Catholic missionaries have been largely overlooked in scholarly debates on how European identity was shaped during imperial ‘encounters’ with Others. We could easily insert these missionaries into this debate, by outlining how their ideas of Europeanness mirrored their ideas of African identity. However, such a straightforward link between religion and ... (Show more)
Catholic missionaries have been largely overlooked in scholarly debates on how European identity was shaped during imperial ‘encounters’ with Others. We could easily insert these missionaries into this debate, by outlining how their ideas of Europeanness mirrored their ideas of African identity. However, such a straightforward link between religion and (racial) identity cannot be forged due to missionaries’ commitment to (religious) conversion and social transformation. This paper investigates such complex identity politics through the case of Belgian Catholic missionaries in colonial Congo (1885-1960).
Firstly, I examine how Catholic Belgian missionaries’ conceptions of race shifted from assimilationism to (extreme) acculturation between the beginning and the end of colonial rule. As missionaries debated whether racial differences should, respectively, be obliterated or (selectively or racially) embraced, they also reconsidered their own role in intercultural relationships: should the missionary defend universal Christianity against divisions or was he a moral arbiter, distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ customs or someone who guided the Congolese in their discovery of their inherent Christian identity? Secondly, I examine Europeanness as a category through which missionaries shaped their relationships with state actors and commercial companies as well as a notion through which they confirmed the political, ‘world-making’ role of the Catholic Church and its place in a modernizing and secularizing world.
This paper not only deconstructs missionaries’ identity politics but also contextualises their ideas about identity by analysing them in light of their concrete relationships with various colonial actors (including state officials, settlers, and Congolese catechists and priests) as well as their (embodied) knowledge practices. Missionaries namely appropriated certain (scientific, juridical) types of knowledge, for example, to acquit a missionary from infanticide and delegitimize anti-clericals, while effectively side-lined oral, Congolese testimonies. Moreover, they not only used their body to shore up European superiority, but also used this corporeal interface between the African environment and their soul to navigate dislocation and (personal) transformation, as well as European relationships. In the ‘culture war’ between assimilationists and extreme adaptationists, the notion of (mis)translation of African (oral) knowledge, Catholic principles, etc.) played a central role.
In short, this paper reveals Europeanness as a construction through which missionaries negotiated the fluid boundary between Europeans and Africans on the on the hand and politics, religion, and economy on the other, through shrewd, selective epistemological politics. Precisely because Catholic Fathers are not the most obvious ‘(pro)creators’ of European identity, their identity politics give fresh insight into the various ways in which Europeanness was instrumentalized to deal with an ever diversifying and modernizing colonial world. (Show less)