African workers and the Universities' Mission to Central Africa in Zanzibar, 1864–1900

11 Sep 2017

This article explores the connections between African workers and Christian missions in late nineteenth-century Zanzibar, focusing on the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), a High-Church Anglican missionary society. Procuring and managing labour was central to the everyday lives of Christian mission societies because missionaries demanded a range of skilled and unskilled workers – including builders, cooks, water-fetchers, porters and servants – in order to establish an ideal setting for the core aims: the conversion of souls and establishment of an African ministry. The missionaries constantly veered between submitting to local customs and conditions, and imposing their own ideals of what they felt to be the proper management and division of labour. A good example of this was their employment of slaves, a practice that was not always illegal for British subjects and particularly widespread amongst explorers in need of porters. At the same time, the missionaries often had to abandon their belief that they must not exercise formal authority outside the main nucleus of the clergy, as they managed their labour forces and attempted to reform freed slaves into skilled free wage workers. These issues bear on how historians understand the tensions between conversion, cultural adaption, industrialisation and capitalism, but it also says something of the role of missionaries and Christian Africans as cultural brokers between the mission economies and the local economies they interacted with. This article addresses the missionaries' employment of hire slaves, the attempts to establish Christian working communities and the use of household labour with regard to women and children.