Missionary or Uncircumcised Mercenaries?: The history of Christian Missionaries you were never told.[Part 1]

Missionary or Mercenary?
Missionary or Mercenary?

Before you read this, I would recommend that you take a glimpse of the poetic lyrics of Bob Marley’s Redemption song. Just to get  into the correct frame of mind.

It is worse than hypocrisy to pretend that many Missionaries who were sent out to spread the gospel in Africa only had religious motives. It is ignorant and acutely perverse to ignore the evidence pointing otherwise. So, I’m not going to attempt to protract this topic in a balanced or objective sort of manner because that’s already been done countless times. But while others have ignored a part of the story, these articles will loosely outline these hidden aspects which appears to have been omitted or at least largely left out of  taught history or most modern accounts of Christian Missionaries expeditions, whether intentionally or otherwise.

So, what do we have:

(1) In Africa, the establishment of commerce and white settlement were the main motives for many Missionaries, and not only the establishment of Christianity-which appears to be a secondary motive. Both political and commercial considerations that extended the imperial  authority of the motherland played their role in the establishment of trade routes. The justification was that it would inevitably lead to the end of slavery. In one account David Livingstone writes

“All this machinery has for its ostensible object, the development of African trade and the promotion of civilisation, but I hope it may result in an English Colony in the healthy highlands of Central Africa [1]”  

This clearly shows that the position of the missionaries should not be seen in the narrow sense of the promotion of religion.  Yet when you read most sources, what you find is a one-sided story that suggest that missionaries went into Africa only to “introduce them to Christianity, as well as freeing them from slavery[2]”

In another text titled “Memoirs of Bishop Mackenzie” by Harvey Goodwin, D.D (Dean of Ely) we get an illuminating glimpse of the conduct of Missionaries. In a letter to the bishop of Oxford, Mackenzie says:

The question had been raised before, whether it would be right to use guns in self-defense, if by any possibility our own people should attack us. And we were nearly unanimous in thinking that we had better let matters go to any extremities, even to the loss of our own lives, than take the life of one of those for whose conversion we had come. We agreed that anything short of taking life was allowable in self-defense

While there was zeal to spread Christianity, the greater zeal was economically driven[4]. In any case, the first consignment of “Missionaries” of the Free Church of Scotland in 1875 consisted of five artisans and only one ordained minister, Dr Robert Laws. The first settlement of the Established Church of Scotland at Blantyre a year later, also shows the same composition of “Missionaries” and didn’t even have a clergy man in its founding group.

(2) In 1862, when Bishop Mackenzie died, Bishop Tozer succeeded him. Bishop Tozer refused to engage in military activities against local people.  David Livingstone couldn’t have been more scathing, calling Tozer: “a non-resistance man, vegetarian and inclined to leave the country, prays for their majesties of Portugal[3]” Livingstone was critical of Tozer for appearing to neglect England’s imperial motives against Portugal’s African expansion. More insights to the thinking of Tozer (from his letters) here and here.

(3) Local customs and traditional dances were branded as “Barbarous”:In a letter from July 1855 by Mackenzie to Harvey Goodwin, he writes”

Dear Goodwin,

For the first week after landing we all remained here, that is, at the town of Durban, about two miles from the mouth of the bay where we landed. I was chiefly employed in seeing that the goods came on shore, and were safely stowed in the warehouse; partly in seeing that the rest of the party were comfortable. About a week after landing the order was given for the mission party to proceed to Maritzburg, which is (as you know) fifty-two miles from this. We went in ten waggons, each of which was drawn by twelve or fourteen oxen. The particulars of the journey I shall not enter into, except one point. On the last night of the journey, shortly before we went to bed, we heard a considerable noise in a Kafir cabin close to us.  Several of us went to see what was the matter, and found some four or five Kafirs sitting round the fire, which burned in the middle of the hut, on the ground of course, singing.  I fancy it was a war-song. Every now and then, at the crisis in the song, one of them struck the tent-pole, which was about as thick as the calf of one’s leg, heavy blows with his knob-kerry, with a ferocious or rather malicious expression efface. Then at other times they all joined in a curious noise made by panting with all their might, and at each expiration making a groaning noise, at the same time shaking the whole body. This amusement they continued till they were quite tired. We often hear a noise in the town of Durban, which betokens that the Kafir servants of some two or three families have got together, and are having a night oi it in this sort of way. It is very horrible to see, but I sometimes doubt whether it is much more barbarous than the noises I have sometimes enjoyed making at a boat-ing tea. or than the fantastic dancing performed by the best society. I assure you I think they are all very much on a par, ….  “

(includes minor edits)

Now you tell me…just becaused african culture or customs were different, does that make them barbarous? Just because the locals way of fellowship, entertainment or celebration were different to anything the Missionaries had known, that doesn’t make them uncivilised? Unless barbarous meant a different thing then, of which there is no evidence.

(4) With the Victorian adventure fervour of the day, and to ensure their funders kept funding them, David Livingstone and others greatly exaggerated their role in ending tribal wars. They were militarily ill-equipped to quell tribal disorder, the  roads were bad, there was no orderly postal system, how could a small party of foreigners who didn’t know the geology of the land (there were no maps or borders detailing the country – it was just a vast swathe of land-and they depended on their guides for direction) could have hoped to cover significant areas of the Nyasa regions? In one of the said “military operations” Bishop Mackenzie is said to have reluctantly carried a gun without knowing how to use it [5] and eventually gave it to Livingstone; In the violence that followed 6 Yao were killed primarily because of a misunderstanding between the retreating Yao and Livingstone’s men.

(5) They were passionate about their mission, but took corners and sided with tribes to settle scores. Which probably deepened the divisions which had previously existed. In order to see this at play we have to look at a conversation that occurred between David Livingstone and a Slaver after Mambame gave Livingstone notice that a large slave-party was coming, and would reach his village that day. When the party arrived, Livingstone recognized amongst the drivers a slaver whom he had known at Tette, so he took him by the wrist and said :

” What are you doing here, killing people ? I shall kill you to-day.” The man (Keturah) answered, “I do not kill; I am not making war ; I bought these people.” Livingstone then inquired of the slaves. Two men said, ” We were bought :” six said, ” We were captured :” and several of the women said, ” Our husbands and relatives were killed, and here we are.” By this time some of Livingstone’s people, (Makololo and others,) had begun to plunder the party and tear the clothing from the backs of the drivers. Keturah said, “May I have my gun again?” Livingstone said “Yes, if I am satisfied about you :” he then added, ” We will free these people,” and began himself to cut their bonds and loose them.

(325 – 326 Memoir of Bishop Mackenzie)

Did Livingstone give the gun back to a slaver who will only go back and do the ill thing all over again with other people?

And here, Mackenzie’s own account in which he led a party with Manganja warriors, after he received reliable information of villages burned in the neighbourhood by the Ajawa:

” October 17. Noon. We got away at six : which was a wonderful thing, as loading more than thirty Manganja guns took an hour, I suppose. We walked slowly for nearly four hours, with a large body of Mang-anja, and a weak force of English. Dr Mellor was what would be called in England quite unfit for anything.
Two others of our party were far from well. So that it seemed almost rashness to go to war in such a state ; but it would not have been easy to put off the fight, and I trusted partly to the influence of our presence, but I trusted more in the verse which I repeated to myself several times, ‘The battle is the Lord’s, and He is the governor among the people.’ ….”

(Settlement at Magomero 355, Memoir of Bishop Mackenzie)

The battle is the Lord’s? Yeah right.


Material derived from sources including “Presidential Leadership in Malawi: A study in the reconciliation of historical fate with developmental concepts and political institution creation (Malawi 1964 -1969) as seen from the core of the first presidency”, Denis Nkhwazi, Hamburg 1971.

[1] Seaver, G, David Livingstone – His Life and Letters, quoted in: Jones, G., Britain and Nyasaland, A A story of Inattention, Fitful Care, Political Vacillation, London, 1964, page 15.
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/livingstone_david.shtml
[3] Chadwick,, quoting Livingstone, in : Chadwick, O, Bishop Mackenzie’s Grave, Hodder and Stoughton, 1959, page 207 See  Jones, G.,op. cit. page 21
[4] Pachai, B. Christianity and Commerce in Malawi: Some Pro-colonial and Colonial Aspects, in: Pachai, B., Smith, G.W. and Tangari , R.K. (eds) Malawi Past and Present, Studies in Local and Regional History, Papers Presented at The University of Malawi History Conference, 1967 p.27.
[5] See  Jones, G.,op. cit. page 19


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