Religion and Empire, with special reference to South Africa and Canada

Dr Elizabeth Elbourne (Department of History, McGill University)

Introductory Remarks

For most of human history, human beings have given meaning to their lives through religious beliefs and practices. It is not surprising that religion played a key role in struggles over the extension and maintenance of British imperial control in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for both the British and the many groups they colonized. To make this obvious statement is, however, immediately to come up against the issue of how to define religion. Do we want to think of religion as any way of imputing meaning to life? As necessarily involving belief in a sphere beyond the material? Can a religion be defined as a belief “system”, or is it wrong to expect religions to be systematic? Must a religion involve beliefs shared by large numbers of individuals, or might much more scattered or individualistic sets of ideas also count as a form of religion? These are very large questions that are beyond the scope of this essay. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the very act of defining what is “religion” and what isn’t is controversial. The debate has important consequences for the way in which historians write about religion and colonialism. It also matters that western scholars defined what was religion for much of the period under discussion. Nineteenth-century missionaries, administrators and academics tended to define religion in ways that reflected the western experience, looking for organized religions with doctrines defined by a set of sacred texts, informed by belief in a transcendent deity. These kinds of baseline views helped filter the way colonial observers saw the religions of colonized peoples. For example, as David Chidester has argued, many early scholars of religion in southern Africa thought the people they encountered had “superstitions” rather than “religion”; Chidester argues that colonizers were willing to see a particular group of indigenous people as possessing “religion” only once conflict with that group had subsided.[1] The very act of separating life into religious and non-religious spheres also reflects fairly recent western experiences. Such issues should be kept in mind as you read texts, most of which were produced under colonial circumstances.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am defining religion as a set of shared beliefs in non-material forces and associated rituals and practices. One weakness of this definition may be that it cannot distinguish clearly enough between cultures that saw a strong distinction between “material” and “non-material” forces, and those that didn’t, nor can it adequately account for differences in individual belief. Nor do I deal here with the difference between beliefs and knowledge. This is, in sum, a rough working definition. There were innumerable ways in which religion affected colonial encounters, as well as the kinds of societies that emerged from colonialism. Here, however, are some particular themes that seem important and that have shaped my choice of sources. Firstly, Christianity shaped the way in which the British carried out colonial conquest and the type of justification that they furnished for their activity. It is especially important that many British people saw Christianity as a harbinger of modernity, “civilization” and a particular form of economy, all of course defined in culturally specific terms. At the same time, the British were certainly not a unified group and they debated the meaning of Christianity. Secondly, Christianity, including the missionary movement, influenced the way colonialism worked on the ground. The British Protestant missionary movement began in the 1790s and rapidly became an important feature of the colonial landscape. Missionaries often bolstered colonial states. They also sometimes functioned as external pressure groups on key issues, however. They acted as important conduits of information between colonized groups and the imperial administration, and also, to a more limited extent, between colonized indigenous groups themselves. Colonized communities and individuals often tried to use missionaries, in roles ranging from diplomats to arms traders. Thirdly, although missionaries had an enormously important impact on colonial societies, not least through the education of children and through struggles over culture, Christianity had an importance that transcended the role of missionaries, as it became an indigenized religion in many areas of the world. In the long run, local uses of Christianity were usually more important than missionary roles. Indeed missionaries were often a lot less significant than they generally thought they were. Fourthly, any study of the role of religion in colonialism should certainly not be confined to Christianity. Colonized people used their own beliefs in what constituted sacred power and how to access it as they confronted colonialism. They also exercised religious creativity and created new religious movements, or took elements of Christianity and of other religious systems to interpret the world differently in drastically changed circumstances. In order to decentre missionaries, it might be helpful to begin with case studies of missions that did not work out as planned, and that illustrate the difficulties of early missionary efforts in the absence of strong state colonialism.