- Transforming Christian Womanhood:Female Sexuality and Church Missionary Society Encounters in the Niger Mission, Onitsha
The Effort to convert African women to Christianity transformed the religious and sexual lives of African women converts; it also transformed the English Victorian ideal of Christian womanhood itself. Fiona Bowie and T.O. Beidelman, among others, have amply demonstrated the importance missionaries placed on inducting women converts into monogamous Christian marriages. If the Christian mission was to succeed in drawing converts away from traditional practices to a Christian way of life, valued male converts needed available Christian marriage partners; otherwise, pre-missionary contact marriage practices would draw converts back into the wider religious and social practices in which marital practices were embedded.1 Recent studies of mission activity among the Zulu in southern Africa, the Krobo in the Gold Coast, and the Igbo in the Niger area2 emphasize how the determination to shape African Christian womanhood placed mission Christianity on a collision course with African polygamous practices for the regulation of female sexuality, showing in addition that by the 1920s, pre-contact marriage patterns had been adapted by fusing bridewealth systems with girls’ domestic missionary education.
This article follows a different line of enquiry. While both Victorian Christian womanhood and young African women’s sexuality were indubitably subject to respective regimes of patriarchal control, it is also the case that English and African women actively shaped their own subjectivities within these constraints. This study focuses on mutual encounters between different groups of African and English Christian women in the Onitsha-based Niger mission between 1857 and the 1920s in order to track transformations in Christian womanhood produced through these encounters.
Rising from early missionary contact in the late 1830s, the missionary movement reached its high-water mark at the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (Walls 199). The gathering of Protestant missionaries from countries across Europe and America at that event testifies to the need to place the Onitsha example in its wider missiological context. Yet Onitsha, the centre of the Niger mission, has a unique place in mission history given that its first missionaries were themselves Africans. Following the abolition of the legal [End Page 89] slave trade, Africans—who had once been enslaved but were then freed after their rescue from slave ships by British frigate crews—were subsequently resettled in Sierra Leone. As Christian converts, many were educated as evangelists by European missionaries sent by the Church Missionary Society (cms).3 Missionary encounters in this setting are thus of particular interest because the first missionaries were themselves Africans from Sierra Leone, though the mission later reverted to the more usual pattern of European staffing.
British abolitionist pioneers envisaged co-operation among missionary, commercial, and government agencies in order to reconstruct the West African economy and society following the disruption caused by the slave trade. Histories of the Christian mission must therefore heed the context of British colonialism and the development of legitimate trade if missionary progress is to be understood. Commerce by British traders, protected by the colonial administration, accompanied and supported the life of the Niger mission. The British colony of Lagos was established in 1861, though administered from the Gold Coast, and the British Oil Rivers Protectorate was established in 1885. Nigeria came under a unified colonial administration in 1912, with Lord Lugard acting as the first colonial administrator of a unified Nigeria from 1912 to 1919.
In her study of Christian missions in Madagascar and Uganda, Elizabeth E. Prevost emphasizes the “intimacy and complexity” of exchanges between English missionaries and African converts in contrast to “binary frameworks” of analysis that pit English women missionaries against a heathen “other” (8). Her approach thus moves beyond an analysis of the contest between missionary Christianity and African pre-contact cultures over the regulation of female sexuality. Prevost’s attention to intimate and complex English-African exchanges brings into view the constant renegotiation of Christian womanhood as it was embodied in English and African women alike. Prevost identifies African women’s agency (as effective Christian evangelists) as a key factor in this renegotiation (8); in consequence, African women converts assume an active part in the negotiation of...