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CONGO – IMPORTANT UNPUBLISHED HISTORICAL SOURCE: ‘Sunrise on the Congo, A Record of the Earlier Years of the Congo Balolo Mission’. Zoom

CONGO – IMPORTANT UNPUBLISHED HISTORICAL SOURCE: ‘Sunrise on the Congo, A Record of the Earlier Years of the Congo Balolo Mission’.


One of only 4 known surviving examples of the definitive, yet unpublished, history of the Congo Balolo Mission (C.B.M.), one of the most important and influential European organizations operating in the Belgian Congo during the era of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’; written by Reverend William Douglas Armstrong, who served eight tours with the society over a 38-year period.

Author: William Douglas ARMSTRONG (1867 - 1946).
Place and Year: [Scotland, 1934].
Code: 67379

4°: [5] 283 leaves of carbon typescript, printed on rectos only, multiple contemporary manuscript corrections; bound in contemporary navy pebbled cloth with gilt title to spine, presentation ink-stamp of ‘Rev. F.A. Hart / Beckham, Kent’ to front free endpaper (Very Good, title page creased, else remarkably clean and crisp; binding with marginal wear and slight fraying to spine).


This is a highly important original source on the history of the Congo during the era immortalized by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  It is the definitive history of the Congo Balolo Mission (C.B.M.), a British Protestant missionary society that operated in the northern regions of what was then the Belgian Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo), beginning in 1889.  The work was written by Reverend William Douglas Armstrong, who served eight tours with the C.B.M. in the Congo between 1896 and 1934.  Critically, he was a participant in many of the dramatic events described in his account, and additionally was directly acquainted with the surviving protagonists of the events that occurred before his arrival on the scene. 

Importantly, while the C.B.M. succeeded in its mandate to convert thousands of Congolese to Christianity, as well as the provide food, education and medical care; it played a much larger role in the history of the Belgian Congo.  Not only was it vital to opening a large section of the northern Congo, focussed upon the Lulonga River Valley, to exploration and development (for better or for worse), it also played a leading role in exposing the extreme humanitarian abuses of the Belgian regime, so altering global public opinion and causing Brussels to (reluctantly) introduce sweeping reforms to its administration of this vast land. 

While ‘Sunrise on the Congo’ was never published and survives in only three carbon typescripts in institutional collections (plus the present example), it has been heavily referenced by scholars writing all matter of books and articles on the Late 19th Century-Early 20th Century Congo.

The work principally concerns the early period of the C.B.M., from its founding in England, in 1888 and the arrival for the first missionaries in the Congo the following year, through to 1915, when the C.B.M. was merged into the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU) (although some important details up to 1934 are noted towards the end of the work).  During this period, the C.B.M. never boasted more than thirty or so missionaries in the field at any one time, scattered over several remote field stations, while their work was phenomenally dangerous (even by the terrifying standards of African missions), with their activities and persons being constantly exposed to deadly diseases, civil unrest and natural disasters.  Armstrong notes that he selected the timeframe for this work “As this book must be limited in size in order to ensure its price being reasonable, there is but little space to pursue in detail the subsequent history of the mission” (p. 272).  Evidently, Armstrong intended to publish ‘Sunrise on the Congo’, but for whatever reason (perhaps the Great Depression), it never reached fruition.

Armstrong’s work is not a dry religious tract, but rather an engagingly written, authoritative account of an epic drama that incudes real-life tales of extreme personal sacrifice and bravery; exploration of wild frontiers; the introduction of printing and technology to new lands; as well as chilling accounts of violence, murder, and the human rights abuses for which the Congo became globally infamous.  The work is divided into 40 chapters dealing with a variety of intriguing topics, highlights of which include: ‘Journey Out’; ‘Entry into the land’; ‘Human Traffic’; ‘Heathen Horrors’; ‘Witch Doctor’; Thieving’; ‘Narrow Escape’; ‘First converts’; ‘Attack on Ikau’; ‘Threat to kill missionaries’; ‘Many deaths’; ‘Opening of Congo commercially’; ‘Sun fever’; ‘Sleeping sickness’; ‘Railway complete’; ‘Adventurous journey’; ‘Storms and earthquake’; ‘Evangelising savage villages’; ‘S.S. Livingston and Printing press’; ‘Sleeping sickness and rubber oppression’; and the ‘Sinking of the S.S. Pioneer’; amongst many others.

Of interest to bibliophiles, the C.B.M. managed to raise £600 to purchase a printing press, which arrived at the Bongandanga mission in 1903.  The first issue of the C.B.M.’s journal, the Congo Balolo Mission Record rolled off the press in 1904.  The press was described as “a great boon to the missions” and Armstrong noted that shortly before his departure from the Congo that “The Printing Press continues its light-disseminating activities, and thousands of books are printed annually at a minimum cost, the work being largely done by natives whom… [have been] turned into capable printers” (p. 282).

The final page of the work includes a fascinating chart, ‘Present Development of the Work. Statistics of the Congo Balolo Mission Stations. 1934’, which provides quantitative information for each of the 7 mission stations.  It notes the ‘No. on Church roles’ (being 13,988 total); ‘Baptisms of the Past Year’; ‘Evangelists and Teachers’; ‘Scholars in schools’; ‘Medical attendances’; ‘Medical fees (francs)’; and Church gifts (francs)’.  

As would have been customary for the time, Armstrong would have made a small number of carbon copies of his original typescript (such as the present example) for circulation to select friends and perhaps prospective publishers.  As the work was never published as intended, his story is preserved in only the few known surviving carbon copies, of which we can trace only three other examples, at the RBMU Archive (Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh); the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and the University of Western Michigan Library.  Interestingly, the present example features numerous, meticulous manuscript corrections of typographic errors, showing that it was read over with great care.

The Congo Balolo Mission: Life & Death in the Heart of Darkness

In 1878, upon Henry Morton Stanley’s return to England, after having explored the Northern Congo, he urged missionaries to go to the region to convert the people to Christianity.  This call was answered by a small number of intrepid souls, notably the members of the Livingston Inland Mission.

Meanwhile, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, the territory of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo was made into the Congo Free State.  Unusually, this entity became the personal possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, as opposed to being a charge of the Belgian state.  Leopold’s regime, backed by his own personal army, the Force Publique, instilled a regime of terror upon the Congolese people, using slavery, torture and death squads to maximize the colony’s profits from rubber and mining.  The barbarity and frequency of the human rights atrocities were so great that even many conservative European imperialists thought it excessive.  This horrific environment was immortalized by Joseph Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness (1899), following his visit to the Congo.

It was in this context that the Congo Balolo Mission (C.B.M.) was founded in London in 1888.  The mission was so named for the ‘Balolo’ tribe, the “People of Iron” who lived in the Lulonga Valley of the Northern Congo.  Henry (“Harry”) Grattan Guinness II (1861- 1915), the founder and driving force of the C.B.M., was the head of the London Training Institute for Home and Foreign Missions and had previously served as a missionary in Tasmania.  He was inspired to go to the Congo upon meeting members of the Livingston Inland Mission.  For his new venture, Guinness managed to recruit almost three dozen colleagues, including John McKittrick, a veteran Congo missionary, and to rent the steamer Harry Read, to transport the party up the great Congolese rivers.

Guinness arrived in the Congo at the head of 35 missionaries in August 1889.  They proceeded up the Congo River and settled down in a region amidst the Congo tributary rivers the Lulonga, Maringa, Lopori, Ikelemba, Juapa and Bosira.    They founded their first missionary post at Ikau (to be followed alter by posts at Bonginda, Lulonga and Bongandanga).  The C.B.M.’s operations soon covered an area the size of England, so it was fortunate that in 1891 they were able to acquire an additional steamer, the S.S. Pioneer

While the missionaries succeeded in converting and proving education and sustenance to thousands of Congolese, the work was savagely trying.  Deadly diseases were ever present, while the missionaries met resistance from certain locals who took issue with their ‘intrusive’ presence.  By 1900, only 6 of the original C.B.M. party of 35 were still alive!

The high mortality rate caused the C.B.M.  to recruit replacements, one of the most prominent being Reverend William Douglas Armstrong, who served eight tours in the Congo from 1896 to 1934.

The C.B.M. had a very complex and consequential relationship with King Leopold’s regime.  The Force Publique, often in league with the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, the primum mobile of the colony’s exploitative industrial sector, intensified its use of slavery and violent intimidation upon the local population.  The Missionaries frequently eye-witnessed atrocities, providing medical treatment to the victims, who were, in some cases, charges of the C.B.M.  The missionaries became emotionally involved in this drama, and many came to bitterly resent the Belgians.  At the same time, the missions were relied upon the grace of the Belgian regime for their existence, so had to, at least outwardly, maintain amicable relations.  Moreover, many of he C.B.M.’s former pupils had gained employment in the Belgian Congo civil service, further complicating matters. 

Consequentially, in 1903, Sir Roger Casement (1864 - 1816), the human rights campaigner and future Irish nationalist martyr, became the British Consul General to the Congo Free State.  He made it his mission to investigate and expose the human rights abuses of Leopold’s regime.   He relied heavily upon the assistance, guidance and testimony of the C.B.M. missionaries in his discovery process (Casement even regularly travelled aboard the S.S. Pioneer).  In 1904, he published the ‘Casement Report’ which was a brutal, yet factual, indictment of the atrocities of the Leopold’s regime in the Congo.  The Report caused such an international furore that, in 1908, the Congo, was taken from Leopold’s possession and made a Belgian crown colony.  This led to discernible (albeit slow) improvements in the human rights environment in the Congo.    

Despite the difficult conditions, by 1915 the C.B.M. expanded to include 41 missions in 9 stations across the Lulonga region.  That year it merged into the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU), a missionary organization with a global mandate beyond the Congo.  It should be noted; however, the organization was often still informally referred to as the C.B.M., at least until World War II.  In 1932, the RBMU founded the Baringa Hospital, followed by another hospital in Yoseki, in 1945.  By 1955, the RBMU had 32,000 followers in the Congo, while 9,000 children attended its schools.  The RBMU’s successor organization, World Team, continues to operate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo up to the present day.

Rev. William Douglas Armstrong: 38 Years’ Service as a C.B.M. Missionary

William Douglas Armstrong was born in 1867 in Ipswich, England.  He was ordained a Protestant minister, and soon thereafter became interested in overseas missionary work.  In 1896, he joined the Congo Balolo Mission, becoming part of its ‘second generation’ of recruits.  His first assigned was to serve as the Bonginda Mission, where he married Mary Maud Davies in 1897.  Despite immense personal sacrifice (his only child died as an infant in 1903), he took to his cause with extraordinary zeal, becoming one of the C.B.M.’s leading figures.  Over a period of 38 years, he served eight tours in the Congo, interrupted only by short ‘recovery breaks’ in Britain; he variously served at the Bonginda, Bongandanga Mompono and the Ikau missions. 

Ironically, despite Armstrong and the C.B.M.’s ongoing criticism of the Belgian colonial regime’s human rights record, in 1929, King Albert I of Belgium knighted the reverend with the Chevalier de l’Ordre royal de lion in recognition for being “a pioneer of civilization” in the Congo.

Armstrong retired in the spring of 1934, leaving the Congo for the last time.  He moved, with his wife, to Scotland, were he soon completed ‘Sunrise on the Congo’.  He died in Midlothian in 1946.

References: RBMU Archive, Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh: GB 3189 CSCNWW33/27; Dwight B. Waldo Library, University of Western Michigan: General Stacks BV3625.C6 A7x; University of Wisconsin-Madison Library: 34995677; OCLC: 22094968 (referring to the UW-Madison and UWM examples).