Mission - Colonialism Revisited
What role did Christian missionary societies play in the context of slavery and colonialism? Are there historical points of contact with racism and discrimination? Mission 21 brings the multi-layered history of mission, colonialism and slavery into focus in order to sharpen the focus for the current social debate on racism and discrimination. The transparent and scientific reappraisal of mission history is an important concern of Mission 21, and we support the critical examination of our history or the history of the Basel Mission. We hope that we can make a constructive contribution to important socio-political debates.
Black Voices from the Archives
The voices of Black people - and Black women in particular - are still not adequately represented in mission history. Historian and former archivist of the Basel Mission, Dr. Paul Jenkins, takes a look at some of the testimonies of Black women and men from the Gold Coast (Ghana), including the first Ghanaian ordained as a pastor by the Basel Mission, Theophil Opoku (1842-1913): Opoku's reports to the Basel Mission House shed unusual light on the reception of his message by the native communities among whom he ministered, as well as on his relations with the British colonial power.
Mission: Religious Imperialism and/or Cultural Imperialism?
Was the spread of the Gospel by the missions in the 19th century an act of cultural arrogance? The German historian Dr. Karolin Wetjen and the Indian historian Dr. Mukesh Kumar presented their research on the Leipzig and Basel missions and looked at the historical interconnections of colonialism, religion, culture and claims to dominance. To what extent was the contact of missionaries with the native population an encounter of equals, and to what extent was it determined by a (supposed) cultural divide? It became apparent that the relationship between mission and colonialism was complex: Karolin Wetjen concluded that "civilizing mission and proselytizing mission" could not be separated from each other. Their relationship had been renegotiated again and again. Mukesh Kumar noted that the work of the Basel missionaries in South India in the 19th century was also shaped by religious and cultural intentions. Conversion to Christianity was only possible in connection with a "laborious" and abstinent life according to the missionaries' guidelines. The missionaries acted as convinced representatives of a Western European-influenced Protestant religion and culture, which they regarded as superior.
Mission and slavery
The role of Christian mission societies in the context of slavery is ambivalent. The leadership of the Basel Mission was strictly against slavery in its mission areas in Africa. Certain missionaries on the ground, however, adhered to the guidelines from Basel only after long discussions.
Closer examination reveals that slavery manifested itself differently in different cultural and historical contexts. The transatlantic slave trade is not synonymous with (indigenous) slavery on the African Gold Coast in the 19th century.
What can we learn from a differentiated view of the historical interconnections and conflicts of missionary societies with colonialism and slavery for our contemporary approach to racism and discrimination?
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Basel Mission was mainly active in countries colonized by European states, like many other missionary societies. The colonial powers created the conditions for the missions to expand their activities, they provided protection for the missionaries and created an infrastructure by developing roads or railroads. These interconnections and dependencies were not free of disputes. Missionary societies opposed each other when they saw their tasks and interests threatened. In the case of the Basel Mission in Cameroon and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Liberia in the 19th century, both sided with the native populations against the colonial administrations when they became convinced that the people were being oppressed by the colonial governments. At the same time, they wanted to ensure the success of the missionary work through their resistance, i.e. to continue to have access to the native population and to be able to open up further mission areas.