Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa

Source: David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Including a sketch of sixteen years’ residence in the interior of Africa, and a journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the west coast; thence across the continent, down the river Zambesi, to the eastern ocean (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898), pp. 322-323

Text: Shinte was most anxious to see the pictures of the magic lantern; but fever had so weakening an effect, and I had such violent action of the heart, with buzzing in the ears, that I could not go for several days; when I did go for the purpose, he had his principal men and the same crowd of court beauties near him as at the reception. The first picture exhibited was Abraham about to slaughter his son Isaac; it was shown as large as life, and the uplifted knife was in the act of striking the lad; the Balonda men remarked that the picture was much more like a god than the things of wood or clay they worshiped. I explained that this man was the first of a race to whom God had given the Bible we now held, and that among his children our Savior appeared. The ladies listened with silent awe; but, when I moved the slide, the uplifted dagger moving toward them, they thought it was to be sheathed in their bodies instead of Isaac’s. “Mother! mother!” all shouted at once, and off they rushed helter-skelter, tumbling pell-mell over each other, and over the little idol-huts and tobacco-bushes: we could not get one of them back again. Shinte, however, sat bravely through the whole, and afterward examined the instrument with interest. An explanation was always added after each time of showing its powers, so that no one should imagine there was aught supernatural in it; and had Mr. Murray, who kindly brought it from England, seen its popularity among both Makololo and Balonda, he would have been gratified with the direction his generosity then took. It was the only mode of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat. The people came long distances for the express purpose of seeing the objects and hearing the explanations.

Comments: David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a Scottish missionary and explorer of Africa. Livingstone took a magic lantern with him on his transcontinental journey across Africa, 1852-56. On his return to Britain he became famous following the publication of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. This account records a magic lantern show late January 1854 in the upper Zambezi area. Shinte was chief of the Balonda people. This entry has been classified under Zambia, but in 1854 there was no country with national borders.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive (American edition)


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3 thoughts on “Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa

  1. I hope readers of this blog will take these accounts with the heap of salt they deserve, given the extreme power imbalances between the spectators whose responses are recorded and the men that are relaying these stories.
    This one reminds me of the accounts of the French magician M. Robert-Houdin’s exploits in Algeria around the same time. He was commissioned by the French colonial government to put on a magic show that would, in his words “startle and even terrify” the colonial subjects who were beginning to get get some ideas about rebelling from local religious leaders. You can read his account at the internet archive here: https://archive.org/stream/memoirsofroberth00robe#page/n387/mode/2up
    In her book, When Old Technologies Were New, Carlyn Marvin does a great job of analyzing Robert-Houdin’s account as well as similar stories in terms of how they shore up the powers of modern technologies and by extension the colonial forces that wield them by relying on stereotypes of “primitive” superstition. You can get the gist of her argument by reading pages 56-60 via Amazon’s snipet view here: http://www.amazon.com/When-Old-Technologies-Were-Communication-ebook/dp/B000T6DWKA

  2. As I say in the About section of this site, “No distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective. We must interpret them as we think best.” Livingstone’s account of this incident in his original journal is a much plainer account – he writes: “The pictures of the magic lantern were shewn to Kabompo to his great delight. He manifested great composure, listened very attentively to the explanations; but his people when they saw them coming out on one side with the extracted slide thought those on that side would now be caught by the figures, and made a precipitate rush away. Some said these were certainly liker gods than their pieces of wood smeared with medicine.” (see http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001259741, p. 59). I chose the published account from his book because of its greater detail.

    Livingstone has dramatised the incident, but I believe sincerely so. He had great sympathy for the African peoples that he met, for their values and their view of the world. As it is, this is meant to be eyewitness testimony, and whatever gloss the witness puts on the experience is an important part of that testimony. Of course, it would be wonderful to have a record of the direct testimony of Shinte and his people experiencing the magic lantern, but we must be grateful for what we have.

    So, more sympathy than salt, I would say.

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