Nearly all the world’s alphabets are elaborations of a Semitic orthography from Canaan or Egypt. Medieval missionaries brought the Roman version to Europe, and in the modern era evangelists carried it to other continents. Inevitably the British Empire became a party to this dispersion as it grew to administer a quarter of the world’s population, but its subjects received their basic education from clerics. Such was even the case in Bengal, where the East India Company funded Hindu and Muslim schools. The alphabet invariably spread through religious teachings.
It was inevitable that Christian missionaries would be interested in language and literacy. Most of them believed that reading was a direct route for grace. On a daily basis, they tested their pupils with recitations and essays, and many of them composed and translated catechisms, prayer books, hymns and Bibles, primers and spelling books. All such texts asserted that one must acknowledge God, that Christ died for everyone’s salvation, that master and servant are both welcome in Church, that you are a sinner, that there is life after death. At the same time, as missionaries knew, the Empire’s peoples used their texts as they wished. Some of them regarded ‘the book’ as a charm or form of medicine, while others thought literacy was something that might come from a dream or vision. Hymns might be sung to praise nationalist politicians or beer. Even before missionaries lost their monopoly on the Empire’s presses, ‘print culture’ had expanded beyond their reach.
Missionaries also wrote histories, genealogies, ethnographies, dictionaries, and grammars of ‘their’ people, for Europeans to read. Some such material became part of the heritage of ethnic and nationalist movements, while at the same time fueling the concept of the ‘tribe’, the favored sub-unit of imperial governance for African and Pacific peoples. For instance, civil cases entailed appeals to ‘native law and custom’, preferrably written down, which turned history into a kind of eternal repetition. The dispersal of stereotypes in images and texts, coupled with racial science and administrative logistics, further imprinted this problematic concept in written histories. Yet tribes only resembled one another at a distance, differing greatly in what they stood for. The odd decision of French missionaries in Lesotho to use li for a syllable elsewhere written as di, for example, marked king Moshoeshoe’s family dialect as a language, seSotho. Nearby a new affiliation emerged in an urban context, in which ‘Shangaan’ migrant laborers used the missionary Henri Junod’s rendering of ‘Amatonga’ language, which was then taken up by black clerks and other ‘Tsonga’ professionals. Both Tsonga and Sotho became ‘tribes’ in apartheid South Africa.
The commonness and consistency of Christian texts in newly alphabetic languages helped produce national identifications from the inside, among readers. Exernally, the state was also more likely to recognize literate people with an administrative district and a magistrate. But the alphabet could also provide a forum for division. Mission presses, from Morija in southern Africa, to Serampore in Bengal, both underwrote and challenged community identities. When missionaries encountered literate elites schooled in Arabic or Sanskrit, their teaching of English and their publications in vernaculars were rightly seen as destabilizing. Imperial officials were often leery of ‘educated natives’.
This chapter examines the effects of the evangelical concern for language, translation, and literacy. To begin, a consideration of Yorubaland in Nigeria and Kikuyuland in Kenya demonstrate how colonized people used Christian-inflected languages in their nationalist projects. Contrastingly, examples from Oceania show how the comparative impulse in missionaries’ scholarship could enfeeble subject peoples. In India, in multiconfessional and urbanized Bengal, literate elites played off one another in competing translational projects. Perhaps surprisingly, there, as well as in South Africa, early contests over the lexicons for divinity – a preoccupation of missionaries – left an indelible mark on populist movements later on.
What people do gives significance to what they say and write. Missionaries approached their work in this spirit, and looked for behaviours they might undermine. In Yorubaland, they interrupted ordinary people’s orisa sacrifices and stigmatized the tools of the babalawo, the ifa divination specialist, as Satan’s things. In place of babalawo’s attempt to access knowledge, they offered religious texts. In place of personal rites they advocated a ‘washing’ in the ‘blood of the lamb,’ a sacrifice recapitulated in Communion. J. D. Y. Peel shows how such interactions permitted Christian nationalists to unite the ‘Yoruba’ itself as a communal identity. It is not that the prejudices that Oyo and other city-states bore one another were erased. Instead, Yoruba – originally a Hausa word used about Oyo – was produced as a sensibility worth competing for from the inside.
The Yoruba seized the status the Bible offered all nations of the world, just like Europeans had done, and interpreted Christianity as their own. They submitted olorun as ‘the living God’ and eshu, the trickster, as Satan. While God’s wisdom contended with that of the orisa, eventually Moses became ‘an Ibaden warlord’, and oduduwa was demoted to Yoruba ethnic founder. Their modernizing ideal tapped Muslim (Hausa) as well as Christian traditions of literacy; Samuel Crowther’s Yoruba dictionary of 1843 even chose the word alufa (Muslim cleric) for Christ’s own priesthood. Literate Brazilian and Cuban entrepreneurs and evangelists further molded Yoruba identity, as they did other cults and ethnicities on the shores of the ‘Black Atlantic’. The evanglical pan-Africanist Orishatukeh Faduma (b. William Davis) hypothesized that God had always been a universal conception even in orisa, which further explained concordances. James Johnson’s Yoruba Heathenism (1899), and Samuel Johnson’s monumental History of the Yorubas (1897), both made sense of the past as a prelude to contemporary Yoruba assertiveness.
The following ‘myth’ told by a senior diviner for royalty, about a ‘brother’ of Olorun (God?) named Ela, concerns literacy and ifa divination. Ela was
the father of the diviners. In the morning all the Whitemen used to come to Ela to learn how to read and write, and in the evening all his African children, the babalawo, gathered around him to memorize the Ifa verses and learn divination. Ifa taught them to write on their Ifa boards . . .
The verse continues: Muslims turned the Ifa boards into wooden writing tablets, and Christians, into slates and books. Yoruba culture is in this way asserted to lie behind even the inscription of Yoruba nationalism.
On the other side of Africa, among the hearty farmers of Kenya’s central highlands, the introduction of Christianity likewise accompanied the formation of a broader identity. Previously, political organization was ‘local government gone mad’, according to John Lonsdale, a zone of masculine competitiveness, much as was the case in Yorubaland. Mutual comprehension meant contestation. Again similarly God was already known by Muslim traders, this time Swahili ones, and Ngai – the word for God in the Kikuyu Bible – was a loan word (Maasai). The first generation of students, called athomi, or ‘readers’, made these ideas ‘Kikuyu’. Athomi joined their pre-colonial codes of obligation and work to a new narrative of the self, one ‘prefigured’ in the Bible: ‘endurance, improvement and salvation’. Their translations supported their argument for recognizing an ituika, the lapsed tradition of once-per-generation rupture and independence. The ‘readers’ called letters of the alphabet ‘cuts’ or ‘stripes’, so their writing itself evoked the act of ‘chopping trees’, the emblematic work of mature Kikuyu masculinity. By alterating orthography to fit anglophonic conventions, by espousing textually anchored truth, athomi helped make their own political project ‘thinkable.’
The ‘readers’ held their Kikuyuness in a universalizing idiom. This was so even when it came to clitoradectomy and circumcision rites. In a well known debate the African Inland Mission (AIM) denounced clitoridectomy, and athomi stood by it. The readers pointed out that the Bible describes the Virgin as a ‘muiritu’, a circumcized woman. They allied with their non-Christian kin, thus joining them as fellow Kikuyu, against the AIM ‘loyalists’, the missionaries and some senior men. At another point the AIM favored mandatory clitoradectomy for pubescent girls, done ‘surgically’, through chiefs’ authority. In both cases athomi supported the sanctity of the female-controlled domain of reproduction against intervention, and did so in the name of Kikuyuness. In his Kikuyu ethnography, Facing Mount Kenya (1938), future president Jomo Kenyatta put forth more of the same associations. Ngai was always already God; irua for girls (clitoridectomy) is likened to surgery, and an icy river becomes their anaesthetic. Their instruction is like a ‘school’, and the genital cutting is done with the ‘dexterity of a Harley street surgeon’. Thus Kikuyu registered in the family of nations.
The Mau Mau insurgency of the 1950s again contested Kikuyu ethics, albeit with weapons, and again Christian language played a role. Presbyterian students erased the name ‘Jesus Christ’ from their hymnbooks and pencilled in ‘Jomo Kenyatta’. The African Independent Pentacostal Church, adopting the Bible as their sole doctrinal authority, permitted irua and wrote out a genealogy for themselves going back to the apostles. Athomi taught English and writing in independent schools. The government closed them, and banned anti-AIM hymns, if to little effect. Surely it was enormously empowering that Ngai turned out to be omnipotent, but an omnipotent being is often a content being. In the end as Kikuyu Christianities multiplied, and as Ngai expanded his realms, Kikuyuness no longer entailed access to open land and honorable work. John Lonsdale has argued that Christianity ‘clarified’ the nature of being Kikuyu, its ‘base metal’, and that Mau Mau furthered the same process through violence. But Mau Mau was also about land and freedom, which Ngai could not himself bring.
The first Pacific islanders’ interactions with Europeans were ‘dialogues of the deaf’ held off shore or on the beach. James Cook described how in 1769 a Maori man went about Cook’s ship ‘touching this and that[;] ... any new thing caught his attention he shouted as loud as he could for some minutes without directing his speech either to us or to any one of his countrymen’. Such a performance implied the existence of a script or formula, a shadow text that a prayer book might replace. Thirty-four years later, on Christmas Day, 1813, Samuel Marsden preached his first sermon to New Zealanders, drawing on Luke 2.10, and no one understood him either, the preacher admonishing them ‘not to mind that now’. The field of comparative Oceanic religion began with these incomprehensions. Thomas Kendall, in Marsden’s Wesleyan mission, was the first literate practitioner. With the assistance of northern hapu chiefs, he produced a Lord’s Prayer and a grammar, following the method ‘laid down in the Sanscrit Grammars’ of Christian linguists in India (more about which below). Kendall tried to distinguish identities from concepts. The wife of a culture hero could not be the Virgin Mary, but the word atua could express ‘the Divinity’, because atua was not a personage. Apparently Maori as in tangata maori already meant ‘we autochthones’ in the 18th century. Prayer books and portions of scripture were translated, ‘w[h]akamoari’, meaning ‘us-ified’ into ‘the language of New Zealand.’ In 1837 William Colenso of the LMS completed a New Testament, the KoTeKawenataHou, standardizing the northern dialect. It was from this time that ‘Maori’ became an ethnicity, and that white settlers’ numbers grew, soon to eclipse them.
In general the Pacific posed a great challenge: hundreds of languages each with tiny numbers of speakers; vast and turbulent seas separating populations; ritualized violence and hostility on individual islands. While most share a basic grammar, their lexicons differ greatly. It was and is common for adults to know two or three of them. In Papua New Guinea some 760 languages have been counted, a third of which have under 500 speakers; several dozen are spoken by a village’s worth of fishwives. Thus it was not possible to follow the example of Colenso with the northern hapu ‘Maori’. The Anglican pioneer George Selwyn began his mission by teaching himself to read Maori aboard ship, with a copy of Colenso’s KoTeKawenataHou —or rather, he taught himself to read the KoTeKawenataHou – and, at ‘St. Johns’ on Norfolk Island, he studied for two weeks with a Pacific Christian making a vernacular version of a bit of scripture. Then he learnt that the man’s dialect was limited to half the southern tip of the island. Ultimately the solution Selwyn found was the same that Marsden adopted: the daily work of resident missions would be assigned to indigenously ‘Pacific’ pastors who could settle and learn languages related to their own. (See John Barker chapter XXX) The result was great variety in linguistic practices and strategies in evangelism.
In Melanesia two creole languages eventually predominated: the ‘Motu’ of the colonial police (which first drew personnel from Motu Island), and ‘Pisin Tok’, pidgin talk, which emerged among Pacific migrant workers on Samoan coconut plantations. People learnt them in addition to their natal tongue, and neither became a national identity. When Melanesian Christians shouted ‘I know the one true God’ to identify themselves to other boats, they used the English word God. As Pacific pastors are aware, it was missionaries’ desire to communicate in English that brought Oceania as a concept into being. In many cases, ‘government and church seem to have been blended and overlaid’ in South Pacific societies. In the Loyalty Islands, antagonistic Catholic and Protestant factions of chiefs, abetted by competing missionaries, repackaged their conflicts as ‘religious wars’. Their pastors later disseminated their understandings of Christianity westward. Lay evangelists on Tuvalu used hymns ‘inappropriately’ and formed their own ‘ekalesia’. After a Solomon Islands pastor- chief, Soga, extended his dominion by preaching against local raids and killings (‘headhunting’), the title Soga was taken by paramount chiefs. Anglicans in the Solomons associated themselves with a vunagi kiloau or ‘church masters’ council – Soga II competed with one – much as a samaj (society) of elders and churchmen emerged among the Rishi (Untouchables) of the Ganges plain, and much as cattle-owning Christians occupied kingships in central and southern Africa. Authority and Christianity spoke the same language, and tended overlap in many parts of the empire.
It fell to Selwyn’s junior colleague, Robert Codrington, to attempt the first broad-based study of Oceanic languages, in the 1860s. Not only did Codrington compile the Police (Pai) Motu dictionary but he mastered the rudiments of forty other languages, writing a massive comparative grammar. Codrington’s texts established the Oceanic meaning of mana, a word found everywhere, even in New Zealand, as ‘an invisible spiritual force or influence’ deriving from the ancestors; ‘the Melanesian mind is entirely possessed by the belief’ in mana, ‘a supernatural power or influence.’ Pacific religion was all about mana, its pursuit and deployment. In his 1911 study, History of Melanesian Society, the anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers also accepted mana, after conducting his research aboard the Anglican mission ship, The Southern Cross, his main informant the son of a ‘native pastor’. Raymond Firth, in Tikopia (1940), further Christianized its meaning as ‘soul substance’.
Recent scholarship suggests mana originally meant only that something ‘worked’, with nothing spiritual in it. According to Roger Keesing, it connoted ‘to be efficacious’, as opposed to drevi, ‘useless’. In this view, Pacific missionaries brought mana into being as a spiritual concept so they could replace it with a Chistian alternative. Mana was about ambition and the exertion of will, whereas grace, which the Christian cherished, was something one received. It was mana’s inscription in this opposition that made it exterior and receivable, and requiring faith. Codrington seemed to have harbored doubts about mana’s spirituality, but it was his study, The Melanesians, that defined it so, effectively casting Pacific people’s efforts to be powerful in life, to have ‘juice’, as a superstition.
Pacific people also wrested control of Christian language themselves. Although the first Maori baptism occurred in 1825, by the 1860s nearly all Maori represented themselves as normative Christians, regardless of what missionaries thought. On the East Coast, the Rev. William Williams found Maori eager to internalize Christian ideas, and he was crushed when his Church later lost nearly all its members to the Kereopa, the local manifestation of the great Pai Marire insurgency in 1865 (See Lester chapter & Edgar chapters, XXX). In many respects, however, Kereopa was quite close to Maori Christianity, though it was politicized differently. Even the ‘Maori high god’, Io, was apparently adapted from scripture. As J.Z. Smith argues, it derived from a Taranaki Maori’s vision of Gabriel in September, 1861, at a critical juncture in the insurrection. From that point on Io appeared as the equal and opposite protagonist to the ‘God’ of the Southern Cross. The name was a refitting of Ihowa, or Jehovah. As Smith aptly remarks, homo religiosus is essentially homo faber.
Captain Cook’s Voyages inspired an apprentice cobbler in Bristol, William Carey, to seek a missionary career in Tahiti. Initially rebuffed as a ‘miserable enthusiast’, Carey co-founded the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and went to India the following year. He settled at Serampore, under Danish protection, because the British East India Company barred him from their territory, believing that missionaries would subvert order. In fact the Company disciplined the governor of Madras for using the word ‘heathen’ in his correspondence and posted offerings at major Hindu shrines. India, although denied parity with the West, was not viewed as lacking in structure or civilisation as were Africans and Pacific peoples. Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman were known as the ‘Serempore Trio’. Their families created a super-domestic unit, sharing their finances and possessions. Carey’s involvement with indigo plantings at Mudnabati served both economic necessity and the principle of self-sufficiency. The constraints and prejudices of caste reminded him of the class snobbery he knew in England. The Trio handed out pamphlets and accosted upper-caste Brahmins in ‘debates’ that were soon found to be intolerable.
Unlike the Pacific or Africa, in India there was a profound literate tradition in Nagari and a prior history of language work. The first European Christians had arrived in 1498 to find an existing population of ‘Thomas’ Christians. In 1706 Danish protestant missionaries reached Tranquebar in the south. The Jesuits wrote an influential ‘Q. & A.’ dialogue in vernacular Bengali in 1599, and a Portuguese Bengali grammar appeared in 1743. After Clive’s conquest of Bengal, the work accelerated. The Rev. William Jones wrote a Persian and Sanskrit grammar in 1771 and 1786. Warren Hastings hired pandits to compile ‘Hindu law’ from all the shastric literatures, their output supervised by Nathanial B. Halhed, which produced the Code of Gentoo Laws in 1768; Halhed also wrote a Bengali grammar in 1778, Bartholomeo one in 1790, and H.P. Foster a dictionary in 1802.
Carey appears to have worked on his many Bible translations with but little reference to these predecessors. His first was Bengali, in 1802. With it he embarrassed the cosmopolitan pretensions of the BMS’s fund-raising by baldly translating ‘baptize’ as ‘immerse’ in Bengali. He argued that the word baptiso, John the Baptist’s act, meant ‘immerse’ in Greek, and so constrained him in his choices. Carey’s diary shows him obsessed with language, disciplined and scholastic. From dawn to starlight he typically prayed, translated, studied an Indian language with a pandit, studied Greek and Hebrew on his own, practiced his Sunday homiletics, and then prayed again. New missionaries in Calcutta did not like being directed by the Trio, which separated from the BMS in 1827. Even after forty years in Bengal, detractors noted, Serampore had only 43 converts in good standing.
Carey employed teams of pandits of diverse backgrounds, most of them non-Christian and English-speaking. They knew about God, Jesus and Mohammad from their own contacts. Once it became clear that many of Bengal’s languages were related to one another and to Sanskrit, it remained to translate the Bible into Sanskrit. This was done in 1810 and became an ur-text for Serempore, paralleling the Greek Septuagint’s relationship to the Standard Bible. None of the translations remained in use for as long as the Sanskrit, their interpretive lynchpin; and it fell into desuetude after only thirty years. Carey’s system produced Oriya, Hindi, Assamese, Hindustani (Urdu), Marathi, Pashto and Punjabi translations of the New Testament in the decades that followed. Among Carey’s dictionaries, the Marathi is really a smallish lexicon, ordered in Nagari according to roots which could be located in Sanskrit; the definitions are English. Several of the Bibles were criticized as structurally erratic, their sentences formed according to English grammar. Carey however also wrote Indian-language grammars, beginning with Bengali (1805), and he revised his Bibles in subsequent printings.
In 1811, Serempore’s press published William Ward’s long book, An Account of the Writings, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos, a work revealing of the Trio’s perspective. Instead of seeing Hinduism from within, riven as it was by competing movements of reform, Ward viewed it from the outside, a totality he divided into unequal compartments: literature, philosophy, architecture, prayers, medicine, cults, sacrifices, law, astronomy, etc. Ward argued theologically against Hindu ideas, and also highlighted their ‘impurity and cruelty’. Hinduism’s idolatry was ‘disgusting’, especially in condoning sexual outrages and featuring ecstatic pain. Ward called sati or widow-burning an offence against humanity, and decried the withholding of education from women. It cannot be denied that compared to the alufa and the mallam, Christian missionaries were more apt to welcome girls into their classrooms. Most of all, Ward discerned in Hindu myths that the eternal and omnipotent God is given by many names, with none of them adequate. Some parts of Him are represented as Brumhu (‘both the clay and the potter’, ‘invisible’, ‘perfect’), others are not. Ward used Brumhu (or Brahma, Brahmo) as a name for God, but specific narratives were rejected, for instance that Brumhu ‘lusted’ after his own daughter. In other respects Vishnu, who came before Brumhu, or Krishna or Shiva were like God.
The Account derived from the Trio’s conversations with Serempore’s translators. One ‘educated Brahmin’ told Carey ‘God was a great light, and as no one could see him, he became incarnate under the three-fold character of Brumha, Beesho, and Seeb’. Such were ‘errant beliefs’ about God associated with ‘their own deities’. In other words the Trio was fashioning a single godhead from scraps of Hindu lore, literature and law. For example, Carey’s Marathi dictionary defines a single word as ‘the staff or beam of a plough’, and ‘The Lord, God’. Secondarily, God (defined as ‘he who fixes the situation of all’) is nested amongst derivations of the root signifying pedestal, temple, heaven, sacred, idol, providential, revelation, and fate. The result of all such work was to translate prior mythology and customs as a set of mistakes, or lies, behind which one might glimpse a vestige of higher truth without a single sufficient appelation.
Serempore is recognized as the fountain of Indian vernacular publishing largely through the efforts of Brahmin translators about whom little is known. They worked on Joshua Marshman’s ‘Signpost’ or Dig-Darshan, the precursor of the ‘News Mirror’ (Samachan Darpan) from 1818, a pioneering Indian newspaper. Vidyalankar and Ram Basu were two of the translators; Ram Mohun Roy was briefly another. Vidyalankar became a leading exponent of anti-reformist Hindu orthodoxy, and Ram Mohun Roy became the father modern Hindu reformism. In a process reminiscent of Yoruba, Kikuyu and Maori situations, Roy drafted the translated God into a prior Hindu tradition, ‘returning’ to the ‘great light’ behind specific Hindu incarnations (the very corruptions Ward denounced). Roy adhered to Unitarianism aside from denying the expiatory nature of Christ’s death, and he launched his organization, Brahmo Sahba (‘council’ or ‘congress’) by filing a deed to build a church. Renovation had long been a dimension of Hindu intellectual life, and for a while one could be a Hindu Christian; complimentarily, the idea arose that Hindus ‘had their own distinctive . . . religious system’, or dharma. In 1843, Debendranath Tagore changed Roy’s organization to the well known, progressive Brahmo Samaj (Transcendent Deity Society). The Ramanandis, a sect devoted to Rama (Vishnu), rejected caste and proselytized among the poor; they spread the Hindi translation of the Ramayana, which Carey and Marshman had translated into English, in the newly cost-effective medium of moveable type. Other reformers made Krishna into a masculine, righteous deity, projecting the triumphal colonial strength of Christianity back into the Hindu past, ‘updating’ Roy.  And there remained Serampore’s Bruhmhu, His light now clear of Vedic particularities.
Missionaries in Bengal helped usher into being new social identities with familiar lexical material. This section traces how missionaries turned a single concept, ‘ancestor’ (sing.: modimo, pl.: badimo), into God, and looks at the reverberations of this translation. The account here differs from previous scholarhip, not least in contextualizing the particular interactions through which translation happens.
Today the word ‘Tswana’ denotes both a language and an ethnic identity. Originally the term (-chuana) appears to have meant to be ‘similar’. As in Kikuyuland and Yorubaland, a common field of comprehension meant a common field of conflict. Tswana patriarchs fought to keep their populations in ‘proper Bechuana towns’ where authority and production could be recoupled. They made alliances through marriages, including with Korana, the Khoe-speaking people of the Orange River. They rustled cattle, killed one another in raids, and absorbed their scattering peoples, always seeking to establish themselves – with their penumbral genealogies – as rulers. At the end of the eighteenth century cultural, new religious and racial pluralisms entered Tswana territory from the colonized parts of the Cape Colony. Tswana people often outnumbered the metis people they joined for military protection, who often spoke seTswana. Records show also the interpenetration of ex-slaves, Korana and San (Bushmen) with Tswana , and the existence of markets in ivory, beads, captives and iron involving foreign partners. Dutch-speaking ‘bushmen’ (with cattle) accompanied Tswana leaders on diplomatic missions. Christianity flowed through these various patriarchies like electricity as they vied for guns and trade, legitimacy, safety and wealth.
In 1813, John Campbell of the LMS, together a party of local evangelists and Griqua ‘captains’, including Adam Kok, arrived at Dithakong. They came to parlay with Mothibi, the Tswana ‘chief’ of ‘the Bachapees’ (meaning thus: ba- [people of] Tlhaping, the eponymous kingly ancestor), and the ‘Bastard Captains’ living under his authority. As Mothibi was away hunting, Campbell decided to talk to some royal women.
Mahooto the queen . . . was averse to our going away [before Mothibi returned] . . . we explained to her the nature of a letter. Mr. [William] Anderson showed her one he had got from his wife[;] . . . that Adam Kok had brought it, yet did not know anything that was in it . . . by the use of the wax [.] The bible was lying on our table, which gave rise to our explaining the nature and use of a book, and particularly that book. That it informed us of God who made all things; of the beginning of all things which seemed to astonish her very much, and many a look was directed toward the bible.
In the complex multi-lingual conversation that followed missionaries may have noticed someone speaking the word ‘moreemo’ (ancestor: modimo), because Campbell henceforth used it to name God. So did the Rev. James Read, who had consecrated the status of many of the region’s most powerful evangelists. Read held up the Book and said gravely, ‘The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light; light has dawned on those who lived in the land of death’s dark shadow’, and again all this, even ‘death’s dark shadow’, had to be (doubly) translated. Mahutu posed questions that had ‘previously occurred to her’. She asked, ‘Will people who are dead rise up again? Is God under the earth or where is he?’ – showing clearly that she too viewed the matter under discussion as concerned with ancestors and death.
As late as 1827 it was not established that this Tswana term would become the regional signifier for God. Korana and ‘Bastard’ or ‘Griqua’ (metis) power brokers on the highveld saw no profit in the translation; in 1812, a Khoe-speaking interpreter equated ‘mooléemo’ with the Dutch word for ‘devil’, and Mothibe himself spoke the Kora native to his mother and his wife. The Griqua accompanying Campbell made Mothibi nervous, who greeted Campbell by saying, ‘you needn’t have brought Captain Kok with you for safe passage’. Metis people were the dominant power on the highveld. Jan Hendricks, for instance, besides being a deacon and pastor for the LMS, was a magistrate of the fledgling Griqua polity. Mothibi was nonetheless persuaded to receive ‘the teaching’ by the following exercise. The Rev. Anderson asked Mothibi the names of his ‘predecessors in government’, wrote them down on a scrap of paper and read them aloud, ostensibly to demonstrate the power of writing. From Mothibi’s point of view, the recital was a public inscription of his own descent from legitimating ancestors back to the recognized founder-king, Tlhaping, and logically, to the very ‘ancestor’ that Anderson offered as the greatest king of all. Mothibi reiterated his position in the new lineage in his response: ‘Let the missionaries come. I will be a father to them.’
In the complicated politics of the frontier, the mixed Cape-descended ‘Captains’ living nominally under Mothibi issued raised objections, probably to the Christian ‘Basters’ who would come with any missionary. Over the next three years Mothibe stalled the LMS, but in a fresh band came to implore Mothibi to keep his promise, including a West Indian (Corner), Cupido Kakkerlak, at least one Tswana Christian, and several of Kok’s men. In 1816, Jan Hendricks and James Read settled beside Mothibi’s town with 29 parishioners and their families from the Griqua town of Bethelsdorp. During one of his early services Read discovered that many of the ‘chiefs’ (dikgosi) thought ‘modimo’ was a way for Read to refer to himself. Thereafter Hendricks took over the preaching.
As Christianity expanded modimo developed further usages. Not only could it signify a missionary, but also power, past kings, the station of one’s ethnonym, or even a living king whose rule united a nation. Ancestors involved the powers of collective action and patrimony, so ‘a cow with a wet nose’, a breeder that might produce wealth and (therefore) human dependents, was ‘ancestor’. A woman who married among Mothibi’s people claimed to speak to modimo daily, demanding gifts of livestock for her blessings. A freelancing preacher, Stephanus, disseminated what missionaries called a ‘false’ theology in advance of their own work (Brock chapter, XXX). Modimo became a contested notion in common speech. A woman caught stealing meat from a Kora captain explained herself by saying, ‘she could not help it, as modimo told her to’. By this did she mean ‘ancestor’ or ‘The Ancestor’ (God)? How could one know, with no definite article ‘the’ in the Tswana language? In time it became clear that Mothibi’s alliance with ‘teachers of the message of (the) ancestor’ had not payed off. While guns helped him in battle, he remained vulnerable to guerrilla attacks and in 1820had to repair to the Griqua statelet of Andries Waterboer, who superintended his own version of an LMS church.
A Methodist missionary, Samuel Broadbent, brought further complications, coming from Ceylon, where he felt he saw ‘diabolic ceremonies’ and ‘demon-worship’. As he traveled through the disturbed frontier zone of the Dithakong (‘Lattakoo’) region, patriarchs threw themselves at his feet, begging him to keep close by, holding hostages, taking their cattle. His party witnessed cannibalism born of starvation. Although virtually all his papers were incinerated in 1824, a lexicon survives. Relying on a metis Dutch-speaking interpreter , Broadbent rendered ‘Badeem’ (badimo, ancestors) as ‘The Devil’, and as he had in Ceylon, he diabolized South Africa’s ‘heathendom’, shaping antitheses of his own prescriptions into ‘naturally occurring’ instances of traditional religion. Broadbent altered the spelling of the root (-dimo) from its appearance in ‘God’, which was ‘Mulimo or Mudeemo’ in the same list, to ‘-deem’ as if badeem were a one-off singular on its own. The LMS missionary Robert Moffat initially agreed, commenting that badimo had no plural. (In the Pacific atua had also been a plural embracing a competitive pantheon before it became God.) Broadbent’s first attempts at public preaching in Tswana avoided the word modimo itself. Instead he read out his version of the Lord’s Prayer, with its deployment of ‘father’. He asked a group ‘of the more intelligent’ villagers to repeat after him, a rote recitation without any evident content:
Hara oa rona u mo ligudimong (‘Father, our, who art above.’) I then asked, whether they knew who was meant by our Father above? No, was the general answer; we do not know who you mean. Addressing one of our cattle watchers by name, Roboque [‘Broken’], don’t you know who it is we speak to in these words? He burst out in laughter; no, said he, I have no father above!
One did have fathers, not above, but below, where the dead were buried. Yet Broadbent would not say, ‘Our father who art below’. Instead he propounded a kind of camouflaged genealogy.
I was at a stand for a moment, but soon replied, You know that we exist, and descended from our progenitors, and they from theirs, and so on to the first of human kind; but who gave them being?’ Several voices answered, ‘Mudeemo’. I then spoke of the earth and heavens, and remarked they also had a beginning and must have had a producing cause, for you know, from nothing, nothing can proceed; who then, I further asked, is the great first cause of all? Again they replied, Mudeemo.
‘Who had the most power, the most long ago?’ elicited the answer, ‘An ancestor!’ Having orchestrated a comprehensible dialogue, how far would Broadbent go in making God more like an ancestor? He and his colleagues were already alarmed by the word’s variety of uncontrolled uses. A visitor called the Rev. Hodgson modimo, clapping his hands, in appreciation of how he how had drop-forged lead shot in a water bucket. It was not clear whom missionaries were talking about when they spoke of modimo. ‘Has he hair as we have?’ people asked Moffat. ‘Have you seen him?’ Modimo was shouted in pain, said of clever people, even fast horses. Most troubling, confided Broadbent in his diary, was that people made the ‘traditionary [sic], though inconsistent statement of Mudeemo proceeding from beneath some mountain’, though it is unclear if one ancestor or one of many might so proceed. Broadbent preached mostly about ‘father’, ‘king’, and ‘king of kings’, and he hoped missionaries would adopt the term ‘Jehovah’. But if people said ‘tell me about a/the ancestor’, one necessarily obliged, while stressing that ‘there was, and could be but one, Mudeemo, [and] that He is Eternal . . .’
The dominant personality among South African LMS agents in the field was Robert Moffat, who, at the time he sent Broadbent his translation of John 1, seemed well on the way to a definitive version of the rest of the Gospels. Moffat used modimo to mean God, although he nursed doubts, seeing the indigenous idea (not his comprehension of it) as ambiguous, an ‘unknown force’ below ground. Further he considered using a word built on ‘great’, possibly mogolo or mogologolo (a doubling for emphasis), which would have made God a cognate of the term chosen by Nguni speakers (unkulunkulu). Broadbent felt Moffat still lacked sufficient command of Tswana, a judgment confirmed by Mrs. Moffat even in 1827; that year Moffat went to remedy his deficiency by moving up-country for four months, living in the company of non-Christian Tswana companions in a remote cattle-post settlement. The following year he finished the translation of the New Testament, completing the initial phase of missionary endeavours to refer to their God with Tswana concepts.
In it the end, the term for ancestor indeed came to mean God. Future missionaries would supply narratives for this Modimo, displacing specific lore about Tswana pasts in favour of a history common to everybody but known best by Christians. Henceforth Tswana people would read their own ancestral histories as versions of the Bible’s stories of Ancestor’s reign, in Exodus and Acts, and in later key texts such as Pilgrim’s Progress. The relationship between Modimo and historical kings ceased being denotative and became metaphorical. Missionaries and new Tswana Christians agreed there would be no plural for Modimo, which received its own special noun-class (1-a); ancestors (badimo) became the plural ‘demons’ (pl., cl. 2, not 2a) and had no singular form. As Toril Moi remarks, ‘the power struggle intersects in the sign’. In retrospect, the ‘precolonial’ Tswana modimo became the imperfect version, a ‘remote’ and ‘half-known’ god.
The appearance of Moffat’s 1828 New Testament in ‘Sechuana’ was a watershed also in another sense. As the first African language Bible it opened the way for dozens of others which disseminated Christianity and alphabetic literacy throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. And although subsequent ‘South African Tswana’, Sotho, and Pedi Bibles appeared, the Moffat ‘Sechuana’ version remains in use today. The Bible became a source book for the ethnic identity ‘Tswana’, which would grow to number in the millions, and supplied the basic vocabulary to Isaac Schapera’s oeuvre of genealogies, in which ancestor names become tribes, and ancestor rites a depoliticized religion.
Missionaries’ collective engagement with other languages shaped theology, nationalism and national reformist movements throughout the Empire. Not only did the bureaucratic machinery of imperialism rely on missionaries’ language work; subject peoples, when they wanted to be heard and understood by the colonial state, represented themselves in ways the Christian state could grasp. It is clear that missionaries’ interaction with indigenous modernizers was at least a two-way street. James Read committed adultery with a deaconess at the Bushman mission at Bethelsdorp and was suspended in 1817. The missionary who worked most closely with Ram Mohun Roy in Bengal, the Rev. William Aden, became a freethinker in Calcutta. Thomas Kendall, the linguist in New Zealand, left the ministry and married a Maori. Apparently there was a danger in half-known logics: one might get converted out of Christianity instead of converting others into it.
A missionary in alien surroundings typically looked for familiar practices, rituals and concepts, and learned words for them: divination, ancestor, effectiveness (mana), etc. Often he split such words in two: one remaining the heathen target of his efforts at replacement, perhaps for generations, while the other named the intended replacement itself. Thus in Kongo, nkisi was lifted from its position in local symbologies of fear and success, and used in two ways: as ‘fetish object’ (among non-Christians) and, as a written and spoken word, as ‘holy’, its veritable opposite, among Christians. In Zambia, Anglicanism appeared to mirror the way a Chewa secret society (dini) operated; when Anglicanism became a religion and a church for Chewa people, alongside the original secret dini, the word adopted for ‘a religion or church’ was dini. And badimo had to descend to hell so modimo could rise to heaven. Of course Christian movements not only spoke in familiar terms, but took up new ones. In Northern Rhodesia Watchtower (Adventist) followers called those who refused baptism wasatani, ‘devils’, and in Ghana Ewe Christians embraced the dualist vision of heathen ways as Satan’s and Christianity as God’s, because the Devil could be a useful guide, a partner ferrying them into the new dispensation. Good translation is an art. New Caldonian missionary Maurice Leenhardt took fifteen years to render the Gospel of Matthew in the Houailou tongue, determined not to ask converts to parrot ideas before they could make sense of them. In considering how to translate ‘propitiatory’, he let go of violent sacrifice as a font of analogies altogether, and translated a word meaning ‘healing leaf’ as ‘Christ’s blood’.
Even such contextualization was unavoidably partisan. Each term, olorun and eshu, nkisi, dini, io and mana, ‘ancestor’ and leaf, became a kind of prism through which different viewpoints vied for hegemony, and by which different constellations of people elevated competing usages. Now, Robin Horton has argued that in Africa, pre-Christian religions were mostly about ‘explanation-prediction-control’. Following his view, the notion of the high god emerged in colonized societies not primarily due to missionaries but because local explanatory and magical paradigms failed to account for the changing world. ‘Face to face’ societies were intellectually ‘closed’, they valued custom over innovation. In departing from this somewhat (Sir J.G.) Frazerian model, I have paid attention to the intersection of missionaries’ aims with genuine political forces and strategems. Tapu or ancestor-propitiation did not fall into neglect because of inherent flaws in their host cultures, but because of guns, wells, corvee labor, racial thinking, and extractive bureaucracies, in a word, imperialism. Whether murder and feasting are religions or crimes is always a political matter.
Finally, for scholars, missionaries’ involvement with translation and publication has bred a body of knowledge managed in part by post-colonial, for instance ‘African Traditional Religion’, which revalues diverse rituals as expressions of an overarching religious orientation proleptic of the essential ideas in Christianity and Islam. Crucially, missionaries’ interventions produced an unprecedented number of newly constructed written languages and millions of readers for them. Less pleasantly, missionaries’ lasting textual imprint has also been to primitivize and tribalize peoples in their own histories, construing their pasts as enchanted or superstitious. And not only popular insurgencies, but the forces of diffusion and oppression have (re)occupied Christianity’s vocabulary, too. Such effects are also part of the legacy of missionaries’ engagement with the languages of the Empire.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2nd edn. (New York, 1991); Roger Chartier, The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, 1987); Patrick Harries, ‘Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa’, in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London, 1989), pp. 82-117.
 E.g. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (New York, 1997); Lorand J. Matory, ‘The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yoruba Nation’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, XLI (1999), pp. 72-103; and Stephan Palmié, Wizards & Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham, N.C., 2002). See Peel (bibl.).
 William R. Bascom, Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World (Bloomington, 1980); and Moses N. More, Orishatukeh Faduma: Liberal Theology and Evangelical Pan-Africanism, 1857–1946 (Lanham, MD, 1996).
 Richard Waller, ‘Kidongoi’s Kin: Prophecy and Power in Masaailand’, in Revealing Prophets, ed. D. M. Anderson and D. Johnson (London, 1995), pp. 28–64.
 Derek Peterson, Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya (Portsmouth, NH, 2004); John Lonsdale, ‘Kikuyu Christianities: A History of Intimate Diversity’, ch. 6 in Christianity and the African Imagination, ed. D. Maxwell (Leiden, 2002), pp. 157–97.
 David Sandgren, Christianity and the Kikuyu (New York, 1989), 73 ff.; Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (London: Vintage, 1938), 140; B.A. Ogot, ‘Politics, Culture and Music in Central Kenya: A Study of Mau Mau Hymns, 1951-1956’, Kenya Historical Review V (1977), pp. 275–86; and John Lonsdale, ‘“Listen While I Read”: The Orality of Christian Literacy in the Young Kenyatta’s Making of the Kikuyu’, in Ethnicity in Africa: Roots, Meanings and Implications, ed. L. de la GorgendiŹre (Edinburgh, 1996), pp. 17-53.
 V. Neckbrouke, Onzieme Commendment: étiology divine, église independente au pied du Mont Kenya (Immensée: Nouv. rel. de Science Missionaire, vol. 27, 1978), pp. 316 ff; Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley, 2003); John Lonsdale, ‘The Moral Economy of Mau Mau’, in Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, ed. Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale (Athens, Ohio, 1992) pp. 265–504; Lonsdale, in Maxwell, op. cit., 161.
 Nicolas Thomas, Cook (New York, 2003), pp. 53 and 65.
 Alfred Penny, Ten Years in Melanesia (London, 1888), p. 16.
 Thanks to personal communication from Doug Munro (in 1990), Courtney Handman, Marie-Paule Robitaille, and especially (for the Maori quotation ) Ross Clark and Mark Laws.
 Illaitia S. Tuwere, ‘What is Contextual Theology: A View from Oceania’, and Sr. Keiiti Ann Kauongata’a, ‘Why Contextual?’, Pacific Journal of Theology, II, XXVII (2000), pp. 7–20, 21–40.
 David Hilliard, God’s Gentlemen: A History of the Melanesian Mission, 1849-1942 (St. Lucia, Qld., 1978), p. 34; David Hanlon, ‘God vs. Gods: The First Years of the Micronesian Mission in Ponope’, Journal of Pacific History XIX (1984), pp. 41-59; Michael Goldsmith and Doug Munro, ‘Conversian and Church Formation in Tuvalu’, Journal of Pacific History XXVII (June 1992), p. 51; D.C. Laycock, ‘Melanesian Linguistic Diversity: A Melanesian Choice?’ in Melanesia: Beyond Diversity (2 Vols.), ed. R.J. May and Hank Nelson (Canberra, 1982), Vol. 1, pp. 33-6 esp.; Jeremy Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge, 1987).
 Anne Salmond, Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772 (Auckland, 1991), p. 112; K.R. Howe, Nation, Culture, and History: The ‘Knowing’ of Oceania (Honolulu, 2000), p. 14; Geoffrey M. White, Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 94 ff.; Tom Dutton, ‘The Missionary Response to Language Division: the Papuan Example’, in May and Nelson, op. cit.; Cosimo Zene, The Rishi of Bangladesh: A History of Christian Dialogues (New York, 2002), 142-7.
 Codrington, The Melanesian Languages (Oxford, 1885), p. 52; R. J. Codrington and J. Palmer, Dictionary of the Language of Mota (London, 1896), 66; Codrington, The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folklore (1891, repr. New Haven, 1957), pp. 188, 121; George Stocking, Jr., After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 188–1951 (Madison, 1995).
 Roger Keesing, ‘Rethinking Mana’, Journal of Anthropological Research XL (1984), pp. 137–56; Malcolm J. Ruel, Belief, Ritual and the Securing of Life: Reflective Essays on a Bantu Religion (Netherlands, 1997).
 Kay Sanderson, ‘Maori Christianity on the East Coast’, New Zealand Journal of History XVII (1983), pp. 166–84; Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982), p. 92.
 Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792–1992 (Edinburgh, 1992), and Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792, repr. London, 1961), and Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey (Boston, 1836), William’s diary entries, p. 68; John Clarke Marshman, The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward (2 Vols.) (London, 1859), quoting Ward’s journal of 1802; Daniel Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India, 1793–1837 (Cambridge, 1967), p. 124; and Gauri Viswanatha, ‘“Coping with (Civil) Death”, the Christian Convert’s Right of Passage in Colonial India’, in After Colonialism, ed. Gyan Prakash (New York, 1994), pp. 198-200.
 Brian Stanley, ‘Some Problems in Writing a Mission History Today’, in Missionary Encounters, ed. Rosemary Seton and Robert Bickers (Cornwall, 1996), p. 46; Stanley, History, 67; and Geoffrey A. Oddie, ‘Constructing Hinduism: The Impact of the Protestant Mission on Hindu Self-Understanding’, in Frykenberg, ed. (bibl.), p. 169.
 See Smalley (bibl.) for Carey, and Carey’s letters in Periodical Accounts Relative to the Baptist Missionary Society, Vols. 1–5 (London: Morris, 1800–15), hereafter PARBMS.
 Carey, A Dictionary of the Mahratta Language (Serampore, 1810); Stanley, History, 57 ff.; and Stewart Gordon, The Marathas, 1600–1818 (Cambridge, 1993).
 Ward, Account [. . . ] 2 Vols. (Serampore: BMS, 1811), 1, xxxvii. Revised in 1815 as A View of the History, Literature and Religion of the Hindoos [. . . ].
 Ward, 1: cxi, cxl, and 81-4.
 Carey to Ryland, Oct. 14, 1815, PARBMS.
 David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 1979); and R.E. Frykenberg, ‘The Construction of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion’, Journal of Interdisc. Hist. XXIII (1993), 523–50; and Richard Fox Young, Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Apologetics in Early Nineteenth Century India (Vienna, 1981).
 Oddie, in Frykenberg, ed. and citing Cynthia Talbot, ‘Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Colonial India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History XXXVII, 4 (1995).
 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (New Delhi, 1983), p. 26.
 For other interpretations, see Sanneh (Bibl.), esp. 171 ff., Chidester (Bibl.), and Jean and John L. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Vol. 1: The Colonisation of Consciousness (Chicago, 1991), pp. 214 ff., and Vol. 2: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier, 76, 110 ff.; and William Worger, ‘Parsing God: Conversations about the Meaning of Words in Nineteenth Century South Africa’, Journal of African History XLII, (2001), pp. 417–47.
 See Robert Ross, Adam Kok’s Griquas (Cambridge, 1976), and Elizabeth Elbourne, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853 (Montreal, 2002), esp. 220ff., 320 ff.
 CWM , LMS In-letters, 5/2/D, Campbell July 27, 1813.
 William J. Burchell, Travels in the Interior of South Africa (repr., London, 1953), 550.
 Karel Schoeman, ed., The Mission at Griquatown, 1801–1821 (Griquatown, S.A., 1997), p. 17; Schoeman, The Griqua Captaincy of Philippolis, 1826-1861 (Menlopark, S.A., 2002), p. 13, 24; and Elizabeth Elbourne, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853 (Montreal, 2002), 197-206.
 Hoyt Alverson, Mind in the Heart of Darkness: Value and Self-Identity Among the Tswana of Southern Africa (New Haven, 1978), 125-6.CWM, WMMS, Journal of Thomas Hodgson (ms.) 1822; Hoyt Alverson, Mind in the Heart of Darkness (New Haven, 1978), p. 178.
 CWM, WMMS, Missionaries’ Papers, Box 600, Samuel Broadbent, ‘Reminiscences’, ms. notebook ‘Second Part’.
 Ibid. ms. Broadbent.
 CWM, LMS In-letters 8/1/A, Moffat to LMS April 16, 1819.
 Chidester (bibl.), 184 ff; Ross, 24 citing CWM, LMS in-letters, 10/2/B, Melvill to directors, April 2, 1827.
 Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London, 1985), cited by Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult In Northern Sudan (Madison, 1989), p. 310; contrastingly, Comaroffs, Revelation, Vol. 1, 218, 337 n27.
The nonetheless painstaking Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom (Oxford, 1940), and Ethnic Composition of Tswana Tribes (London, 1952).
 John Janzen, ‘Tradition of Renewal in Kongo Religion’, in N.S. Booth, ed., African Religion: A Symposium (New York: 1977), 69-115; Richard Stuart, ‘Anglican Missionaries and a Chewa Dini’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 10, 1 (1979), 46-69; Meyer (bibl.).
 James Clifford, ‘The Translation of Cultures: Maurice Leenhardt’s Evangelism, New Caledonia, 1902-1926’, Journal of Pacific History, XXV, (1980), pp. 2–20.