7 postcards from the LMS collection

7 postcards from the LMS collection

Postcard 1. The origins of the LMS dockets
The LMS missionary letters from southern Africa are being systematically sampled by us across an extremely lengthy time-period, enabling changes in both the content of these letters and also in LMS administrative procedures for dealing with them to be tracked.Some initial comments on this with regards to the administration side are as follows.

The letters sent to LMS headquarters between 1817 and 1820 sometimes have pencil or even pen marks drawn down the margins, and sometimes they have square brackets drawn around particular passages to pick them out either for presentation in meetings or else for publication in LMS reports or its journal. These letters were usually on foolscap paper and folded in three for sealing (literally, with a seal) and then posting. By the 1830s and just very occasionally, written (scrawled) on one of the sides is the date received and a two line summary of key content, sometimes with the date of reply also added. On the few occasions when this happens, these LMS administrative additions to the letters received begin to look quite like the printed dockets that were later systematically used (accessible here). However, in the 1830s this happened only very occasionally, so it is perhaps likely to represent the practices of a particular official. It certainly wasn’t widespread. But that it happened at all, and when it did that it took the form that the printed dockets later did, is intriguing.

Watch this space for an update later in this fieldwork period (which will gallop through the 19thC years) on the administrative procedures as we deal with more of the intertwined letter-writing of LMS missionaries.

Postcard 2. Prepositional politics
What’s in a word, such as ‘the’, ‘a’ and so on? What’s in variant spellings over time? And what’s in using a Capital letter or not? Quite a lot, in fact. Such things signify the slow beginnings of a different notion of racial ordering. There is a world of difference between someone like James Read senior, married to a Xhosa woman, writing about ‘the Caffres’ and ‘the Caffre Nation’ in the 1820s and 30s, and letter-writers in the 1890s who use phrases like ‘the kaffir went away’ or ‘kaffirs are liars’. The LMS South Africa letters are a time-machine!

Postcard 3. On networks
On 23 February 1841, a letter of report was written by an LMS missionary who had transferred from Grahamstown to Cradock, John Monro. His letter includes him raising money to build a chapel and also some people he had ‘received’ before moving, who had also moved to Cradock and become the core group of his new congregation there. Small news, not very exciting for most people. But the names are music, music, music to my ears!

As well as Mrs Monro, they were Mrs Hockly, Mrs Mahoney, Miss Hockly. These were the mother, and the eldest and youngest sisters, of Harriet Townsend nee Hockly, whose name and activities often appear on these webpages. Her’s is not among them because she had not yet moved from Grahamstown (she did in May of that year). But she too was a Chapel-goer and when she did remove she joined these circles. And the Mrs Monro mentioned is Sarah of that name, who was one of Harriet Townsend’s friends and also involved in Harriet’s business activities. Such connections are fascinating – perhaps these whites really did all know each other!

Postcard 4. On a figuration
A figuration is a Norbert Elias term and signifies more than a network, which involves people’s connections at one point in time, for it is concerned with how some kinds of connections are perpetuated over very long time-periods. One of his examples is the naval profession, which exists over the long term and in which groups at different points in time develop and change with some members dropping away and new ones joining. In the same way, the LMS missionary presence in southern Africa can be seen as a figuration in just these terms.

At the end of week 1 of fieldwork, we are in a position to say that there is a continuous stream (aka figuration) of missionary letter-writers and their letter-writing from c1804 to c1942, and there are some 160 of them. The majority are men, but there are also some women, who came as missionaries, teachers and doctors.

This 160 is not an exact number, because sometimes people joined the LMS presence by other routes than the usual one and so do not appear in the organisational listings. And also there are many men who were ‘artisans’ of different kinds and who played a missionary role as well as being blacksmiths, carpenters and so on, but were paid a different sum of money and were not seen as missionaries as such. It is also not an exact number because many other people wrote letters either to the missionaries with their letters being passed on, or else directly to the LMS headquarters in London, with all these letters too appearing in the southern African incoming correspondence files. But it does add up to a figuration, for all of these people were connected to lesser or greater degrees with each other and over time individuals and cohorts of them gave way to other individuals and cohorts. How fascinating it will be once we get to the end and can stand back and look at developments over the whole of this time-period. This will be in March or so in 2017.

Postcard 5. Why they wrote
The LMS missionaries had to write letters back to London headquarters regularly, it was part of the requirements of their employment by the organisation. These letters were encouraged to includes discussions of issues and circumstances regarding their spiritual lives, and also the material fabric of the activities they engaged in with regard to proselytising and education. They were expected to write whenever there was such a ‘conversation’ to be had and would receive replies from whichever Director of Foreign Secretary at the time about this, and they were also expected to provide a detailed annual report about the more material aspects.

This is not to say that they all always did this, or did it wholeheartedly. Gottlob Schreiner, for example, was noticeably laggard in writing such letters. And certainly any spiritual accounting is notable more for its absence than anything else – for most of the missionaries, there is more about money and squabbles with other missionaries or LMS officials back in Britain. Again, Gottlob Schreiner’s sparse letters and also those by others with content about him provide an example here, with endless fallings out the main topic along with unwise expenditures which his fellow-missionaries and church Elders disagreed with.

The LMS missionaries could write letters in this way and receive replies at what became increasingly speedy intervals between writing and receiving a response. Dates were, as noted above, fairly systematically recorded on incoming missionary correspondence at LMS headquarters, and the earlier five or even longer months between writing and receiving shrank dramatically to three months or less because of material and technological developments. Sailing ships gave way to steam, and steam then encompassed even faster mail steamers. Fewer ships and their cargoes were lost. Well-established routes were established for travelling long distances across southern Africa. More postal collection points were established at strategic places along these so that letters from the local areas could be taken to or collected from them, rather than relying on ‘opportunity’ as provided by chance passing travellers.

They wanted to write letters to their parent organisation, which was also their employer and the source of authorising funds to be paid to them by one of the LMS Agents in southern Africa. They described, explained, justified and wheedled about why particular courses of action had been taken and specific costs incurred. Explaining decisions and actions occurring in the local context they each operated in was an important and perhaps the key component in their letter-writing.

They needed to write letters to a helpful external reference and guidance point, with ‘need’ here an existential rather than material matter, in positioning themselves in relation to something other than the local, often rather isolated and sometimes extremely difficult or heart-rending circumstances they lived in for years on end. Peter Wright was the LMS missionary in Griqua Town, the headquarters of the Griqua or Bastaards, in South African parlance a ‘coloured’ people. On 14 August 1841, he wrote from the mission station that writing to the LMS Directors “comforts the mind amidst little trials and griefs”. These ‘little trials and griefs’ included a drought persisting over a number of years, extreme privation and much starvation among the people he endevoured to serve, and also extreme short rations for him and his family. Just getting by involved a huge amount of manual labour when every item and every morsel of food had to be self-provided, so that he experienced expressing and responding to the more abstract aspects of his mission and the issues arising a ‘comfort’ because taking his mind off these quotidian and pressing matters.

Postcard 6. The marrying men and the local women
Many of the missionaries were already married when they went to southern Africa; while on their furloughs back to Britain and briefer forays to Cape Town and other towns, others of them married soon as they could. The spectre of sexual temptation hovered and is often alluded to in suitably opaque terms. Having initially thought he would not marry, for instance, David Livingstone arrived in Kuruman and quickly arranged his marriage to Mary Moffat, eldest daughter of Mary and Robert Moffat and of marriageable age. Those who were widowed married again when they could, and those who remained single were rare. And of course, most of the women of marriageable years that the missionaries met were African or coloured women, with various of them entering liaisons with or respectably falling for women who were San, Xhosa, Griqua and so on. First-wave missionaries James Reid senior and Johannes Vandercamp just got on with it and married them, but at a point when doctrinal requirements were not so strict as they became. Later, women who were not baptised and not full communicants could not enter the state of Christian marriage, for instance.

In a 52 page closely written foolscap Report dated 12 August 1817, some instances of missionary men in varying degrees caught in this dilemma are reported on. One of them concerns the brief infidelity of James Read senior with a Griqua woman. However, the other half dozen are men who fell in love and wished to marry the woman concerned. Each case is considered and the ways in which the requirements were or were not met are instanced. This concerns William Corner, an African man from Demerara who was a freed former slave who became a missionary, as much as it does Michael Wimmer, desparate to marry Sabina, and John Schmelen, who had lawfully married his ‘servant’ by leaving the Cape for a less rigorous context in order to do so.

What is notable is that the requirements expressed are legalistic in a doctrinal sense, and there is no mention in this report or other documents concerning such things of the ethnicity or race of the women concerned being at issue. In 1817 and thereabouts it is rather whether they were full communicants of the church. What lay behind this is of course now unknowable, and the absence of discussion may cover horror about what these men wanted to do. However, the men in question had their sights set on marriage, which implies a measure of respect and acknowledgement; although of course marriage now as well as then can also include great inequalities and contempt for those of the deemed-to-be inferior sex. Let us hope the former guided their actions.

Postcard 7. The Directors
For most of the time in these many hundreds of letters, the Directors of the LMS at the London headquarters are shadowy figures glimpsed only through comments in the incoming letters. Dr Philip, the Director local in South Africa, on occasion wrote to London stressing how impossible it was that they could truly understand the circumstances faced by the missionaries in the field. He himself regularly ‘itinerated’ by going on circuits of visits and inspeaction. On occasion, he encouraged one of them out of the metrople, with some beneficial effects but also sometimes closer controls resulting.

Last updated: 20 October 2016


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