parcel made of leaves that contained the foot and hand of his daughter. He stated soldiers from the ABIR killed and dismembered both his daughter and his wife. Alice Harris persuaded the devastated Nsala to take a photograph with the body parts on the porch of her home.[8]

Alice and John Harris immediately wrote to the government about what happened to Nsala’s family and so many other families working for King Leopold II’s men, including the cannibalization of Nsala’s family. The same year her photos featured in Mrs. H. Grattan-Guinness’s 1904 pamphlet Congo Slavery and in E.D. Morel’s King Leopold’s Rule in Africa.[9]

Raising Awareness Through Photographs

Even though Alice Seeley Harris took the photographs, E.D. Morel could not imagine a woman lecture about them and insisted her husband do it instead.

John and Alice Harris returned to Britain when John wrote to E.D. Morel in late 1905 with a proposal to lead a magic lantern lecture tour showcasing Alice’s photographs. This was a common method of presenting photographs at the time and helped fund pricey mission trips. John suggested Alice should present the photographs. Morel denied him, however, and John conducted many of the initial lectures.

The same year, the couple began lecturing in the United States of America. The popular lectures soon forced John and Alice to split up and lecture individually in order to meet the demand. They traveled through 49 cities throughout the U.S., using the magic lantern to display her photographs and give evidence of the horrendous actions of King Leopold’s forces in the Congo.[10]

Tour Results and Later Life

The New York American ran an exposé on the human rights abuses under King Leopold II in 1905. In March 1904, E. D. Morel, Roger Casement, and Dr. Henry Grattan-Guinness formed the Congo Reform Association working to assist the Congolese in overcoming the atrocities.[11] In 1908, Alice and John Harris joined the Association and returned to the Congo. They also joined the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society as organizing secretaries.

John and Alice Harris returned to England in 1912 where they released a book called Present Conditions in the Congo evidenced with Alice’s photographs.[12] John Harris received a knighting in 1933, turning his wife into Lady Alice. She famously remarked, “Don’t call me a lady!” which was used by Judy Pollard Smith to title her biography about Alice, Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris.[13]

BBC Radio 4 interviewed Alice Seeley Harris in 1970 for a piece entitled, “Women of Our Time,” where she recounted her experiences at 100-years-old.[14] Alice Harris died the same year on November 24 in Guildford, Surrey, England, where she spent the majority of her later life.[15] Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum presented an exhibition utilizing Alice Harris’s photography in 2014 called Brutal Exposure: The Congo.[16]

References

Bibliography


A Celebration of Women™ Team. (2013, March 25). Alice Seeley Harris. A Celebration of Women™.[2]

Seeley, R. (2014). Alice Seeley Harris. International Slavery Museum.[3]

Smith, J. P. (2014). Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris. United States: Abbott Press.


Washburn Rural High School. (2015). About Alice Seeley Harris. Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Smith, 2014
  2. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  3. A Celebration of Women™ Team, 2013
  4. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  5. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  6. Seeley, Rebecca (2014)
  7. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  8. Seeley, Rebecca (2014)
  9. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  10. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  11. A Celebration of Women™ Team, 2013
  12. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  13. Smith, 2014
  14. Washburn Rural High School, 2015
  15. Smith, 2014
  16. International, A.S., & ABP, A. (2014). Brutal Exposure: The Congo. International Slavery Museum.[1]

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