Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From the archives

I got back to the US last week and have enjoyed spending time catching up with family and friends, something I will continue to do. The final days in Cairo were, despite my limited computer capabilities, quite pleasant in part because I finished grading and spent some time at a large exhibit, Photo Cairo, attending some gallery shows and film screenings. There is a vibrant contemporary arts scene there, particularly, from what I have seen, in visual culture. I should do some blogging about a few things I saw at Photo Cairo at some point, but, here in the US, those days—a little bit more than a week ago—feel very distant.

The pleasures of reconnecting with folks aside, the official reason for my US trip is research on the American Presbyterian Congo Mission at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. The APCM was, at one time, part of the church’s southern branch, and the papers were at the PHS in Montreat, North Carolina. I spent a few productive days there one summer while working on my dissertation. A few years ago the southern branch of the PHS merged with the northern, so those papers are now, conveniently for me, in Philadelphia. So this week and next, I will be spending my time going over these documents which include correspondence, publications, church meeting minutes, diaries of missionaries, and the like. I realize this is not material that generally has broad appeal (though eventually I hope to change all that!), but it is an important part of my project on African Americans and the Congo.

Let me offer a relatively mundane taste of what I am finding. I came across a letter from the US Consul in Congo to a missionary in 1908. The APCM was requesting land concessions from the colonial government in order to establish new mission stations. The Belgians repeatedly refused the requests (claiming they were too close to Catholic stations). The APCM, correctly I believe, saw a pattern of discrimination against all Protestants, which was in violation of the Berlin Treaty (allowing open missionary access to the CongoFree State”). On this basis, missionaries asked for the American Consul to intervene on their behalf. The Consul, in exchange for his assistance, essentially asked the missionaries to stop publicly agitating, a position which was more frequently associated with activist African American missionaries. So here is the Consul’s position, stated in the letter I read in the archive:

I should be glad to receive from you at any time reports on abuses which come to your notice in your district. I can use them as the basis of reports to the Untied States Government. I wish to say, however, that in sending these to me it must be with the full understanding that they are not to be sent to other parties for publication, otherwise I cannot use them. My reason for this is, that I am [fairly] fully convinced that any reforms which may be brought about in the present system will be due to the action of the Governments interested based upon the official reports of their respective representatives, and not upon information appearing in outside publications. In urging this I do not wish to discountenance in the least the valuable work done by Mr. Morel and others in the cause of reform, but I feel, so far as my Government is concerned, that reports from me based upon information secured on the spot will have more weight than those which it receives through unofficial sources.

I will try to post more from the archives and elsewhere in the US during the next few weeks.

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