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Colonial Conversions: Difference, Hierarchy, and History in Early Twentieth-Century Evangelical Propaganda

  • Nicholas Thomas (a1)

Colonial discourse, sometimes referred to in the singular, seems unmanageably vast and heterogeneous, for it must encompass not only the broad field of colonialism's relations and representations which constitutes or arises from the business of official rule, including administrative reports and censuses, but also the works of metropolitan literature and other forms of high culture which deploy images of the exotic or the primitive, paintings of unfamiliar landscapes, tourist guides, anthropological studies, and Oriental fabric designs. Colonial discourse includes chinoiserie, Kim, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Camus' Algerian stories, Frans Post, and Indiana Jones, as well as the Vital Statistics of the Native Population for the Year 1887 and the annual reports from wherever.

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1 Fabian Johannes, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 26. See also McGrane Bernard, Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 68/.

2 The Milner Papers: South Africa 1899–1905, Headlam Cecil, ed. (London: Cassell, 1933), ii, 467.

3 For more extensive discussion, see my Colonialism's Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, forthcoming), ch. 4.

4 See particularly Smith Bernard, European Vision and the South Pacific, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

5 See Comaroff John L., “Images of Empire, Contests of Conscience; Models of Colonial Domination in South Africa,” American Ethnologist, 16:4 (1989), 661685, esp. 662; Stoler Ann L., “Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31:1 (1989), 134–61, esp. 135–6; see also Jean and Comaroff John, “Through the Looking-glass: Colonial Encounters of the First Kind,” Journal of Historical Sociology, 1:1 (1988), 632;Cooper Frederick and Stoler Ann L., “Tensions of Empire: Colonial Control and Visions of Rule,” American Ethnologist, 16:4 (1989), 609–21;Thomas Nicholas, “Colonialism as Culture,” Age Monthly Review, 9:9 (1989/1990), 3032, and Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), ch. 4, which examines the divergent projects of various explorers, traders, missionaries and officials through the prism of their interests in collecting indigenous artifacts.

6 Cf. Bhabha Homi K., “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Literature, Politics and Theory, Barker Francis, Hulme Peter, Iversen Margaret, and Loxley Diana, eds. (oLondon: Methuen, 1986), 152.

7 IbidHere I do not dispute value of Fabian's general claim for the critique of anthropology in which he engages. The lucid character of its formulation makes it a helpful departure point for the present analysis.

8 For a clear statement of the familiar contrast between British and French approaches, see Crowder Michael, Senegal: A Study of French Assimilation Policy, revised ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), esp. 18.

9 This is the theme of a separate work of Fabian's “Religious and Secular Colonization: Common Ground,” History and Anthropology, 4:2 (1990), 339–55.

10 The general topics of Christianity and gender in the Pacific are explored in a number of recent books, including Jolly Margaret and Macintyre Martha, eds., Family and Gender in the Pacific: Domestic Contradictions and the Colonial Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); the culture and social origins of the nineteenth-century Protestant missions are discussed by Gunson Niel in Messengers of Grace (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1978), but there is no comparable overview for the period after 1860.

11 From Through Polynesia and Papua: Wanderings with a Camera in the South Seas (London: Francis Griffiths, 1911), facing p. 17. Although Burnett claimed to have taken most of the photographs in the book, it is likely that some of those of Tahitians, including that reproduced here, were taken by a professional studio photographer, which partly explains their conformity with standard poses.

12 Corbey Raymond, “Alterity: The Colonial Nude,” Critique of Anthropology, 8:3 (1988), 81.

13 On the origin and development of these ideas, see Thomas N., “The Force of Ethnology: Origins and Significance of the Melanesia/Polynesia Division,” Current Anthropology, 30:1 (1989), 2741, 211–3; for a detailed examination of the early reactions to a particular Mclanesian population, see Margaret Jolly, “ ‘Ill-natured Comparisons’: European Perceptions of ni-Vanuatu from Cook's Second Voyage,” History and Anthropology (forthcoming).

14 Hurley Frank, Pearls and Savages (New York: Putnam, 1923), 379.

15 Ibid, caption to plate facing p. 352.

16 The WMMS was established in 1813 and was active in India and South Africa among other places. Its South Pacific missions were taken over by the Australian Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in 1855 (Gunson, Messengers of Grace, 17).

17 J. F. Goldie, head of the Solomons mission, to J. G. Wheen, general secretary of the Australasian Methodist Missionary Society, January 2, July 18, 1920, Methodist Overseas Mission collection, Mitchell Library, Sydney, box 554.

18 The photographs were mostly taken between 1907 and 1909; others during the First World War. Photographs from the western Solomons, along with many pictures of other Pacific islanders and their houses and artifacts) appeared in the Australasian Methodist Missionary Review (hereafter, AMMR—also simply called the Missionary Review at certain times), sometimes in conjunction with reports from the mission field (as it was in the agricultural-CMm-military metaphor), but often out of context (a New Ireland or Solomons picture might appear in the middle of an article about India). The forty-minute film, The Transformed Isle (hereafter, TI), was made under the direction of R. C. Nicholson, the missionary based on Vella Lavella from 1907 (also the author of The Son of a Savage [London: Epworth, 1924], the only book which emerged from the Solomonsmission in this early period). Some of the footage was evidently shot during that year, but, curiously, the film does not seem to have been put together in its final version until 1917 or 1918. An earlier version of this paper included more extended discussion of the film, but I have sincelocated a number of other early missionary films from the Pacific and will present a comparativeanalysis of these in a separate essay.

19 This is clearly not the place to review photographic theory, but it will be apparent that Iagree with John Tagg that “every photograph is the result of specific and, in every sense, significant distortions which render its relation to any prior reality deeply problematic” (The Burden of Representation [London: Macmillan, 1988], 2) and cannot entertain the assertion of realism put forward by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (London: Cape, 1982). I also accept that the ambiguity of photographs and the multiplicity of possible readings make claims about what photographs convey or express problematic, but the readings here depend more uponcontrasts between types of colonial photographs, than an implicit claim that my responses toimages are the same as those of the consumers of missionary propaganda. Insofar as propositions of the latter type are unavoidable, the interpretations arise from readings in the discourses of the period.

20 Cf. Thomas Nicholas, “Complementarity and History: Misrecognizing Gender in the Pacific,” Oceania, 57:4 (1987), 261–70.

21 Goldie John Francis, “The Solomon Islands,” in A Century in the Pacific, Colwell James, ed. (Sydney: Methodist Book Room, (1915), 563. It is interesting that witches in the mission accounts are always female, as other reports from the area make it clear that they could be of either sex.

22 Both the agricultural and military connotations were often elaborated upon. The symbolic importance of the latter is especially explicit in a much earlier text, Williams' JohnMissionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands (London: John Snow, 1838).

23 See AMMR, April 4, 1912, for another example. The point is explicit in the caption to a later photograph in a Seventh-Day Adventist periodical of a western Solomons man holding in one hand the Bible, and in the other some relics of heathen worship and customs” (Australasian Record, 10 1, 1956) and a vignette of a “Group of rejected war weapons” at the end of a nineteenth-century memoir (Gill William, Gems from the Coral Lands; or, Incidents of Contrast between Savage and Christian Life in the South Sea Islanders [London: Yates and Alexander, n.d. (c. 1875)], 344). Pictures of abandoned sites of heathen worship obviously have a similar function (as in Plate 3).

24 Goldie, “The Solomon Islands,” 573, 574.

25 Ibid., 563.

26Williams Thomas, Fiji and the Fijians (London: Alexander Heylin, 1858), I, 60.

27The extremely intricate tortoiseshell breast and forehead ornaments are upheld as “marvels of patience and design” (TI, 28:35).

28 AMMR, 4 April 1912.

29 Goldie, “The Solomon Islands,” 573.

30 London, 1924. The central structure of this narrative form may be further illustrated from Goldie's overview of the mission's history. He began with a conversation between himself and a notorious old warrior chief, Gumi, who “became one of [his] earliest friends” (“The Solomon Islands,” 562). As befits the then-and-now structure, they talked about a headhunting raid (“Some of them … jumped into the water … But we took 200 heads back to Roviana!”). One of the perpetrators is thus now a reflective old man, a domesticated heathen, but the story is completed by Goldie drawing us into the present: “It is nearly ten years since the old chief told me this story. As I pen these words his son is sitting at my elbow typing the translation of Mark's Gospel. Leaning over his shoulder, I read in his own language, ‘All things are possible to him that believeth’“ (Ibid., 563).

31 AMMR, April 4, 1912.

32 Goldie , “Industrial Training in our Pacific Missions,” AMMR, 06 4, 1916, 2, quoting Kipling , “The white man's burden” (see Rudyard Kipling's Verse—Definitive Edition [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940 and reprints], 323–4).

33 Cf. Thomas N., “Sanitation and Seeing: The Creation of State Power in Early Colonial Fiji,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 32:1 (1990), 156.

34 Dudley Kidd, The Essential Kafir (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1904), 406.

35 On late eighteenth-century representations of Indians and Polynesians, see Guest Harriet, “The Great Distinction: Figures of the Exotic in the Work of William Hodges,” Oxford Art Journal, 12:2 (1989), 3658; for the development of views of Melanesians, Margaret Jolly's “‘Ill-natured comparisons.’”

36 Crowder, Senegal, 2.

37 It is clear for instance that much of Livingstone's writing needs to be interpreted within the framework of exploratory rather than missionary literature: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa was in fact dedicated to Murchison, then president of the Royal Geographical Society. Although observations characteristic of missionary writings are certainly not absent, these are less conspicuous than objectivist descriptions of places visited, notes on natural phenomena, and disquisition on topics, such as the divisions of southern African tribes (Livingstone David, Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa [London: John Murray, 1857], 201–2). The fact that the book was published by Murray, rather than one of the usual presses associated with the London Missionary Society, such as John Snow, or the Religious Tract Society, is telling in itself, but the book's main orientation is also reflected in the frontispiece depicting Livingstone's discovery of Victoria Falls; frontispieces of other mission works were often portraits of prominent converts (see, for example, Williams T., Fiji and the Fijians (London: Heylin, 1858); Williams J., A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands (London: Snow, 1837); and Ellis William, A History of Madagascar [London: Fisher, c. 1838]).

38 Kidd, The Essential Kafir, 407.

39 Portman M.V., A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese (Calcutta: Government Printer, 1899), I, 33.

40 Stanley Henry M., In Darkest Africa, or the Quest Rescue and Retreat of Emin, Governor of Equatoria (London: Sampson Low, 1890). The actual text is a blow-by-blow narrative of the military venture that contains relatively little extended observation upon indigenous life (but see vol. II, 354ff.).

41 Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches, 28: “The laws which still prevent free commercial intercourse among the civilized nations seem to be nothing else but the remains of our own heathenism. My observations on this subject make me extremely desirous to promote the preparation of the raw materials of European manufactures in Africa, for by that means we may not only put a stop to the slave-trade, but introduce the negro family into the body corporate of nations, no one member of which can suffer without the others suffering with it … neither civilization nor Christianity can be promoted alone. In fact, they are inseparable.” For further discussion of Livingstone and Robert Moffat, see Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

42 Goldie, “Industrial Training in Our Pacific Missions,” 2 – 3.

43 For parallels with the Presbyterian mission in southern Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides), see Jolly Margaret, “‘To Save the Girls for Brighter and Better Lives’: Presbyterian Missionaries and Women in the South of Vanuatu, 1848–1870,” Journal of Pacific History, 26 (1941), 127–48. As is shown in the film (35:20—36:14), there were also classes given in mat weaving by the wives of teachers—in this case a Tongan woman. The importance of dress was such that in Fiji the idiom in oral traditions for adopting Christianity is “taking the sulu” (a sarong-style piece of fabric worn around the waist by men and to cover the breasts by women). In a number of these cases it was the local people rather than the missionaries who made the abandonment of local for introduced clothing a necessary element and marker of conversion.

44 TI, 32:38.

45 Goldie, “The Solomon Islands,” 584.

46 Bennett Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), chs. 2 – 4, passim.

47 TI, 14:04–16:30. A second sequence (16:30–19:25) relates a parallel story. In this case the whites land and attempt to entice young women with similar trinkets. “Intuition caused their victims to remain aloof” (17:29), but a trader seizes his chance, grabs one of the women by the arm, and drags her into one of two waiting boats. They row rapidly out into the bay, shooting numerous warriors who pursue them into the surf. This elaboration of the kidnapping theme thus emphasizes the base sexuality and immorality of these other white men. The mission's construction stipulates that sexual relationships between foreign men and islander women took the general form of kidnapping and rape. It can be argued instead that women may have actively wished to engage either in casual sexual contact with whites or form longer-term relations with them. Comparatively stable relations with native wives do not figure in the mission depiction but were by no means uncommon (Bennett, Wealth of the Solomons, 69–72, 179–81). Insofar as women entered into such liaisons and de facto marriages voluntarily, their diverse motives must usually have included an interest in acquiring foreign manufactured articles. Although the absence of evidence for women's perspectives obviously constrains any understanding of these early twen circumtieth-century relations, there is thus evidence that their involvement had a basis other than mere coercion.

48 This issue has been debated extensively in Pacific history. See. for a general discussion, Moore Clive, Kanaka: a History ofMelanesian Mackay (Port Moresby: Institute for Papua New Guinea Studies/University of Papua New Guinea Press, 1985), and Jolly Margaret, “The Forgotten Women: A History of Male Migrant Labour and Gender Relations in Vanuatu,” Oceania, 58:2 (1987), 119–39.

49 There are parallels in nineteenth-century photography in the contrast between the bourgeois subject of a carte de visile portrait, who reflectively looks away from the camera but not toward an object which can be seen and whose vision is hence not contained by the image or act of photography, and on the other hand the official photos of those such as criminals, who appear either in profile or looking directly at the camera (or both). In the latter case the subordination of the individual to the state, in the person of the police photographer, is manifest (cf. Tagg, The Burden of Representation, 35–36 and ch. 3).

50 The same notion that the missionary mediates and introduces a broader world to the innocent and childlike islanders is expressed in a more realistic and comic manner in The Transformed Isle (TI, 21:20–22:14). Shortly after The Missionary (Nicholson) arrives on Vella Lavella, his native cook boy puts an array of bottles and jars on his eating table, mistaking such things as Vaseline and kerosene for food. Through sign language the inedible/undrinkable nature of the substances is demonstrated. The humour turns upon native ignorance but establishes at the same time Nicholson's knowledge of a broader world and its products, and the narrative is constitutive in the sense that this difference is one of the key elements of the social relationship between the missionary and his flock.

51 The practical workings of the project to “rescue children” or “gain control of the means of social reproduction” are discussed by Michael Young, in “Suffer the Children: Wesleyans in the D'Entrecasteaux,” Family and Gender in the Pacific, Margaret Jolly and Martha Macintyre, eds., 108–34.

52 Cf. Margaret Jolly, “‘To save the girls for brighter and better lives.’”

53 See for instance, Carter George G., Tie Varane: Stories about People of Courage from Solomon Islands (Rabaul/Auckland: Unichurch Publishing, 1981), which includes interesting if constrained life histories of a number of local teachers.

54 This is strictly an observation about the way in which difference was envisaged; I do not, of course, suggest any historical continuity with medieval or renaissance colonial practice. Sharp contrasts might be drawn between the functioning of Spanish colonization in the New World, in which force and coercion were continuously conspicuous, and nineteenth-and twentieth-century colonial regimes which depended upon far more elaborate regimes of education, welfare, and persuasion (compare, for example, Wachtel Nathan, The Vision of the Vanquished [Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1977] with Mitchell Timothy, Colonising Egypt [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988]). The distinct character of nineteenth-century Protestant missionary activity is itself an index of this change that seeks a kind of wilful inner rebirth on the part of the colonized individual and the colonized nation, a relation of hegemony and compliance rather than brute dominance. The transformation is perhaps analogous to the shift from punishment to discipline postulated by Foucault, but no simple characterizations could be made of national variants of colonial practice over the epochs: Despite the broad differences, early forms of colonialism obviously entailed programs of socialization and relations of collaboration, while violence has hardly been absent from modern imperialism.

55 Hugh Honour, Slaves and Liberators, vol. 4, pt. 1 of The Image ofthe Black in Western Art, Houston, Texas: Menil Foundation/Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), Plate 21 and pp. 59–60.

56 John Comaroff, “Images of Empire,” 678, quoting Stow George W., The Native Races of South Africa (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1905), 268. On the Moravians and Boers, see for instance Barrow John, Travels in the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park, and in Southern Africa by John Barrow (Glasgow: A. Napier, 1815), 452–5.

57 See for instance the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) magazine, Appeal for Missions (copies from 1926–30 are held in the Australian National Library, Canberra); the covers of most issues show a white missionary doctor attending to injured or afflicted Melanesians. Such attention is also conspicuous in the film Cannibals and Christians of the South Seas (c. 1929), which deals with the SDA's work in Papua (in the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia).

58 Harwood Frances, “Intercultural Communication in the Western Solomons: The Methodist Mission and the Emergence of the Christian Fellowship Church,” in Boutilier James A., Hughes Daniel T., and Tiffany Sharon W., eds., Mission, Church, and Sect in Oceania (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1978), 241; this article provides an overview of the CFC's breakaway.

59 Kaplan Martha, “Christianity, People of the Land, and Chiefs in Fiji,” in Barker John, ed., The Ethnography of Christianity in the Pacific (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1990).

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