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Coptic Church
19th Century White Missionaries


At the beginning of the 19th century, very few people in Africa were practising Christians, apart from Ethiopians, Coptic Egyptians and people living in the remnants of the Kongolese Empire (modern Congo Brazzaville and western DR Congo).

In the 1800's, Catholic missionary expeditions were launched with new vigour to the West, in Senegal and Gabon. Protestant missionaries took up work in Sierra Leone in 1804. The missionaries represented a big spectrum of denominations or churches: Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, many of them in competition and conflict with each other.

The abolition of slave owning in 1807 and slave trading in 1834 throughout the British Empire proved to be two important turning points. Outlawing the slave trade and converting freed slaves became a powerful motive for setting up European Christian missions. Human compassion in Europe for the plight of slaves meant that money could be raised to fund the considerable expenses of setting up a mission.

The Protestants spread the Christian gospel through the slaves who were liberated from slaving ships along the West Coast after 1834. The application of Christian doctrine was much stricter than it had been in previous centuries. The success of Christian missionary programmes can be linked to the education they offered. Many people in Africa wanted education; and missionaries taught people to read, in order that they might understand the word of God.

RESCUED FROM SLAVERY
The missionary traveler David Livingstone (1813-1873) believed that the slave trade could only be suppressed by a combination of Christianity and trade. He travelled extensively from east to west in southern Africa dedicated to bringing Christianity to all, but never staying very long anywhere. He was most successful among the Tswana people (in modern Botswana), even though conversion to Christianity upset the status quo of this community.

Neither Livingstone nor other missionaries had much impact on the slave trading which went on between the interior and the East coast. They failed to convert any significant numbers of Muslims to Christianity. Livingstone's well-intentioned call for colonisation as an antidote to the horrors of slavery, paved the way for a host of missionaries and speculators to follow in his footsteps and cause immense hardship for the people of southern Africa.

DEDICATION AND DECEIT
Many European missionaries worked extremely hard running their missions, risking their lives and good health in the process. They varied enormously in their ability to contribute to the quality of life of those they lived with. Some remained dedicated but contemptuous of those they claimed to be converting. Others developed deep affection and respect for those they worked with and made a long lasting impression.

The Scottish factory worker, Mary Slessor was one such missionary. She spent over 40 years in southern Nigeria, in Calabar. She learnt the local language and lived a life of total simplicity. She dealt head-on with some of the customs of the region, such as throwing twins into the bush to die, and negotiated an end to this. Today she is still revered and loved as a local figure.

Listen to a description of Mary Slessor's missionary life and work

Among the least admirable missionaries in history is reckoned to be the Reverend Helm of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) who deliberately mistranslated a document drawn up between King Lobengula of the Ndebele and the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes. This resulted in King Lobengula giving away all his land to speculators, thinking he had only signed away a limited mining concession. He was one of the rulers of southern Africa who had consistently refused to convert to Christianity.

Another runner up for the title of villainous missionary is the Catholic priest, Friar Anthonio Barroso, who persuaded the illiterate Dom Pedro V, King of the Congo to sign a note in 1884. He believed it was a thank you letter for a gold-backed chair; in fact it was an oath of loyalty and submission to the King of Portugal.

Portuguese missionaries in Angola and Mozambique in the late 19th century and 20th century were renowned and feared for their willingness to work hand in glove with the Portuguese colonial authorities. As a result of this alliance between church and state, Protestant missions proved very popular and many of Angola and Mozambique's leading nationalists were educated in Protestant missionary schools.

TWO STAGES IN THE CONVERSION OF CHIEF SECHELE OF THE BAKWAIN
LITERACY & OBESITY
"As soon as he had an opportunity of learning, he set himself to read with such close application, that from being comparatively thin, the effect of having been fond of the chase, he became quite corpulent from want of exercise.

Mr. Oswell gave him his first lesson in figures, and he acquired the alphabet on the first day of my residence at Chonuane.

He was by no means an ordinary specimen of the people, for I never went into the town but I was pressed to hear him read some chapters of the Bible. Isaiah was a great favourite with him; and he was wont to use the same phrase nearly which the professor of Greek at Glasgow, Sir D.K. Sandford, once used respecting the Apostle Paul, when reading his speeches in the Acts: 'He was a fine fellow, that Paul!'"
BAPTISM & DIVISION
"Seeing several of the old men actually in tears during the service, I asked them afterwards the cause of their weeping; they were crying to see their father, as the Scotch remark over a case of suicide, 'so far left to himself.' They seemed to think that I had thrown the glamour over him, and that he had become mine.

Here commenced an opposition, which we had not previously experienced. All the friends of the divorced wives became the opponents of our religion. The attendance at school and church diminished to very few besides the chief's own family."
Description of Chief Sechele of the Bakwain or Bakuena, a group within the Bechuana people (of modern Botswana) taken from Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa by David Livingstone, 1857.