The Steamer Parish: The Rise and Fall of Missionary Medicine on an African Frontier

By Langwick, Stacey | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Steamer Parish: The Rise and Fall of Missionary Medicine on an African Frontier


Langwick, Stacey, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The Steamer Parish: The Rise and Fall of Missionary Medicine on an African Frontier. By Charles M. Good, Jr. University of Chicago Geography Research Paper, Number 244. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xix, 487. $30.00 paper.

The Steamer Parish adds to the growing literature on African medical missions by providing an innovative look at the way that technology shaped colonial and missionary society. In particular, Good explores the centrality of steam power and biomedicine to the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) in colonial Nyasaland (now Malawi). The history of the making of this mission field (spanning from 1885 to 1964) is also a history of technological expansion.

The first part of the book examines the initial encounters of UMCA missionaries and the subsequent growth of the Nyasaland Diocese. Steamship technology from Britain enabled the mission to establish a parish in a place where extensive overland travel was difficult, the threats of Ngoni raiders and Yao slavers were common, and negotiating the intersection of three different colonial administrations (British Nyasaland, Portuguese East Africa, and, before World War I, German East Africa) was complicated. Steamers offered a technological answer to the political, environmental, and social challenges of mission work in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Nyasaland.

While providing a solution to certain on-the-ground obstacles of evangelization, the steamship also made its own demands on the missionaries, thereby creating new obstacles to be overcome. Steamships, for instance, required ports, firewood, and skilled workers. Reliance on steam technologies influenced myriad decisions, including the selection of Likoma Island for the mission headquarters. This choice turned the relatively small island midway between the north and south ends of Lake Malawi into a central site for mission activity and a common transit destination for those traveling up and down the lake. Steamships simulated and redirected various flows of people, thereby forging new social networks. In addition to enabling the movement of mission staff and Christian families, this newly imported technology came to play a part in the larger social and political history of the region; for example, by facilitating the initial part of the journey south for many men who sought work in southern Africa. After World War I, political conditions changed, and gradually, those problems that the steamer had been enlisted to solve (such as security) ceased to be pressing concerns. Even the very location of the headquarters came into question. Until Malawian independence, however, the mission continued to struggle under the weight of an institutional framework built on this earlier technological solution. The first half of The Steamer Parish situates the history of missionary medicine in Nyasaland within the broader social, political, technological, and environmental context of the UMCA mission. …

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