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
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.
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.