“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” That line was spoken by Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 in the vicinity of Lake Tanganyika, present-day Tanzania. Actually, it probably wasn’t spoken but rather invented after the fact for literary effect. In either case, 150 years later it remains the most celebrated utterance in the history of African exploration. Exploration by white dudes, that is.
You know these dudes. Livingstone—a national hero back in England, famous for making a coast-to-coast crossing of the African continent and a number of other rugged journeys—hadn’t been heard from in five years, his whereabouts in the interior a mystery. Stanley—a budding adventurer and opportunistic newspaperman on the assignment of a lifetime—managed to locate the wayward Brit with an eight-month, 700-mile search, thereby ensuring his own stardom. This tale of two sunburnt, civilized chaps uniting in the wild, exotic outback has become the well-worn classic.
Okay, but why don’t many people know William Sheppard, often called “The Black Livingstone,” a devoted missionary, sensitive ethnographer, and pioneering human rights advocate who trekked into the depths of the Congo rainforest and established peaceful relations with one of the last African kingdoms undisturbed by foreign influence (i.e. stupendous imperial greed)?
Sheppard became the first non-African to learn the Kuba language. Little did he know that this competence—born of a desire to preach, certainly, but simultaneously born of a fascination with the people and their culture—would soon prove decisive in keeping his head attached to his neck.
At the height of his career, Sheppard met President Grover Cleveland (gifted him a bamboo mat) and President Teddy Roosevelt (gifted him a pipe and palm-fiber coverlet). Near the end of his life, in the United States again after twenty years in the bush, he took the stage alongside prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Despite this impressive resume, Adam Hochschild writes in King Leopold’s Ghost that “William Sheppard seldom shows up in the annals of exploration, because he doesn’t fit the conventional image of the white explorer in Africa.”
Hmm, now why might that be?
Answers Hochschild: “To begin with, he wasn’t white.”
To The Congo
Sheppard, a descendant of slaves, was born in Virginia in 1865. Following an education at the Colored Theological Seminary in Tuscaloosa and stints as a Southern Presbyterian minister in Montgomery and Atlanta, he started petitioning the church to send him to Africa on a mission. God’s glorification was the main motivation but a taste for action—for situations requiring boldness and fortitude—surely played a part. (As a young man, Sheppard rescued someone from drowning, and he once ran up three flights of stairs to save another person from a house fire, burning himself in the process.) Initially hesitant, the Southern Presbyterian bosses agreed to fund Sheppard on the condition that a white “superior,” Reverend Samuel Lapsley, oversaw the project.
So it was that in May of 1890, a Black American missionary arrived in the Congo—by chance the very same month that then-sailor Joseph Conrad made landfall. (Conrad’s autobiographical novel Heart of Darkness wouldn’t appear until 1899). Energized and eager as ever, Sheppard trudged into the bush to recruit laborers for the construction of a mission at Luebo on the Kasai River, a tributary that joins the Congo above its lower rapids. Lapsley, on the other hand, fell ill and had to convalesce in Leopoldville.
The Mundele Ndom, the Black white man, as locals referred to the bizarre Westerner in their midst, seemed to settle right in. “I always wanted to live in Africa,” Sheppard wrote in a letter to a friend. “I felt that I would be happy, and so I am.” He preached the story of Jesus, adopted parrots and a monkey for pets, skillfully hunted big game, and shared his elephant roasts, python steaks, and buffalo burgers with travelers from the neighboring Kuba kingdom. During these feasts, by pointing at things and listening and scribbling names, Sheppard became the first non-African to learn the Kuba language. Little did he know that this competence—born of a desire to preach, certainly, but simultaneously born of a fascination with the people and their culture—would soon prove decisive in keeping his head attached to his neck. Literally.
For almost a decade, white men had been trying unsuccessfully to gain access to the Kuba kingdom, a forested area larger than Maine, rich with natural resources and the masks, sculptures, textiles, and metal ornaments produced by a society of highly advanced artisans (approximately 200,000 people, or souls in the parlance of missionaries). Portuguese trader Silva Porto had failed to get in. German anthropologist Ludwig Wolf had failed, too. The issue was straightforward: Kot aMbweeky II, the Kuba king, decreed that anybody who helped a foreigner navigate the maze of jungle trails leading to the walled capital city of Mushenge would be beheaded. (A son of his was beheaded for breaking a law against robbery.) When Lapsley died of fever in 1892, Sheppard set out with nine volunteers, zero of them white, warning that “We may be all marching to our graves.”
Village chiefs the expedition encountered were kind but tightlipped with directions, forcing Sheppard to hatch an odd plan. The plan was eggs: Sheppard wouldn’t request a map to Mushenge, he’d just ask for a guide to the adjacent village for the sake of purchasing supplies. The party moved in this way, village to village, egg feast to egg feast (Sheppard once ate 30 small eggs in a sitting), and after three months found themselves camped at Bishibing, a few miles shy of their destination. Triumph? Nope. Word got ahead to the Kuba king, who demanded that the intruders be brought to the capital for punishment, along with the residents of Bishibing. “These people are not to blame… I am the only one that is guilty,” Sheppard told the court official sent to retrieve him—the court official utterly astonished by a stranger speaking his own native tongue.
How to explain it? How to explain this visitor in a torn linen suit offering a huge precious cowry shell as a token of respect, not to mention defending—protecting—the Bishibing villagers in a language impossible for him to have acquired? The elders in Mushenge deliberated and decided this was Bope Mekabe, a former king of Kuba reincarnated. Thus, instead of execution, Sheppard was escorted to the royal guest quarters and presented with fourteen goats, six sheep, chickens, dried fish, corn, pumpkins, bushels of peanuts, bananas, plantains, and a gourd of palm oil (a nice diversion from eggs). The next morning, in the public square, thousands of onlookers observed his audience with Kot aMbweeky II. Drums pounded and stringed instruments soared. Dancers whirled, brandishing knives. Leopard skins were spread on the ground to provide the reincarnated Bope Mekabe a red carpet of sorts, a regal path to approach the current king on his carved ivory throne.
“They were the finest looking race I had seen in Africa, dignified, graceful, courageous, honest, with an open smiling countenance,” Sheppard wrote. “And really hospitable.”
“Of The Kasai”
Reincarnated sovereign or not, Sheppard wasn’t flawless and doesn’t merit our blind praise. As a Christian evangelist, he occasionally employed the toxic verbiage of his time, phrases like “dense darkness of heathenism” and “naked savages.” Nevertheless, it’s indisputable that his style, his bearing, contrasted sharply with the other Westerners overrunning the Congo at the turn of the century. For four months at the Kuba court, he carefully recorded myths, rituals, agricultural practices, and political structures, an act of anthropological witnessing that remains valuable to scholars today. His gun, used solely for hunting, was the first firearm to reach the capital, though unfortunately not the last.
Eight years after the Mundele Ndom, the Black white man, trekked to Mushenge, that art-filled city was looted and wrecked by white white men. The rape of the Congo, sanctioned by Belgium’s King Leopold II and carried out largely by private corporations, was on. By then, Sheppard was already documenting the out-of-control violence of the “rubber terror,” lecturing on slavery, torture, and mass slaughter whenever he left Africa, publishing details that would eventually incite a global outrage and an international response.
A lake in the Congo was named for Sheppard, yes. He was inducted into the prestigious Royal Geographic Society, yes again. But if the man deserves to be remembered—and he does—it’s for ringing the alarm bell. Nay, it’s for being that alarm bell.
In 1908, Sheppard was still at it—still taking down hippos, still preaching the story of Jesus, still disseminating information that rankled the profiteering powers, the powerful profiteers. That year, a piece of truth-telling in the American Presbyterian, a newsletter for stateside supporters, pissed off the Compagnie du Kasai (the de facto government in the region) and he was sued for libel. His trial, held in Leopoldville, 600 miles downstream from the mission he built, featured Emile Vandervelde, a formidable Belgian socialist, as defense attorney. Vandervelde declared to the judge that his client was “no longer of England or America, but of the Kasai.”
Trials are trials, rife with elevated courtroom rhetoric. However, this particular statement wasn’t entirely hyperbolic: Sheppard, who died in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 62, always insisted on calling one of his children Maxamalinge—after a Congolese prince, a son of the welcoming Kuba king.