rumba on the river


Four hundred years of exploration and exploitation had pried open a reluctant continent. Adventurers and profiteers mapped the land and ravaged its people, but they were not alone. In their wake came another force to be reckoned with, the missionaries of Jesus Christ.

From the time that Diogo Cão first sailed up the Congo River, the men (for they were all men at first) of the cloth were never far behind. Portuguese missionaries to the Mani-Kongo at São Salvador were followed over the centuries by others, from Italy, France, England, Belgium, Holland, and America, who built missions throughout central Africa. Some kept slaves and sold them; others condemned the practice. Protestants tried to convert individuals; Catholics liked to work with groups. The Capuchins forced church attendance and kept aloof from the people. The French got to know their hosts and learned the local languages. Whatever the method, "African values were never taken seriously; missionaries attempted to impose the European standards and forms with which they were familiar."27

The unquestioning zeal among missionaries increased with the rise of the slave trade. As Africans were reduced to "savages" to salve the conscience of Europe, it seemed clear they could only uplift themselves by following Christ. And of course they needed help. When Livingstone and Stanley called on ministers to bring "the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold," many answered; most were ignorant. In the charitable words of historian Ruth Slade, "Missionaries had not gone into Bantu society with the idea of breaking up its traditional pattern, but they did not always realise how closely all the institutions of that society hung together, so that if one were attacked, the whole structure must sooner or later give way."28

It seems safe to say, however, that many missionaries believed little of traditional society merited preservation. "Whereas African rulers had little difficulty in admitting the Christian faith to their pantheon of respectable belief," writes Basil Davidson, "the Portuguese, like other Europeans later, could see in African faiths nothing but blind and brutish superstition. And the same was true in a wider perspective of social life. African music, dancing, mime and spectacle seemed to these Europeans only a wild and vicious indulgence in the sins of the flesh."29 Young Africans were thought to be better candidates for conversion to Christianity than their elders. Through education and separation from the larger community they would gradually see the light. What they saw instead was the collapse of traditional society and the beginning of white domination.

Traditional society was by no means monolithic. The continent was awash in nation-like groups each with its own language, customs, and social organization. The area of the Congo sustained strong states like the Mani-Kongo's highly centralized kingdom, the stateless Mbuti hunter-gatherers (Pygmies) of the rain forest, and several variations in between. But these African nations became "tribes" in the minds of Europeans. Tribalism joined savage and heathen on the list of pejoratives used to justify outside intervention. 30

As was the case in other areas of the world—Europe for example—neighbors in Africa weren't always on the best of terms. The European interlopers in Africa encouraged and exploited differences whenever it suited their purpose. Their superior weapons could help to overcome an African chief's inferior relations with his neighbors. If he surrendered sovereignty as the price for European help, so much the better.

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