Role of religion in colonialism
Ambassador Aaron Maboyi
ONE of the key players within the non-governmental sector has been the Christian Missionary. Almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa have at some stage been affected by Christian Missionary activities. The early European explorers such as the Portuguese Diego Cam or Vasco Da Gama or David Livingstone or even the Arabs with their Moslem Faith had some missionary’s zeal in them. Their core business was initially centred on Biblical Gospel message of the New Testament as found in St Mark 16 verse 5 “Go ye to the entire world, baptising all men in the name of Jesus Christ”. It was this social-religious gospel of the 19th Century that drove hundreds of Christian’s missionaries from Europe mainly to go overseas particularly, to Africa to evangelise the Pagans and win them over to the “salvation of the kingdom of God. It was the kingdom of God through their spiritual conviction rather than tangible experience of the kingdom of God.
Whereas this Christian interpretation of missionaries is generally acceptable, there is, however, another interpretation of Missionary activity and Missionaries that needs to be looked at closely. It is important from the onset to make clear distinction between Christian Missionary activities centred on their original mandate to preach and spread the gospel and the actual missionary activity on the ground. For lack of a better word this may be termed “missionaries”. Looked at this way “missionaries” becomes a philosophy of life as seen and practised by these Christian missionaries and how that “missionaries” affected the interactive process of human endeavour in sub-Saharan Africa. As alluded to in the preamble, Africa was not a blank continent to be filled by the missionary Gospel at will. It had its own people and their own way of life, their structure of government, their own religions and their own development plans as societies. The African was a living entity with his/her own philosophy of life.
The Missionary was undoubtedly the forerunner or frontrunner of subsequent infiltration of the colonialist who was eager to carve an empire in Africa for purposes of exploiting African resources for his own good.
In consideration of his element of exploiting African resources the early religious Missionaries were to open up Africa for more secular missionary whose travels to other countries was not the bible but other documents of conquest such as dubious treaties, guns and trinkets to attract the unsuspecting African to be lured to them. Missionaries often aligned themselves with the powerful in order to achieve their prime objective of “saving souls” more rapidly.
It is these missionaries who prepared the ground for later waves of colonial agents such as Cecil John Rhodes in Southern Africa.
Norman Hetherington (2005) in Mission and Empire quotes a chaplain of British East India Company who traded with India and the rest of East Asia as saying;
‘‘We’ve annihilated the political importance of the natives, stripped them of their power, and laid them prostrate, without giving them (anything) in return”.
The British East India Company being a purely trading company in spices and other commodities had in its midst a ‘MISSIONARY’ operating as a chaplain who had no interest in the welfare of the inhabitants within whom he operated.
His motive was to strip the native of his power and lay him prostrate for exploitation. Using what has been termed “soft power” the Missionaries were useful in reconciling colonial subjects to requirements of submission to the colonial power. According to Joseph Nye (2004) in soft power; the means to success in world politics, he shows how missionaries by the use of the less aggressive language were able to solicit and obtain the co-operation of Africans in sub-Saharan Africa more readily. It is this ‘Soft power which works through attraction and co-option which has largely been used even within the United Nations machinery to effect seemingly attractive provisions given by the missionaries. Although it is generally acceptable that missionaries were the founders of colonial imperialists, it is worth noting that not all missionaries subscribed wholly to the onslaught of Africans. Catholic Missionaries were to a large extent not the servants of the colonial power as did many Protestant Missionaries who were ideally hardly at odds with the colonial power. Elizabeth Isichel (1995) writes in A History of Christianity in Africa from Antiquity to the Present.
“The clergy did more harm than good to the progress of Christianity among the Kongo. Most of them spent more time in trade and connived in or participated in the slave trade.
The Missionaries hardly owned up to such sinister activities. It is justifiable to argue that the scramble for Africa and in Africa was exacerbated by Missionaries activities.
The competition between catholic and protestant and between various orders and sects both Catholics and the protestants prepared the groundwork for the Missionaries, no doubt were participants or provided a forum upon which European cultural ambitions against indigenous people found root. This intended then and subsequently to entrench both moral/religious superiority of their own European faith and culture over tribal cultures and to implant in indigenous people a high level of inferiority complexes. This was to hamper productive creativity among sub Saharan Africans. This concept of societal and material superiority of Europe based culture over indigenous cultures. Colonial practises of oppression and injustice became or have become so insidious and persuasive that even African Independent governments have fallen trap to the belief that sub-Saharan indigenous persons cannot execute any meaningful cultural/development of pride without the blessing of European Entities.
Missionaries were the front runners and instrumental in the culture genocide diplomatic relations will ever take a balanced stance in the modern world unless and until some form of reversal of this trend is conceded.
Missionary activity in sub-Saharan Africa can be construed to have enhanced the negative description and interpretation and then Africans.
The Missionary again, taking the biblical saying “let you light shine” developed and entrenched in him the idea that Africa was a ‘dark continent’ and the missionary was to be the bearer of that light”.
Missionaries further enhanced the development of racism as they related to sub-Saharan Africa. When missionaries built houses in the selected mission stations/villages they ensures that the huts built for African adherent/workers or students were located on the western side of the wind system in Africa as winds in Africa generally flow from the East to the west. In sub-Saharan Africa it can be establishes that every location of African houses in any settlement established by Europeans — whether missionary or colonialist —were on the side where the wind would blow.
The white man did not want to breathe air that would have passed initially from and through an African location.
What has not been given prominence in most of the literate concerning missionaries and missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest level of deception and duplicity perpetrated by this group of European colonial advance party. This has become particularly relevant when religious missionaries – whose message was conversion and salvation of individual soul, had been overtaken by “secular missionaries “who according to John Feffer (2007) wrote:
‘to travel to other countries clutching not the bible but Adam Smith or the American constitution or the universal declaration of human rights”
Their original mandate to evangelise the pagans of Africa seems to have been derailed by other interests of their compatriots – the empire builders, fortune seekers and the destitute of Europe who had no property rights in their home countries.
Missionaries due to their seemingly humanitarian and Christian Missionary according to Colby and Bennet (1995), came in on the cultural, social and political side of the conqueror just as the soldier colonialist was a military conqueror. They came with weapons of mental destruction, the missionary forms of mass destruction.
Among the Ndebele people under King Lobengula the white missionaries who had to translate the Rudd concession purported to have been agreed to and signed by King Lobengula portrayed the most sinister interpretation of the document.
Reverend Helm who had won the trust of Lobengula misinterpreted the meaning and implication of the Rudd concession. He deceived the King by alleging that the missionaries of Cecil John Rhodes wanted to dig a “single hole” in order to extract some stones when in fact they wanted to prospect for minerals throughout the Kingdom of Ndebele. Even after the Ndebele had been defeated in the early Anglo Ndebele war of 1893, Leander Staar Jameson writing to British government stated:
“I may point out to you that disarmament, Africans would never understand that they were conquered and with regard to the cattle question in discussion this matter with Helm (Reverend) who may be taken as the best authority on the Matebele (Ndebele) he is strongly of the opinion that the king’s cattle should be taken but a portion of the Indunas cattle as a salutary measure to ensure submission and true tranquillity”.
Missionary Helm who had stood as a friend and mentor to King Lobengula was under these circumstances prepared to betray him against the machinations of the colonialists.
The reverend Robert Moffat who was a close friend of Lobengula’s Father, Mzilikazi is reported by Philip Mason to have said:
“The Matebele . . . have the notion that they’re people and that they can fight the Boers or even the English. The chief knows better but he is hampered by the ignorance of his people. It’s a problem which occupies my thoughts night and day how we’re to avoid the impending collision . . . To me the only solution of the difficulty is the breaking up of this tribe but I should be sorry to the intermediary sooner or later I should have to be the herald of war not peace.”
It is apparent from the sentiments expressed by Reverend Robert Moffat that the Christian missionary had not primarily come to convert “pagan” Ndebele or African to Christianity and the purported Christian principles and values. The principles and values recognising the humanity of man, the Godlike” image of mankind was of no major consequence to the European missionary.
His mission was to effect the change agenda to ensure that the African way of life was changed not necessarily to be like Europeans but to be cowed into submission and the African pliable to the material needs of the white man.
Although Robert Moffat felt somehow sorry for the intended objective of Europe, He was nevertheless eager and ready to go along with the necessity to change the African way of life.
The African had to accept the role of servant or second class citizen to the while man if he was to be allowed to co-exist with the white men.
The major aim of the missionary was therefore never to be a brother to the African – to help the African actualise himself but to ensure that the African would accept servile and vassal role to the European.
The biblical platitudes of brotherhood were nothing more than a ploy to destroy the African infrastructural basis of the society.
The African had to comply with European demands to be allowed to exist. Missionary deception and duplicity were again to be the main pillar of European colonisation of Africa.
It is probably reasonable to note that the colonial scramble for and in Africa had its main support from the Christian missionaries. Colonialism had to walk the path of missionary deception and duplicity.
The methodology of winning over the African was similar, if not the foundations of European colonial settlements and the establishment of colonial administrative headquarters. It was like an international mission mafia in which again the missionary would take the lead.
Regardless of this seemingly negative view of the missionary and missionaries perpetrated by Europeans on sub-Saharan Africa there have been some significantly positive contributions that the white missionary and missionaries have contributed to the Sub Saharan development.
This assertion is particularly true in the fields of education and health. Although most sub Saharan Africans had attained a high level of numeracy before the rival of the missionaries their verbal literacy was nonexistent.
Catholic missionaries for example were very eager to establish schools as learning centres for Africans.
Although these establishments were intended to enhance the African understanding of the bible, it offered the African the opportunity to become literate and develop his language which was largely oral in some written form. The writing of language had several other advantages namely the transmission of messages, the preservation of folklore and traditions and to facilitate common agreed interpretation of expressed sentiments. The development of; literacy helped the employability of the African not necessarily within the churches mission universally. The universality of reading and writing tended to bridge the gap between the African and the white man. This was to be the pointer to current thinking of the world as a global village, the universality of mankind, leading to the international establishments and universal declarations for example the United Nations Charter.
The establishment of the health centres which later grew into the hospitals was to usher in the modern concerns of organisations such as the world health organisation and the concerns of almost every nation over the health status of its citizens. Health care systems have become crucial in the growth and development of sub-Saharan states.
Although we have intended to align the missionary with the negative and destructive policies and practises of the colonialists there were areas in which some of the missionaries opposed the aggressive and oppressive treatment of Africans. Some missionaries became outspoken supporters of the rise of African nationalism leading to Independence of most Africa from colonial rule. One such missionary was Guy Clutton-Brock who was posthumously declared a national hero for his stand against the oppression of the Zimbabwean Africans?
There were several other similar fighters for the emancipation of sub Saharan Africans such as Bishop Lamont, Chikanye, and Tutu etc.
The important point is that at some point most of their compatriots had played or were playing in collaboration with the colonialists.
The most unpalatable and misguided role of missionaries is probably the current wave in the rise in what has been termed Christians evangelicals. There is general rise in an “Islamaphobia crusade’ to use Phyllis Bennis (2007) terminology. She writes:
“The rising campaign targeting Muslims and Arabs as well as Islam itself as inherent threats to our democracy, threat to our United States Security, threats to our ally Israel and threats to our way of life, “though ill- defined is unproductive propaganda”.
The British administration seems to perpetuate the early NGO Missionary concept of a crusade as against the ‘Jihad’. The polarisation of Christianity and Islam may be regarded as unfortunate development as far as sub Saharan Africa is concerned. Both religions derive culture forms from foreign to Africa and any attempt for an African State to align itself with one or other may be construed negatively in AFRICA. This places sub- Saharan in its relations with external world at some dangerous crossroads. In a recent study David Barret et al contributing to the World Christian Encyclopaedia have summarised sub Africa’s religious affiliation as follows:
As percentage of adherents in relation to total population
- “African Traditional Religion -12
- Christianity -45
- Islam -40.5
- Hinduism -0, 3
- Judaism -0, 1
- Buddhism -0;1”
The remaining 1 percent is unknown. It is apparent that Africa is almost 50 percent Christian and 50 percent ISLAM. In a foreign policy which emphasises “war against terrorism and that terrorism is being associated with Islam alienates a significant proportion of the African population. After all, Africa has had a much longer association with the Arab world as compared to the western (European ) world which is predominantly Christian, Christianity being the result to missionary activity in Africa is charting a very dangerous path its mission.
It becomes evident that the missionary style of rhetoric associated with President Bush such as “war on terrorism” “axis of evil’, ‘TYRANNY STATES” changing the mindset a crusade etc are not helpful but tend to enhance the radicalism that’s associated with any religious grouping. John Feffer (2008) has asked.
“Are we ready for the first Missionary style of rhetoric associated with President George W Bush? Bush has treated the global war and terror as if it was a crusade.”
This kind of thinking for a world leader may be termed unfortunate. The fervour from the missionaries of the 19th and 20th century is not helpful in allaying the fears of sub Saharan Africa against what appears to the American desire to dominate the world in a new form of imperialism based on religious dogmatism.
So far we have looked at the ill-defined roles of NGOS that operated in sub-Saharan Africa in the 29th and 20th century. It is obvious that these NGOs were predominantly missionary oriented with their missionaristic dogma about Africa.
The writer of this article is a retired Zimbabwean Ambassador to Egypt.