AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

Patrick Harries. Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007. 279p.


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This study is a very strong example of historical research on missionary ethnography in colonial Africa. It brings together a number of important subjects in colonial African history: the impact of writing on African intellectuals and languages, the role of metropolitan European concerns in shaping narratives about Africa, the links between scientific research and colonialism, and the interplay between Africans and Europeans in constructing knowledge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author warns his readers that his main concern will be the ways Swiss missionary Henri-Alexandre Junod (1863-1934) created a wide body of anthropological, ecological, and linguistic knowledge about Tsonga-speaking people. In contrast to much of the literature that deals with European constructions of Africans, however, this book clearly shows how Africans in Mozambique and South Africa participated in the construction of botanical, ethnographic, and zoological knowledge.

The intellectual and religious climate of mid-nineteenth century Switzerland greatly shaped Junodís views on anthropology, Africans, and science. Sharp class, religious, and regional differences divided Swiss intellectuals. While some claimed that scientific advances had fatally undermined Christian faith, others contended that the study of nature furnished evidence of Godís active role on earth. Romantic ideas regarding the majesty and antiquity of the Alps furnished Swiss people with a common understanding of landscapes and national identity. Swiss writers contended that the Alps were a place where ancient beliefs and remnants of the past survived untouched by modernity. Junod and other Swiss missionaries applied these ideas to African landscapes and peoples. Furthermore, missionary work was a way for Swiss people to take pride in their nation. Pastors and scientists could present themselves as redeemers of Africans and serve the needs of progress without engaging in colonial expansion.

Intellectual and religious diversity characterized Swiss people at home, but Swiss missionaries presented themselves as the emissaries of a unified Christian modernity in southern Africa. They were faced with a plethora of languages and varied African understandings of Christianity. Furthermore, missionaries were beset with personality conflicts, debates over languages and doctrine, and the unstable economic and political climate of the Transvaal and Southern Mozambique between 1880 and 1910. At first, Junod was horrified by many indigenous cultural practices once he arrived in Southern Africa. However, his training in the natural sciences and his conception of the prehistoric nature of the Alps led him to different conclusions over time. Junod turned to analogies with Europe, maps, and the collecting of botanical and zoological knowledge as a means mastering African landscapes.

Junod believed that they had discovered the rules of Tsonga language and Tsonga society in much the same way he believed he had uncovered botanical and zoological categories. By formulating rules of grammar and vocabulary lists, Junod hoped to domesticate the Tsonga language and to instil European modes of thought into Tsonga culture. African readers did not treat books and literacy in ways that missionaries expected. Book possession became a means of constructing alliances of Christians, and photographs of Tsonga converts often featured books. African readers combined orality with literacy in ways that disturbed Junod at times, such as treating written messages as a form of power.

Missionaries were equally disturbed by the social changes that came with Portuguese occupation and the rise of migrant labor on Tsonga people. Junod presented Tsonga society as static and orderly in his renowned monograph published in 1913, Life of a South African Tribe. For him, Tsonga society was based on a coherent foundation of social practices, language, and knowledge of plants and animals. He drew insights from contemporary anthropological writers like Emile Durkheim, even though French ethnographers criticized Junod for not adopting comparative approaches and making explicit moral judgements. He rejected arguments that Tsonga people somehow had a ďpre-modernĒ mentality that differed significantly from Europeans.

However, Junod contended Africans should be shielded from the harmful effects of industrialization and European influences. As a result, he downplayed discussing the effects of migrant labor and the rising power of the Portuguese colonial state. By the time British anthropologists seriously considered Junodís research in the 1920s, his findings did not correspond with communities deeply changed by migrant labor, mandatory cotton cultivation, and forced labor. While South African anthropologists critiqued Junod for his missionary views and lack of formal training, they too argued that African cultures based on tribes that had been stable before colonial rule but now were in danger of being destroyed by modernity. Such ideas later would help shape the intellectual framework of the apartheid regime.

Butterflies and Barbarians deserves a wide audience. Students in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on African history, imperialism, and missionaries would find many insights here on the politics of knowledge in a colonial setting. The book carefully treats the agency of Africans in the formation of literate Christian communities, even as it focuses on European understandings of African societies. Specialists would do well to use this study as a model for examining the social and political context of ethnographic research. All in all, this is an impressive work.

Jeremy Rich
Middle Tennessee State University