"Black Livingstone" Blazed Trail in Dark Congo of 1800s

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
March 1, 2002
It was an improbable event at the turn of the 19th century as William
Sheppard—billed as the "Black Livingstone"—climbed onto the
stage in meeting halls across the United States and electrified packed
audiences with tales of his life in Africa.

Sheppard spent two
decades in the Belgian Congo as a missionary. His public lectures were
designed to raise funds for his sponsor, the Presbyterian Foreign
Missions. But his work as an evangelist was far overshadowed by his
personal adventures.

He had fended off crocodile attacks and shot hippos to feed starving villagers. Negotiated his way into the forbidden kingdom of the aristocratic Kuba people. Documented the aftermath of a village massacre instigated by the Belgian colonial regime to punish native Congolese who refused to harvest rubber.

At one point in his talk, the lively speaker brandished an executioner's knife that was nearly used on his own neck.

Sheppard was a curiosity because Africa was still the Dark Continent, little penetrated by outsiders. The limited firsthand accounts often described a snarling jungle populated with human and animal demons—a harsh and brutal world that fiction writer Joseph Conrad made famous in Heart of Darkness.

Yet a black man, born at the end of the Civil War, somehow had managed to leapfrog over the racial barriers of the American South to explore a place all but closed to the rest of the world.

"How did this man, born black in Virginia with limited possibilities and in a deeply racist time, dare to dream to be an African explorer?" said Pagan Kennedy, the author of Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (Viking, 2002).

"There's something very fascinating about his Livingstone-ish wanting to explore," Kennedy said during a recent interview in Boston. "But I was most interested in this part of human nature that sees possibilities and not limitations."

When "No" Won't Do

As a child in Waynesboro, Virginia, Sheppard had heard about Africa and brazenly declared: "When I grow up I shall go there."

Sheppard's father was a barber and church sexton; his mother tended to ladies at a warm springs spa. Even as a small boy, Sheppard supplemented his family's income with odd jobs.

Around the age of 12, he left home to work as a stable boy for a white dentist in Staunton, Virginia. Treated much like a foster son, he learned to read from the family's cast-off books and developed a poise and ease of conversation that would serve him well throughout his life.

He eventually enrolled in Booker T. Washington's innovative Hampton Institute, which enabled poor students to pay for their education by working all day and attending classes at night. In the mid-1880s, he studied for the ministry at a theological institute that later became Stillman College.

Sheppard found his subsequent jobs as a minister uninspiring. Returning to his childhood dream, he repeatedly begged the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board for a job in Africa. But the idea was out of the question for a black man, even one as enterprising as Sheppard had shown himself to be.

Refusing to accept the verdict, Sheppard hopped on a train to Baltimore and appealed directly to a member of the Presbyterian board. A possible solution was proposed: He could go if accompanied by a white partner.

In 1889 the big break came. Sheppard shipped out in the company of Samuel Lapsley, a white man in his early twenties who was comfortable with blacks after years of preaching to ex-slaves who filed into the church on his family's 400-acre farm in Alabama.

"The arc of the relationship between Lapsley and Sheppard fascinated me," says Kennedy. "It started almost as servant and master, but very quickly when they got to Africa the tables turned because Sheppard was so much more capable."

Upon reaching the Congo, Lapsley and Sheppard set off on an arduous trailblazing journey to establish a Christian mission among the Kuba tribe.

Sheppard was impressed by most of the native Congolese they met. He, in turn, quickly won their admiration and trust for his courage, good humor, and genuine interest in their lives.

After cleverly finding his way into the secret kingdom of the Kuba—a tribe whose culture he documented extensively—Sheppard so charmed the king and his advisers that they abandoned the idea of executing the intruder and instead declared him "Bope Mekabe," a royal ancestor risen from the dead and returning as a spirit.

Lapsley was equally sincere in his efforts, and relations with his colleague Sheppard were highly congenial. But Lapsley found the business of saving souls in Africa often disheartening, and his constitution wasn't up to the task. Less then two years after arriving in the Congo, he died of blackwater fever.

The Dark Side

In his diaries and speeches, Sheppard described the region of Africa he knew as "luminous" and enchanting. Yet the Congo in the late 19th century was indeed a Dark Continent, for reasons that were as yet little known.

Belgium's King Leopold II had managed to convince the world for years that his presence in the Congo was philanthropic. In reality, the Free State government was systematically slaughtering Africans who were being conscripted to build a railroad, harvest rubber around the clock, and carry ivory out of the jungle, all part of Leopold's grand scheme to plunder the country's natural wealth.

After Lapsley's death, Sheppard summoned his wife from America to join him in his crusading efforts. She arrived in the company of other U.S. missionaries, and together they built a thriving mission at Luebo staffed by all blacks.

Sheppard was later joined by William Morrison, a white missionary from the United States. Morrison's assignment was to replace Lapsley. But his real interest was in exposing Leopold's butchery to the world—a plan to which he made Sheppard a reluctant accomplice.

In 1899 the terror sanctioned by the Belgian-controlled government of the Congo Free State edged closer to the mission station at Luebo. A feared tribe known as the Zappo-Zaps, who practiced slave trading and were armed with European rifles, were sent to punish people in the Pianga region for failing to cooperate with the state-sponsored rubber companies.

Sheppard knew Kuba people in Pianga, so Morrison dispatched him to the region to compile a report.

The scene that lay before him was grisly. Led by their vicious chief, Malumba, Zappo-Zap warriors had herded the villagers into a stockade and demanded extortionist levels of rubber, slaves, and food—a payment the Kuba could not meet. Sheppard arrived to find corpses crumpled in the yard, the bodies dismembered and putrid in the steamy heat.

His notebooks, Kennedy said, painstakingly document the gory details, including the pile of 81 severed black hands—Sheppard counted them one by one—that were collected as proof to colonial officials that the bloody deed had been done.

In the notes, "you get a sense of the man unedited, probably just on the brink of nervous breakdown" after witnessing the aftermath of the massacre, said Kennedy. "It shows someone more raw than in his other writings, which were written when he returned from Africa and were filtered through an audience—what people wanted to know."

Champion for Human Rights

Less confrontational by nature than Morrison and reluctant to jeopardize the missionary work in Africa, Sheppard was not aggressive about publicizing the terror in the Congo.

On the lecture circuit back in the United States, however, he apparently felt safer about speaking out and included an account of the massacre in his speeches. His report of atrocities began circulating. The international press picked up the story, catapulting Sheppard into the spotlight as a human rights crusader.

His reputation was enhanced further after the state rubber company sued Sheppard and Morrison for slander. The 1908 trial in Leopoldville drew so much international attention that the Free State government, robbed of its ability to administer corrupt justice, was forced to dismiss the case.

Morrison and Sheppard were both lionized for their exposé. But the public adulation of Sheppard as a hero rankled Morrison, who never accorded the "Black Livingstone" the respect he got from others.

Kennedy said the episodes involving Sheppard and Morrison intrigued her because she saw parallels in her own experience as an activist, and in the human rights battles and other burning moral issues that people face today.

"How outspoken should you be, and when should you give in? As a writer I find it wonderful that the same characters keep occurring from century to century, the same types of people confronting the same questions," she said.

"I know Morrison—he's committed, yet drives people crazy," she added. "I know Sheppard, too. At times you find yourself wishing he would speak up more."

After the trial in Leopoldville, Sheppard's life in Africa came to a close.

Morrison took control of the mission at Luebo. Sheppard was eventually summoned back to the United States and his assignment was terminated, apparently to quell public embarrassment over revelations that during his 20 years in Africa—which involved long absences from his wife—Sheppard had committed adultery with Congolese women.

After confessing his indiscretions, "Black Livingstone" and his wife enjoyed a quiet life, raising their family and eventually ministering to blacks in the slums of Louisville, Kentucky.

Kennedy said she found herself buried in exhaustive details as she researched the book, but she worked deliberately to keep the story short and the pace lively. "There's a boy's-adventure quality to the story. I didn't want to trample on that, especially in the first half of the book before the atrocities. I felt my job was to contextualize, without letting it get bogged down," she said.

"Some people wanted me to do a more scholarly book," she said, "but I wanted to do a book the average person would pick up and enjoy."

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