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Revd. George Grenfell (1849 - 1906)

Portrait of George GrenfellGRENFELL, GEORGE (1849-1906), baptist missionary and explorer of the Congo, born at Ennis Cottage, Trannack Mill, Sancreed, near Penzance, on 21 Aug. 1849, was son of George Grenfell of Trannack Mill, afterwards of Birmingham, by his wife Joanna, daughter of Michael and Catherine Rowe of Botree, Sancreed. Grenfell shared with Francis Wallace Grenfell, first baron Grenfell, and William Henry Grenfell, first baron Desborough, a common ancestor in Paskow Greinfield (1658). Educated at a branch of King Edward’s school, Birmingham, Grenfell was apprenticed to Messrs. Scholefield & Goodman, a hardware and machinery firm in Birmingham. The loss of an eye in early life in no way impaired his energy. Though his parents were anglicans he soon joined Heneage Street baptist chapel, where he was admitted to membership by baptism on 7 Nov.1864. Influenced by the lives of David Livingstone [q. v.] and Alfred Saker (1814-1880), the ‘Apostle of the Cameroons,’ Grenfell, in September 1873, entered the Baptist College, Stokes Croft, Bristol, and on 10 Nov. 1874 the Baptist Missionary Society accepted him for work in the Cameroons under Alfred Saker. The two arrived there in January 1875. Grenfell’s earliest work consisted in following the Yabiang river up to Abo and in discovering the lower course of the Sanaga river as far as Edea.

Grenfell, who moved to Victoria, Cameroons, in 1877, continued to explore the rivers inland, especially the Wuri, and in 1878 made an ascent of the Mongo ma Loba mountain. On 5 Jan. 1878 he was instructed to undertake pioneer work with the Rev. T. J. Comber up the Lower Congo. After the discoveries in 1877 of Sir Henry Morton Stanley [q. v. Suppl. II],. Mr. Robert Arthington of Leeds had offered 1000l. to the Baptist Missionary Society for such work. A preliminary expedition, with the help of the (Dutch) Afrikaansche Handels – Vereeniging, preceded Grenfell and Comber’s arrival in San Salvador on 8 Aug. 1878. Received there by the King of Kongo, Dom Pedro V or Ntolela, they pushed on to the Makuta country, but at Tungwa the chief forbade their proceeding towards the Upper Congo. Soon Grenfell co-operated with Comber and others in starting mission stations at Musuko, Vivi, Isangila, and Manyanga in July 1881, and so to Stanley Pool. On 28 Jan. 1884, in a small steel ‘tender,’ twenty-six feet long, Grenfell set out to survey the Congo up to the Equator at a point 180 long. E., passing the mouth of the Kwa river and visiting Bolobo, Lukolela, and Irebu, and inspecting the confluence of the Mubangi and the Congo. He now made his headquarters at Arthington, near Leopoldville, and on 13 June 1884 he successfully launched at Stanley Pool the Peace, a river steamer, with seven water-tight compartments of Bessemer steel, which was built by Messrs. Thornycroft, at Chiswick, at Mr. Arthington’s cost, and under Grenfell’s supervision, in 1882. It was constructed to draw only eighteen inches when carrying six tons of cargo, and to take to pieces at the cataracts.

On 7 July 1884 the ‘Peace’ started on her first discovery taking Grenfell and Comber along the Kwa, Kwango and Kasai rivers. On the second Peace expedition (13 Oct 1884) ‘he was unquestionably the first to prove the independent status of the Murbangi’; discovered the Ruki or Black river; navigated the Ikelemba; found himself in contact with actual cannibals in the Bangala region; ascended the Itimbiri or Rubi river up to 20 40′ N. lat.; visited Tippoo Tib (Tipu-Tipu) at Stanley Falls on 24 Dec 1884; and followed the Mubangi for 200 miles up to what have since been called Grenfell Falls, 40 40′ N. lat, ‘by far the most northerly point yet reached in the exploration of the Congo basin’ (Sir H.H. JOHNSTON, G Grenfell and the Congo, pp 116, 127).

The third voyage of the Peace (2 Aug. 1885) Grenfell was accompanied by his wife, his little daughter, von Francois, a German explorer, and eight native children from the mission schools. This time his object was to explore the affluents of the Congo from the east and the south – the Lulongo, the Maringa, and the Busira or Juapa, on which he found dwarf tribes (the Batwa).

His fourth journey (24 Feb. 1886), in with Baron von Nimptsch, of the Congo Free State, and Wissmann, the German explorer, took him up the main stream of the Kasai, thence up the Sankuru, the Luebo, and the Lulua (careful notes being taken of the Bakuba and Bakete tribes) and so back to the Congo and on to Stanley Falls. On the fifth voyage (30 1886) he passed up the Kwa and the Mfini to Lake Leopold II, and on the sixth (December 1886), with Holman Bentley, he the Kwango river up to the Kingunji rapids. In all these journeys he made exact observations, which were published 1886 by the Royal Geographical Society, together with his chart of the Congo Basin gained for him the founder’s medal the society in 1887. During his furlough he was received King Leopold at Brussels in July 1887.

Hearing (9 Aug.) of the death of Comber he returned at once to the Congo and was busily occupied on the Peace in supplying the needs of the mission stations. But in September 1890 the Congo free State, in spite of protest, impounded the vessel for operations against the Arabs. Grenfell came home and after long negotiations the Peace was restored, an indemnity being declined. A second steamer, the Goodwill also made by Messrs. Thornycroft, was launched on the Upper Congo, December 1893.

On 13 Aug. 1891, Grenfell, who had received the Belgian order of Leopold (chevalier), was invited to be Belgian plenipotentiary for the settlement with Portugal of the frontier of the Lunda, and was allowed by the Baptist Missionary Society to accept the offer. On 17 Nov. 1892 Grenfell and his wife reached Mwene Puto Kasongo, the headquarters on the Kwango of the brutal Kiamvo, with whom they had a peaceful interview. Below the Tungila he met Senior Sacramento, the Portuguese plenipotentiary, and after inspecting the rivers of the Lunda district the part reached St. Paul do Luanda (partly by railway) on 16 June 1893, the delimitation being agreed upon during July. He was made commander of the Belgian order of the Lion and received the order of Christ from the king of Portugal.

From 1893 to 1900 Grenfell remained chiefly at Bolobo on the Congo, where a strong mission station was established. After a visit to England in 1900, he started for a systematic exploration of the Aruwimi river and by November 1902 had reached Mawambi, about eighty miles from the western extreme of the Uganda protectorate. Between 1903 and 1906 he was busy with a new station at Yalemba, fifteen miles east of the confluence of the Aruwimi with the Congo. Meanwhile he found difficulty in obtaining building sites from the Congo Free State, which accorded them freely to Roman catholics. He grew convinced of the evil character of Belgian administration, in which he had previously trusted. In 1903 King Leopold despatched at Grenfell’s entreaty a commission of inquiry, before which he gave evidence, but its report gave him little satisfaction. Grenfell died after a bad attack of blackwater fever at Basoko on 1 July 1906. His salary never exceeded £180 a year. Grenfell was twice married: (1) On 11 Feb. 1876, at Heneage Street baptist chapel, Birmingham, to Mary Hawkes, who died after a premature confinement, at Akwatown on the Cameroon river on 10 Jan. 1877; (2) in 1878, at Victoria, Cameroons, to Rose Patience Edgerley, a West Indian. His eldest daughter, Patience, who, after being educated in England and at Brussels returned to the Congo as a teacher, died of haematuric fever at Bolobo on 18 March 1899.

A memorial tablet was unveiled in Heneage Street baptist chapel, Birmingham, on 24 September 1907.

Grenfell was an observant explorer (cf. BENTLEY, Pioneering on the Congo, ii 127-128) and an efficient student of native languages. He promoted industrial training, and gave every proof of missionary zeal.

[The Times, 1 Aug. 1906; Sir Harry Johnston, George Grenfell and the Congo, 1908, 2 vols. ; George Hawker, Life of George Grenfell, 1909 (portraits); W. Holman Bentley, Life on the Congo (introduction by G. Grenfell), 1887; Shirley J. Dickins, Grenfell of the Congo, 1910; Lord Mountmorres, The Congo Independent State, 1906, pp. 110 fl.]

Text reproduced from the Dictionary of National Biography 1901 – 1911 Vol. 1, by permission of Oxford University Press.

The photograph is reproduced from the book ‘The Life of George Grenfell’ by George Hawker.

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