Messy Lives on the Upper Guinea Coast: The Church Missionary Society and its Representatives

As the first recipients of Hakluyt Society Research Grants are finishing up their projects, we are delighted to share several of their findings on this blog. In this post, Dr. Katrina Keefer (Trent University) explains how her research on body marking and identity in West Africa led her to the archives of the Church Missionary Society and delve into the ‘messy lives’ of German-speaking Lutheran missionaries in early nineteenth-century Sierra Leone.


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When I first began to explore the correspondence of the various Church Missionary Society’s agents in Sierra Leone during the summer of 2011, I confess that I knew very little about them. I was primarily conducting research about how body marks and identity were connected, and was hoping to find evidence of drawn or described body marks such as tattoos and scarification. Missionary accounts seemed like a good place to begin, but as it happened, I never did find descriptions of scarification or tattoo.

What I found were lives. And as I read further, researching the authors and working to reconstruct the trajectories of their pupils, I realized how fascinating, complex and unplanned those lives were. It has become a sort of running joke to me that I ought to pitch these lives to ‘HBO’ as a series, because they remain so endlessly engrossing and chaotic. They are, to paraphrase Joseph Miller, “messy.”

I moved through various phases as I worked with these documents and the snippets of lives contained within them. There were three main threads and narratives, and following each of them was fascinating and intriguing.

There were the sometimes heart-breaking stories of the seven main authors – each was a German-speaking man originating from central and northern Europe. This was itself startling to realise, as the nested assumptions concerning the early CMS in Sierra Leone tended to be that they were English, or with greater knowledge, that the missionaries were simply ‘Germans.’ The problem of course with this was that there was no ‘Germany’ at the time, and learning the origins of each man was itself compelling, because it began to explain their distribution within the colony and hinterlands.

That sociocultural division also began to illuminate the many tensions and divisions which were present between missionaries, and which were otherwise baffling. The first two men – Peter Hartwig and Melchior Renner – evidently loathed one another to such a degree that one document penned by Governor Thomas Ludlom explained that they could not be permitted in the same place without a chaperone.

A resolution by the Corresponding Committee dated from 30 September 1806 reads that Renner and Hartwig were no longer allowed to go out together, “on account of the frequent disagreements which have already occurred between Messrs Renner and Hartwig and from their avowed repugnance to act in concert, or even to live together.”

Bashia
“Plan of Bashia Settlement” This 1817 illustration’s creator is unknown, but represents the proposed plan for the rebuilding of Bashia after it was damaged by fire. The building was originally called “Gray’s Factory” and was a slave trading factory which was given to the missionaries by Benjamin Curtis in 1805/1806 in return for the agreed-upon education of the local slave traders’ children. CMS/CA1/E6/5

Reading more carefully, I learned that Hartwig, a Prussian draft-dodger, was torn desperately between the instructions of the colonial authorities, the dictates of the missionary society, and his increasing distaste for the relatively lax lifestyle within Freetown at the time. This emerged in strident sermons whenever he was in the colony, and he was faced with steadily worsening responses from Ludlom and other officials, who challenged him again and again to justify his excursions up-country (he was instructed by the CMS itself to go inland in order to establish a mission settlement, it must be noted).

Within the correspondence of this period, the incredible tension is clear between colony and missionary, while for the Swabian Renner, similar frustration emerges throughout. He felt trapped within Freetown, made to serve as Chaplain to the Colony when like Hartwig, he had been instructed to journey into the interior, but was not permitted to do so. His resentment of Hartwig and his intense frustration all are clear additional emphatic indications of these currents of anger and miscommunication, which were hallmarks of this point in the colony.

After the arrival of other missionaries, and the 1807 dismissal of Hartwig and his subsequent castigation and branding as a slave trader, matters eased somewhat, and the narratives of the missionaries change to excitement in their correspondence. Finally, they were able to largely travel as a group up country, establishing the first and arguably most important of their early schools: Bashia on the Pongo river. Now the first two threads, which were centred on the tension between missionaries and colonial authorities, are joined by the third.

Freed to preach and teach, the correspondence becomes insightful and illuminating especially with respect to the local people. From the amateur ethnography of Gustavus Reinhold Nylander on the Bullom Shore at Yongroo Pomoh writing lengthy descriptions of funeral customs, of Poro ritual, or of red water trials, to Renner at Bashia taking down the opinion of the local headmen concerning slavery, these documents become invaluable as scholarly sources.

Kolloh devil
“Kolloh Devil” is a drawing appended to G.R. Nylander’s 1815 letter to CMS Secretary Josiah Pratt, in which he describes a masquerade he saw among the Bullom with whom he worked. His letter and this drawing are one of the earliest representations of a Poro ritual, and of maskers. CMS/CA1/E5/13.

I find that in transcribing this material, I am continually shocked by how rich it is. Accounts of smallpox epidemics, or conflicts between Royal Africa Squadron ships and local villagers, of personal tragedies as when Nylander’s son died, and of large traumas, as when Charles Christian Frederick Wenzel writes about the hardships facing Liberated African children in Kissy Town. The pictures painted within the documents are vibrant and evocative.

It is also the raw narratives about working alongside and around slave traders while acting on behalf of an abolitionist society that make this other aspect of the material so engrossing. The missionaries had opened schools for the most part, almost by accident, and their student reports offer unvarnished snapshots of children along the upper Guinea coast in the early nineteenth century. These children were the sons and daughters of local elites, or of local slave traders, or were themselves former slaves. Missionaries like John Godfrey Wilhelm produced a welter of blunt commentaries on his students. These range from high praise and warmth to clear frustration with certain students.

Throughout my reading of these extraordinarily rich and compelling materials, I am struck by how utterly human the people within them are. Flawed, chaotic, and at times ludicrous, both the authors and their subjects give their readers a perspective on this period which permits important conclusions regionally.

The missionaries were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts to convert. It’s almost laughable how thoroughly Nylander was rebuffed by the villagers on the Bullom Shore. And yet through their schools, these men and their largely unheard wives educated a remarkably diverse group of pupils who went on to open their own schools in turn.

That more than anything else is the lasting legacy of their work – the “Athens of West Africa” which Sierra Leone became was due to a nucleus of westernized children who passed through the CMS schools and the hands of those flawed but fascinating missionaries.


Katrina Keefer is an Adjunct Professor at Trent University, Ontario, Canada. She is a cultural historian who specializes in identity, body marking, slavery, and initiatory societies in West Africa. She is a contributor to the Liberated Africans Project and the Studies in the History of the African Diaspora – Documents (SHADD) projects, both of which engage with biography in the Atlantic world. Keefer is working on a large-scale digital humanities project on using permanent body marks to better discern origins and birthplace. She has previously published on CMS missionary biographies, scarification, Poro, and identity in Sierra Leone.


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