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Religion and colonisation: Part Eight … bigger picture was to divide and rule

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JUST as the settlers, some of whom were social misfits, outcasts of societies, there were many reasons for missionaries to travel to Africa. 

The Christian churches’ mooted approach to contacts with ‘less-developed’ peoples in Africa and the Americas carried over from conflicts with Muslims the principle that resistance to Christian conquest and to conversion, was sufficient to make people, including whole populations, ‘enemies of Christ’ who could be justly enslaved and then held in slavery even after conversion.

Missionaries came to Africa with the deep-rooted belief that all things European were superior to all things African.  

They firmly believed it was their mission to convert Africans who were viewed as ‘uncivilised and barbaric’. These missionaries earnestly believed that Africans were savages whose souls needed saving and emancipating from savagery.  

Yet most African civilisations, particularly Zimbabwean, believed in one Supreme Being, God (Mwari), and had very practical religious connections to their land and way of life.

Thus, the missionaries came to Africa along with colonial administrators and traders with the intention of introducing Christianity, commerce and civilisation. 

The role of missionaries in colonisation was also considerable in terms of cultural and socio-political domination of the people. 

Religion was used to legitimise, promote and sustain domination and even oppression. 

Religion functioned both as ‘the opiate of the people’ and a ‘source of the social renewal’. 

Academics and scholars alike have made various claims and judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces of Western colonisation and Christian mission.  Historians, who are instinctively critical of received tradition in other spheres, are more naïve in perpetuating the notion of mission as ‘imperialism at prayer’.  

This idea persisted in the 19th Century under the catchphrase ‘Christianity and Six percent’, by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise.  

Thus, mission came to acquire the unsavoury redolence of collusion with colonial power.

Colonialism fostered and aided missionaries and their endeavours in Africa.  

Colonial administrators rendered help and security to missionaries.  

Although missionaries came with the virtuous intention to evangelise, the colonial image of the missionary enterprise affected the reception of the message of the gospel by the indigenous Africans.

Christian missionaries, described as the ‘spiritual wing of secular imperialism’, were as much part of the colonising forces as were the early explorers, such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley; hunters, such as Frederick Courtney Selous; gold diggers – ‘colonial makorokoza’; and traders. 

Though the missionaries regarded themselves as opposed to the colonial ideology, they were part of the colonial structure and brought with them religions, beliefs and practices which were alien to the people. 

They were agents of imperial colonialism who preached humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanisation. 

Colonialism has been described as: “A phase in the evolution of Africa characterised by intensive geographical explorations, the slave trade, the scramble for Africa, the territorial and commercial ambitions of the Western nations, the imposition of alien rule and institutions, the establishment of Western forms of Christianity, mass displacement of the indigene, exploitation of resources and racism.”

There are scholars who posit that the relationship and unity which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa was not incidental.  

Early missionaries in Africa had the dual purpose to convert Africans to their own religion and to promote trade between African and European traders in support of their home industries.

Since missionaries, traders and administrators knew they were British residents in Africa with a common interest to protect, they co-operated and united in the attainment of their set goals. 

Missionaries, in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds and relied completely on colonial administrators for physical security and protection.

While British traders were exploiting African customers, the Christian missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighbourliness to prevent rebellion, self-preservation and determination. 

It was a forked tongue approach! 

Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans. 

Since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the Church was brought in on missionary duties on condition that it would ‘not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God’.  

In colonial Africa, Christian churches were relied upon to preach ‘turning the other cheek’, even in the face of exploitation and, on many occasions, violence and cruelty. They drove home the message that everything would be made right in the next world.   

Their sermons suppressed any rebellion that might have ushered in freedom for the oppressed on the continents (Asian, American as well as the African).

The relationship between missionaries, traders and the colonial governments in colonial Africa was complex.  The missionaries depended on the merchants for transportation, supplies, protection and esprit de corps, but they were said to be embarrassed by the morals of the traders and their ruthless exploitation of African societies.  

Colonial governments, on the other hand, needed the missionaries as ‘civilising agents’ and offered them grants-in-aid and safety.  

However, the two allies were said to differ over attitudes towards ‘pagan cultures’, the goals of education and the future of the colonies. 

The government aimed to use the traditional order as a basis for administrative restructuring while the missionaries, who believed that African traditional religious beliefs and practices were inferior and were to be treated as an evil which had to be removed at all costs, wanted to ‘pull everything down’.  

They believed traditional beliefs and customs had to be discredited, destroyed and eradicated before the acceptance of Christianity. 

In time, a combination of Christianity, colonialism and capitalism gradually displaced the existing traditional pre-colonial socio-economic and political developments in Africa, bringing about the colonial era marked by the arrival of new identities, merchandises, languages, cultures as well as new political and economic attitudes and, of course, Christianity!

Today, as Dr Tony Monda wrote in his article ‘The art and politics of religion in Zimbabwe’: “Every religious sect has its uniform, paraphernalia and trappings of faith; robes, staffs, tsvimbo, nhekwe (snuff horn), magemenzi  echipostori (apostolic garments), manenga emasvikiro (feather headdress) — the Methodist red and the Catholic blue, ‘chita chaMaria’.  

The bigger picture was to divide and rule as we no longer have a national religion.  

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  

For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com


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