"It seems to me from the way he speaks as though he is not a man but rather an angel, sent by the Lord into this kingdom to convert it; for I assure that is he who instructs us, and that he knows better than we do the Prophets and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the lives of the saints and all the things concerning out Holy Mother the Church?For he devotes himself entirely to study, so that it often happens that he falls asleep over his books, and often he forgets to eat and drink in talking of the things of Our Lord." - The Franciscan missionary, Rui d'Aguiar, writing to King Manuel of Portugal about the piety of the Mani Kongo, King Afonso of the Kongo, 25th May 1516.
Afonso's son, Henrique, subsequently became the first black African bishop in the Catholic church. But the kingdom of the Kongo was ruined by the slave trade, which caused a massive drain on manpower.
The Soyo elite
However, there was conflict between the Capuchins and the Soyo over the issue of monogamous marriage and traditional religious practices. The Capuchins did not want the Soyo to sell baptised slaves to the English or other non-Catholic traders. They insisted that baptised slaves could only be sold to the Portuguese.
Christianity persisted in the region, although it evolved in its own way, specific to the area. Missionaries who turned up in the 19th century, expecting to convert the local population, found people practising their own Africanised form of Christianity. All Souls Day had merged with the veneration of ancestors (a fusion repeated in many other parts of Africa), and the Virgin Mary had become something of a fertility symbol.
In the rest of Africa, Christianity made little headway in the 18th century. Rulers in West Africa were mildly interested at first, seeing Christianity as something to add on to their own religions. But they grew hostile when told they had to make a choice: it was either Christianity or traditional religion. South Africa was the site of greater Christian missionary activity. The Moravian Brethren (closely linked to the Lutherans) of Eastern Europe, established a mission in 1737. In 1799 the London Missionary Society (LMS) followed suit.
19th century white missionaries
In the 1800s, 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
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
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.
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.
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