From the book: The Role of the Missionaries in conquest by Nosipho Majeke

THE COMING of the missionaries to Southern Africa at the end of the 18th century coincided with the first occupation of the Cape by the British. The missionaries were a product and this was not accidental. Earlier in the century the Moravians had been their forerunners and had established a mission station amongst a group of the already weakened Khoikho, Baviaans-Kloof, later known as Genadendal or Vale of Grace. But the main missionary movement, led by the London Missionary Society, was a British one and was in full force during the period of military conquest in the first half of the 19th century. It is important to know the womb from which sprang the missionary movement in Southern Africa and indeed all the colonies of the British Empire, for Southern Africa was but one of a vast view it as part of a great historical movement, the expansion of capitalism.

Now it is one of the is one of the many falsification of history to obscure the true nature of events behind sentimental phrases or catchwords. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries we hear much of the activities of the Evangelicals, the Humanitarians, the Philanthropists, the Emancipationists, those people who concerned themselves with the morals of the poor at home and suffering of the slaves abroad, who devoted their energies to the emancipation of the slaves, the "liberation of the Hottentots," the conversion of the heathen to Christianity and such like. There is no doubt that there were well-meaning people who supported these humanitarian movements. But we would have a false perspective of events if we accepted these grandiloquent aims at their face value and assumed that there was some mysterious milk of human kindness animating the hearts of the English. From the days of Queen Elizabeth in the late 16th century, when Englishmen joined the crusade for plunder of the New World, when Sir Walter Raleigh and other adventurers were authorized to “advance the conservation of savages and increase traffic:, the glory of God and profit of England had always been, one might say, synonymous terms. It is business to look into the economic aims underlying all these activities at the beginning of the 19th century.

The London Missionary Society, which sent its first missionaries to Southern Africa in 1799, was established by a group known as the Evangelicals. As early as 1776 they had founded the Society for Missions in Africa and the East and through their influence missionaries of various denominations were scattered throughout the British colonies, in the East Indies, Jamaica, Trinidad, Nova, Scotia, the West Coast of Africa and in Southern Africa. In the British House of Commons they had secured the adoption of a series of resolutions affirming the obligation of Parliament to work for what was called the religious welfare of Britain's richest colonial possession, India. The missionary and the military were never far separated. It is true there was some rivalry between different religious sects, which hindered the good work””until the Evangelicals had the bright idea of founding the London Missionary Society (1795) based on the principle of united action by all denominations of orthodox Christians.

Who were these Evangelicals who were so anxious to convert the colonial peoples to Christianity? They were a religious party originating among some Cambridge divines, received strong support from an influential group of politicians representing the industrial and mercantile class. This group of politicians was known as the Clapham sect and their leader was William Wilberforce the son of a rich merchant of Hull, who lived in Clapham, a district of London. The group included also Lord Teignmouth, a former governor-general of India and a representative of the aristocracy that associated itself with the rising middle-class. Another member was Thomas Fowell Buxton, partner in a brewery concern, who with Wilberforce, subsequently founded the Aborigines Protection Society during a particularly ugly period of British colonial conquest and assisted Dr. Phillip, Superintendent of the London Missionary Society in Southern Africa, in building up his reputation as the "defender" first of the Khoikhoin and then of the Bantu. It was Buxton who formulated that happy discovery so pregnant with profit to the British industrialist, that "the Negro race are blessed with a peculiar aptitude for the reception of moral and religious instruction” . Now we have to ask ourselves why this influential group of British industrialist at this time became so anxious to liberate” and save the soul of slaves in far-distant countries. They acquired the name of humanitarians and philanthropists, but the truth is that neither humanitarianism nor philanthropy had much to do with the case.

Wilberforce - Oppressor and Liberator

Let us take a look at Wilberforce with a view to learning something more about this group, whom he represents. The curious thing is that the would-be liberator of the colonial slave and the sponsor of missionary activity throughout the British Empire, was a through reactionary and supported the Government in its repressive legislation against the English workers. He was an enemy of the workers. He supported the Corn Laws, by which the landowners taxed the bread of the poor, and the Combination Laws of 1799 and 1800, which made trade unions illegal. At this time the English rulers were regret afraid that the liberatory ideas of the Great French Revolution would stir the English workers to revolt. "Scratch a trade Unionist and you will find a Jacobin," they said, and those workers who combined to resist exploitation were condemned as agitators. Wilberforce denounced these trade unions as "a general disease in our society.” When the people demanded the franchise and the repeal of those oppressive laws, he supported the notorious Six Acts which denied them political rights, freedom of speech or criticism of any kind; under the Seditious Meetings Bill, all assemblies “aiming at changes in Church or State,” were declared illegal, and the penalty under any of these Acts was imprisonment without trial, or transportation or death. It is noteworthy that in the same year the British Parliament voted a million pounds for the building of churches. How, then, could a man be both liberator and oppressor?

In one of his humanitarian speeches about the West Indian slave, Wilberforce referred by contrast to the "free British labourer.” It was an unfortunate phrase, for the condition of the working-class in England during this period has been well-documented. England was becoming a great industrial power and was building up her empire and her trade. The classes who possessed power in the state were the rising industrialists and the landowners, who understood by government the protection of their power and their property. They abhorred any demands on the part of the workers that stood in the way of the unlimited development of their industries and the accumulation of their wealth. In other words, their attitude to the workers at home was similar to the attitude of the slave-owner to the slaves abroad. Could they then be both liberators and oppressors? Under the juggernaut of expanding capitalism men, women and children worked under appalling conditions in the factories, in the mines and in the crowded, insanitary city-slums, so that they seemed to be a race of degraded, brutalized human beings.

Now those industrialists who supported the missionary movement and the emancipation of the slaves at the same time expressed great concern about the morals of the "lower orders" , as they called the workers. The Evangelical movement became fashionable. When some ungodly employers objected to their encouragement of Sunday observance among the poor because it meant loss of labour one day out of every week, the Evangelicals pointed out that it was to their own advantage to have a religious and obedient body of workers. In the moral and religious control over the masses they saw the best guarantee for law and order. Wilberforce, in this pamphlet, "A Practical View of the System of Christianity," made this point quite clear. Christianity, he indicated, teaches the poor to be diligent, humble, patient and obedient, and to accept their lowly position in life. It makes the inequalities between themselves and the rich less galling because, under the influence of religious instruction, they endure the injustices of this world with the hope of a rich reward in the next. It is significant that Wilberforce remarked to the Prime Minister, Pitt, whose government had passed the Six Acts and other oppressive legislation, that this particular section of his pamphlet was "the basis of all politics."

This, then, was the outlook of the sponsor of missionary activity throughout the British Empire. He was the spokesman of the ENGLISH middle class. The picture serves to illuminate the social system, the civilization, which these industrialists upheld with all their MIGHT and from which their so-called humanitarian movements sprang. When we see them described as an expression of the new spirit liberalism, we must be clear as to what this liberalism was. Briefly stated, liberalism, with its ideas of liberty and equality, supplied the ideological weapons with which the English middle-class in the 17th century and the French middle-class in the late 18th century off the shackles of feudalism and established capitalism. This freedom and equality, while they had been useful slogans for rallying the workers to assist the middle-class to achieve victory, turned out to be valid only for the man of property, the industrialists merchants, not for the workers. Likewise the "emancipation" of the colonial slave, together with christianising him, had nothing to do with his liberation, but on the contrary, his enslavement. It was part of a world-wide historical movement, the expansion of capitalism. New methods of production demanded a new relationship between those who laboured and those who profited by that la The worker was now "free" to sell his labour to one master or another, in order to exist. In other words he became a wage-slave. This served the interests of the industrialists better than serf or slave who was tied to the land. Witness the situation in England when Wilberforce and his fellow "saints" (as they were ironically called) were making speeches for the emancipation of the slaves.

Steam and machinery had revolutionized industrial production; workers were streaming into the towns; the wheels of the industrial machine were turning faster and faster. Britain, well on the way to defeating her French and Dutch rivals in the colonies, was expanding her trade. She was searching for new markets, new raw materials and a mass of new workers. The time for the old slave system was passed. It had yielded great riches, but the new system and the new slave would yield' even greater riches. It was a search that made Britain - and her rivals - send their agents all over the world.

This is the womb of the so-called humanitarian movements over the early 19th century. It is against this background of vast economic forces that the influx of missionaries to the colonies acquires meaning. The missionaries came from a capitalist Christian civilization that unblushingly found religious sanctions for inequality, as it does to this day, and whose ministers solemnly blessed its wars of aggression. Men like Wilberforce had visions of extending civilization to the ends of the earth. They saw themselves as the chosen race.

Britain had many agents of conquest, great and small, official and unofficial, conscious and unconscious: the military, the explorer and the farmer-colonist: the missionary and the petty trader, as well as the adventurer, the impoverished artisan or the vagabond-there was room for all of them. Some acted blindly in self-interest, while others, like Dr. Philip, Superintendent of the London Missionary Society, were fully conscious of what they stood for. Yet the humblest and most well-meaning saver of souls, though he might never have seen the inside of an English factory where children died to enrich the English industrialist, nevertheless obeyed, like all the others, the laws of expanding capitalism. The middle-classes knew when and how to make use of all their agents in their time and place.