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Exploring the Forbidden
Pagan Kennedy's Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure
in the Nineteenth-Century Congo

by Woody Arbunkle

With Black Livingstone, Pagan Kennedy has produced a compelling (and much needed) biography of the Presbyterian Church's first black missionary to be sent to Africa.

In 1890, a twenty-four-year-old black man named William Sheppard traveled from America to the Belgian Congo as the Presbyterian Church's first black missionary. It was an amazing undertaking for an American black in the era of Jim Crow, and Sheppard's accomplishments in the Congo were nothing short of remarkable. But as Pagan Kennedy points out in her superb new biography, Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo, Sheppard's background prepared him better than many white candidates'.

While it is not known whether Sheppard's father had been a slave before the Civil War, his mother had been a mulatto freedwoman (thereby insuring her son's freedom, had the war not been fought or had the South won, since by American law, slavery passed from mother to child), and Sheppard himself came of age in a brief pre-Jim Crow era of hope for American blacks. As a teenager, Sheppard traveled east from his native Waynesboro, Virginia, to Hampton Institute on the coast and graduated with its first class. (Given their hard work-study program, Booker T. Washington, who ran the school, called them "The Plucky Class.") He then attended the Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now Stillman College) in Alabama to study for the ministry. He impressed the faculty with his discipline and courage (he saved one person from a house fire and even carried out their possessions before the fire engulfed the house), and when one teacher asked if he would be willing to serve as a missionary in Africa, Sheppard replied, "With pleasure."


Black Livingstone:
A True Tale of Adventure
in the Nineteenth-Century

Pagan Kennedy
237 pp.

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It was not a task to be undertaken lightly, though. As Kennedy observes, in the late nineteenth century, Africa was a largely unknown place upon which a boy's fantasies could be projected and which dealt adventurous souls more dangers than they might have expected. "In Sheppard's day," she writes, "one-third of all travelers to Africa died, usually of disease."

While Sheppard's desire to serve as a missionary in Africa may have been straightforward, the motivations for sending him were far more complicated. In America, for instance, a Southern movement was pushing to get all blacks sent back to Africa. And, in a move that impacted Sheppard's future profoundly, many whites--American and European--saw Africa as a great field of natural resources waiting to be plundered (once the 'savages' could be tamed, of course). Thus, when Sheppard finally talked the Presbyterian Foreign Missions department into letting him go to Africa with a white missionary named Sam Lapsley, he was entering a situation far more complicated than he expected.

While Sheppard's experience with hard outdoors work at the Hampton Institute might have prepared him at least partially for Africa's perils, Lapsley, a wealthy Southerner one year younger than Sheppard, was decidedly less prepared. "Lapsley," Kennedy writes, "the effete twenty-three-year-old preacher, might have seemed like an unlikely candidate to bushwhack through the jungle and settle eight hundred miles from the nearest doctor. But he was the only white man willing to go."

Practical issues--transportation, medicine and self-defense, among others--arose almost immediately once the two men reached Europe. And that's when the journey got interesting. An American expatriate named General Henry Shelton Sanford contacted Lapsley and arranged for him to meet Belgium's King Leopold II. As a well-placed investor in the Congo Free State, Sanford stood to gain by the introduction, but as Kennedy notes, Sanford wasn't the best advisor. He was on the verge of bankruptcy, he'd failed as a diplomat, and he wasn't even a general (he'd bought the title from the state of Montana). "Had Lapsley noted any of these signs of distress," Kennedy writes,


--or the terrible health of the General himself, who would be dead within a year--he might have thought twice before accepting help from him. But the young missionary saw none of it. He preferred to believe God had brought him to Brussels. And so he stepped blithely into what was more or less a trap. King Leopold--the man who controlled the Congo, quite a few crooked politicians, many bankrupted aristocrats, several journalists, and Sanford--also had plans for Lapsley.


King Leopold II had ambitions that far outdistanced his country's meager offerings. In a bid to climb to the top, he endeavored to gain control of a plentiful colony, and the Congo seemed the perfect site. Through cunning and a prescient understanding of public relations, he slowly built the Belgian influence in the Congo to the point where he, as the Congo's "philanthropic" protector, "controlled more land than any other individual in the world." The problem he then faced was getting the tribesmen under control--and a couple missionaries seemed to fit the bill nicely.


Lapsley marveled at how easily his expedition to the Congo had come together, the chain of lucky events that had led him to General Sanford and finally to King Leopold, providing him with contacts and valuable information. Had he lived in our time, with its CIA plots, Kennedy assassination theories, deconstruction and decoding, perhaps he might have suspected that his path had opened up too easily. For indeed, the apparent coincidences that had brought the two missionaries together and propelled them toward Africa were no happenstance at all. Sheppard and Lapsley had fallen into a web, its nearly invisible threads spun by a network of politicians and fortune seekers. General Sanford was one of them. But at the center hovered the fat spider who controlled it all.


In time, Leopold would turn the Belgian Congo into the world's biggest forced-labor camp, but Lapsley and Sheppard know nothing of this when they sailed for Africa.

Considering the troubles they inevitably faced, the two missionaries did remarkably well. Sheppard was an adventurous hunter whose skills with a gun helped feed villagers (and win valuable friends), and Lapsley's racial conscience grew measurably as he watched Sheppard interact easily with the tribesmen they encountered. Soon, a comfortable partnership developed, and as Kennedy writes, "Whether they knew it or not, Sheppard and Lapsley would not only explore unmapped regions of the Congo, but also pioneer a new kind of relationship between the races." Together, they established a refugee camp, and while Lapsley traveled to repair political rifts, Sheppard began preparations for the journey that would lead him deep into the jungle, where after great efforts he found the Kuba tribe's forbidden city. (He was the first Westerner to find it, and the fact that he survived--despite the longstanding order to execute the people who might even indirectly help a seeker find the city--is remarkable in itself.) Clearly, Sheppard was no ordinary missionary. He "followed the Livingstone model," Kennedy notes. "He treated the missionary job title as an umbrella under which he could pursue his multifarious ambitions. Explorer, big-game hunter, celebrity speaker, fund-raiser, art collector, anthropologist. He would excel at roles that were closed to nearly every other black person of his day."

But while Sheppard and Lapsley made a splendid team in which one member's skills complimented the other's, Lapsley found the African interior too harsh, and after less than two years, he succumbed to a particularly vicious attack of malaria. The man who replaced him, William Morrison, was as different from him as can be imagined. Where Lapsley was gentle and delicate, Morrison was forthright and hardy. And with Sheppard's somewhat reluctant help (including facing down a massacre by himself), he got the world to take notice of the atrocities the Belgians were enacting in their quest to control the Congo.

Morrison and Sheppard's approaches were markedly different, though. As Kennedy observes, Morrison sought the attention of parliaments and newspapers, while Sheppard preferred to ignore the Congo Free State and instead "create a town--and an entire reality--where hatred did not exist." Inevitably, Sheppard became an anachronistic figure, and his twenty years in the Congo ended without his accomplishments being duly acknowledged by the Church.

Black Livingstone is by turns an adventure story and a sobering look at both American and European history, as well as a biography of a man who managed, in his own largely non-political way, to fight the darkest tendencies of his time. It's a remarkable story, notable not only for its thrilling sense of adventure but for the fact that it's so little known today. Kennedy's fascination with Sheppard's story and her affection for him as a dynamic, complicated figure are apparent--and infectious. The fact that she has published nothing like this before (she's the author of seven books, as well being the founding publisher of the alternative magazine, Pagan Head) underscores the breadth of her accomplishments here. Sheppard's story demands telling, and Kennedy has done splendid work telling it.


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