London Missionary Society South Africa Letters, London Missionary Society Collection, SOAS, University of London

LMS South Africa Letters Set 1, London Missionary Society Collection, SOAS, University of London

SET ONE: 12 boxes sampled in groups of two, 1-2, 7-8A, 13-14A, 18A-18B, 23B-24, 30-31

The LMS was formed in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans and nonconformists.  It is now part of the Council for World Mission Worlds. It had a non-denominational policy and started sending missionaries to southern Africa from the outset, and it also drew into its ranks some already working there. The LMS collection overall is immensely large, with a detailed guide available online and further even more detailed guides available in the archive itself.

The letters discussed here, Set 1, are a part – about a third – of the South African section of the LMS collection at SOAS. Sets 2 and 3 will follow in due course.

The LMS Boxes for WWW research cover the whole collection and were selected randomly, with the next following Box also worked on so as to ensure depth of temporal coverage. From each Box, a 1 in 5 sample of letters was then drawn and worked on in detail, plus additional letters labeled as extras. The result gives a wide overview of letters written by the succession of LMS missionaries who worked in (and some who visited or passed through) the South African mission stations. However, over time there were adjustments to how the LMS defined South Africa in relation to what was then called Matabeleland, and so the LMS Matabeleland letters should also be taken into account and these letters considered together.

This Set is of twelve Boxes – Boxes 1 and 2, 7 and 8A, 13 and 14A, 18A and 18B, 23B and 24, 30 and 31. The time-periods covered are 1797 to 1811, 1817 to 1820, 1832 to 1834, 1841 to 1842, 1848 to 1849 and 1856 to 1859. The result involves over a thousand Set 1 letters.

Particular points of interest of the LMS South Africa letters covered in Set 1 are as follows:

  • These letters often provide yearly accountings for their activities by the missionaries, although various of them also write on other occasions too, with some writing more and more often, and others less.
  • The letters convey news of themselves and the other missionaries they had come across or had meetings with in the period covered by their letters, including the passing on of news, coverage of local circumstances and events in the time since the previous letter. Many different kinds of activities are covered, and there does not seem to be any standard practice either across the missionaries, or in letters written over time by each particular missionary.
  • The sense is implicitly conveyed, through to the 1840s at least, that power resides in black groups and power structures, with the LMS missionaries both present on sufferance in a grace and favour way and living largely in the context of their own making and semi-separate from ‘their’ people. Their ‘itinerating’ to different places occurs in this context.
  • In the earliest letters, the very early days of forming mission stations in South Africa are covered. Various attempts to establish missions among ‘the Caffres’ are included, along with the highs and lows of these, including when done by other people as well as the letter-writer. Troubles with the Boers recur across the letters, slavery is often mentioned, and also various issues in dealing with ‘the Hottentots’ are covered. But the overall impression is of small matters and surface comments, coupled with difficulties and issues and some gossiping. In race terms, in these earlier letters the prevailing terms are Hottentots, Caffres and heathen.
  • Sometimes the day-to-day aspects of mission work are covered, including preaching, descriptions of places travelled to and so forth, although this is not as prevalent as might be expected. The accounting involved particularly concerns financial matters, activities over lengthy periods of time, dealings with other missionaries, family matters, while spiritual aspects appear in a subsidiary or bracketed kind of way.
  • Scandals and other goings-on are present in various of the letters, the moral wrongdoings and some sexual misdemeanors are covered in the earlier letters. An example concerns James Read senior. In-fighting is generally commented on, not really their own, but rather that of others. There is also the matter of some of them marrying or being involved with African or coloured women.
  • In around 1817 with the arrival of an additional number of missionaries, area meetings start, with reports of these being sent to the LMS Directors. By the 1830s and with Jane Phillips in charge of LMS finances in South Africa, there are comments about the financial situations and spendings of the various missionaries. Increasingly over time, financial matters are repeatedly raised in many of the letters back to the Directors.
  • There is interesting material on the role of Mrs Smith in Cape Town in relation to the LMS presence both in South Africa and also Britain. Also there are interesting letters with regards to Ann Hamilton and a scandal around her break with her husband Robert Hamilton of Kuruman. Another interesting sub-theme, noted above, is the relationship between the missionary men and various groups of local African and coloured women, and how they are to handle this if they are not already married, and sometimes if they are.
  • In the earlier letters, slaves and slavery are mentioned fairly often. By the 1830s, the word Kaffir makes appearance, as does that of bastard in the ethnic sense followed by Griqua. The people, our people, these poor people, are terms which also appear in the 1830s, and this is followed by the growing ubiquity of the term natives for at least some of the letter-writers.
  • In the letters of the 1830s, a definite sense of cohort changes emerges, as members of the first generation of missionaries to arrive after James Read and Johannes Van der Kemp begin to die.
  • By 1840, the matter of ‘native agency’ comes onto the agenda for some of the missionaries, and how best to deal with this without ‘making young gentleman of a few Caffer youth’. The role of native teachers as well as native agency also features, with these not seen as coterminous by various of them.
  • By the 1840s, the various mission stations seem very different and to be experiencing different kinds of successes, problems and issues. However, this is quite difficult to keep in mind because of sampling letters across the whole range, rather than focusing on particular missionaries or particular stations. There is however a sense of the growing dominance of the mission station at Kuruman, both because of the number of missionaries there and also the commanding presence of Robert Moffat.
  • In the 1840s, there is still the sense that the power in the land for the missionaries involves the local native rulers. At the same time, the increasingly dominating presence of the Boers and controversies and outbreaks of violence concerning them occurs. In 1848, there is also mention of the extensions of colonial rule. Various legislation impinges, including the abolition of slavery, and the vagrancy Acts in particular.
  • By the 1840s, the growth of local missionary organisation and in particular the District Councils is also a feature. This includes the relationship of these both to individual missionaries and also to the LMS, including its Director and Agents in South Africa, not just in Britain.
  • ‘The war’ and Kat River make appearances in 1848 and the fallout of the rebellion there also appears in different aspects of missionary activities in the letters.
  • In the mid 1850s there are outbreaks of violence, mainly involving local peoples and the Boers. The missionaries were on the edges of this, although some like Robert Moffat traded in both guns and ammunition and there were questions raised about this by a number of LMS men.
  • By 1856, there is the definite sense of the new cohort in place, perhaps symbolised by the presence in letters of James Read junior, rather than his father. Some of the mission stations grasp or want or are given independence, again perhaps symbolised by the determination of the Kat River Station to have James Read junior as their pastor.
  • In the mid 1850s, there also appears to be another influx of new missionaries arriving in South Africa, including Roger Price, and various events around this are commented on, including the first letters/reports from the new men.


Last updated: 8 February 2017


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