The Reverend George Grenfell’s ‘Congo Idol’

The Reverend George Grenfell’s ‘Congo Idol’

George Grenfell - CONGO IDOL

George Grenfell, an English Baptist missionary, was born at Sancreed, a small village near Penzance in Cornwall, England, on August 21st, 1849. When he was three his parents moved to Birmingham, where he began attending the Sunday school of the Henrage Street Baptist Church. He became inspired by the work of David Livingstone (1813 – 1873) and, deciding that he too should travel to the “Dark Continent”, joined the Baptist Missionary School. In December, 1874, Grenfell arrived in the Cameroons and remained there, apart from a brief holiday in England, until 1878, when he moved to what was then known as the Congo. Grenfell was to remain in the Congo for the rest of his life, although he did return to England, on leave, on five occasions. He died at Basoko, Congo, on July 1st, 1906.


The Reverend George Grenfell
The Reverend George Grenfell

On January 28th, 1884, Grenfell set sail in his motorboat, “The Peace”, heading for some of the Congo River’s tributaries to the east of Stanley Pool. Grenfell was in search of people whom, he believed, needed to hear the word of his Christian god.  The trip lasted for five weeks, Grenfell returning home on March 4th. Grenfell clearly expected to trade with some of the people that he would meet on his journey.

We took with us five hundred brass rods, two feet long, and one-seventh of an inch thick (being the currency of the country), with which to purchase food and meet the expenses of the journey. We also took a tin trunk     containing cloth, knives, looking-glasses, beads, and the other trifles that the African delights in. [1]

One group of people that Grenfell seemed anxious to meet was the Teke. As was customary, Grenfell calls them the Bateke, an older form of the name, and believed that they had been named thus by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. In 1908 Sir Harry Johnston produced a two volume biography of George Grenfell which contains very full details of Grenfell’s Congo activities.

The shore of Stanley Pool – with the exception of a few Bayanzi colonies on the south-east – are the domain of the “Bateke” peoples, represented by the Balali (on the north), Babali (on the south-east, and Ba-Wumbu (on the south and south-west). [2]

Another biography, by George Hawker, a fellow Baptist Minister, appeared the following years after Johnston’s biography.

On Monday morning we commenced our journey again by crossing the mouth of the Kwango, going a little way upstream to prevent being carried out into mid-Congo by its very strong current. The south bank, along which the whole of our up-journey lay, now became very populous, contrasting very remarkably with the northern bank; but I learn that, though there are     no towns on the river-side, there is a very considerable Bateke population only a few miles inland. [3]

In Sir Harry Johnston’s biography there is a chapter titled “Anthropology”, where we find the following description of the Teke. It is not clear if this passage reflects the view of Johnston or of Grenfell, although, as Grenfell writes sympathetically about various African people elsewhere, I suspect that what follows is actually the work of Johnston. Sadly, views such as this can be found in the writings of many anthropologists of the time.

The Bateke of Stanley Pool, the western Upper Congo, and the Ogowe watershed are very mixed in physical type. Some of the chiefs are fine-looking men, with faces recalling the good-looking Bayanzi. Many of the common people, however, are coarse in type, with ugly, unintelligent faces. [4]

Grenfell did meet up with members of the Teke community during his five-week trip and it was from some of these Teke people that he obtained a small, 34 cm (13.39 inches) high, wooden carving of a woman. The figure, which is illustrated above, shows facial scarifications to both cheeks. [5] There is a small pointed beard below the lips, the hands are held in front of the chest and the posture is somehow both relaxed and tense at the same time. On top of the head is a large half-disc that is serrated along the top edge. There are also piercing along this edge. The half-disc could represent some form of hat. The knees are bent and the figure stands on a small, round circle of wood which is finely grooved around the edging. It is a light reddish-brown in colour, apart from the hair on the head and face which is stained black. There is a thin crack from the neck down to the pubis. A small sticker is attached to the figure’s back. This reads “422 Congo Idol”. Presumably, the number “422” is an accession number.

Following his death, a number of African ethnographic objects that Grenfell had collected, including the figure described above, were presented to the Bristol Baptist College Museum, now situated in the Bristol suburb of Clifton. I suspect that the label “422 Congo Idol” was added to the figure when it entered the College’s Museum. Or was it Grenfell’s own accession number? We know that he collected all manner of ethnographic items whilst in Africa, some of which are illustrated in Sir Harry Johnston’s biography. The question, I suppose, is just who described the figure as an “idol”?

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Michael Yates
Michael Yates is a retired folklorist who has conducted field work in England, Scotland and the Appalachian Mountains of North America. He is the co-author of 'Dear Companion. Appalachian Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection' (London. 2004) and the author of Traveller’s Joy. Songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies 1965 – 2005 (London. 2006). He has also written numerous articles, papers and reviews on folksong, folklore and folktales, some of which can be found on His collection of field recordings is now housed in the Sound Archives of the British Library in London and many of his field recordings are currently available on some 40 CDs. Michael Yates also collects tribal art, chiefly from Africa, contemporary British art and studio pottery.


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