Christian missionaries in Africa – part of my family history

I recently inherited some family books from my mother. One of the books was a diary written by my great grandmother, who was a missionary in East Africa (I have quite a bit of missionary blood running thrugh my veins).

My daughter Laura studied the history of colonial Africa as part of her undergraduate degree at York University (in the UK). She said that her lecturers regarded the missionaries as pariahs, a force for evil, the main agents of a racist agenda for undermining local cultures and imposing alien values on colonised peoples.

When I read my great-grandmother’s diaries I get a different side to their story. She talks about the missionaries sheltering runaway slaves, and the local chief’s men surrounding the missionaries’ compound threatening violence to take the slaves back. The missionaries were indeed challenging local practices, but was it evil?

I spent much of my childhood in Nigeria. There was a well-known late 19th/early 20th century missionary there called Mary Slessor. Within hours of arriving at her mission station in Calabar, southern Nigeria, in 1876 (the same time that my great-grandmother was in East Africa) she witnessed the killing of the wives of the recently dead chief. She spent the next forty years working to spread the Christian Gospel, but also to raise the status of women in local societies (she would have said that the two tasks were one and the same). Did she do wrong in thus challenging the norms of those tribes at that time? Many modern Nigerians think not. (Her influence also helped put a stop to the ritual killing of twins: that resonates with me, a twin!)

Well, I’m not going to draw any broad conclusions from all this. As ever, history is not straightforward. European colonialism was an extremely complex phenomenon. And some of the African cultures which European missionaries and others encountered may well have been degraded by the experience of the Atlantic slave trade – which, of course, was instigated by, and to some extent dominated by, European traders.

By Peter Britton