This page last revised 29 April 1998
In any study of colonial Nigeria, the groundwork accomplished by the missionaries in pre-colonial days must be a central concern. They were instrumental in setting the scene which would meet the colonists when they started arriving. Missionaries were used by the colonial power as an avant garde, to expand into new regions, a fact keenly displayed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart. For many Nigerians, missionaries were the first Europeans with whom they came into contact.
The missionaries first made their presence felt through their work in abolishing the slave trade. As Crowder notes, they took the emphasis away from the ''human products'' of Africa in a bid to use more fully her abundant natural resources. The overall, and idealistic, aim was to promote a more healthy and mutually beneficial trade between Africa and Europe. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton once put forward the argument that ''the only way to save Africa from the evils of the slave trade ... would be call out its own natural resources''(Crowder, The Story of Nigeria, 111). Right from the outset, there was both a commercial and religious context to all missionary work in Nigeria. If anything, it could be argued that initially, the commercial aspect was more pressing than the religious, due the urgent need to find a quick substitute for trading slaves so that the traders would not feel their profit was at stake.
Outcry in England against the horrors of the slave trade reached unprecedented levels. Never before had there been such unanimous public support over a single issue. Cheap pamphlets and tracts were sold in abundance, meaning that the public was fairly well informed in matters such as the cramped and pestilential conditions on the ships. All this was backed up by the first hand accounts of native Africans such as Olaudah Equiano in the late eighteenth century, who described in vivid detail the mistreatment of the slaves.
Missionary interest in Africa achieved a similar level of British evangelical militancy to that of the 1650s, when the Interregnum witnessed a proliferation of Religious sects in the wake of the English Civil War.
In this atmosphere of religious zeal, the apparently barbaric and helpless Africans seemed an ideal area on which to demonstrate the benevolence of European society. The initial expeditionary feelers were sent out in 1841, approximately thirty years before serious colonisation began. The mission was funded by the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa, one of the many such societies in existence at this time. Dickens parodies these societies with acute insight in Bleak House with his portrayal of Telescopic Philanthropy and its attempts at ''educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger'' (Chapter 4).
Crowder states that ''the expedition was the brain-child of men who were almost entirely ignorant of conditions in the interior of the Niger region'' (The Story of Nigeria, 112). When coupled with the ill-preparedness of the European administrators, this presents a potent image of the amateurish nature of early colonialism. It is an entirely different world to the image of Britain as a powerful imperialist nation, the very epitome of professionalism and skill.
Unsurprisingly, the expedition of 1841 was a complete failure. Yet despite this setback, within a decade the missionaries were back in Nigeria. Like the administrative and military aspects, they made good use of freed slaves and other Africans in evangelising Nigeria, a fact that is once again portrayed in Things Fall Apart, with the missionaries using the village converts to encourage further tribe members to join them.
Due to high cultural and tribal diversity of Nigeria, the missionaries could never quite be sure what to expect in different regions, or what sort of welcome they would receive. In many areas, their task must seemed formidable. They specifically came to Africa to completely change the lives of the natives. This, they argued, was the whole point of conversion - everything had to change. From a Postcolonialist viewpoint, this has often resulted in them being fiercely attacked for seeking to completely erase the pre-colonial Africa and start afresh.
The missionaries completely overlooked any cultural richness that existed in Nigeria. They arrived with the same straightforward views as the colonial employees were later to possess. They were absolutely convinced of the superiority of Europeans as an undeniable fact against the assumed inferiority of the natives. Indeed the missionaries could be seen as the first colonial propagators of Manichean Opposition ideology, from the outset using it as one legitimising factor for their presence in Africa. This resulted in a potent attitude of patronisation towards the natives. Indeed, they often found the Africans themselves, the very subject of their duties, to be utterly repulsive both in appearance and behaviour.
This is not to say that the missionaries were not dedicated to what they felt was their duty in Nigeria, and Africa as a whole. Many made sincere efforts, often putting their lives in danger to accomplish their goals. In Chapter 15 of Things Fall Apart, the reader is informed of the first white man to be seen on his ''iron horse'', who was eventually killed by the natives after they consulted their oracle. Yet, the underlying forces at work behind the missions, as well as their inextricable links with commercial activities should never be overlooked. From the outset, the missions were seen as ideal vehicles for gaining the trust and confidence of the tribal leaders, before the real monied interest moved in. It could argued that the missions were one part of the wheel of business and economics that starting to turn in Nigeria, while a substitute for slaves was sought. The humanitarian touch they seemed to bring disguised these motives behind a facade of peaceful and beneficent civilisation. It would be naive to assume that the missionaries were innocently unaware of the drastic consequences their opening of the African heartland would bring. In this sense they must, at least in part, be held answerable for the colonial predicament of Nigeria.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Richard Bleakley. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
Top of This Page
[QUB Home Page][Prometheus Home Page][The Imperial Archive]