Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa - Vol. 1

Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa - Vol. 1

Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa - Vol. 1

Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa - Vol. 1

Synopsis

In the second of a proposed three-volume study, John and Jean Comaroff continue their exploration of colonial evangelism and modernity in South Africa. Moving beyond the opening moments of the encounter between the British Nonconformist missions and the Southern Tswana peoples, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume II, explores the complex transactions--both epic and ordinary--among the various dramatis personae along this colonial frontier. The Comaroffs trace many of the major themes of twentieth-century South African history back to these formative encounters. The relationship between the British evangelists and the Southern Tswana engendered complex exchanges of goods, signs, and cultural markers that shaped not only African existence but also bourgeois modernity "back home" in England. We see, in this volume, how the colonial attempt to "civilize" Africa set in motion a dialectical process that refashioned the everyday lives of all those drawn into its purview, creating hybrid cultural forms and potent global forces which persist in the postcolonial age. This fascinating study shows how the initiatives of the colonial missions collided with local traditions, giving rise to new cultural practices, new patterns of production and consumption, new senses of style and beauty, and new forms of class distinction and ethnicity. As noted by reviewers of the first volume, the Comaroffs have succeeded in providing a model for the study of colonial encounters. By insisting on its dialectical nature, they demonstrate that colonialism can no longer be seen as a one-sided relationship between the conquering and the conquered. It is, rather, a complex system of reciprocal determinations, one whose legacy is very much with us today.

Excerpt

In 1818, the directors of the London Missionary Society sent a mechanical clock to grace the church at its first station among the Tswana in South Africa. No ordinary clock--its hours were struck by strutting British soldiers carved of wood--it became the measure of a historical process in the making. Clearly meant to proclaim the value of time in Christian, civilized communities, the contraption had an altogether unexpected impact. For the Africans insisted that the "carved ones" were emissaries of a distant king who, with missionary connivance, would place them in a "house of bondage." A disconsolate evangelist had eventually to "take down the fairylooking strangers, and cut a piece off their painted bodies, to convince the affrighted natives that the objects of their alarm were only bits of coloured wood" (Moffat 1842:339; see below, p. 192). The churchman knew, however, that the timepiece had made visible a fundamental truth. The Tswana had not been reassured by his gesture; indeed, they seem to have concluded that "the motives of the missionary were anything but disinterested." And they were correct, of course. In the face of the clock they had caught their first glimpse of a future time, a time when their colonized world would march to quite different rhythms.

This is a study of the colonization of consciousness and the consciousness of colonization in South Africa. It traces the processes by which Nonconformist Christian missionaries, among the earliest footsoldiers of British colonialism, sought to change the hearts and minds, the signs and practices, of the Southern Tswana. As such, it is a historical anthropology of cultural confrontation--of domination and reaction, struggle and innovation. Its chronological span is approximately a century, between 1820 and 1920, although it is not written according to the strict demands of chronology. But it also casts its eye forward to the present, toward both everyday resistance and historical consciousness in apartheid South Africa. Similarly, while it focuses on a particular people--those made, in the nineteenth century, into an ethnic group called "the" Tswana--its compass extends to the predicament of black South Africans at large.

As this suggests, Of Revelation and Revolution is written against a background of what, to us at least, seem the most difficult questions posed by the nature of social experience. How, precisely, is consciousness made and remade? And how is it mediated by such distinctions as class, gender, and ethnicity? How do some meanings and actions, old and new alike, be-

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