In scenes played out all over Britain, men, women, and children sat in darkened church halls mesmerised by missionary photographs projected on white walls or make-shift screens. Before the average British citizen could see pictures from all over the world on a mobile phone or a home computer, these kinds of presentations were the closest most of them would ever come to seeing other parts of the world. Their conceptions of far-off places were shaped in large part by these slide shows given by missionaries trying to enlist the support of congregations at home.
The Centre for the Study of World Christianity has thousands of these images in its collection of material relating to the history of world Christianity and the missionary movement. Documenting the spread of Christianity outside of the West has been a major part of the Centre’s work since Andrew Walls founded it in 1982. After working as an archivist for more than fourteen years, the Centre’s archives were an important part of my decision to study here. One of the first things I did after I arrived was meet with the Centre’s archivist, Kirsty Stewart, to discuss material relevant to my project.
I’m interested in missionary photography from Africa during the twentieth century and its uses in the UK to influence British perceptions of Africa. You can imagine how excited I was when the Centre’s director, Brian Stanley, brought out some hand-tinted lantern slides in a presentation on the Centre’s archives on one of my first days here. Just one of the Centre’s collections has more than fifty boxes of material. There are lantern slides, glass-plate negatives, and 35mm acetate slides from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. The exciting geographical breadth of materials is joined by its timespan, ranging from the late 1800s into the 1980s. Nearly 1500 of the Centre’s images are available on the International Mission Photography Archive website and archival descriptions of more of the Centre’s materials are available from the MUNDUS Gateway. Still, there are many more interesting items that haven’t been digitised yet.
Several scholars have discussed the issues surrounding missionary photographs. Among them is T. Jack Thompson, a former director of the Centre. My purpose now is simply to highlight some of the African images here. Images from the collection show how missionaries told others about the exotic places they travelled and lived for the sake of their vocations. Because the presentations were intended to rally support for the missionaries’ work, they often showed the progress they were making, transforming both the land and the people as part of their ‘civilising’ mission.
The first picture below is taken from a series of slides illustrating the life of the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. It shows the unspoilt wilderness of the Mlanje Plateau in present-day Malawi sometime between about 1860 and 1900. Like the rest of the images I include here, it is a hand-tinted lantern slide from the Church of Scotland Slide and Visual Collection, which contains hundreds of these images intended to be used in the kind of lectures we’ve been discussing.
Notice the man and woman in European clothing standing in the street in the picture above. Not only did the landscape change, but the people as well. Missionaries were often appalled by the practice of polygamy and the minimal clothing of Africans. Below is an image taken around 1910 of a man and several ‘Senga wives’, likely his own.
In contrast, we see the image of an Igbo family in what is now Nigeria below. Here, the man has only one wife and all are wearing Western-style clothing. In addition to their new clothing, a Western-style building can be seen in the background rather than the thatch one behind the man and his wives above.
Many missionaries we quite proud of the Western-style homes and buildings they were able to construct, especially churches and hospitals. The picture below was taken around 1885 and shows a brick church built at Ekwendeni which still stands in present-day Malawi.
Learning to build with bricks and other Western building techniques were important parts of the education Africans received in mission schools. Here is a picture from inside the carpentry shop at the Livingstonia mission between about 1894 and 1904.
While men and boys were often taught trades, women and girls learned domestic skills, like in the sewing class at the Kikuyu mission in Kenya below.
Another aspect of the missionaries’ work their photographs often emphasize is the introduction of Western medicine. In the picture below, two patients sit outside the leper ward at the Tumutumu Hospital in Kenya sometime between about 1909 to 1940.
Medical missionaries often saw themselves in competition with traditional healers like the ‘witch doctor’ in the picture below, taken in Malawi about 1895.
Like the pictures of the traditional healer and the man with multiple wives, many missionary photographs document indigenous cultures and ways of life. The drawing below shows some traditional markings painted on young Igbo women in Nigeria before their marriage. Missionaries discouraged the practice but recorded some of the designs in this image around the 1930s so they could be embroidered on cloth instead.
The effect of missionaries on indigenous peoples will continue to be debated. Likewise the effects of indigenous cultures on Christianity. The materials held by the Centre for the Study of World Christianity are a fantastic resource for scholars interested in those debates and many more.