- Light on Darkness? Missionary photography of Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by T. Jack Thompson
At the start of this book, T. Jack Thompson usefully highlights Paul Jenkins’ contributions to order and probity in the Basler Mission archive of photographs. The London Missionary Society’s collection in the University of London’s Senate House Library is in a sorry state compared with Basle: hundreds (if not more) of photographs have been mislaid or lost. One begins Thompson’s book expecting a survey of what is out there, and a depiction of genres, subjects, and so forth. That is not what one gets.
The relevant literature for Thompson is quite different from what this reviewer knows, and it is quite limited in the view of a secular historian concerned with the history of visual imagery. That is because Thompson is a ‘missiological’ scholar and a former missionary himself, not an ordinary historian. He has written about missionary photography in other books, and has also written Christian-centric and other work on missions in Malawi. His book on Xhosa-speaking evangelists is nearly unique in focusing on an African-led evangelical vector for southern and central African history.
In this book, he seeks to offer ‘detailed case studies’ (p. 5, 7) on the context in which several iconic and not-so-iconic nineteenth-century images were produced. We learn some interesting things about missionaries and specific photographs and the situations those photographs came from, if episodically. We learn about William Ellis’s travels in Madagascar, but the interpretation of his photographs is banal. ‘Although his text is highly critical of the Africans he saw, his photographs’, viewable as lithographs, seem ‘dignified and sympathetic’ (p. 51) by comparison. This is generally true about missionary photography: what else do we learn from looking at Ellis’s images? There follow two long chapters about aspects of David Livingstone’s travels, and especially about Charles Livingstone, a failed photographer and David’s brother. Why are nine pages of text in this book devoted to Thomas Baines’ dismissal by David Livingstone? Do we need several restatements of the problem of ‘assess[ing]’ Charles Livingstone’s ‘contribution’ (to what?), given that only two inferior, blurry pictures of his making have even survived?
An entire chapter is dedicated to Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, which did not include a photographer at all, a fact noted several times as being unfortunate for a book devoted to photography. This is followed by a reconsideration of some aspects of Xhosa evangelists in Malawi, with new attention paid to a few intriguing photographs (p. 145, 152 and pp. 156-9). Then there is [End Page 344] the intersection of some missionaries with photography in the revelation of the ‘red rubber’ scandal in Congo, the narrative following different personalities. Finally, there is a chapter on the magic lantern and, again, on David Livingstone.
The author does not take cognizance of the path-breaking secular studies on the history of photography and colonialism of recent decades: there is nothing from the work undertaken by historians and art historians on Namibia, or on urban South Africa, the Pacific world, or middle-class India, and no grasp of anthropology’s contribution or the history of images’ actual consumption. Indeed, Thompson speculates on some matters, such as the sorts of technology photographers had access to at given times, for which good information is available. He recounts histories sometimes without citing relevant sources, and sometimes without any sources. In his treatment of the Congo, there is no attention paid to histories or studies of any people of the Congo; in highland Madagascar, no sources cited on the Merina kingship; in Botswana, information on Khama III of GammaNgwato is not footnoted. Thompson even unsatisfactorily references some of the black and white photographs he presents; provenance is definitively traced to the collection or publication in which he found the image (i.e. p. xiv, 250; although see also p. 185, figure...