Contextualizing Objects in the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection

Introduction


“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
-Desmond Tutu, First Black Archbishop in Cape Town, South Africa1


This section of the exhibit uses a Zulu necklace that is a part of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection as a focal point for the interrogation of the culture contact dynamics at the Adams Mission Station in Natal, South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The material components of the necklace will be analyzed and situated in a larger context of how these materials were used during this time period. This will lead to an examination of traditional Zulu divination practices and how these were challenged and maintained during the time of colonization and high missionary presence. An analysis of the motivations of missionaries who were a part of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, specifically profiling Reverend A.E. LeRoy the collector and donor of the necklace, will help provide insight into the nature of culture contact from the perspective of foreign missionaries. Significant attention will also be given to the various means of Zulu resistance to forced acculturation and how the Zulu people maintained agency and sought to make the foreign religion their own. The overarching purpose of this exhibit is to complicate conceptions of homogenous acculturation and mass abandonment of traditional culture during the era of the White Man's Burden in the "frontier" of the African continent. The dynamics of interaction between the local Zulu people, the British colonial government, and missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions were far from one-dimensional and were characterized by strong self-determination from the Zulu people to retain control of their own beliefs and religious system by resisting attempts of missionaries to dictate the validity or morality of their systems of life.

 

 Researched, written, compiled by Alex Howard, Oberlin College '14.