Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Scandal of Continuing Intercultural Blindness in Mission Historiography: The Case of Andreas Riis in Akwapim

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Scandal of Continuing Intercultural Blindness in Mission Historiography: The Case of Andreas Riis in Akwapim

Article excerpt

There are episodes in mission history which may seem to have exhausted themselves. They have been written about to such an extent that even enthusiasts find it difficult to uncover further information, at least in documentary form. One such episode is the history of the beginning of Basel Mission work in Ghana, and the role in this story of the key missionary Andreas Riis (1804-1854) who worked in Ghana from 1832-1839, and 1843 to 1845. Within the framework of the Basel Mission's presentation of its own past it has been used over and over again as a typical story of death and survival, of self-sacrifice on behalf of the "good fight", of disaster in the 1830s, and of enormous, many-sided long-term consequences in the 150 years since. Over the generations, people with the capacity and the opportunity to do original archival work have re-written the story and added to it.(1) Consequently, as Archivist, for many years I consciously steered people away from Riis. I thought that the episode of the beginnings of Basel Mission work in Ghana had been milked dry. But I was wrong.

People with new questions were able to analyze, from new angles, the episodes in which Riis took a leading part, and have even found new pieces of information about him in the Basel Mission Archive. For instance, someone interested in the history of medicine was able to point out that European treatments for tropical diseases in the 1830s were almost as deadly as the diseases themselves.(2) And Gustav Franz, the most recent writer to attempt to use Riis' story as a subject for religious instruction in German secondary schools, revealed a whole new dimension through his decision to communicate mission history "warts and all."(3) Riis is, as we shall see, a heroic figure. But Franz drew attention to a history of stubbornness and quarrelsomeness, showing a Riis who endangered the work he had himself founded. These features of the man's life and work led to his quiet recall to Europe and his forced withdrawal from the Basel Mission in 1846. Riis thus offered, in Jon Miller's more recent analysis of the Mission's organisation and its problems, a prominent case-study for the discussion of internal conflict in the 19th century.(4)

What I am proposing in this essay, however, is not a reconsideration of the figure of Riis in the context of mission history, but rather a reconsideration of his place in the history of Akwapim, the Ghanaian kingdom in which he settled in 1835, and the role of the leadership of the Akwapim in the founding of the church. To ask questions about the role of indigenous initiative outside what has become the church is somewhat unusual in the historiography of church and mission in Africa. But such questions do make possible the kind of new approach I am urging. And as a basis for this reorientation I have used two small items of information which have long been publicly available in German, but which have never, as far as I know, been integrated into the familiar historiography of Riis and his arrival in Akwapim.

My thoughts were turned in this direction during an intensive one-week university seminar held in March 1994 in the Basel Mission Archive with students of anthropology and history. Its title was: "Looking for African History in European Sources: using early accounts of travel in Ghana in the Basel Mission Archive."(5) In this framework we looked at Riis' published diary.(6) What began purely as an exercise in which I thought I "knew all the answers" ended with my realization that Riis' diary has never been intensively read as a source for the history of the Kingdom of Akwapim.(7) Furthermore: precisely the two entries that clearly point to authoritative initiatives by the Akwapim in the beginnings of Basel Mission work there have never appeared in our secondary literature. In revealing that an indigenous leadership intended to be active agents in support of the presence of the missionary, these entries may be regarded as providing central evidence about early African church history in this region. …

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