In the ranks of the great Victorian missionary explorers of the central African interior, George Grenfell stands second in importance only to David Livingstone. Although he never wrote a book and never attained the general public renown that Livingstone enjoyed, Grenfell did more than any other person to open up the vast Congo basin to missionary endeavor. Like Livingstone, he was more of a geographic pioneer than a church planter. Only after his death in 1906 did his labors bear fruit in substantial church growth, most noticeably in the Upper Congo.
Early Life and Call to the Mission Field
George Grenfell was born at Sancreed in Cornwall on August 21, 1849, but spent most of his childhood in Birmingham. His family was Anglican, but as a boy Grenfell began to attend the Sunday school of Heneage Street Baptist Church, where he was baptized as a believer and received into church membership in 1864. On leaving school, Grenfell was apprenticed to a firm of hardware and machinery merchants, where he acquired an expertise in things mechanical that would stand him in good stead in later years. He was already interested in missionary work in Africa and followed closely the exploits of Livingstone and Alfred Saker, the Baptist pioneer in the Cameroons. In 1873 the Heneage Street congregation commended Grenfell for training for missionary service, and in September he entered Bristol Baptist College.
Grenfell’s college career was short (just over a year) and not particularly happy. Probably of greater value to his future service than his theological studies were his regular Saturday afternoon excursions to the Cumberland basin in Bristol, where he closely observed the shipping in what was then one of the busiest ports in England. In November 1874 the Committee of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) accepted Grenfell for service in the Cameroons. He sailed the following month for West Africa in the company of his hero, Alfred Saker, who was returning to the Cameroons for the last time.
Early Experience in the Cameroons
Initially Grenfell worked alongside Saker at Cameroons Town (now Douala), teaching practical skills to the young men of the mission community. Saker, strongly influenced by Livingstonian ideals of “commerce and Christianity,” had made it his goal to build up a Christian community capable of self-sustaining economic life. Grenfell made the acquaintance of two of the former Jamaican slaves whose vision to bring the Gospel to their ancestral homeland had led to the inception of the Cameroons mission–J. J. Fuller and Francis Pinnock. Grenfell came to revere Fuller as a missionary who exercised an exceptional influence over the hearts of the people. Pinnock’s son, John, later became a trusted colleague on the Congo.
In the same year Grenfell married Mary Hawkes, sister of a close friend at Heneage Street. Tragically, Mary died in January 1877, after giving birth to a stillborn child. “I feel very lonely,” a distraught Grenfell confessed to the BMS secretary, Alfred Baynes; “I’m in great trouble and in need of your prayers.” Later in 1877 he found a measure of companionship when he was joined by another young recruit, Thomas Comber. The two young missionaries began a series of exploratory journeys inland from Cameroons Town that foreshadowed the role that Grenfell in particular was subsequently to play in the Congo. By 1878 Grenfell had surveyed and mapped the southern slopes of Cameroons Mountain and ascended the Mungo, Yabiang, Wuri, Lungasi, and Sanaga Rivers; he sent details of his journeys to the Royal Geographical Society. In all this, like Livingstone before him in southern Africa, Grenfell was concerned to find the best route into the interior to establish contact with peoples unspoiled by harmful European influence.
The Opening of the Congo
On October 8, 1877, the BMS committee decided to invite Comber and Grenfell to make an exploratory journey to the Congo River. In July the society had accepted an offer of £1,000 from the eccentric Leeds mission enthusiast Robert Arthington to establish a mission on the Congo. In September news had reached London of H. M. Stanley’s successful journey to the mouth of the Congo, thus proving that Livingstone’s “Lualaba” River was none other than the Upper Congo (and not the Nile, as Livingstone had supposed). Comber and Grenfell received the society’s request on January 5, 1878, and almost immediately boarded a mail steamer bound for the mouth of the Congo. This initial visit lasted only a few weeks, as the rainy season was about to begin and the steamer was due to return to the Cameroons at the beginning of February. The two missionaries were nonetheless able to leave a letter for the king of the ancient Kongo kingdom, informing him that they would return to visit him.
In July 1878 Comber and Grenfell were able to return to the Congo, accompanied by seven African helpers from the Cameroons and a Portuguese interpreter. The party reached the capital of the Kongo kingdom, Sao Salvador, on August 8, and were well received by the Ntotela (king), Dom Pedro V, a client of the Portuguese. However, opposition from the paramount chief of the neighboring Makuta country prevented them from advancing much further inland, and on returning to Sao Salvador, Comber and Grenfell found evidence of a revival of the historic Roman Catholic missionary presence there. Grenfell therefore concluded that Sao Salvador might not be appropriate as the first station of the new mission and began to think of ways of bypassing the Kongo kingdom en route to the interior.
Disgrace and Reinstatement
On August 20 Grenfell wrote to the BMS from Sao Salvador resigning from the society. His biographers understandably offer no explanation. Grenfell had left his home in Victoria, the Cameroons, on June 28 knowing that Rose Edgerley, his young black Jamaican housekeeper and a member of the Baptist church was pregnant and that he was the father. For weeks he had kept this information even from Comber. In the Cameroons, however, the affair had become known and had already been reported to A. H. Baynes at BMS headquarters by two letters from the senior Cameroons missionary, Q. W. Thomson, and by one from Thomas Comber. With this correspondence before it, the BMS Committee on November 19 accepted Grenfell’s resignation and terminated his connection with the society. Grenfell had promised Rose he would return to marry her and hence sailed direct from the Congo for Victoria, where his daughter, Patience, was born. His marriage to Rose proved happy and enduring. For two years he worked for a commercial concern in Victoria.
Thomas Comber returned to the Congo in 1878 with three missionary colleagues and, encouraged by the Ntotela’s friendly reception, set about establishing a base station at Sao Salvador. Comber made a series of thirteen fruitless attempts to establish a route between Sao Salvador and the beginning of navigable river at Stanley (now Malebo) Pool, on whose shores modern Kinshasa is built, and the gateway to the interior. However, an even higher priority than finding a route to Stanley Pool was to establish a depot at the mouth of the Congo for the receipt and forwarding of supplies from Europe. By December 1879 Comber was writing to Baynes urging that such a depot be established on the mouth of the Congo at Banana and making “earnest request” that efforts be made to secure Grenfell’s services to run it. This recommendation was accepted, apparently without any disagreement, at the meeting of the BMS committee on April 23, 1880. Grenfell was offered the post of superintendent of the proposed Banana station at a salary of £150. Thus it was that by the end of 1880 Grenfell was back on the Congo with his family, erecting the mission buildings at Musuku (found to be a preferable site to Banana), and readmitted to the mission, although in a role that was at first strictly defined. If there were those who felt the decision to be precipitous, they have left no record of their views. Baynes must have regarded his decision as a calculated risk, but he never had cause to regret it.
Exploration of the Congo Basin
In June 1880 the BMS accepted an offer from Robert Arthington of £4,000 for the purchase and upkeep of a Congo steamer, made on condition that the society should endeavor to open up a route eastward from the upper river to meet a possible extension of the Tanganyika mission of the London Missionary Society. A year later the society finally agreed to proceed with the construction of a steamer for the upper river and to recall Grenfell to England to supervise the work. The* Peace* was built by Thorneycrofts, well-known shipbuilders of Chiswick, London. The vessel had to be dismantled and parceled up for the voyage to the Congo and subsequent overland journey to Stanley Pool. There Grenfell himself had to supervise its reassembly; his mechanical training and expertise now came into their own. The steamer was finally launched in June 1884. Grenfell had already undertaken a first voyage on the upper river, from January to March 1884, in the Peace’s whaleboat. On July 7 he and Comber boarded the Peace for a further five-week voyage of the Congo and some of its tributaries. Grenfell’s rehabilitation was now complete. No longer the warehouseman at Musuku, he was now the spearhead of the society’s forward policy on the upper river.
By December 1886 the Peace had made five further journeys of exploration of the upper Congo and its tributaries. The results in missionary terms were not immediately apparent. Although the BMS Committee had resolved in July 1884 to construct a chain of at least ten stations between Stanley Pool and Stanley Falls (Kisangani), the first upper river station at Lukolela was not established until November 1886. Grenfell was conscious that some domestic supporters accorded his explorations an importance that was to the detriment of the less spectacular labors of colleagues such as Thomas Comber, whereas others grew impatient at the apparent neglect of evangelism. He found reassurance in Livingstone’s famous dictum, “I view the end of the geographical feat as the beginning of the missionary enterprise”; pioneering was essential for the construction of a coherent missionary strategy aimed at the key centers of population. The wider significance of Grenfell’s explorations was marked by the award in 1887 of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
Relations with the Congo Free State
At the Berlin West Africa Conference in 1884-85, the European powers had recognized the sovereign rights over the Congo of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold’s “Congo Free State,” though a cloak for his personal economic ambitions, was initially heralded by European governments as a convenient means of keeping the Congo open for free trade. Grenfell, along with William Holman Bentley, the leading BMS missionary on the lower river, and A. H. Baynes in London, shared this generally optimistic evaluation of Leopold and his Free State, and they stubbornly held to this view until long after most informed observers had revised their estimate of Leopold’s alleged benevolence. Until 1885 the great virtue of the Free State in the eyes of the Baptist missionaries was its function as a bulwark against Portuguese designs on the Congo, which carried with them the threat of Roman Catholic missionary expansion. After 1885 the forces of the Congo Free State also offered the main hope of breaking the stranglehold of Arab slave-traders on the upper river, which stood in the way of Baptist advance. Moreover, Grenfell was warmly received by Leopold in Belgium while on furlough in July 1887, and again on three occasions in 1891, when the king conferred on him the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, “in recognition of services rendered in opening up the territory of the Congo State, and of efforts made towards ameliorating the condition of the peoples subject to his Majesty’s rule.”
By the mid-1890s evidence was accumulating of widespread atrocities perpetrated by Belgian agents in the conduct of the rubber trade. Leopold responded in September 1896 by appointing the Commission for the Protection of the Natives, comprising six missionaries, one of whom was Grenfell. But the commission’s powers were limited, and none of its members came from the Equator district, where the atrocities were concentrated. Grenfell himself, now admitting the existence of abuses, but still persuaded of Leopold’s personal good intentions, regarded the commission as “an unworkable machine” that would prove powerless to effect change where it was needed. In 1902 the journalist E. D. Morel began his campaign for Congo reform and succeeded in mobilizing the full weight of the British Nonconformist conscience in opposition to Leopold’s regime. The BMS committee, however, relying heavily on Grenfell’s opinion, still maintained its public profession of confidence in Leopold’s rule.
In August 1903 Grenfell drafted a letter to Leopold II, explaining that his conscience no longer permitted him to wear the decorations that the king had bestowed on him for his services to the state. His action was not, however, a protest against atrocities perpetrated by the agents of the Free State. At this point he still believed that the crimes that had been committed were the action of individual officials, and in his experience, these had been suitably punished by the authorities. Rather, Grenfell’s protest was prompted by the continuing refusal of the state to permit the BMS to realize its plans for advance on the upper river and so complete the chain of Protestant stations across central Africa. Grenfell sent his letter, with the decorations, to Baynes in London, leaving it to his judgment whether they should be forwarded to Leopold. Baynes deemed it wise to take no action.
Despite the BMS committee’s assertion that its missionaries were not in a position to provide firsthand testimony of abuses, some were soon doing precisely that, supplying Morel with accounts of the drastic impact of excessive taxation in the Equator district. A fact-finding tour in 1903 by the British consul at Boma, Roger Casement, supplied irrefutable evidence of the true extent of atrocities. This was the conclusive blow for Grenfell, causing him to resign from the Commission for the Protection of the Natives. By April 1904 he was a sadly disillusioned man, admitting that he had been duped:
I really believed the King’s first purpose was to establish law and order and to promote the well being of the people, and that the development of the resources of the country was a means to that end. I regretfully, most regretfully, admit that those who have so long maintained the contrary are to all intents and purposes justified, and that I have been blinded by my wish to believe “the best.” The recent revelations have saddened me more than I can say!
Baynes himself and the BMS as a whole, soon reached the same conclusion. Leopold had bowed to the mounting agitation by appointing a Commission of Enquiry into the alleged atrocities. The publication of its report in November 1905 led to the demise of the Free State. The Congo became a Belgian colony in 1908.
In retrospect, Grenfell’s confidence in the essential benevolence of the Free State appears naive, and in the final years of his life he castigated himself for his naivete. Yet it would be wholly mistaken to portray Grenfell as half-hearted in his defense of African interests. He retained from his Cameroons experience an unshakable confidence in the capacity and potential of black people at a time when racism was beginning to affect even missionary attitudes. He consistently argued for giving black missionaries greater responsibility, and he attempted to persuade the BMS that John Pinnock, son of Francis Pinnock, should be paid on the same basis as, and granted equal status to, his white missionary colleagues.
Mission Strategist for Central Africa
Grenfell’s abiding significance is as a far-sighted mission strategist for central Africa. He was deeply influenced by Robert Arthington’s vision of a chain of mission stations stretching across the continent to meet the westward advance of the Church Missionary Society from Uganda. Grenfell corresponded directly with Arthington, and the two men met in 1891, when Grenfell promised Arthington that he would explore the Aruwimi River as a possible route toward southeastern Sudan and the Upper Nile; he redeemed the promise in 1894. Grenfell’s vision for the evangelization of the whole Sudanic belt was shared with the young evangelical Anglican Graham Wilmot Brooke, who later played a controversial role in the CMS Niger mission. Brooke spent a month with Grenfell at Stanley Pool in 1888 and greatly impressed the older man with his skills as a cartographer and his spiritual zeal, along with his Livingstonian strategic perception of “the geographical feat as the beginning of the missionary enterprise.”
Grenfell’s determination in his later years to press still further up the Upper Congo, and in particular to explore its largest tributaries–the Ubangi, Aruwimi, and Lindi Rivers–was far more than an eccentric fixation. It stemmed from a conviction that “we have before us in the Sudan the widest and wildest empire of the Crescent against which the Cross is being lifted up.” Grenfell rightly perceived that the sub-Saharan belt would become in the twentieth century the principal zone of conflict between Islam and evangelical Christianity. That was why he was increasingly exasperated in his last years by the repeated refusal of the Free State authorities to allow the BMS to found a station on the Aruwimi. For the same reason, he believed it to be essential to develop the BMS station at Yakusu (downstream from Kisangani) as a center of training for teachers and evangelists for the Upper Congo–a vision that was realized after his death.
In the final months of his life, Grenfell continued to ponder which was the more feasible route of further advance from Yakusu–whether eastward toward Uganda, as Arthington had urged, or southward along the river toward LMS territory. He died at Basoko, near the junction of the Aruwimi and the Congo, on July 1, 1906. His strategic ambitions remained in part unfulfilled. Nevertheless, his contribution to the Christian penetration of the sub-Saharan belt, which has seen such marked church growth in the twentieth century, must be reckoned as a major one. A missionary career that was so nearly terminated by moral failure proved in the long run to be of enduring significance.
BMS Archives (hereafter BMSA), A/19, Grenfell to Baynes, September 8, 1887.
BMSA, A/19, Grenfell to Baynes, January 13, 1877.
H. H. Johnston, George Grenfell and the Congo, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1909), 1:43-44.
George Hawker, The Life of George Grenfell (London: Religious Tract Society, 1909), pp. 81-82.
BMSA, A/19, Grenfell to Baynes, August 9, 1878.
BMS A, A / 6, Thomson to Baynes, July 10 and 22,1878 ; A /12, Comber to Baynes, August 9, 1878.
BMSA, BMS Committee Minutes, November 19, 1878, pp. 508-10.
BMSA, BMS Committee Minutes, April 23, 1880, pp. 349-51.
Hawker, Life of Grenfell, pp. 245, 305, 311-12.
Ibid., pp. 372-73.
BMSA, A/21, Grenfell to Leopold II, August 10, 1903.
BMSA, A/20, Grenfell to Baynes, April 27, 1904.
BMSA, A/19, Grenfell to Baynes, September 8 and 25, 1887, February 23, 1888; A/20, Grenfell to Baynes, April 2, 1896.
BMSA, A/21, Grenfell to Arthington, July 13, 1894.
BMSA, A/19, Grenfell to Baynes, June 23, 1888. For Brooke, see C. Peter Williams, The Ideal of the Self-Governing Church: A Study in Victorian Missionary Strategy. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), chap. 4.
BMSA, A/20, Grenfell to Baynes, August 30, 1898.
BMSA, A/21, Grenfell to BMS Committee, April 7, 1906, and to W. Y. Fullerton, April 15, 1906.
Works by George Grenfell
Although Grenfell never wrote a book, his geographic researches were published by the Royal Geographical Society, notably in* Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society* 4 (1882): 585-95, 648, and Geographical Journal 20 (1902): 485-98, 572. His diaries, correspondence, and letter books are preserved in the Baptist Missionary Society archives, housed in the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, England.
Works About George Grenfell
Hawker, George. The Life of George Grenfell: Congo Missionary and Explorer. London: Religious Tract Society, 1909.
Johnston, H. H. George Grenfell and the Congo. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1908.
Lagergren, D. Mission and State in the Congo: A Study of the Relations Between Protestant Missions and the Congo Independent State Authorities, with Special Reference to the Equator District, 1885-1903. Uppsala: Swedish Institute of Missionary Research, 1970.
Slade, Ruth M. English-Speaking Missions in the Congo Independent State (1878-1908). Brussels: Académie Royale des Sciences Coloniales, 1959.
Stanley, Brian. The History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1992. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1992.
This article, is reproduced from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jul. 97, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p. 120-124, copyright© 1997, edited by G. H. Anderson, J. Bonk, and R. T. Coote. All rights reserved.