There are two essays in this section, “Benares, the Teacher” and “Photography Wars.” The latter is an academic essay I wrote as part of a graduate seminar on Colonialism in Africa. I wanted to include it on the website to underline the ongoing importance of photographic truth in the often arduous establishment of justice and also to underline Photography’s corresponding struggle with the powers of falsification.

The third piece, “The Borneo Butterfly,” is a short fantasy tale written after a visit to the great island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. I have always enjoyed the adventure stories of the Victorian era as well as that era’s optimistic excitement about science and expeditions to remote places, the powerful and often romantic urge to discover and understand. It’s a completely different kind of writing than the two essays which appear before it.


The following article was originally published in Miracles Magazine, Number Four, January 1993


Benares, The Teacher


After the impossible density of Calcutta, Benares seems light, even festive. There is more air for a start, and the city is blessed with relatively few motor vehicles. The teeming so characteristic of Indian cities begins only as the traffic funnels into the warrens of the old town, toward the sacred river. Jamming the lanes, ringing their bells incessantly, bicycle-rickshaws dominate the flow. In Calcutta, not for an instant would I have felt safe being pedaled or pushed through the clashing din. Here, in Benares, I gladly surrendered to the daily parade: the ringing, jingling, rattling rickshaws dodging and streaming out of the wider streets of the cantonment into the lanes of the old city, where they all moved bunched up and clogged together slowly like blood corpuscles through a pinched artery, everyone pressing toward the river, the Ganges, to Ganga, stream of redemption, aorta of Hinduism. Great Ganga, great drain, life-giver to the vast plain, taker-away of dust, subtle daughter of symbol-makers, sad sister of widows, mother of the radiant and the blind.

They float candles on the river at dawn, they give it marigolds, they raise cups of it to the sun, they submerge in it, squat by it, release into it, gargle with it, recite scriptures, stretch, whack cricket balls, and huff in heaving wrestlers’ exer­cises along its banks; they beg by it, wail and sing and drum and shave their heads on its steps; they come to it in the twilight to dream; they disappear into it.

“Where are you from?” came a voice on a ghat one early afternoon. We had been traveling in Asia for almost a year and that common question – where are you from? – we had heard hundreds of times. Sometimes, especially when we were tired, we tried to ignore it, feigning no understanding of the English language.

“Where are you from?” This questioner, an old and small saddhu with long gray hair and beard, was persistent. He was not going to allow us to stare placidly at the horizon.

“Hello! I say, where are you from?”

“Far away,” was my drowsy reply.

“That is obvious,” quipped the saddhu, “but from where exactly?”

When I finally told him, Truth being then established between us, he drew closer and surveyed me with amused directness. He had lots to say. His name was Shankar Baba, a Bengali in his early sixties from Dacca, in Bangladesh. For twenty-seven years he had been a renunciate.

“I am a ‘bramachari’. Do you know what that is?” He glanced at F., my wife, and giggled, and with an emphatic finger tapped each defining word on my arm. “No Sex Act.”

“You have a difficult life,” I replied.

“Oh, Baba,” (he addressed me as ‘Baba’ in every other sentence) “you are very right. It is a difficult life, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. It is difficult because I have very little to eat.”

We offered him bananas which he declined. Fruit usually made his stomach funny. “I eat only rice and dal, a little rice, a little dal, Baba; they are sattvic foods, pure foods, the best for the spirit. This is the thinking of yoga. Rajasic and tamasic foods make trouble. Do you know what the prob­lem is with Muslims?”

“There are many problems with Muslims,” I stated, ready with several examples. Before our travels in Asia we had lived for two years in Kuwait.

“The Muslims are so difficult because,” and he again tapped my forearm

to underscore, “they eat beef!”

He gave us a triumphant nod, as if to say, “Now you know.”

“Ah,” we said.

“Muslims, I am sad to admit, made it very hard for me in Dacca; that is why I left. I was a high school teacher, but they did not want us Hindus in the schools.”

He had fled to Calcutta and found a guru there. I was curious to know if he liked the city. He laughed at the silly question. “O, no, Baba, it is so busy and so noisy. Everyone making business. Even here, in this sacred Benares, business, business. The young people seem to like it very much.”

We asked him how he spent his days.

He lived by a small Shiva temple upriver. Every morning he rose more than an hour before dawn to meditate. When the sun came up he bathed in the river. “O, Baba, but the water is so cold. I am Bengali and I used to swim all the time. I would swim across this river if it were not for the cold. O, Baba, I do not like the cold.”

“After I  bathe, I do Yoga” (his eyes brightened, capitalizing the word). “Then I recite my Mantra. My guru gave me a very very long mantra to make me concentrate perfectly.”

The rest of the day was for wandering, scrounging for food, dialoguing, enlisting help.

F. wanted to know why some corpses were taken out on a boat and tipped into the river instead of being cremated.

“They do not burn the bodies of saddhus, nor of young boys,” he said. “Instead they throw them into the river.”

A shriveled, ancient, hunchbacked woman with cataract eyes, moving her mute mouth like a fish, slowly, painfully approached, a cane in one hand, a tin cup in the other. Most of the women who begged in Benares were wid­ows.

Shankar Baba implored us to give her something, “I know her. She is Bengali and her life has been terribly sad.”

As she moved on, impervious and inexorable as a turtle, the old saddhu asked if we could benefit him likewise.

“It is not for a saddhu to make business. And a saddhu cannot grow food. My guru says that food will come when we need it. I am very hungry. Can you provide for my meal tonight?”

I reached into my pocket and produced a two rupee note.

“O, Baba,” he went on plaintively, “if you could give me a little more, I would not have to be concerned about food for days.”

To my future chagrin, I felt then that these two rupees were enough. The beggars of India were infinite, and everyday I distributed a pocketful of coins. Two rupees to a single soul was more than the little pieces I nor­mally gave out, and so it seemed generous. Generous? Proportion was very difficult indeed where money was concerned, and whenever money was the direct is­sue something in me often clouded my heart. The end­less, inescapable begging had, after all these months, produced a defensive response. Even with such a personable individual as Shankar Baba, it was easy for me to lose lu­cidity. ‘So much and no more’ had become an automatic response.

Sensing the conflict within me, Shankar Baba changed the subject.

“You have a camera, I see. Would you like to take my picture? I will give you a big smile.”

It was a magnanimous gesture. He stepped into an area of sunlight, smoothed his beard, and beamed.

The shutter clicked, we raised joined palms to our foreheads in the farewell gesture and turned in opposite directions. F. and I plunged into a herd of water-buffalo, happily vacuous beasts chewing and foaming at the mouth. They were an immediate distraction. No one can be serious while looking into the face of a water-buffalo.

Up ahead, a dozen boats were docked, ancient-looking vessels as old as the Vedas, their sails like parchment, their planks held together by fibers. From the boats to the top of the dusty embankment, hundreds of gaunt peo­ple, men and women, poured in a swarming procession, each person with a large basket on his head. It was a never-relenting ant-like surge – filling the baskets with sand and earth from the bowels of the boats, trudging up the gray, hard-packed slope, depositing the burden, following in single file another line downhill, and starting all over again. The pace was so uniformly rapid that I half-expected to see bullying overseers cracking whips. But there was none of that. The file moved by its own inner momentum. Release these people upon a mountain, I thought, and they would bear it away in short order.

In the foreground three bodies burned. We had not even noticed until I had lifted my camera to photograph the march of the human millipede and someone ran up shouting. Photographing cremations was strictly prohibited. Sheepishly I bent down to stuff the camera into my bag. Only then did I no­tice scant feet away a skull which had been gaping up at me all the time.

After carefully threading our way through the human ants and warding off packs of beggar children, we found a peaceful ghat where we sat not far from a herd of buffalo. Through a compact pair of powerful binoculars we studied the whole grand sweep of riverside activities against the weirdly foreshortened walls of dense complexes of temples, palaces, striped stair­ways, the painted murals, the faces of the principal gods, Shiva and Parvati predominating. Over the water, on the distant opposite bank where there are no buildings, buzzards and crows wheeled and plunged in a shrieking feast. It was then that the thought of Shankar Baba came back for the first time and my heart sank. What was it that had been dumped in the river? A boy? A saddhu? Voicing these thoughts aloud ended in F.’s re­proaching me.

“Why be so lugubrious? The mood will pass,” she insisted. Nevertheless a vast sad­ness had come over me, had seeped down from the dull sky, had risen im­perceptibly out of the gray river, distilled out of so many eyes, a loneliness like a fog, impossible to fight, an impalpable vapor of futility. Was this only self-indulgence, a traveler’s luxury? “Look at the buffalo,” suggested F.

Moods, the colorations of the spirit, were in perpetual flux. Unpre­dictable sights and sounds gave rise to them. Contrasts, the accumulation of detail, the state of the stomach all contributed, the body’s level of energy, the mind in equanimity, at play or in recoil, the type of reception one was accorded, the daily attempt at maintaining an image that dissolved. Everything was catalyst. Moods: passing weather, the mercury rising and falling between pleasure and pain, the changing of lenses. A traveler was, more or less, always under a state of siege. The quality of travel ultimately depended on the kind of truce one came to make with the alien land.

It was on our second day in Varanasi that we had encountered Shankar Baba.  Our first wanderings had been classic tourism; roaming downriver from Mir Ghat, diverting to Jai Singh’s rooftop observatory, resting in front of palaces, meandering up stairways into the tight maze of ultimate exoticism where shrines clustered in a density matched nowhere on Earth. The innu­merable lingams of Shiva seemed to sprout from the very pavements and stones, and open yonis received them, in fact,  gave rise to them. If the shadow and grin of death were ever-present in the city, so too, and even stronger was the procreational urge. For many it was the only possible ground for hope – you died, surely, but soon after you were reborn and at it again. Temples grew like gargantuan fruits squeezing amidst shadowy buildings. Silver-faced elephant-headed Ganesha, the god of luck, son of Shiva and Parvati, garlanded and draped in orange robes greeted one in portly humor at the end of cul-de-sacs.

All that first afternoon and evening, we were delightfully lost in naive fascination: every turning had led to surprise, like the first turning of pages in a richly illuminated old book. As night came on we found ourselves in a main bazaar thoroughfare, a long, narrow twisting lane jammed with people and cows and small shops where everything glittered, reflected, suffused – copper, brass, and stainless steel vessels, pastel silks and bright baubles, fig­urines of gods and musicians, devotional statuary, mounds of ochre and vermilion powder. This prism of shifting surfaces was exactly what the brochures promised of the exotic East. We had only arrived from Calcutta that morning. We had fled black Kali’s domain and were being regaled splendidly in her husband Shiva’s city.

“Be aware though that every god is a trickster,” Vijay Prakash, a friend from Delhi had told us months before. “The gods like to play with the unprepared.” If one day the deity reached out with a handful of treasures, the next he would show another hand and then still another, for he had a thousand hands and was always in movement. And he was not the sole deity in charge.

On the second day, at the hour of cow dust and creeping twilight, we had drifted through other portions of the maze where Brahmins and temples were scarce and the lanes grimier, gloomier. Here Shiva spoke in screaming radios and offered us rats, squashed cats and piles of broken bricks, while the sounds of clattering looms from the weavers’ workshops chugged like engines in factories.

On the third morning, we were rowed along the river at dawn. The world offers few spectacles as cinematic, and this on a daily basis, one crowded frame following the next, with even a soundtrack of devotional mu­sic provided by the loudspeakers of Mir Ghat’s pink temple. The golden sun rose and thousands descended into the cold gray waters. Priests lifted brass cups like chalices, heads sank below the surface, heads emerged. Babbling, soaping, scrubbing, preening, splashing, ducking ceaselessly multiplied. We floated by temples and palaces, stairways broad and narrow, collections of cubicles which housed deities and attendant Brahmins.

Later, we plunged once more into the heart of the maze only to get ut­terly caught and befuddled in such a deviously illogical system of lanes and blind alleys that no exit to the river could be discovered for hours and our heads began to ache from the constrictions, the rank smells, the grease bub­bling in the scores of cooking pans, the walls, the eyes, even the smiles. We trudged in urban exhaustion, longing for an end to the cramp, praying for a spacious horizon, for the relief of the river.

The meaning of Ganga had expanded again with experience, but oddly, remained centered upon one major process – relief.  Relief from the over-concentrations of the brain, from too much life, from the hemming walls be­fore one’s eyes, relief for the bowels, the nose, the skin.

We came to one of the cremation ghats, a place impossible to stroll by with casual impunity. This most elemental and final of acts has a complete, irresistible hold, solemn and horrifying. We took our place at the edge of a small group of onlookers. The body below was in a mass of flames, but, as we had seen before in Kathmandu and other places, the bare feet were sticking out as though in protest, saying ‘no, I’m not going.’ He whose job it was to tend the pyres, ad­ministered a few pokes to the blaze with a stick. F. gasped and ran.

While we paused to calm our crowded minds, a crow abruptly took wing from a coconut bobbing in the river near the shore. The impetus of the launching caused the coconut to turn over and we saw what it really was – the head of a buffalo, bloated and pecked raw.

Shiva was pulling all the stops, sparing no detail this day.

“This place is getting to be too much,” commented F., turning away again in aversion. “This river seems horrid to me, and I am becoming sick at the thought of people bathing, washing, and drinking the water. How can they be so blind; how can they call something so vile and filthy, so stinking with dis­ease and waste and death, holy?”

“We are just looking at things too closely today,” came my attempt at consolation. “The river is holy because everything’s in it. Every­thing.”

F. was not going to allow such an easy answer. “Just because every­thing’s in it doesn’t make it holy. It just makes it a mess.”

As we walked on in silence, I tried to think what ‘holy’ actually meant for us on a personal level. It seemed, then, especially after the inspired months we had spent in the Himalayas, to be more the absence of the teeming, the crowded, the full. ‘Holy’ things were rare things. This ‘holy’ suddenly seemed to be the absolute ‘profane.’ Was this really the case?

A bearded Westerner, more scholar than hippie, sat on the steps of a ghat engrossed in a thick book. I had noticed him at dawn coming down to this same place and opening a book. From all appearances he had not moved all day and it was nearing late afternoon. He seemed enviously tranquil, rapt in a sphere of studiousness. I was about to go over to speak to him and put to him our dilemmas when familiar distracting words sounded.

“Hello, where you from?” It was a saddhu, lean and ragged, in a thin blanket. He had neither the childlike smile of Shankar Baba nor the mocking look of the many bouncy, ganja-influenced saddhus.

“America,” I admitted, too tired to evade.

“America. Big Money,” the saddhu instantly replied, and it took no spe­cial insight to know what this meeting was aiming at.

“How are you, Baba?” I inquired. But he was not interested in courtesies or revelations other than one kind.

“India not America,” was all he rejoined.

“Yes, Baba?”

“India no money.”

“That depends.”

“I go to Kathmandu. Big mela.”

“Please tell me about the mela.”

“Big mela.”

“Is that all?”

“I have no money. You can give, America.”

Here was the hungry ghost and I was the walking dollar sign. The en­counter was not destined to yield real dialogue. I placed some odd coins in his palm and all three of us hastened away. In the meantime, the scholar had vanished.

We bought some peanuts and retreated up some steps to the shelter of a large block of stone. From neither direction along the riverbank could we be observed. Below, a group of shaggy French marginals shared chillums of pungent ganja and clowned with feral saddhus. Inching painfully upward, a haggard woman made for us. We were fully prepared to give her a few ru­pees when, to our astonishment, she most meekly begged permission simply to be allowed to take away our peanut shells! The winter nights are long and cold in Varanasi. She had a small wicker basket into which she deposited anything combustible. The shells would supplement this night’s meager fire. She asked for no more.

As darkness fell we had a rickshaw deliver us to the ‘Kwality Restau­rant’. We had been eating little for several days; this was to be our treat. We sat in a booth in a gloomy, echoing empty room and ordered a meal of curries, nan, and yogurt which left us feeling bloated and even slightly nau­seated. Throughout the dinner the waiter had stood close by, eyeing us furtively like a suspicious guard. The meal finished and the bill reckoned, he loomed over the table with the change, awaiting his tip. The three rupees, the ten per cent I left upon the plate colored his eyes a deep tone of re­sentment. He grabbed the sum and turned his back with nary a thanks.

I went into the street feeling a rising disgust mixed with shame. The image of Shankar Baba had returned time and again the whole day long.  Ev­erytime I had pictured the man’s warm eyes, recalled his openness, his need, and my cheap two rupee contribution, I felt the sharp sting of remorse. The remorse had become an emotional storm then with my stomach distended from a wretched meal for which I had paid thirty rupees. I had also given to a disagreeable waiter more than I had to a saintly person, someone who had reached out to me with more the desire to communicate than to plead for an offering, someone whose presence I had truly enjoyed.

Disparity! Dispar­ity of want, disparity of obligation, disparity of response, confusing disparity causing endless reproach. The payment for what I had consumed like an automaton in fifteen minutes would have kept Shankar Baba going for two weeks! When, despite all my studying, asanas and meditation, was I to achieve genuine wisdom and proportionality in my deal­ings with people? I could have given Shankar Baba one hundred rupees, enough for fifty meals, and set him free of food anxieties for seven entire weeks!  And one hundred rupees, vast as it sometimes seemed in India, would have made no noticeable bite in my treasury. Yes, the other saddhu was right – America big money and I was only of modest means by American standards. All during the day, I had looked for Shankar Baba in order to make amends, but the occasion to do myself right in such a way was not to be so easily granted me.

On our way back to the hotel, the rickshaw-wallah, a spindly, scram­bling fellow who had taken us from the river and waited outside during our maudlin feast, badgered us with pleas to stop at silk showrooms, gold-sellers and souvenir shops, all of which we resolutely opposed. He was hungry for steady work and commissions. “All tourist people like silk, buy gold and saris.” Finally realizing we weren’t shoppers, he tried another tack. “I take you to Sarnath tomorrow, O.K.? Dalai Lama will be there.” He did not seem to be able to pedal without the added propulsion of his tongue so we began to ply him with personal questions.

Did he do any work besides drive a rickshaw?  No, he had done this all his working life. He had been pedaling for over thirty years.

Did he work every day? Every day of the week, even when ill, and for a minimum of twelve hours a day.

Why did he work so much? He had a wife and five children; someone had to provide. And he wanted all his children to get some schooling.

“How do you like Benares?” he asked us, eagerly.

We told him honestly it was incredibly interesting.

“Benares is my city,” he proclaimed proudly.  “The holiest city. I will never leave Benares. It is best in all India for Education. It has many schools and uni­versities. I will send my children …” Talking about his children’s future made him pedal all the faster. He rambled on until we got to our hotel. At the gate we parted with mutual good feeling. The tip had been well re­ceived and he was pleased with a remark we had made to the effect that he was certainly correct, that indeed his city was a remarkable teacher.

“Benares has taught us many things,” we admitted. He was happy with that.



Photographic Wars: The Battle Over Image and Truth

in King Leopold’s Congo

The movement to focus political attention on the brutal situation in King Leopold’s Congo took over two decades and involved the various efforts of thousands of people. From George Washington Williams’ first major salvo in 1890 to the declaration of armistice or settlement in 1908, the movement grew from uncoordinated individual protests to a large-scale, centrally organized international endeavor involving mass rallies and celebrity figures such as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What began as skirmishes developed into a full-scale publicity war between the members of the Congo Reform Association and King Leopold’s well-funded and influential public relation machine, reaching its peak in the early years of the 20th century. Among the many weapons utilized in the battle over the Congo were photographs. Since as far back as the 1840s photography had played a role in the expression of empire.[1] In the hands of government and commercial agents as well as missionaries, they were typically used as records of progress and achievement.[2] The Congo reformists, however, turned these standard colonial uses upside down, “painting with light,” as it were, in order to reveal the shocking extent of moral darkness that held sway in Leopold’s secretive realm. The struggle to command and propagate images is a tale as old as settled human history, and by the Victorian age, photography had come to be widely regarded as an ideal means of conveying the proper image of the state. This paper will restrict itself to a look at the uses and effectiveness of a sampling of the images marshaled by the Congo reformists in contrast to the Belgian king’s pictorial counter offensive.

British missionaries had been using lantern slides as a key component of their lectures since the 1890s.[3] They had discovered that projected photographs could be “powerful instruments of missionary propaganda.”[4] Kevin Grant contends that it was when the returned Baptist missionaries John and Alice Harris joined forces with E.D. Morel in 1906, and put Alice’s atrocity photographs at the service of the Congo Reform Association, that the latter organization truly gathered the steam necessary to become not only a national force but a significant international movement.[5] “Atrocity meetings” usually lasted for one hour and featured up to sixty slides. The images themselves were selected to jar and stir the audience: for example, a father gazing mournfully at the severed hand and foot of his daughter, her sole remains after soldiers cannibalized her body; children with arms twisted and broken by rampaging soldiers; people of all ages displaying spindly useless arms minus hands; people holding up the hacked off hands of friends and relatives; prisoners tied together in iron collars and chains; victims being scourged with the infamous rhinoceros-hide chicotte.  “In their first two years with the C.R.A.”, notes Adam Hochschild, “one or both of them [the Harrises] spoke in public on six hundred occasions.”[6] So moving were the presentations that members of the audience openly wept, and even offered to the speakers precious jewels.[7] With such a committed, zealous outreach, the political pressure brought to bear on King Leopold’s regime became impossible to easily dismiss or ignore.[8] Clearly, photographs were responsible for much of this pressure.

Mark Twain’s satirical pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, published in 1905, made special use of photographs in addition to line drawings both of which serve to add emphasis to important points in his indictment. The photograph previously mentioned of the baleful father with his daughter’s remains is one of the first the reader encounters. Near the end of the book is a composite of nine separate images of sorrowful victims wearing white robes who extend to the viewer their pitiful hand-less arms. Four of the victims are children and two of these look to be five years old or even less. What is particularly striking is the way Twain’s Leopold callously attacks these incriminating pictures. “The kodak has been a sore calamity to us,” he complains, “The most powerful enemy that has confronted us, indeed.”[9] He continues his lament insisting that before the advent of the “incorruptible kodak” that it had been a rather simple matter to manipulate public opinion and turn the tables on anyone who dared cast him in any mold other than “the benefactor of the down-trodden.”[10] A line drawing depicts Leopold cringing before a camera that hovers over him gleaming like a guilty apparition or perhaps the all-seeing eye of an implacable god. The comment below the image reads, “The only witness I couldn’t bribe.”[11]

King Leopold was not one to suffer an assault complacently. He employed a brigade of agents to answer every attack in kind and he did this with remarkable speed. Shortly after the publication of E.D. Morel’s damning King Leopold’s Rule in Africa in 1905, which featured more than thirty photographs with nearly a third in the atrocity category, a paid representative of Leopold’s, the American attorney Henry Wellington Wack, came out with The Story of the Congo Free State.[12]  The book is a weighty one at 483 pages and with another 250 pages of fine print appendices. To Morel’s scanty thirty odd photographs, Wack displays a startling one hundred and thirty. Predictably, the photographs are designed to present a strongly contrastive picture: they are proclamations of industrial achievement and missionary-influenced civilization.[13] In addition, the exotic and the romantic are also juxtaposed with reassuring images of European comfort. One beholds standard icons of progress and civilization: trains, bridges, roads, schools, vocational training centers, steamships, government offices, churches, courts, tidy bungalows and village compounds. Images depicting  the “imaginative geography” of the exotic, which Edward Said associates with Orientalism,[14] help somewhat to mitigate the monotony: we find pictures of wild-eyed, weirdly coiffed natives with necklaces of teeth, warriors with tall oval shields and spears, musicians with curious instruments, chiefs with harems, and for good measure, the already standard near-naked nubile maidens. The message is clear: King Leopold’s realm is orderly, productive, advanced, and at the same time exciting and awaiting the discriminating adventurer. With such a huge number of images, Leopold and Wack must have felt assured they would triumph in the photography war.

But just to be certain, Leopold’s PR bureau commissioned yet even more works. The British traveler Marcus Dorman’s  A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State with a dedication to Leopold was also issued in 1905. It is a slim and rather pale imitation of the master Henry Stanley with none of the latter’s memorable shoot-outs, dangers and deaths. There are twenty photographs, some of them the same as those found in Wack: warriors, musicians, maidens, steamers.  The majority show distant panoramas of the mighty river which again consciously evoke the earlier photographic work of Stanley.[15] In 1907, another of Leopold’s agents, the American reporter Frederick Starr, brought out The Truth About the Congo, a selection of pieces he had previously published in The Chicago Tribune. There are only six photos by Starr’s traveling companion Manuel Gonzalez. Five of the images are somewhat neutral in content: three squatting natives smoking long pipes, a group of young boy students also squatting in front of a hut, men constructing a building with tropical materials. The most arresting photo, however, shows a group of five men in collars and chains flanked by African guards with rifles. The caption reads “Men Sentenced to the Death Penalty for Murder and Cannibalism.” The disturbing quality of the chains here is meant to be offset presumably by the horror of the crimes. Starr, unlike Wack and Dorman, admits that there are, indeed, certain aspects and practices in the Congo that might appear unsettling. But rather than embarrass his patron, he always finds a way to gloss over them with explanatory text.[16] In assessing Leopold’s image campaign against the reformers, it seems safe to  say that though his agents sought to drown the opposition by sheer quantity, their efforts were unsuccessful due, to a large extent, to the blandness of most of the photographs along with the transparent mendacity of much of the text. The reformers had seized the high moral ground with shocking unforgettable images and the more efforts Leopold made, the more desperate did his descent down the slippery slope of deception appear.

Photography had already become a widespread imperialist tool by the turn of the 20th century, but it was a tool that the Congo reformers showed could be wielded resolutely in the cause of conscience rather than national pride or domination. The early twentieth century still believed that the photograph represented objectivity and truth. These assumptions when joined to a crusading zeal in exposing cruelty and rectifying injustice tipped the scale in the standoff between what Annie Coombes calls different “regimes of truth.”[17] The more rousing photographs manipulated by the Congo Reform Association demonstrate that it would be images that more deeply stirred moral emotions that would win out.


Bibliography and Works Cited

Coombes, Annie, E., Reinventing Africa, Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)

Dorman, Marcus R. P., A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State (Brussels: J. Lebègue and Co., Publishers, 1905)

Grant, Kevin, “Christian Critics of Empire: Missionaries, Lantern Lectures, and the Congo Reform Movement Campaign in Britain” in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 29, No.2, May 2001

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Houghton Mifflin, First Mariner Edition, 1999)

Killingray, David and Roberts, Andrew, “An Outline History of Photography in Africa to ca. 1940”  in History in Africa,  A Journal of Method, African Studies Association, Vol. 16, 1989

Leduc-Grimaldi, Mathilde, translation Judd, Steve, Africa in Images, Stanley I presume? (Brussels: King Baudouin Foundation, 2007)

Lewis, Wm. Roger and Stengers, Jean, E.D. Morel’s History of the Congo Reform Movement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968)

Morel, E.D., King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1905)

Ryan, James R., Picturing Empire, Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books, 1997)

Starr, Frederick, The Truth About the Congo, The Chicago Tribune Articles (Chicago: Forbes and Company: 1907)

Twain, Mark, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, A Defense of His Congo Rule (Boston: The P. R. Warren Co., Second Edition, 1905)

Wack, Henry Wellington, The Story of the Congo Free State, Social, Political, and Economic Aspects of the Belgian System of Government in Central Africa (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1905)



[1] James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire, Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 15

[2] Ryan, 11

[3] Grant, Kevin, “Christian Critics of Empire: Missionaries, Lantern Lectures, and the Congo Reform Movement Campaign in Britain” in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 29, No.2, May 2001, 28

[4] Ibid.

[5] The director of the Congo Balolo Mission to which the Harrises belonged was already touring Britain as early as 1903 and making use of slides in his “Congo Atrocity Meetings.” Guinness noted that some of the slides were “immensely effective.” He was also drawing audiences from two to three thousand. Grant, 37-38

[6] Hochschild, 216

[7] Hochschild, 216, 236.

[8] In addition to giving presentations, John Harris published and distributed numerous pamphlets, leaflets, and articles, all with photographic illustrations. His 1906 pamphlet, “Rubber is Death,” used a dozen photographs to give credibility to his accusations. Ryan, 222-223

[9] Twain, 39

[10] Twain, 40

[11] Twain, 39. The rapid spread of photography due to Kodak’s innovations are worth keeping in mind. “Photography remained a comparatively exacting technique until the introduction in 1888/9 of the Kodak box-camera, incorporating a roll of celluloid film that could be returned to the factory for processing; it was this advance which enabled anyone to take photographs simply by pressing a button. In 1897 Eastman produced the Kodak folding camera, which could be carried in the pocket.” Killingray, David and Roberts, Andrew, “An Outline History of Photography in Africa to ca. 1940,”  History in Africa,  A Journal of Method, African Studies Association, Vol. 16, 1989, p. 198

[12] Hochschild’s comment is worth noting: “Instructions from Brussels were that Wack was ‘to act as if he were not in the State’s employ, but merely an impartial publicist.’” 245

[13] The laudatory texts are wonders of blatant propaganda. For example, “The aboriginal black cannibal still occupies the banks of the Congo. But his nature, so recently in its savage state, is manifesting great change. He is on his knees in the mission chapel; the song of the White Fathers and the Sisters of Mercy inspires in him the rude awakening of new emotions. His own voice abandons the war-cry and makes its fervid, untaught plea to the white man’s God.” Wack, 473

[14] Ryan, 25

[15] A 2007 publication of a selection of Stanley’s photographs by the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation makes this observation, “When Stanley published the account of his African adventure, excitement about Orientalism was at its height. The near East and North Africa were filled with amateur and professional photographers assembling collections of photographs and creating clichés that tended to reinforce the myth of ‘distant lands,’ as fascinating and dreamlike, rather then providing any knowledge about them. Photography did not actually deceive, but it did reinforce these fantasies.” Mathilde Leduc-Grimaldi, translation Steve Judd, Africa in Images, Stanley I presume? (Brussels: King Baudouin Foundation, 2007) The book’s pages are unnumbered, but this appears on the sixth page of the introductory text.

[16] “It is common to speak of the chain-gang with great sympathy. One sees chain-gangs at every state post; it is the common punishment for minor offenses to put the prisoner on the chain. Sometimes as many as twelve or fifteen are thus joined…The ring around the necks of these prisoners is a light iron ring, weighing certainly not to exceed two pounds. The weight of chain falling upon each prisoner can hardly be more than six or eight pounds additional.” Starr loses all credibility, however, when he writes about flogging, “Many a time I have seen a man immediately after being flogged, laughing and playing with his companions as if naught had happened. Personally, though I have seen many cases of this form of punishment, I have never seen blood drawn, nor the fainting of the victim.” Frederick Starr, The Truth About the Congo, The Chicago Tribune Articles (Chicago: Forbes and Company: 1907) 91

 [17] Coombes, Annie, E., Reinventing Africa, Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 6





 THE BORNEO BUTTERFLY                          


Cavendish was a noted naturalist in addition to being the foremost lepidopterist, or butterfly expert, in the world. By the time of our tale which took place in the year 1889, he had spent years exploring the jungles of the Amazon, the Congo, and many of the islands, both great and small, in the southern Asian seas. With his trusty net, his specimen boxes and pins, his notebooks and his machete, he had penetrated the deepest jungles and had captured and seen more butterflies than anyone else. He was distinguished and he was celebrated. The richest collectors the world over clamored for his work. Cavendish himself disdained to keep anything. What he did not provide to serious collectors and foundations, he gave to museums, universities, and schools. He was a man of science.

During intervals between voyages, he spent most of his time in a small office in the basement of the Museum of Natural History in London. There he carefully mounted, labelled, catalogued and arranged all the new things he was always bringing back from distant places. He made drawings, he peered through microscopes, he wrote books – in short, he was a very industrious and dedicated man. “Science must progress”, was a saying with him.

One of his wealthiest patrons, Lord Randolph Cotswold, invited Cavendish to spend one weekend at his stately home. Lord Cotswold was passionate for insects that sparkled and especially for large butterflies and moths of many hues. Most of his enormous collection was Cavendish’s work.

“I trust that you are not so busy that you cannot accept another commission,” stated the Lord as the two strolled in the gardens. “I have just read a report translated from the Dutch regarding a legend of the isle of Borneo. The legend involves a butterfly, the rarest of them all apparently, something the man who penned the article has charmingly named Elusivia Mysteriosa – a singular specimen, something which has managed up till now to elude everyone, even you, my dear Cavendish. What I propose is this: I would like you to go after this Elusivia and bring it back here. Take as much time as you need. Go anywhere, hire all the help you want. Money is no object. We must have this butterfly. England must have this butterfly!”

Cavendish accepted the commission and returned to London to make preparations. He was to leave the next week on a ship belonging to the East India Company. Lord Cotswold had already booked the passage.


Cavendish occupied himself during the long trip by noting almost everything that could be noted – the changing temperature of the air and of the water, the colors of the sky and the shape of the clouds, the habits of fish and birds. His vision was extremely sharp – he could identify even tiny insects from afar simply by their flight patterns.

“The purpose of the mind is to investigate,” he stated to the other passengers at dinner time when they asked about the things he was always so busy doing. “Science must go on.” There was no one who disagreed with that.

After a brief stop in Calcutta where Cavendish called upon the Viceroy to pay his respects and to give a lecture at the Asiatic Society, the ship headed south to the Andaman Islands where Cavendish made the discovery of two new crabs and six spiders. The ship passed through the Straits of Malacca in time to observe the annual migration of sea snakes, and then, after a very short stop in Singapore, proceeded to the coast of Sarawak province in North Borneo and upriver to the main city of Kuching where Cavendish equipped himself for his expedition.

With Cavendish in command, the guards and guides, the porters and cooks he had hired shouldered their sacks and their burdens and the party moved off into the jungle. Cavendish had a sixth sense for places – he could almost smell novel habitats and undiscovered species. When the scientist sensed that a certain locale was the right place to stop, they would make camp and remain there for a while. Cavendish would sometimes go off collecting by himself, returning by nightfall in time for the moths.

Days came and went and weeks turned into months. Crates and notebooks were filled with remarkable discoveries and they were dispatched. But the principal object of the expedition remained beyond Cavendish’s grasp. The Dutchman had written that Elusivia had wings spun from the silk of light itself. It lived in the light within the darkness and was known by its shadow. Beautiful as the idea sounded, it wasn’t much to go on. The Dutchman’s description was certainly not the stuff of science, but Cavendish had a hunch that there was a grain of truth in it. Yet after five months of searching not  a single shred of evidence had turned up. A lesser man would have given up but Cavendish was not the kind who got discouraged easily. He went on. He hacked his way through thick undergrowth and curtains of dense creepers, he searched amidst the tangled roots, the huge buttresses and even the dizzying tops of towering trees. He climbed rocks and sat on outcroppings and watched as giant hornbills flew over the forest canopy. He crossed over rivers and gorges on fallen trees whose bark had sprouted with thousands of ferns and mushrooms.

But after six months had come and gone Cavendish began to wonder whether the butterfly he was after was a figment of someone else’s imagination, more fancy than fact. He began to wonder if he should call a halt to the expedition. He did not like the idea of pursuing something that was only imaginary.

It was by the banks of a brown and swollen river at a trading outpost that Cavendish’s sixth sense suddenly flared. The people there had told him of a butterfly that could change its color. Though no one had ever seen it everyone he spoke to was sure it existed. Yet, oddly, when he asked where it lived the people shrugged and pointed into the trees. All except one young boy. He had seen it with his very own eyes he claimed. “Where? Where?” asked Cavendish, very excited. “The cave,” blurted out the boy just before his father grabbed him and took him away. Cavendish was now more intrigued than ever.

There were caves in the region, he found out, a few miles from the river. The expedition pushed on and before long came to a place where walls of rock, pitted with holes and draped in vegetation, rose steeply. The distinctive odor of birds and bats was very strong. Cavendish piled all the candles he could into a pack and climbed a cliff, pulling himself up with the aid of vines and roots. In many places the white stone was slippery and a black and green slime spilled down. Cavendish crawled inside a large opening, and passing through a gallery, found himself in a great chamber, a huge cavemouth. Small swifts darted in and out. They skittered along the roof where they made their nests and emitted clicking sounds.

“It is here,” Cavendish said to himself, “It is here.”

Climbing cautiously over damp rocks, Cavendish followed his intuition into the depths of the chamber where light finally stopped and he was obliged to use candles. A choice of several tunnels led the intrepid scientist downward amidst the detritus that had fallen from the roof. He felt something spring against him and when he looked at his feet he saw a large cricket waving its antennae. It was white and it was blind. Apparently things that lived deep in caves had no need of eyes or pigment. What other extraordinary things lived here, Cavendish wondered. Further on, after he had stooped to go under a narrow notch in a screen of rock, the light from his candle revealed another startling find – a white snake without eyes curled in the groove of a rock. And on the seeping walls of another tunnel he saw small pale scorpions. Cavendish lit three candles and pulled out a notebook. Rapidly he jotted down details of these creatures along with a sketch of the route he had traversed. He knew it was getting late and he had better head back. Just as he turned to retrace his steps, he felt something very gently brush against his cheek, something soft and velvety. He lifted a candle high.    What he saw was a vapoury black butterfly gliding over the cave wall. He took a few steps forward. No, it was not a butterfly but the shadow of one. Where was the butterfly then ?  He turned slowly in a full circle, his senses keen, but he could not detect it anywhere and now even the shadow was gone. But his heart beat faster because yes, he had at least seen a trace, a sign, and he had felt the graze of its wings.

At dawn Cavendish was climbing into the cave and by early morning he was already in the place where he had felt the touch. He contined to pick his way through the dark maze, making gradual progress upward, sensitive to some faint visibility. In two hours he broke through into a vast chamber where, from a hole high in the roof overhead, there fell a smoky shaft of light. It was stunning – this single beam, a wide column of brilliance piercing the gloom. Cavendish stood awed. But that was not the end of remarkable sights. Within the shaft something fluttered. Was it, was it she ? Elusivia? Yes – as large as any butterfly he had ever seen. Most incredible of all was the color or the fluctuation of color. Illuminated within the shaft it appeared vividly dark, satiny, but when it moved into the obscurity it glowed.  Did it have its own inner source of light, or was it just the play of reflections he was seeing? Where was the butterfly after all? Which image was the true one? Spellbound yet puzzled, Cavendish watched until the light began to weaken and finally disappear altogether. Elusivia too had vanished like a whisp. He had been so absorbed that he had hardly felt the passage of time.

Returning was not so easy. While Cavendish had been observing the spectacle he had frequently moved about the chamber to change his perspective. Doing so he had lost his bearings. How exactly he had got into the chamber he could no longer remember because it was the light that had held all his attention at first, the light and the butterfly and not the chaos of boulders on the cavern floor. He succeeded in finding the low entrance to a tunnel and squeezed his way between tight walls as he remembered doing before, but within a few minutes he came to the conclusion that he was following a different route. Trying to get back became even more bewildering – tunnels opened up and shot off at strange angles, tunnels and passages that he had not noticed before. His compass needle spun round wildly. After several hours Cavendish admitted that he was lost. He knew that the most important thing was to remain calm. He rested a while and when he felt ready he began taking notes. He made scratches on the cave walls at certain points in case he should come upon them again. After a torturously long length of time he began to feel air currents, the traces of a breeze. Yes, that was the way – follow the air, go where the air went. And then, just like on the previous evening, he felt the soft touch of a wing on his cheek. He saw a faint glow far ahead and, keeping that in sight, he arrived in a broad cavemouth. It was not the one by which he had entered the caverns and near where the camp was. The bright light of a nearly full moon coated the leaves of the jungle trees. In the distance, above what looked like a path, he spotted it again – Elusivia, silvery and fleet. Scrambling down, he ran in that direction but the butterfly had not waited.

Soon he smelled the odors of a fire and roasting food. He heard voices and without warning hands reached out and held him tight. He was not treated roughly but simply escorted to a small settlement of many joined rooms under a great roof. The longhouse was built on stilts above the jungle floor and it had a wide, open verandah. Cavendish was brought before the headman who had an old face and elaborate tatoos all over his small, muscular body. He had learned enough of the language from his guides to be able to communicate and this in itself made for instant respect from the people. He thanked the headman for the honor of his reception. He told them who he was, where he had come from and the reason for his being there. Food was produced and while he ate the headman sent for Manang, the medicine man. It was he who knew the stories, the ways, and the uses of all the things of the forest, the air and below the ground. Manang was about the same age as Cavendish. Tatoos of birds and wings curled round his strong arms and legs. He was the only man in the tribe to have actually seen the butterfly. Years ago, he also had been lost in the cave (for days, in his case) and he believed that he had been guided back by the butterfly.

There was an ancient legend he related about Elusivia, that she was the daughter of day and night, of the light and the darkness, and that while she was young she had been promised in marriage to both the sun and the moon, but in the end she had not married either for she loved them both and could not choose one over the other and while she hesitated the jealous earth had claimed her.

While Manang spoke, Cavendish wondered if all the work and the strain of the last six months was beginning to tell on him. It seemed that he could see the image of the butterfly upon the man’s forehead. He rubbed his eyes but the image was still there. The medicine man noticed this and reached over with his hand and touched Cavendish’s own forehead.

Everyone from the longhouse came out to say goodbye the next morning. Cavendish climbed down a notched ladder and when he looked back after taking a few steps the verandah was filled with smiling faces and waving arms. He had not gone far when he heard someone call his name. It was Manang and he offered to guide him through the labyrinth of the cave. Cavendish was only too delighted. He did not relish the prospect of getting lost again. He knew he had been very lucky and that if one strayed one might never return.

With Manang’s guidance they easily reached the grand chamber where he had seen the beam of light yesterday but the butterfly did not seem to be within the shaft and the medicine man advised him not to linger. When, after many hours, they reached the opening not far from Cavendish’s camp, Manang showed his companion a way on the outside by which he could climb to the top of the ridge and get to the spot where light entered the chamber below through the hole. Manang said that this night would be an auspicious time to go up there. The two men clasped each others hands vigorously as they said goodbye.

Cavendish encountered no difficulty later in finding his way to the deep hole. As the red sun sank into the green haze, a large and magnificent rosy moon appeared over the tree tops. Swarms of bats poured from the cave and thousands of birds entered to nest for the night. Cavendish had brought his net with him and was resolved to catch the butterfly if it should appear. He stared down into the darkness for three hours but nothing showed. The jungle was electric with sound – choruses of croaking frogs, growls and cries from near and far, sudden breaking of branches, the buzz of mosquitos, the flickering whoosh of bats.

Then it happened, the moment Cavendish had been waiting for. The moon was directly overhead flooding the world in its soft magical light, and out of the depths, as though drawn by a magnet, rose the butterfly. Cavendish slowed his breathing and readied himself at the edge of the drop, net in hand. This is going to be remarkably easy, he thought, as he swept the net towards his prey. But when he looked inside there was nothing there. Ah, he had missed. Elusivia was quicker than he had presumed for there she was overhead. Out swooshed the net, but when he opened it, again there was nothing there but a shadow and the butterfly was still above. It hovered over his head and then dipped as though to go back down into the cave. Quickly he bent over, but in his eagerness he stumbled and nearly fell into the hole, and before he could regain his hold, the net had tumbled out of his grip.

A fabulous change occurred. The butterfly ascended,growing ever more luminous. Gorgeous and splendid as she had been before she was a hundred times more lovely now. One moment her wings were translucent, the next they shimmered with the light of rainbows. Cavendish watched speechless, all regrets at the loss of his net and his prize forgotten. Such was the intensity of the colors that they even seemed to sing somehow, to make a music of their own, the music of light and sheer joyous wonder. A peace finer than any he had known took hold of Cavendish and he knew that he had achieved what he had set out to do.

The night passed quickly and soon the bats were streaming back into the hole and the sky was getting light.

They broke camp that day and at the trading post where they had first heard of the caves, the expedition waited for boats to take them downriver to the port on the coast where they could catch another boat to Kuching. The boy who had given him so much valuable information before came and danced around Cavendish and when his father appeared there was no fear on his face. He nodded at Cavendish with approval and friendliness.


Cavendish had a lot to reflect about during the long voyage home and the passage did not seem long.

One of Lord Cotswold’s coaches was waiting for him when his ship docked and the coachman pressed the horses on quickly to their destination.

An eager Lord Randolph ushered Cavendish into his study.

“Magnificent, my dear Cavendish, utterly magnificent. Lepidopterists, entomologists, and ornithologists the world over are talking of little else than the achievements of this last voyage of yours. The specimens that you sent and the volumes of astounding notes, all has seen the light of day, and there has been nothing, I say, nothing but accolade and admiration. Your achievement will live forever.”

Cavendish listened as pleased as any man would be by such words.

“But now to the real matter. What of Elusivia? Did you see it?”

When Cavendish nodded, Lord Cotswold rubbed his hands.

“Tell me, tell me everything. Spare no detail. Tell me now.”

And Cavendish did so though he had to admit later to himself, he did feel somewhat strange describing what had passed between him and the medicine man and the event of the last night under the full moon.

Lord Cotswold cleared his throat when the recitation was over. Several times in the course of the narrative he had frowned and looked at the great scientist with eyebrows raised slightly.

“Well,” he finally said, “as I have stated, your reputation is assured. Your accomplishements  are astounding. But I hadn’t realized how good you’ve become at spinning a yarn. Now you don’t really expect one to believe some of these details about this butterfly now, do you? Frankly, I must tell you that fascinating as the tale may be, it is totally preposterous. Preposterous!  But, by Jove, it’s good you’re home now and have the time to recover. You were in the jungles seven months was it? That is a very long time. You must be quite tired out. And I’m an old fool to keep you up so long………”

For the next hour Cavendish remained alone, musing in an armchair by the fire, a soft smile on his face. Had anyone entered the room during that time, they would have noticed, perhaps, hovering above the head of the great explorer, the unmistakeable shadow of a large butterfly.










Comments are closed.