Missionaries in Nineteenth Century Africa – A Few Considerations

The Rev. Robert Nassau, who first landed in West Africa in 1861, spent the following 30+ years in this region, as a religious official and graduate of Princeton University.  And while there is much to be criticized in these early years of missionary service in Africa, there is also a great deal of knowledge and perspective towards local people that can be considered.



For example, the growth of ethnographic theory and fieldwork techniques, which took place during the same period,  borrowed heavily from the work of missionaries:  the importance of learning local languages and viewing indigenous perspectives from local points of view, are two key methodologies adopted in ethnographic fieldwork – though, reduced from several decades  in the 19th century to about 12 months today.

Regarding changes over the years between 1890 and 1900, Rev. Nassau is highly critical of European powers and associated merchants, while also assuming that indigenous Africans would, ultimately, ‘progress’ from native to Christian:

… in the ten years that have since passed, a stranger would find some of them [general features of tribal groups] are no longer exact. Foreign authority has removed or changed or sapped the foundations of many native customs and regulations, while it has not fully brought in the civilization of Christianity.

Nassau. PrincetonAlumni  Weekly Vol.1 April 28,1900.not

Nassau. Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol.1 April 28,1900.  His work was in West Africa, Not South Africa, as stated here.

Travelling into the interior of West Africa was a hazardous Business.

Travelling into the interior of West Africa was a hazardous Business.

Nassau.PrincetonAlumniWeeklyVol.1 April 28,1900 1

Nassau.Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol.1 April 28, 1900.  Translation of local dialects into biblical texts was a key activity of 19th century missionaries.

The Rev. Nassau had few kind words regarding the activities of colonials in the regions of West Africa in which he worked and traveled:

The result in some places, in this period of transition, has been almost anarchy, — making a despotism, as under Belgian misrule in the so-called Kongo ” Free ” State ; or commercial ruin, as under French monopoly in their Kongo-Francais ; and general confusion, under German hands, due to the arbitrary acts of local [European] officials and their brutal black soldiery…

Moving through the rapids of the Ogone.  Source -  www.delcampe.net

Moving through the rapids of the Ogowe. Source – http://www.delcampe.net

I read many books on other parts of Africa, in which the same customs and religion prevailed. I did not think it reasonable to dismiss curtly as absurd the cherished sentiments of so large a portion of the human race. I asked myself : Is there no logical ground for the existence of these sentiments, no philosophy behind all these beliefs ?

The central belief ot Nassau - as well as colonial powers of th 19th century, rested upon a belief that local populations would 'progress' from nativism to civilization, as shown in this picture. Source -

The guiding paradigm  of Nassau – as well as all colonial powers of the 19th century, rested upon a belief that local populations would ‘progress’ from nativism to civilization, as shown in this picture. Source – Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa; ‘A civilized family in Gabon’.

1 began to search; and thenceforward for thirty years, wherever I travelled, wherever I was guest to native chief, wherever I lived, I was always leading the conversation, in hut or camp, back to a study of the native thought [my underlining].

Source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau, M.D., S.T.D. for Forty Years a Missionary in the Gabun District of Kongo-Francaise.   University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.  1904

Below are links related to some of the findings of the Rev. Nassau that are related to cuisine:

 The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

 The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon

The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

The Magicality of Cuisine 4: A Special Dish for a Woman Cultivator, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa

The Magicality of Cuisine 5 – A Spicy Warriors’ Stew, Gabon West Africa

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-West, Christianity, Colonialism, European colonizers, Explorers & exploration, Robert Nassau and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Missionaries in Nineteenth Century Africa – A Few Considerations

  1. BrandonSP says:

    I like that he showed more cultural sensitivity towards native African people than most of his peers, especially in the last quoted passage, even if he was still influenced by his own cultural upbringing.

    Liked by 1 person

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