Administering Medicine without a License: Missionary Women in Rhodesia's Nursing History, 1890--1901 (1)

By Charumbira, Ruramisai | The Historian, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Administering Medicine without a License: Missionary Women in Rhodesia's Nursing History, 1890--1901 (1)


Charumbira, Ruramisai, The Historian


CONVENTIONAL HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE of education in colonial Zimbabwe holds that the Dominican Sisters (among other European missionary women) came to Rhodesia as trained nurses and teachers and set up the first clinics and schools that benefited the Africans in the colony. This study takes a different starting point and demonstrates that while the nuns did set up some of the first clinics and schools, they did so without the benefit of formal training or professional qualifications. Specifically, analyzing the Dominican Sisters' experiences in Rhodesia in the 1890s illustrates the ways in which women were sometimes able to capitalize on their gendered nurturing qualities in order to take up work for which they had neither professional training nor qualifications. Furthermore, this article examines how a group of men sought to benefit from these same assumptions about women's nurturing qualities in order to help increase the Catholic presence and success as missionaries. Finally, this article explores the process by which the medical boards of Rhodesia pushed the Dominican Sisters out of nursing into the less prestigious and under-funded business of educating African, Indian, and colored girls and women in a colony whose social hierarchy was based on race.

The Dominican nuns first moved to the Cape Colony, South Africa, at the invitation of the colony's Bishop James Ricards, who had gone to Europe in 1877 in search of missionaries for his diocese. The first group of nuns, the majority of whom were German, consisted of the new prioress Mother M. Mauritia, Srs. M. Reginald, M. Euphemia, M. Eleanora, M. Clare, M. Gertrude, and one unnamed postulant. The women arrived in East London, South Africa, on 21 October 1877, settling in Kingwilliamstown where they got to work proselytizing Africans. The group increased shortly after Bishop Ricards returned from a European trip in January 1881 with more recruits from the British Isles. Among this group was a young Irish woman, Mary Anne Cosgrave, who was to become the first prioress of the Dominican Sisters in Southern Rhodesia, as well as the first matron of the Fort Salisbury Hospital. (2)

The nuns worked as missionaries for a number of years and likely would have stayed put in Kingwilliamstown, had it not been for the presence of a Jesuit missionary base nearby and the expansionist ambition of Cecil John Rhodes. For the Jesuits, the land north of the Limpopo River had historical significance. In March 1561, Fr. Dom Goncalo da Silveira was killed, three months after arriving at the court of the Munhumutapa (in Northeastern Zimbabwe), on suspicion that he was a spy sent to trick the emperor so his rivals could take over his empire. (3) Another Portuguese attempt, launched in 1607, was also short-lived, as the Jesuits were expelled from the Zambezi in 1759. (4) A third attempt was made by an international group of European Jesuits led by Belgian Fr. Depelchin in 1879. (5) These met with more disaster and death, with most dying from tropical diseases rather than politico-religious conflict. (6) One of the survivors of the third effort, Fr. Peter Prestage, established a mission base at Empandeni (in Western Zimbabwe) in July 1887. Two years into the proselytizing project, he despaired, as he had not produced the desired results. (7) As "divine providence" would have it, (8) he met a group of European men acting on behalf of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes had been at the court of King Lobengula and had tricked him with a mistranslated document into signing away his lands. (9)

Cecil J. Rhodes was born the son of an English pastor on 5 July 1853. He went to South Africa on account of his poor health. In 1870, while he was there, the diamond rush of South Africa occurred. Rhodes made his way into the dust bowls of Kimberly and over time--competing and collaborating with others--bought small-scale fortune seekers out of the business and formed the diamond cartel De Beers. …

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Administering Medicine without a License: Missionary Women in Rhodesia's Nursing History, 1890--1901 (1)
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