A review of Oli Jacobsen, Daniel J. Danielsen and the Congo: Missionary Campaigns and Atrocity Photographs.

Faroese Missionary Humanitarianism in the Congo

A review of Oli Jacobsen, Daniel J. Danielsen and the Congo: Missionary Campaigns and Atrocity Photographs (Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, 2014).

Review by Iva Pesa, African Studies Centre, Leiden University

Daniel J. Danielsen (1871-1916) was a Faroese engineer who travelled to the Congo from 1901-1903 to work for the Congo Balolo Mission. Upon his return to the Faroe Islands he worked as a missionary, a pioneer evangelist on the islands. Jacobsen has done a commendable job to restore this influential individual to history. What stands out in Danielsen’s career is his role as a forerunner of the Congo Reform Association. Jacobsen convincingly argues that Danielsen was most likely the photographer of the (in)famous cut-hand photographs which formed the basis of the Congo Reform Association and which sparked widespread protest against King Leopold’s regime in the Congo. Moreover, upon his return from the Congo Danielsen was active to publicise these photographs, engaging in magic lantern shows and pushing for the publication of the photographs in British newspapers. This book contains an exceptional richness of primary archival material on Danielsen and his life. It is rare to find such detailed extracts from such diverse sources in a single manuscript. Moreover, this book shows what can be achieved when writing the history of a single missionary individual. It is surely an example which many Brethren historians could follow, as so many Brethren missionaries enjoyed exceptional careers which would be worth recording.  

Jacobsen’s primary goal is to restore the proper place of Danielsen in historical consciousness. Yet because of this he foregoes the opportunity to engage in several important debates. Jacobsen is so concerned to prove that Danielsen has been forgotten or even deliberately written out of subsequent history, that he spends much time proving rather trivial matters. For example, Danielsen was accused of using the chicotte (a heavy leather whip) whilst working on the missionary steamer in the Congo. It is, of course, significant and serious that Danielsen was accused of physical violence against African employees during his services. Jacobsen, however, recounts the claims and counterclaims of Danielsen’s involvement in such abuses in much detail, without reaching any clear-cut conclusion. He could have equally explained more about the unique position of missionaries in such remote localities as where Danielsen was posted. Danielsen and his fellow missionaries were the only Europeans around and they functioned as de facto administrators, enjoying a unique position of power. Contextualising the claims against Danielsen in broader missionary and Congolese history could have showed that his case was not exceptional, but rather that it speaks to broader trends.

Subsequently, Jacobsen recounts that Danielsen was engaged as the guide of Roger Casement, a British consul employed to report on conditions in Congo. Casement was very critical of Belgian treatment of native Congolese and recorded many of the atrocities related to ‘red rubber’. Due to his knowledge of local languages and topographies, Danielsen travelled with Casement and he proved instrumental to Casement’s findings and report. Jacobsen convincingly argues that Danielsen was most probably the photographer of the cut-hand photographs taken during Casement’s travels in the Congo. These photographs took a standard form, depicting mutilated limbs against the backdrop of a white cloth. The photographs would later play a pivotal role in the Congo Reform Association, which advocated so vocally against the misuse of power in King Leopold’s Congo. Jacobsen argues that Danielsen played an important role in this reform movement, yet that his role in it was subsequently ignored or even purposefully deleted. Where Jacobsen could have engaged in the extensive debate about the Congo Reform Association[1] and the role of missionaries therein, he chose to debate the role of Danielsen – questioning whether he took the photographs or not and whether he subsequently played a role in publicising these photographs. Whereas he has ample evidence to show that Danielsen most probably took the photographs and that he played a role in organising magic lantern shows to display these photographs, he could have focused on other issues. For example, why were British individuals all of a sudden concerned with atrocities in the Congo, given their own involvement in atrocities – to a lesser extent – in British colonies? What was the role of missionaries in the Congo Reform Association? What was the relationship between missionaries and policymakers, such as colonial officials? These important questions are largely bypassed, whilst Danielsen’s story could have contributed to answering them.

The final part of the book recounts Danielsen’s missionary work on the Faroese Islands. Upon his return from the Congo and due to health problems, Danielsen applied as a missionary to his native Faroese Islands. There he did a remarkable job as a pioneer evangelist, utilising the same magic lantern shows to spread his message. Jacobsen uses the same detail and sensitivity for primary sources to construct Danielsen’s story on the Faroes. The narrative in this part of the book is extremely interesting and contributes to a gap in Faroese historiography, yet it is poorly connected to the rest of the book. Whereas the bulk deals with Danielsen’s activities in the Congo and his subsequent involvement in the Congo Reform Association, the Faroese missionary endeavours stand disconnected from this previous history, except that they are united by the figure of Danielsen himself. Danielsen was indeed a versatile man, yet Faroese evangelism would have merited a separate book.

This is a remarkable book. It is extremely well researched and detailed, containing a wealth of primary source material. Long excerpts from primary sources are reprinted and this adds to the authority and vivacity of the book. Yet because of the biographical nature of this book, it occasionally engages in detailed personal representations, thereby bypassing more general historical debates which could have ensured a broader readership. Jacobsen could have done more to engage the broader audience of missionary historians. Yet Jacobsen has shown what can be done if recounting the history of individual missionaries. There have been numerous influential missionaries, of which no biographies have been written. Jacobsen has convincingly shown that the Echoes of Service archives and other missionary archives provide a wealth of primary source material with which to write such histories. I can only hope that subsequent historians will follow the example of Jacobsen, writing the histories of men and women such as Walter and Anna Fisher or Dan Crawford.

[1] See: Dean Pavlakis, ‘The development of British overseas humanitarianism and the Congo Reform campaign’, Journal of colonialism and colonial history 11:1 (2010).


Iva Peša

Iva Peša is a historian and carries out research on frugal innovations in Africa, particularly on the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelts.

Iva conducted PhD research at Leiden University on the social history of Mwinilunga District in North-Western Zambia, resulting in a thesis titled ‘Moving along the roadside:  A social history of Mwinilunga District, 1870s-1970s’ (to be defended 23 September).

Within the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, which joins Leiden, Delft and Erasmus Universities, she will work on a theoretical framework and conduct research on the historical dimensions of frugal innovations. The focus will be on innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and local development. These themes will be worked out through a case study of water, electricity and housing on the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelts. Next to research, Iva is involved in organising conferences and in teaching activities.


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