Locating Voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in 19th Century Missionary Periodicals

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|29th October 2021|Collections & Research|0 comments

Today’s blog comes from Dr Joanne Davis, Research Associate with the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS.  Following on from her last piece, Jo reflects on a period of research in SOAS Special Collections for a new project, ‘Recovering BIPOC Voices from the Victorian Periodical Press’, which establishes a publishing partnership between SOAS Special Collections, an open access digital humanities initiative One More Voice (onemorevoice.org) which is focused on recovering non-European contributions from Victorian-era British colonial archives, and an open access non-profit teaching and publishing platform COVE (Collaborative Organization for Virtual Education).

Over the summer of 2021, SOAS Special Collections has been involved with this new US-based partnership to try to determine the prevalence of authors presently described as ‘BIPOC’ in America – ‘Black, Indigenous and People of Colour’ – within a selection of 19th century British missionary periodicals and magazines published by the London Missionary Society (LMS) and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS). This is the first phase of a project which we hope will lead to further projects to overhaul archives, identify relevant pieces, and promote access to these materials for a far wider group of people than those who would normally have access to localised special collections at research libraries across the world. 

The One More Voice project was initiated by Adrian S. Wisnicki from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose previous research for Livingstone Online showed that the words and perspectives of individuals often overlooked by colonialism are nonetheless held within the archives in abundance, even though such perspectives may not be captured in the catalogued descriptions or indexes of the repositories. My own research on the Xhosa Reverend Tiyo Soga of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1831-1871) has led me to form the same conclusions and my role in the project is to do the reading and identify these archival sources. We would like to disprove the notion that colonial-era archival materials exclude these histories and consequently that these archives constitute a lost site of academic endeavour, and we seek to highlight the many important people represented in these repositories. We would like to attract users to the archives to work with these materials and generate new scholarship on these sources, and hopefully to contribute constructively to the decolonising agenda.

One of the ways in which we can do this is to identify and catalogue inclusions which do exist. Our objective at the outset was to find 26 expressions of voices written by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, particularly from Southern Africa, where our research is largely located. We agreed that the ideal would be to find original expressions in the own voice, or hand, of the individual speaker. 106 project hours were scheduled for this reading and within the first 55 hours alone we found 20 which matched these criteria, and we are currently collating the documents from the second lot of 51 hours, which is now complete. We have hundreds of documents which fit some or most of our criteria, and we believe we have at least the 26 we sought. There are letters from African clergy, nobility, laypeople, congregants, both in the hand of missionaries and reported by eye-witnesses, and an astounding array of portraits and biographical sketches of clergymen in the Victorian Globe, howsoever their race may be recorded: these portraits are a feature in the 1870s Wesleyan Missionary Notices, which pictured the clergy on the front covers of their magazine: combined, the collection provides an exhibitive pictographic representation of all these missionaries.

Anon. 1873. ‘Charles Pamla, Native Missionary in Kaffraria’, The Wesleyan Missionary Notices Volume 5, Fourth Series. 217. Reference: MMSL X15.

We also found a significant amount of similar material for all the other regions for which the LMS and WMMS had a presence. The most significant find to my mind is the proclamation issued by the Queen of Madagascar, Ranavalomanjaka, in 1874, in which she declared that slavery was no longer legal in Madagascar, those engaging in slave-trading would be imprisoned for ten years or executed, and that all slaves on Madagascar were freed. 

Ranavolmanjaka; February 1875 ‘Royal Proclamation on Slavery’, in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society February 1875: 30. Reference: CWML H724.

This is a highly significant document for a female head of state in her era and is a stark reminder that slavery was still legal until this same era in East Africa: the Zanzibar slave market was only closed in the early 1870s. This gives this proclamation a very different context than those we conventionally encounter after the abolition of slavery in 1828. Her story becomes even more interesting when seen against the reiterations of this proclamation she gave at other times – Ranavalomanjaka ‘The Queen’s Proclamation’, The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, October 1874: 217-20 (CWML H724), and the numerous other proclamations she made, and also because of the stringent clarity of her voice, and the number of Malagasy queens called Ranavalomanjaka. We hope to address these questions around this most compelling of historiographies within the literature which will arise from this research.

This is good news indeed, for whilst there is indisputably embodied, semantic and continued racist violence within the archives, there are also these voices and perspectives. This is incredibly exciting for scholars as it means aspects of identities and histories which have been omitted from scholarship can be reintroduced to the global arena. Suffice to say that this is the very tip of a site of enormous scholastic importance: there is much work to be done.

The next phase will take place over the next six months, and will include both making those materials available digitally after Kasey Peters and Trevor Bleick from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln encode them, and authoring five documents which will ensure the legacy of this project: firstly, a set of recommendations for the SOAS Special Collections on strategies and methods by which BIPOC creators from the Victorian periodical press can be presented or highlighted among SOAS periodical materials; secondly Kasey, Trevor and I will each write an essay on one of the creators retrieved during this work: choosing the specific creators will be a difficult task in itself! Finally, we will co-author a methodological white paper on the project, in which I will be recording the merits and demerits of different reading strategies we investigated, including top-down reading skills of scanning, deep reading and skimming, and bottom-up reading skills, including handling the vast quantities of materials temporally, whether chronologically or in specific decades. I will also discuss software constraints in tracking data which could be borne in mind in future. These articles will be available on the SOAS Special Collections website and on One More Voice in due course, and we look forward to explaining our outcomes further in this space.

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About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: special.collections@soas.ac.uk tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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