Christian Missionaries In Colonial Africa

Christian Missionaries In Colonial Africa

The nexus between missionaries and colonialism in Africa is a significant chapter in history. Missionaries, under the influence and support from Imperialists like Cecil John Rhodes played pivotal roles in the colonization of Africa by European powers

We explore the decisive roles played by some famous missionaries in the colonial enterprise and examine how their legacy impacted Africa.

I. David Livingstone (1813–1873)

A. Exploration and Evangelization

David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer, embodied the intertwined relationship between missionary work and colonial expansion in Africa during the 19th century. His explorations focused on opening up the African interior for trade and missionary activities. Livingstone’s travels, often accompanied by his Christian mission, provided European powers with valuable information about the geography, resources, and potential economic benefits of the African continent.

B. Impact on Colonial Expansion

Livingstone’s work influenced subsequent colonial endeavors by sparking interest in the uncharted regions of Africa. His missionary endeavors were utilized to justify the expansion of European powers into the interior, as the narrative of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the African population became a pretext for colonial annexations. Livingstone’s reports and writings, coupled with his interactions with indigenous communities, fueled the European imagination and justified the need for further exploration and control.

II. Robert Moffat (1795–1883)

A. Missionary Work in Southern Africa

Robert Moffat, a Scottish Congregationalist missionary, played a pivotal role in the colonization of Southern Africa. His mission activities, particularly in what is now Botswana and South Africa, focused on evangelizing and establishing Christian communities. Moffat’s missionary work set the stage for subsequent colonial incursions into Southern Africa.

B. The Kuruman Mission and Cultural Assimilation

Moffat’s establishment of the Kuruman Mission became a focal point for cultural assimilation and ideological imposition. Through the mission, Moffat aimed to integrate European values and norms into indigenous communities. The schools affiliated with the Kuruman Mission became instruments for cultural exchange, facilitating the gradual imposition of European ideas on the local population.

III. Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965)

A. Theologian and Physician in Gabon

Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and medical missionary from Alsace, left an indelible mark on the colonization of Africa, particularly in Gabon. His work as a doctor and missionary exemplified how Missionary presence contributed to the expansion of European influence in Gabon.

B. Medical Mission and Cultural Influence

Schweitzer’s Lambarene Hospital, founded in 1913, not only served as a medical facility but also played a role in shaping the cultural landscape of Gabon. 

V. Hope Waddel (1840–1891)

A. Presbyterian Mission in Calabar

Presbyterian Reverend Hope Waddel, a Scottish missionary, made significant contributions to the mission field in Calabar. Waddel’s efforts were centered on education and the establishment of mission schools in southeastern Nigeria. 

Hope Waddel’s mission schools emphasized education as a means to African progress under a new Colonial system based on Western culture.

VI. Mission Schools and African Nationalism

Mission schools, initially established by missionaries with the intention of replacing African culture with Christian values, inadvertently became hotbeds for the incubation of nationalist sentiments. As African students received education in these institutions such as the University Of Fort Hare, they also imbibed ideas of self-determination, equality, and freedom. The exposure to Western education planted the seeds of African nationalism, leading to a generation of leaders who would challenge colonial rule.

The legacy of missionary education is evident in the profiles of many African nationalists who emerged as leaders in the struggle for independence. Figures like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) were products of mission schools. These leaders, educated in Western-style institutions, skillfully blended their acquired knowledge with indigenous wisdom to forge a vision of an independent and self-determined Africa.


The intertwined histories of missionaries and colonialism in Africa reveal a complex interplay of religious zeal, cultural assimilation, and imperial interests. Missionaries, whether inadvertently or consciously, became conduits for the expansion of European powers into the African interior.

The establishment of mission schools aimed at spreading Christianity also unintentionally forged crucibles for the development of African nationalism.

While the legacy of missionaries in Africa is fraught with controversies and criticisms, it is undeniable that their actions and institutions played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of Africa’s history.

The story of missionaries in Africa can thus be viewed as ultimately one of Religion intertwined with Politics and Business whose unintended consequence was to give birth to African Nationalism. 

PDF Download: Robert Moffat: Missionary Scenes & Labours In Southern Africa