Cultural imperialism, or what? Rethinking Dr Philip

Cultural imperialism, or what? Rethinking Dr Philip

IMG_1167A new biography of Dr John Philip, who became the superintendent of the London Missionary Society in South Africa in 1819, was published just a month ago on 1 August. This is Dr Philip’s Empire by Tim Keegan (Cape Town, Zebra Press). It provides a useful occasion for some re/consideration of how to think about the missionary presence in southern Africa.

Andrew Ross’s (1986) earlier biography of Phillip conveyed that he was a man of his time but also with some unusually liberal ideas about race matters. Ross also necessarily worked within the limitation imposed by the fact that most of the Philip Papers at the University of Witwatersrand were destroyed in a fire in 1931. Newer ways of thinking as well as some new sources of information not tapped by Ross have propelled Keegan’s book and its reworkings and reinterpretations, as explained in the introduction and also his ‘A note on sources’.

So what does this rethinking consist of? Keegan proposes that “for all his radical idealism, the memory of men like Philip is more likely today to be tarnished with the charge of cultural imperialism… There is certainly much truth in that caricature, but only if he is to be yanked out of his place in history and judged by standards that were simply not available at the time in which he lived”. He adds, “There are many reasons to despise Philip as a cultural imperialist, a naive facilitator of subjection. But there are also reasons to take him seriously as a historical figure, albeit one who fought in vain against the currents of history.” (3). Keegan also describes Ross’s biography as near hagiography, as too much focused on the positive aspects of Philip’s writings and conduct, but downplaying those less acceptable.

The task for Keegan, then, is to steer a course between resisting judging Philip according to either hagiographic or extreme presentist assessments, while also critically evaluating the activities Philip engaged in and the values he promoted. He concludes, some hundreds of pages later, that Philip was “a man of deep contradictions”, who was an agent of empire and an instrument of religious assault, but that digging deeper something interesting emerges, that he is: “Not a man whom we need necessarily admire, but nonetheless a man who stood up against the destructive forces he saw spreading across his world and to spend a lifetime fighting against them” (333).

I’m a bit puzzled by this. What is not to be admired in Philip having done this, with whatever his faults and limitations that were also present? If Keegan’s assessments were to be applied to people now, we would none of us have anything admirable said about us, we would all be reduced to deep contradictions and being agents of empire and nations! But while in a sense this may be so, surely there is more to it than that, regarding how we think of back then and the day of Dr Philip as well as now and people in our own time? That is, surely it is possible both to admire and to find flaws? And to reach an overall assessment that includes both, rather than seeing one aspect as prime, as the one that counts?

Keegan’s book is several hundred pages long and composed of much rich detail which underpins his assessments of the long missionary presence in southern Africa in general, as well as concerning John Philip in particular. All the way through reading it, I was conscious of him conveying the complex nuanced detail, but also him seeing this in largely negative terms as unacceptable or dubious in some way. When mulling this over after finishing the book, I found myself thinking about it around Andrew Porter’s  observations in his 1997 article on ‘cultural imperialism’ and Protestant missions from 1780 to 1914. This rejects the idea that large generalisations about cultural imperialism can be unproblematically applied across differences of time and context, cautions about the continual ‘discovery’ that people of the past are flawed in present-day race terms (oh no! that’s new!), and finds it curious that even many positive actions and conduct by people of the past do not seem to make much of a dent on the negative characterisations of them that are made.

It is this latter point that is particularly in my mind regarding Keegan’s book. It is scholarly, contains considerable new detail, and opens up interesting lines of thought; but it also disapproves of Dr Philip while acknowledging the many principled, liberal, open, kindly, farsighted things he did and said, and is unable to fit such things into the overall assessment reached. The crux of the matter is hinted at in the title of the book, and concerns empire and cultural imperialism as governing frameworks. It’s almost as though these have to be seen as 100% proof, and if any dilution occurs this then reduces to 0% proof.

Clearly there is an issue here, of how to conceive of the relationship between empire on the one hand, and all the complexities and details of the long and diverse missionary presence in southern Africa on the other, and which of course was not one presence, but many different ones occurring at different points in time in different places and involving different people doing different things, sometimes indeed very different things. For me, Keegan’s Dr Philip’s Empire raises this issue but does not come near solving it. For those who accept the ‘it’s all about empire and cultural imperialism’ view of the missionary presence as sufficient, this will be a more satisfactory read than it was for me, although I will surely return to it both for the rich detail and for further thought.

Last updated: 1 September 2016


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