Reading this week:
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
We return after last week’s update, where Meli has wound up in the care of missionaries in Kawimbe!
But at last we’re finally to Mrs. Purves. I like this woman a lot. The above photo was pulled from a 1902 article in The Chronicle written by a Mr. Nutter. One of those kids could very well be Meli, but Meli is never, as far as I can tell, mentioned by name in The Chronicle, even though other children are. From what I found, Mrs. Purves joined her husband in the Central Africa mission in 1894, where he had been serving for at least a year. Mr. Purves is described as maybe even a bit abrasive in his outgoingness, and served it seems as a general sorta engineer-type before eventually becoming ordained (if anyone is writing a paper or something off of this, please fact-check that first, I wasn’t too interested in Mr. Purves when I was doing research). Their home base seems to have been Niamkolo, and Mrs. Purves laid I think the first stone in Niamkolo Church. She accompanied her husband when he made an expedition to negotiate with Chief Ponde and try to open a mission there, and would eventually join him as they were the first to preach in Bembaland (again more fact-checking please). She seems adventurous and dedicated, and by the time Meli was in her care she had been in the area for five years, which made her one of the longest-serving missionaries in a place with an alarmingly high death toll for Europeans.
The next event is the one that really caused me a lot of head-scratching about what exactly the missionaries thought they were doing in Africa. Meli, safely ensconced at the mission, was walking about one day when her cousin spotted her. The cousin was pretty stunned, because the family had all thought Meli was dead from a slave raid now five years ago at this point. It was at this point Meli’s sister, “the mother of Mulenga Chisani,” is sent to verify the story, and as Meli tells it, “we sat looking at each other” for two days. With everyone satisfied that Meli is the long-lost Mwenya, Meli’s uncle (I think) sends Meli’s older brothers to retrieve Meli. It is at this point, that the missionaries don’t let Meli leave. They instead say “this person was brought to us. We therefore cannot let you take her. If you really recognize her as your family, go and tell Chief Changala himself to come and bring a cow with him to redeem her.”
The family is unable to muster a cow in payment, and when the Chief protests that other people get to retrieve their family members, the missionaries then reply “you may not take her now because she is very hardworking in the house and at school.” While doing this research, I mostly conceptualized the missionaries of the London Missionary Society as fellow development practitioners. There is a lot of overlap between what they were doing and what modern-day development specialists are trying to do, and however flattering or not you find that comparison I think I would agree with your assessment. Their main mission was of course to save souls and get converts, and at that they were pretty dismal. In a 1903 article in The Chronicle, the mission tallies their success at a whopping 22 converts. They fret about their convert-to-cost ratio, while simultaneously saying that is a terrible way to measure mission success. So I think partially because it is a good thing to do anyways, and also in reaction to their low convert numbers, the Central Africa mission really heavily touts their anti-slavery successes. But here is the head-scratcher: why would a mission that is so proud of their anti-slavery mission refuse to return a little girl to her family unless they were paid, especially since it seems the reason is that she was such a hard worker around the house?
I have a few theories. The one I have the most evidence for comes from an article Mrs. Purves herself penned for the May 1898 edition of The Chronicle, titled “Some of Africa’s Slave Children.” I know she was thinking about whether or not they were enslaving these children themselves, because she notes explicitly that “we did not look upon these children as slave[s because we paid] them cloth or something else equal to it as payment for their work.” But in this article, she relates the story of Maggie, who’s father had died and “according to native custom, her uncle claimed her as his child.” But then that uncle, according to Mrs. Purves, had tried to sell Maggie into slavery before being stopped by the colonial magistrate. This makes me think that the missionaries demanded a cow to ensure that the family wasn’t trying to claim Meli just to turn a quick profit by making it more expensive to get her back from the missionaries than what they could get by selling her back into slavery. I am in no position to judge how much of a worry that really should have been, but I could see the logic. Another theory I have is that they were just really worried about converts. Their first convert in the Central Africa mission was a man named Kalulu. Kalulu had only been baptized in 1891, and was himself a former slave that one of the missionaries had ransomed. Most of their other converts were people close to the mission, either in its employ or employee’s family members. I wonder if the missionaries weren’t just inclined to keep children like Meli close just to up the chances that they eventually converted, as she in fact did in 1910.
But with the ability to go home denied to her, Meli was still at the mission in 1900 when Mrs. Purves leaves with her husband, putting Meli in the care of Mama May. The Mays I dug up a bit more information than I did the Purveses. They were quite the couple, and I kinda really do admire Mrs. May. The above photo comes from The Chronicle (of course), and was published as they were about to set off for Central Africa. If it was a recent photo, John is 31 in that picture (a year younger than me), and had spent some time as a marine engineer working on “men-of-war and torpedo cruisers.” He decided to pursue missionary work, and graduated London University in 1894. There, I assume he must have met his classmate, Elizabeth Burton. I wonder how they thought about what they were getting themselves into. In March 1897, The Chronicle notes that “Mr. John May, B.A., was appointed to the Tanganyika Mission, Central Africa.” Two months later, on May 4th, John and Elizabeth were wed at the Ipswich Presbyterian Church, and two days after that John was ordained as Reverend May. One month after that, on June 8th, they were both outbound on the steamer Illovo, headed for Kawimbe. In the article that published the above photo, The Chronicle notes that “never before had so large a party set out for that distant mission field, a mission which had passed through such various changes and vicissitudes, and for which so many lives had been laid down.”
The Mays would have personal experience with that death toll. By the time Meli was in Mrs. May’s care in 1900, the Mays had already buried one child, a still-born son. By the end of that year, the Mays would be burying a second child, John May Jr, who died at six months old on December 17th, 1900. When I was doing this research I went back and looked through the photos I had taken of that graveyard we were shown in Kawimbe, and the only one I took a particularly good picture of was the above one, which I can now identify as that of John May Jr.
One major aspect I was unable to really come to a conclusion about when doing all this research as about how special Meli was. She was clearly a remarkable woman, as her later life showed, and by the time she was in the missionaries’ care she had been through a great deal of trauma. But she was far from a unique case; like I quoted before, Mrs. Purves detailed a number of enslaved children that had been freed by the missionaries, and Meli never made it into The Chronicle like those other children. Mrs. Purves also describes marrying some of these children off, to people who worked for the missions. Mama Meli is usually billed as something like “the only known freed slave buried in Zambia,” and that “only known” is doing a lot of work because clearly there are other former enslaved people who lived out their lives and died in Zambia. If Mama Meli’s story hadn’t been recorded by her grandchildren and been published in Marcia Wright’s book, I suspect she would be “just” another one of those children that Mrs. Purves posed with in the photo.
It’s because I’m not sure how special Meli was that I find the next episode of her life somewhat confusing. In 1901, Meli says, “Jones Changolo [also known as Silanda] sent word to Bwana Goven Robertson to say that he intended to become engaged to me and sent a nsalamu [token payment to indicate interest in marriage]” (there’s a whole side-drama with his family, who did not approve of Meli because she couldn’t cook nshima, and that could lead to a whole discussion about the sorta cultural upbringing Meli experienced, but alas I don’t know how to shoehorn it in here except for this parenthetical). Bwana Robertson is Rev. W. Govan Robertson, and given that there had been other marriages I am a bit confused about why, as Meli details, he apparently had to go ask the local Mambwe elders how the engagement customs go. But I guess the missionaries viewed Jones as a favorable choice, because he worked as a carpenter for the mission (at least they knew him well, and also he was a carpenter, I am assuming he did some work for the mission). Mrs. May and Rev. Robertson have a meeting with Jones and ask “if his intention to marry [Meli] was serious.” He apparently said “Yes” and went home, coming back the next day with ten sheep as an engagement gift. Meli was also at the meeting with May, Robertson, and Jones, and, as Meli recalls, “as I was dressing, Mama May came to see how I was doing and she gave me some oil to rub on my body.” Meli was probably about 11.
I’m torn here in how to tell the story. If I was writing a novel that was ungenerous to women and had never heard of feminism, the easy spin would be that a grief-stricken Mrs. May had more or less “adopted” Meli as a substitute for her own children (this ties into wondering how special Meli really was to the missionaries). Mrs. May would in fact (according to Meli) say that she wanted to marry off her “daughter” before she left. Mrs. May was not lacking for reason to grieve. It was in the months before Meli was engaged that Mrs. May had lost her second child. It was Mrs. May that called back Jones so they could hold the wedding, which happened in 1902. Mrs. May was leaving Africa because her husband had died on August 21st, 1901, leaving her six months pregnant. She wanted to stay in Africa, but as she would note later for The Chronicle, the conditions at the mission just didn’t support lone women. The story of a grief-stricken woman, however, doesn’t quite jibe with the other evidence in The Chronicle: “Many young missionaries in similar circumstances would have lost heart for the rest of their life-work were they to have suffered, as we know Mr. and Mrs. May did, in the loss first of house and home by fire, immediately after their arrival at their station, and later on in the loss of their two little ones. Not so they, however: it only seemed to make them brighter and more unselfish than ever.”
Join us next week for our exciting conclusion!