Matabeleland Letters, London Missionary Society Collection, SOAS, University of London

LMS Matabeleland Letters, London Missionary Society Collection, SOAS, University of London

The Matabeleland letters are part of the LMS collections at SOAS, University of London. They were written by all the LMS missionaries who worked in (and some who visited or passed through) the Matabeleland mission stations. They start in 1835 and stop at the end of December 1899, when the southern African collections were reorganised. There are two Boxes. Box 1 contains 174 letters, Box 2 contains 299 letters, and there are 473 in total.

These letters have been worked on in detail with summaries and extracts made for probably the majority, particularly regarding the period from c1892 on. This is because they have great importance as first-hand accounts of the machinations regarding land, invasion, conquest and massacres in Matabeleland and then Mashonaland carried out by land-grabbing whites and especially by the agents of the Rhodes empire, with Dr Jameson in control, and the disappropriation that rapidly followed including the grab of all land and the forced creation of wage labour.

Particular points of interest include:

  • There is almost no use of racialised language by the LMS missionaries for most of the period from 1835 to around the mid 1890s. There definitely is such usage after that, associated with the invasion and conquest by the Chartered Company, the British South Africa Company controlled by Rhodes and associates.
  • Where there is use of race terms in the earlier period, this is typically when the missionary in question is ‘new’, and perhaps in something of a state of shock or surprise after their arrival in Africa. But then the offenders here seem fairly quickly to settle into using ethnic terms of more precision, rather than generalised racial ones.
  • However, there is a ‘great transformation’ to do with race matters, the only one clearly discernible in the WWW letters read so far, and it jumps out and bites. It occurs during – literally during – the land grabbing but particular the invasion and violence in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. The Matabele King becomes a chief; the people become the natives, the term location is used and black people are to live in such a place and nowhere else, natives have to do wage labour or starve, and so on.
  • In addition, this is seen in terms of an opportunity structure for the missionaries, albeit with crocodile tears from them. They proclaim that Mashona are different (from the Matabeles) and receptive, the missionaries can have stations on these locations, they can have outstations and native assistants, the ruling Jameson hierarchy will support them and God with giving them land etc. And more than all of this, they celebrate that the evil power of the Matabele rulers is broken and so, no matter what, for them the new European rule is better than this was.
  • The quick and slick way that the missionaries almost immediately justified and embraced what was happening really stands out, as does the land/labour rush following the conquest.
  • Only hesitantly, for some but not most, and with provisos, do any of them think that what has happened is wrong, violent, terrible.
  • The conglomeration of white interests (it is hard to call it anything else) is focused almost immediately on parceling up and owning land, corralling black people, forcing labour if people want to stay in land, etc. The fate of Reuwe and his people in these letters is a case in point.


Last updated: 8 February 2017


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