No longer Adams in a simple Eden: Culture and clothing in Hermannsberg missions in the western Transvaal, 1864-1910

Rüther, K.
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Referring to the Hermannsburg station Linokana in the Marico district the Rand Daily Mail commented in 1907, fifty years after the arrival of the first Lutheran missionaries at that spot. But the days of the missionary are over, for no fewer than four storekeepers have come to contest for the favours of the natives, and through them, and also through their intercourse in town with white men, our coloured brethren are no longer Adams in a simple Eden. They have learned to desire the possession of bright and gaudy clothes and tawdry jewellery, and they crowd into the stores bartering mealies and eggs for cheap clothes. The scenario depicted suggests that chaos and moral decay were taking over power where once European missionaries used to work for the creation of humble Christian communities. Economic advance and urban involvement seemed to wield their corruptive influences over rural mission stations thus alienating "Adams" (probably "Eves" were incorporated in that term) from a simple Eden and introducing them to the degenerative effects of urban-style life. Was it indeed African mission residents who no longer lived in a simple Eden or was it rather their European surveyors who lost their paradisiac dream of creating African society according to their vision? The work experiences and perceptions of African communities of Hermannsburg missionaries in the Western Transvaal in the decades between the mid-nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century clearly reflect how within roughly fifty years in South Africa they lost important features of their Edenic vision with which they had once come to the mission field. Working among communities of the Western Transvaal the missionaries developed a radically redefined understanding of African society which they conveyed to their German supporters through articles in the monthly mission journal, Hermannsburger Missionsblatt. Clothing was a topic which loomed large in the descriptions of their experiences. It was an indispensable pre-requisite to prepare pagan Africans for becoming Christians and therefore had to be scrupulously submitted to the control of the self-styled agents of Christian civilisation. The loss of control over African clothing habits consequently resulted in the disapproval not only of African outward appearance but of African mission residents themselves because outward appearance was considered to be the mirror of a person's inner condition. It is the aim of this paper to show how missionary perception of African costume was intimately related to the degree in which missionary families were incorporated into colonial settler society. From newcomers to South Africa with little means and the burning wish to convert pagan Africans to Christianity they developed into esteemed missionary and settler families with strong roots in the farming sector, some of them dwellers on representative mission stations among Boer neighbours, economically successful, living in respectable houses and stubbornly keeping to their German inheritance. The argument to be unfolded in this paper is that their initial appreciation of African clothing can be attributed to the fact that after ten years of failure in their evangelical activities they were prepared to cherish any African who apparently took over their ideas about decent costume. However, towards the turn of the century missionaries developed a much more critical attitude, disapproving of individual self-expression or African imitation of clothing habits which represented the sartorial flair of people in colonial society. Between Hermannsburg missionaries and African converts issues of clothing were a means of conflict in fighting over social status in the congregation. To develop the argument the first part of this paper will refer to the Hermannsburg missionary vision which was closely tied to the German surrounding in which it originated. In a second part missionary entanglement in the realities of their South African work field will be focused on. To illustrate the change in missionary vision and activity special attention will be paid to the relations between Hermannsburg missionaries and the Bakuena ba Mogopa of Rustenburg and Pretoria districts among whom the mission stations of Bethanie and Hebron were located.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 24 March 1997
Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission Station, Costume. South Africa. Transvaal. Religious aspects. History. 19th century