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George Grenfell

by H. K. W. Kumm

1849 Born near Penzance, England. (August 21st)
1874 Accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society. (November 10th)
1874 Landed in the Cameroons. (December 19th)
1875 Arrived in England on first furlough.
1876 Second journey to the Cameroons.
1878 First visit to Congo. (January to March)
1878 Second visit to Congo. (May to October)
1880 Visit to Fernando Po. (November)
1880 Returned to Congo mission. (December).
1881 Second furlough from Africa.
1882 Left England for Congo. (December 9th)
1887 Third furlough. (February to September)
1890-91 Fourth furlough. (December to November 3rd)
1892-93 Commissioner for King Leopold. (May to June)
1900-01 Fifth furlough. (May to September)
1906 Died at Basoko. (July 1st)

George Grenfell"Say, Tom, cheer up, old man: we'll hear to-morrow or perhaps next week. They won't forget us, and if they try to, we'll send them another reminder."

"I know George, you're always optimistic. You're personified optimism! Do you really think we're good enough? I wonder sometimes whether we are really meant to go."

They were both meant to go and both of them went: and both died in foreign service—George Grenfell and Tom Comber—and George Grenfell stood out a heroic figure—the great missionary of the Congo region.

There are two ways of dealing with primitive races. The one is to appropriate them, their lands, their belongings, and all they have, to force them to work for you, and mentally or physically enslave them. Of this you read in your school histories. The other way is to convey to them the restraining and elevating influences of the religion that has made us what we are, and thus give them the foundation for the true civilization of the free.

Grenfell chose to go to South Africa not to command and domineer over the natives, but to serve them and raise them out of savagery to the level and nobility of free Christians. To do this he was prepared to live among them, to heal their sick and teach them honesty. Should they suspect him and even kill him, he was prepared to die without any one avenging him. He faced the dangers of a deadly climate day after day for many years. This does not look as heroic as leading a forlorn hope in the battle, as saving the guns, or creeping up the hillside under a heavy rifle fire. But the brave man is he who faces his risks knowingly, and lasts out in long-continued dangers, including the attacks of savage men, wild beasts, and horrible epidemics. Indeed it is harder to face for thirty years disease and death under scorching heat, chilly cold, discomforts month after month, than, in a moment of enthusiasm, when the mind is worked up to the supreme sacrifice, to lay down one's life quickly and have done with it. In the life of George Grenfell we have exemplified in a supreme way the word "genius," which is interpreted—perspiration, patience and perseverance.

George Grenfell was born on August 21st, 1849, at Trannack Mill, in a house situated on his grandfather's property about four miles from Penzance, near Land's End in Cornwall. He was educated in King Edward's School and grew up in the Midlands near Birmingham. At fifteen years of age he was apprenticed to a Birmingham hardware and machinery firm, and thus he became a practical mechanic. Later he studied in the Baptist College at Bristol.

He was twenty-five years of age when his life's work began. In 1874 Alfred Saker, a missionary of the Baptist Society, at work in the Cameroons, was home on furlough. The accounts Saker gave of the work were such that Grenfell decided to follow him, and before the end of the year he found himself among the Dualas in the Cameroons. Two years of work there, then home to England to be married to a Miss Hawkes, but only for a year was she to be his companion—after twelve months she died. The loss of his wife affected him profoundly. He said to friends, "I have done a great wrong in taking my dear wife into this deadly climate of West Africa." He always felt strongly about missions employing white women in the fever forest belt. When, later, he married again, his second wife, a Mrs. Edgerly, was a West Indian and colored.

In 1878, a few months after Grattan Guinness had started the Livingstone Inland Mission, Grenfell was sent to the Lower Congo, with the view of founding a chain of mission stations from the mouth of the river right across Africa to the Indian Ocean. Some difficulties with the natives caused him to return to the Cameroons, and he left the Mission for a short time; but two years after, he was back on the Lower Congo, and there established his first mission-station—Musuko.

Physically, Grenfell was below the average in height, though strong and robust. He was essentially a man of peace and won the confidence of the natives by his patience and tact, never responding by violence to insults. The Belgian geographer, A. G. Wauters, says of him that for twenty-five years Grenfell was a pioneer, with as much humanity as success.

From 1894 he held the honorary position of British pro-consul on the Upper Congo. He was a Knight of two Belgian Orders, that of Leopold and of the Lion of Africa. He was created Commander of the Order of Christ by the King of Portugal. In 1886 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1902 his magnificent cartography enabled the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain to publish their great map of the Congo. He spoke French and Portuguese beside his mother-tongue, English, and did not a little linguistic work in the native tongues of the Congo.

Grenfell, like many other pioneer missionaries, made his time and place observations, his vocabularies, and anthropological notes, with the greatest care. He was fortunate in finding in Sir Harry Johnston a biographer who was willing to give honor to whom honor is due. Many a missionary hands his notes to explorers, or consuls, or captains of ships, in whose publications they appear, sometimes with an acknowledgment of their source and sometimes not.

Now for some of Grenfell's experiences on the Congo.

The Peace of the Congo was the first steamer launched on that great river—launched by Grenfell. Listen to a description of how he placed that steamer on the river. She was built on the Thames in England, taken to pieces and, in charge of an engineer, sent to the mouth of the Congo, and thence transported on men's heads to Stanley Pool. On the way the engineer died. Two other engineers were sent, but they died. Grenfell himself took matters in hand. The steamer had been cut into eight hundred pieces and all were carried on men's heads, for there were no railways or roads. Through thick grass higher than men's heads, across streams and frail bridges of creeper vines, over ravines with tackle and pullies, the packages were hauled, dragged or carried. At night driver-ants sometimes took possession of his tent and drove Grenfell from it until it pleased the ants to go. One night in the dark he reached for matches and, striking a light, saw a four-foot snake between the match box and the candle. On another day a native aimed his gun at Grenfell leaving only about a foot between the muzzle of the gun and his face.

When at last the boat was built, hippos disliked it. One big fellow left the mark of his teeth in the steel plates. Grenfell said the boat had been "prayed together." But do not imagine that this means the pieces leapt together. No such thing! Every plate had to be fitted, every rivet driven, every detail thought out and worked out, with weary brain and wet perspiring body.

When the steamer first begun to move the natives shouted, "She lives! Master, she lives! The Peace lives!" The Peace became known on the river as "God's Boat," the boat which offered violence to none. Sometimes the white man was welcomed: often he was suspected and had to be on guard. The natives threw spears and shot poisoned arrows at the steamer. This kind of attack had been provided against. Defense, not defiance, was carried. Her deck was screened in with wire netting, through which the spears and arrows could not penetrate, and the Peace sailed on.

One day on the Mobangi the steamer was attacked by about fifty canoes, many of them large ones. Spears and arrows, sticks and stones, were thrown at the steamer. She sailed on; but later, coming down the river, Grenfell landed at this very place, made friends with the natives, and bought spears, knives and other curios from those who had attacked him. Sometimes, at the beginning, non-resistance was deemed by the inhabitants to be cowardice, but later the people learned to know that the white man on board that boat was one of the bravest of the brave, although his fighting was not done with gun and rifle.

It was late afternoon, and the dry season of 1884, when on his steamer Peace lying at the mouth of the Lomami, he noticed the eastern horizon reddened by the reflections of fires. He took these fires to be those of salt-makers, for the natives burn the grass on the river banks when it is dry enough, to make salt out of the ash. Later he noticed high flames shoot up and then boats came down the river, dug-out canoes crowded with fugitives, natives flying from the Arab slave-raiders. Wreckage also began to float down by the side of the steamer. From midnight until three o'clock in the morning "an unceasing and continuous stream swept by, of hut roofs, beds, stools, calabashes, fishing-nets, ropes, and all the gear that had been thrown into the river, partly from the town and partly from the canoes of those runaways who found themselves hard pressed, or from those captured by the Arabs, who would not be bothered by such plunder."

With daylight, Grenfell ordered the anchor to be taken up, and in a little more than an hour reached the smoking ruins of Yambuli, formerly a town of four thousand people. From another village a little further up the stream, natives called out as the steamer passed, "We have nothing, nothing! Our houses are burned, our plantations destroyed, and our women and children are gone!"

When the natives, who had never seen a white man, were first visited by Grenfell they called him "Bidimo" (Spirit). He was indeed the good spirit who, before his earthly career was finished, counted his friends among the Pigmies of the great Ituri Forest, among the Ballolo of the Horseshoe Bend of the Congo, and among the cannibals who had their teeth filed (the sign of cannibalism). Many of them discontinued this custom after he had been among them for a while.

One day a half starved native came to Grenfell and exclaimed, "White man! White man! I am the only one who escaped. My two companions and myself were left by Bula Matari (the Rock-Breaker—the name by which H. M. Stanley was known) among the Basoko at the mouth of the Aruwimi. They ate my two companions, and they only let me escape because I was too thin."

On the 15th day of September, 1885, when travelling in the Peace up the Juapa River, Grenfell came upon a group of cannibals just about to kill a man and eat him. He tried to buy the man from them for money but they would not sell. In another place they offered him a fine-looking woman as a wife, in exchange for a plump boatman whom they wanted to eat. Yet there was plenty of cassava and sugar cane and other food to be had.

But such incidents were rare. The usual thing for the natives to do was loudly to deny that they were cannibals.

"Chief! I have heard that you like human flesh. Tell me what it tastes like," asks Grenfell.

"Human flesh!" replies the chief in a tone of horror. "White Father, we do not eat that. If you travel on to-morrow you will get to a tribe. They are cannibals."

Grenfell journeyed on and coming to the new tribe on the next day called upon the chief.

"Chief, I have heard that human flesh is good to eat. Tell me what does it taste like?"

"White Spirit, you are misinformed. We do not eat human beings. The people you were amongst yesterday, they are animals and eat men."

No other European had been among them but they somehow realized that cannibalism was inhuman, thus enabling Grenfell the more freely to speak to them of the great truths he was there to make known and establish...

The greatest slave-raider of his day, Tipu Tip, was visited by Grenfell on Christmas Eve, 1884, at Stanley Falls. On that journey our missionary had not only to deal with cannibals, but with cannibals exasperated by Moslem slave-raiders; and when, later on, the Belgian government added its opposition, it was more than Grenfell could bear.

The two steamers which figure much in the exploration of the Congo were the Peace, given by Robert Arthington of Leeds, and put together by Grenfell, and the Henry Reed, which was presented to the Livingstone Inland Mission in 1883 by Mr. Henry Reed of Tasmania. The Henry Reed was used by the early explorers, Uchtritz, Wissman and François, while the Peace was appropriated by Stanley, who in 1887 tried to solve the Congo difficulty by appointing the slave-raider, Tipu Tip, governor at Stanley Falls. Stanley peremptorily borrowed the Peace without permission, and thus for the time put an end to Grenfell's explorations.

In 1889 the Arab's attitude towards the Congo State became insolent. Tipu Tip threatened to come with a fleet of canoes and take Leopoldville, but in 1890, for health reasons, he retired to Zanzibar. During the same year the Peace was used by the Government to take part in the war against the Arabs. The Mission resented being mixed up in a war, just or unjust. A protest was made in Brussels. Grenfell himself made this protest; he was ill with fever and much upset, and the Belgian Government promised that no such incident should be allowed to occur again. The special danger was that the mission stations were left without supplies and the lives of the missionaries in jeopardy, as the Peace was not doing her duty. Consequently in 1891 a new and larger steamer, the Goodwill, was built on the Thames and taken out by Grenfell. She was launched in December, 1893, on the Upper Congo.

The same Congo State he helped so much, so freely, and encouragingly, which, in the early eighties and nineties, he spoke of as "an ideal government, an international Utopia"—that same Congo Government, lacking in strength to put down atrocities, was yet strong enough to prevent Grenfell from carrying through his and Robert Arthington's plans—a chain of mission stations from the West Coast of Africa to the East Coast. Sir H. Johnston says of George Grenfell, "He was a rare exemplification of Christian charity, eager to applaud good work in others, looking everywhere for the good motive, chary of blaming or condemning without conclusive proof, absolutely incorruptible, however, no fool to be easily gammoned into incipient acquiescence with wrong-doing, whether it be by steamer boy, mission scholar, state official or a native chief."

In a letter written shortly before his death, to a Belgian official, Grenfell says, "I am désorienté." He did not know in what direction to turn for putting straight the Congo trouble, dealing with the ravages of the sleeping sickness, or the mistaken policy of King Leopold who was getting the Central Congo region into a deplorable state. He had known personally every Belgian pioneer of any standing, and had formed a high opinion of most of them, and therefore was in trouble, the greater because of his knowledge. In one of his last statements about the Congo he says, "Having lived more than half my life in Africa and being circumstanced as I am, the interests of no country count with me for more than those of the country in which I have expended so much of my life and energy. The Congo State had no more enthusiastic partisan than myself, and now for me to find things going wrong is a great and bitter disappointment."

Years of labors, and fevers, and hardships at last told their tale. "A man at my time of life in Central Africa is an old man," he writes. He had not wasted his years. On the 28th of April, 1906, he fell ill at Yalemba. "I lie down with fever," his diary tells us. For weeks he got up and lay down, never free from fever, yet always directing and encouraging his native attendants at their work. It became too much. The natives were at their wits' end. On the 19th of June they wrote the following letter for help.

"My dear Sirs,
Millman and Kempton and Smith. We are very sorry because our Master is very sick. So now we beging you one of you let him come to help Mr. Grenfell please. We think now is near to die, but we don't know how to do with him.
Disasi Makulo and Mascoo Luvusu."

Grenfell became worse, and gave his servants leave to take him to Basoko in the Peace. At Basoko there was a state doctor. It was all too late. In the early hours of Sunday, the 1st of July, 1906, George Grenfell had gone home, and Baluti, one of his faithful blacks, wrote: "The death of Tata (father) is finished!"

From African Missionary Heroes and Heroines by H. K. W. Kumm. New York: MacMillan Company, 1917.

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