- Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa
The history of colonialism in Africa has very often been written as an encounter between a self-contained colonial culture and an African mentalité. Whereas their predecessors had based their observations mostly on documentation in European archives, Africa's first professional historians felt themselves obligated to do research in Africa, with African sources, in order to write Africa-centered scholarship. In this vision European history—and the history of Europeans in Africa—was defined as a separate field from the study of African history. The great achievement of Patrick Harries's remarkable new book is that it places southeastern Africa and Switzerland in a single analytic and interpretive field. Harries's subject matter is the Swiss Romande mission, and in particular its leading evangelist, the anthropologist and naturalist Henri-Alexandre Junod. But this book is much more than another mission history. Harries shows how, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a small cadre of Swiss missionaries helped constitute the disciplines of modern science. Junod and his colleagues collected and classified butterflies, identified plants, wrote dictionaries, and composed anthropology. With such scientific work missionaries generated the analytical apparatus with which a dynamic African world could be apprehended. In so doing they also helped define a Swiss political community.
The book begins in nineteenth-century western Switzerland, focusing on the labyrinthine politics of the canton of Vaud, from which many Swiss evangelicals came. Divided both religiously and politically, Harries argues, the inhabitants of Switzerland came to see themselves as a people out of their shared missionary vocation in Africa. The 1860s and 1870s saw Swiss romantics restore Gothic churches, build museums, and scour the Alps, searching for the unadulterated essence of their national art and creativity. Missionary work in Africa gave Swiss intellectuals a further field in which to identify their national virtues. In fundraising fliers and public lectures, missionaries contrasted Africans' presumed primitive status with the accoutrements of modern life. In so doing they called on their constituents [End Page 183] to act both as guardians of Africa's virtues and as humane advocates for progress.
Swiss missionaries settled in the Transvaal and southern Mozambique in the 1870s. They were overwhelmed both by the immensity of the landscape and by the human variety they encountered. The Spelonken foothills, on which the first mission station was established, were populated by polyglot communities of immigrant refugees from across southeastern Africa. Missionaries established an order over the land and its people by practicing the disciplines of science. In cartography, they gave names to human settlements and geographic features, and drew up maps that laid out the territory before the viewer's eye. In natural science, they assembled collections of plants and insects, classifying them with Latin binomials. By 1896, Junod himself had described some five hundred different plants in a botanical register, and scores of insects today bear his name (132). In language, Swiss missionaries established an orthography and a standardized vocabulary for the "Gwamba" vernacular. And in anthropology, Junod and his colleagues did research and wrote ethnographies that analyzed the traditional life of the people they called "Thonga." These scholarly endeavors were not simply diversions from missionaries' real work. In their scientific labors, missionary intellectuals sought to uncover the order that lay behind their contemporary world. In his entomological research, for example, Junod explored the evolutionary adaptations that allowed butterflies to thrive within particular habitats, and his study of butterflies led him to draw conclusions about human cultures. In his 1927 book The Life of a South African Tribe (Macmillan), Junod documented the rules and rituals that filled each phase in the development of the Thonga tribe. He wrote nothing about the labor migration that was drawing thousands of young men toward South Africa's cities. Neither did he allow biscuit tins, straight-backed wicker chairs, or other...