Missionary role in the colonial project


ONE area we need to come to terms with is the exact relationship which existed between the colonial state and white missionaries and how that relationship shaped our identities as colonial subjects.
Some of us believe up to this day that white missionaries who came to this country and toiled for many years establishing schools and churches for us are our heroes, our new ancestors as it were.
However, there are many as well who believe white missionaries were the most unchristian of characters who went about, bible in hand, dismantling without mercy chivanhu chedu and hunhu hwedu lock, stock and barrel and that since then, we have never fully recovered from this singular misfortune which befell us.
The point here is: Which of these two propositions is closer to the truth?
In order to arrive at the truth we need to pay more attention to how white missionaries went about introducing their religious doctrines in our country.
It is important that our attitudes towards these missionaries are based on what is verifiable and factual.
One moment in our history which seems to hog the limelight to a point of almost overshadowing everything else is when Father Francis Richartz of the Roman Catholic Church pesters the mediums of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi to convert to Christianity just before their execution on April 27 1898.
While the colonial state identified these two spirit mediums as the leaders of the 1896/7 Mashona uprising, who had to be executed at any price in order to bring that uprising to an end, the white missionaries, here represented by Fr Richartz, struggled day and night and very much against the clock to convert the two leaders, first and foremost.
The question here is: Why was Fr Richartz desperate to convert these two before their demise?
The answer is obvious: To convince African survivors of the war that even their leaders had abandoned their indigenous belief system at the last minute and embraced Christianity.
In other words, the symbolism in their conversion would be used to prosecute a spiritual war between an African belief system which informed their worldview and Christianity as propagated by European missionaries.
In a way, while the physical armed confrontation of 1896/7 was coming to an end, a new war, this time supported by the victorious colonial state, to capture and subjugate the soul of the African, was being prepared for.
The painful irony is that the two executed leaders would be used symbolically to conquer their own people at the spiritual level.
Mbuya Nehanda refused to be converted right up to the end.
Sekuru Kaguvi succumbed and was re-named ‘Dismas’, in ‘honour’ of the biblical ‘good thief’.
Of particular interest is that during the uprising itself, some of these missionaries played roles which are well-documented.
These roles are worth looking at if we are to grasp where the Christian church is coming from.
Here is how Father Biehler complained bitterly to the colonial authorities in one of his intelligence report: “Our mode of fighting is not the proper one for the Mashonas.
It seems to me that the only way of doing anything at all with these natives is to starve them, destroy their lands and kill all that can be killed.”
Fr Biehler’s suggestions indeed became the official scotched-earth military policy which the colonial army implemented with a ruthlessness which devastated everything that it came across.
Colonial troops embarked on wholesale destruction of crops in the fields wherever they found them, looted thousands of tonnes of grains in all their areas of engagement, seized cattle, goats, pigs and chickens belonging to locals wherever they could.
Father Biehler confesses one of such exploits:
“We took a native kraal by surprise and captured all the cattle (some 40 herd) with some hundred goats and pigs.
“At 3pm we started again, driving the captured cattle in front of us.
“While our rearguard burnt the kraals, the natives fired upon us, but we fired the maxim gun on them.
“In one morning we burned 200 huts.”
Noticeable here is that Fr Biehler fully identifies with the regiment he finds himself in as a participant and not as one ordinarily ministering to its spiritual needs only.
The same applies to the time he becomes army chaplain of the Irish regiment of the British army that is sent to rescue the embattled settlers.
They also dynamited numerous caves where the women and children had sought refuge. The old and the young were not spared either.
It is this genocidal military policy involving the maximum use of the maxim gun, tonnes of explosive dynamite and the use of pre-meditated or planned hunger as a weapon of choice, courtesy of Fr Biehler’s more or less evil genius, which led to the defeat of the Shona and Ndebele people in 1898.
It is important to underline that Fr Biehler’s role in the colonial army is not an isolated one.
The majority of missionaries supported the settler-war against Africans.
Missionaries such as Reverend Marshall Hartley after whom Marshall Hartley Mission in Makwiro is named, Fr Andrew Hartmann after whom Hartmann House Primary School in Harare is named, Fr Marc Bathelemy, founder of St George College in Bulawayo, Rev Douglas Pelly, an Anglican missionary, and many others, all of these supported the settler-war.
They actively participated in it as combatants when it was necessary and as spiritual counsellors or chaplains to white troops when the need arose.
Very few white missionaries, like Rev Knight Bruce, had the guts and vision to oppose the settler-war to defeat Africans and seize all their land.
In this respect, the active military role played by Father Biehler during the 1896/7 uprising is typical rather than an exception.
The only different aspect which seems to draw more attention to Fr Biehler is that he was a diligent diarist whose views and military experiences are well-documented and some of which were sought after by colonial authorities, more so, after his scorched-earth military policy against the Mashonas seemed to produce the desired results – complete defeat of the Shona people.
His spiritual-cum military role enhanced his personal profile to the extent his views on anything were sought for by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and by many other white officials in Rhodesia and outside it.
It is in the same spirit of seeking his views on the Shona people that Fr Biehler made the following statement on how to transform the Shona into people amenable to Christianity.
“Father Biehler is so convinced of the hopelessness of regenerating the Mashonas,” wrote Lord Grey from Chishawasha in January 1897, “whom he regards as the most hopeless of mankind that he states that the only chance of the future of the race is to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14!”
Here is the voice of the white missionary advocating wholesale genocide in order to get rid of all those Shonas whose cultural ideology and outlook is already formed and different from that of the West.
Here is a supposedly ‘holy father’ of the equally ‘holy Catholic Church’ playing God and craving for ungodly powers to exterminate a whole people in order to initiate a new Christian era, a new beginning.
This statement proposing genocide is a chilling manifesto which the white missionaries did not carry out in a literal sense in which it was meant, but which most white missionaries heeded in a metaphorical sort of way when it came to establishing their churches and schools in our country.


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