Impediments to Civilization: Colonial Discourses on Polygamy in the 19th Century British Empire from the 1850s to the 1900s

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Thomas Harvell-DeGolier, Trinity University
Focusing primarily on South Africa, my research examines how nineteenth century Anglican missionaries wrote about polygamy (typically polygyny) and used its presence in African societies to support the expansion of empire as a means of “civilizing” and reforming African societies along what these missionaries believed to be more “Christian” models of the family and of society. My research traces how “the evil of polygamy” was portrayed by these missionaries as evidence both of British superiority and justification for empire; specifically, I explore how British missionaries in Africa connected polygamy with the slave trade and the oppression of women. My research will focus primarily on how missionary portrayals of polygamy changed from the mid-nineteenth century to the late nineteenth century and how these portrayals supported and influenced British colonial policy in Africa.

During the 1870s and 1880s, missionary critiques of polygyny began taking on an individualized focus, which existed alongside existing structural critiques of polygamous societies. I examine how missionary portrayals of polygamy shift from being seen exclusively as a societal vice to being both a societal and individual vice. This shift in focus reveals that the evangelical focus on the individual’s relationship with God merged with the imperial arguments that proselytizing to African natives was intended to make those societies more “civilized,” or British, rather than winning individual souls for Christ. This individualized focus on the individual, and its coexistence with the desire to spread British culture, meant that the missionaries believed that through spreading Christianity and stamping out polygamy and the slave trade, they saved individual souls while advancing “civilization and the Gospel.”

These concurrent arguments, one concerned with the individual, and the other with societal structures and civilization, show how evangelical elements interacted with the British attempts to restructure African cultures and polygamous practices along British monogamous lines. My research shows this missionary rhetoric—by focusing on both civilization advancement and individual salvation—conflated the advancement of civilization, namely British civilization, with the advancement of Christendom. For the missionaries, and British policymakers, this conflation created religious justifications for British imperialism in Africa. My research is based on the examination of statements, speeches, and missionary reports written by the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (in foreign Parts), and their individual members.

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