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October 17, 2022

A Father Stares at the Hand and Foot of His Five-Year-Old Daughter, Which Were Severed as a Punishment for Having Harvested Too Little Rubber, 1904

Nsala, the man in the picture, was photographed by English photographer Alice Seeley Harris (1870–1970) after he arrived at her mission clutching a parcel that contained the severed foot and hand of his five-year-old daughter in Congo, May 1904. She’d been killed and dismembered as a punishment when his village failed to meet the rubber quotas demanded by the imperial regime.

Here is part of her account (from the book “Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris”):
“He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too.

And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed.

They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed.

Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men, and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.”
The Congo Free State was a corporate state in Central Africa privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium founded and recognized by the Berlin Conference of 1885. In the 23 years (1885-1908) Leopold II ruled the Congo he massacred 10 million Africans by cutting off their hands and genitals, flogging them to death, starving them into forced labor, holding children ransom, and burning villages.

Alice Seeley Harris went on to take hundreds of pictures like this, documenting the violence, enslavement and exploitation inflicted on the Congolese people by agents of the Belgian King Leopold II – Queen Victoria’s cousin.

After they were made public, these pictures forced people in Europe to face what was really happening and, under public pressure, in 1908 Congo was signed over the the Belgian state. It wouldn’t gain independence until 1960. The power of these images added largely to put an end to colonial rule.


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