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Christian missions were organized efforts to spread the Christian faith for the purpose of extending religious teaching at home or abroad. Their coming of Christian missionaries to East Africa and Africa in general was based on a number of motives which were humanitarian, economic, political and social in nature. The Portuguese were the first to introduce Christianity to the east African coast in the 15th c.This attempt however had little success. By the 19th century, a number of missionary groups worked in East Africa and these included;

  1. The Church Missionary Society
  2. The Holy Ghost Fathers
  3. The University Missionary Society to Central Africa
  4. The White Fathers
  5. The Methodist Fathers
  6. The Mill Hill Fathers
  7. The London Missionary Society

Reasons for the coming of Christian missionaries in East Africa

a) The missionaries had the ambition to spread Christianity to the people of East Africa. This would be through preaching and teaching the holy gospel so that many would get converted to Christianity.

b) They wanted to fight against slave trade in East Africa. Earlier travelers like John Speke and James Grant, H.M. Stanley, Dr. David Livingstone and others had reported about the evils of slave trade in East Africa.

c) They wanted to check on the spread of Islam in East Africa from the coast with intentions of converting many to Christianity.

d) Some missionaries came because they had been invited by certain African chiefs, For example, Mutesa I of Buganda wrote a letter through H.M Stanley inviting missionaries to Buganda.

e) They came to establish legitimate trade in East Africa. They, for instance wanted to trade in items like glass, cloths, etc. as Dr. Livingstone told Cambridge University students, “I go back to Africa to make an open pass for commerce and Christianity…..” Similarly, his speech in 1857 emphasized the unity between Christianity and Commerce.

f) The missionaries also loved to adventure and explore the interior of East Africa. For example Dr. John Ludwig Kraft of CMS is said to have been the first European to see Mt. Kenya while Johann Redman was the first to see Mt. Kilimanjaro.

g) They had a mission to clear the way for the colonization of East Africa. The missionaries were tasked by their home governments to preach ideas of love, respect, brotherhood, forgiveness, tolerance and non violence so that when the colonialists come, they would meet less resistance from the East Africans.

h) It’s also argued that missionaries wanted to “civilize” East Africans. They argued that they came to stop some of the barbaric acts and customs e.g. Female Genital Mutilation among the Kikuyu in Kenya, human sacrifices and the practice of killing twins.

i) The information they gave about important places like the source of the Nile, fertile soils, river falls and the climate all attracted the missionaries into East Africa. Early contacts by travelers like Stanley, Speke and Grant, among others encouraged missionaries to come.

j) The expulsion of some of the missionaries from other parts of Africa led them into East Africa. For example Johann Ludwig Kraft and Johann Redman are said to have been expelled from Ethiopia around 1842 before they chose to relocate to East Africa.

Missionary Activities in East Africa

The pioneer missionaries in East Africa were the Church Missionary Society led by the Germans John Krapt and Johann Rebmann who arrived in East Africa around 1844 and 1846 respectively. Krapt arrived and established a mission station at Rabai.

When they realized they were not making any great impact at the coast, the two moved into the interior visiting the Akamba and Taita. The CMS set up stations in Taita and taveta.They were the first Europeans to see Mount Kilimanjaro in 1847. Krapt discovered the source of River Tana and was the first European to see Mount Kenya in 1849.

In 1949, Jacob Erhardt, a Germany explorer joined them and became the first European to draw a crude map of east Africa fro then stories he heard from traders.

In 1862, the united Methodist Church led by Thomas Wakefield arrived from Britain and settled at the coast. They established a station at Rabai. They also set up mission stations at Jomvu and Lamu. They were able to convert some people among the Mijikenda.

In 1863, the University Mission Society to Central Africa moved to Zanzibar where a mission was started from Re-union and later to Bagamoyo. Cardinal Lavigerie’s formation of the White Fathers Mission in Algeria (1863) extended to other parts of Africa. In 1875, Freetown Mission a centre for freed slaves was established. By 1889, about 1400 slaves had settled in Freetown. In 1877, the Church Missionary Society mission arrived in Buganda while the white fathers arrived in 1879. In 1891, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland arrived in Kenya and began their work at Kibwezi in Machakos. In 1898, the Church of Scotland Mission arrived at Kikuyu and set up a mission station at Thogoto. Members of the African Inland Church from the United States of America established their station at Nzaui in Machakos. They then spread to Kijabe, Nandi, Kabarnet and Nyakach in Nyanza. The catholic missionary societies, like the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Consolata Fathers arrived in Zanzibar but later moved to Mombasa in 1890 . They advanced interior and founded stations among the Akamba and among the Agikuyu towards the end of the Century. The Holy Ghost fathers established a station at St Austin’s near Nairobi in 1899 while the Consolata fathers from Italy opened a station in Nyeri in 1907The Mill Hill Fathers reached Kenya from Uganda.In 1902, the Friends Missions arrived at Kaimosi. By 1914 there were many missionary societies working in western Kenya. For example, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Quakers (Friends Mission) and the Church of God Mission. The roles of these missionaries varied enormously depending on the colonial context and their relations with the colonial authorities.

Missionaries in Tanganyika

The missionaries here enjoyed the support of the sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Said.

At Zanzibar, the Roman Catholic missionaries began to follow the lead of CMS in taking interest in East Africa. The CMS began a freed slave centre at Freetown in 1875 where the freed slaves were taught Christianity and formal education. The slave villages later became Christian outposts. The CMS finally reached Uganda in 1879 where they were later joined by the White Fathers from Tabora and Ujiji.In 1863, a group of missionaries from the Holy Ghost Fathers arrived from Reunion where they had been working among freed slaves and began their work in Zanzibar. They also began a freed slave settlement at Bagamoyo. By 1885, they had set up five villages that were to act as Christian outposts

Missionary work in Tanganyika was motivated by the reports given by Dr, David Livingstone on the horrors of slave trade.In 1863, the University Mission Society to Central Africa under Bishop Tozer moved to Zanzibar where a mission was started from Re-union and later to Bagamoyo.  Dr.Livingstone of UMCA also worked I Ujiji in 1871 where he met with Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist who had been sent to look for him.

In 1875, the London Missionary Society set up a mission post around Lake Tanganyika.

Missionaries in Uganda

The pioneer missionaries were the members of the CMS based in Tabora, Tanganyika.

The first protestant missionaries were sent from England in 1876 after a letter that was sent by Henry Morton Stanley confirming Kabaka Mutesa I’s invitation. They came in through Tabora and Usukuma and reached Rubaga, mutesa’s capital in 1877 where they set up a church. In 1879, the Roman Catholic Missionaries and White Fathers followed also from Tabora and Kibanga.The Protestants and Catholics were supported by Kabaka Mwanga though he did not want them to work outside the capital and beyond the royal family. This arrangement did not favour Missionary work in Uganda.Soon there ensued rivalry between the Catholics and protestants. The kabaka had also embraced Muslims and African traditionalists to the level of generating the infamous religious and political conflicts that rocked the kingdom eventually leading to its colonization.Missionary work expanded upto lake Nyasa. For example the Scottish Mission of the Livingstone Mission and the church of Scotland Mission set upstatations around lake Nyasa in 1876.

Activities of Christian missionaries in East Africa

The following were the activities carried out by the Christian missionaries in East Africa.

a) Missionaries carried out evangelization. They tried to convert and baptize many people into Christianity from their paganism and Islam.

b) Christian missionaries carried out linguistic research and came up with new developments in language. Dr Kraft for example translated the Bible into Swahili and wrote a Swahili dictionary and grammar hence making it easy for people to understand the Bible more.

c) The Christian missionaries built many churches in East Africa many of which are still in existence. They for example set up a church at Zanzibar, Rubaga and Rabai missionary station near Mombasa. This enhanced evangelization into the local population.

d) They carried out exploration work into the discovery of various East African physical features. For example, Kraft was the first European to see Mt. Kenya in 1849 while Rebmann was the first to European see Kilimanjaro in 1848.

e) Christian missionaries set up stations for free rehabilitation services for example in 1868 the Holy Ghost Fathers set up a home for the free slaves at Zanzibar.

f) Christian missionaries participated in skill development in East Africa. They for example participated in modernizing Agriculture and carpentry by setting up agricultural institutionsand carpentry workshops for training.

g) Christian missionaries were also influential in establishing educational institutions and training efficient class of African clergy (catechists) who were close and more understandable to the local communities. This helped and enhanced the propagation of faith.

h) Christian missionaries were at times involved in political processes that were beyond spiritual jurisdiction. They for example participated in the overthrow of Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda. They also acted as front runners in the colonization process.

Reasons for the success of missionary work in East Africa

a) The missionaries faced no strong opposition from any religion. Islam was only greatly dominant at the coast.

b) The evils of slave trade made East Africans welcome missionaries as liberators. Their campaign against slave trade won them much support from different tribes in East Africa.

c) The support they got from some of the local chiefs and kings led to their success. For instance, the sultan of Zanzibar gave them immense support. Mutesa I of Buganda and Mirambo of Nyamwezi all gave them protection as well as rights to do their work in their territories.

d) The earlier explores helped to map out potential areas of East Africa for smooth missionary work. For instance, H.M Stanley had identified Buganda as a hospitable community for the missionaries and they were later welcomed by the Kabaka of Buganda in 1877.

e) The support missionaries got from their home governments led them to success. This was inform of finance and physical manpower for instance colonial governments   gave protection to the missionaries whenever they were challenged by local chiefs or other threats. For instance Captain Lugard supported the Prot estants in the religious wars in Buganda.


f) Some missionary groups sought for alliances with African chiefs. Such treaties of friendship made their work easy since the chiefs would call on their subjects to take on the missionary teachings.

g) The missionaries’ efforts to translate the bible into several local languages helped them succeed for example Kraft translated the New Testament of the Bible into Swahili and wrote a Swahili dictionary and a Grammar book.

h) The missionaries also received the support of African converts in spreading the Gospel. Converts could now teach in their mother tongue and therefore overcame the language barrier.

i) The industrial revolution had provided such technology like the printing press which made printing of bibles and other academic work easy.

j) Their efforts in life saving services like medical care (Quinine) won them great admiration among the people of East Africa that few were ready to oppose them. The discovery of quinine also facilitated their work as it cured tropical diseases.

k) The missionaries’ practical skills enabled them to survive even when their supplies from home delayed. They for instance adopted agriculture as soon as they settled anywhere. This ensured steady supply of food.

l) The building of the Kenya Uganda railway greatly encouraged missionary work in the interior. The missionaries could now travel between the coast and the interior.

m) Political stability in East Africa favoured missionary work because missionaries could settle.

n) The emergence of the African independent church movement boosted the spread of Christianity. African initiatives to Africanize Christianity encouraged its growth in East Africa..

o) The death of Dr. David Livingstone in 1873 and other earlier missionaries increased the determination by many groups to see missionary work succeed in Africa, and East Africa in particular. E.g. the London news paper wrote after his death, “the work for Africa must hence forth begin in earnest where Livingstone left it off.”

p) Establishment of resettlement centers for freed slaves e.g. at Bagamoyo and Frere town near Mombasa where skills like carpentry, and agriculture were taught. Such communities thus looked at missionary work as “a life- saving mission”

Problems faced by missionaries in East Africa

Christian missionaries in East Africa were faced with various problems which clipped their activities at times. These include:

a) They faced the problem of language barrier. This was because East Africa had a multiplicity of languages hence rendering communication between the missionaries and the local people very difficult.

b) There was a problem of the influence of Islam. Arabs being the first group of people to arrive at the coast and interior had deep rooted Islam into the people thus making it difficult for the people to easily adopt Christianity. For example, by the time Sir Edward Frere arrived in East Africa (1873) Rebmann had only 6 converts.

c) Existence of tropical diseases was yet another problem faced by the Christian missionaries. Tropical diseases like malaria, small pox, claimed many missionary lives thus making progress in their activities very difficult since they could be left very few in numbers.

d) Another hardship was caused by geographical barriers. These included hilly areas, rivers, lakes and forests. These hindered their free movement to various places thus a threat to their activities.

e) Divisions and quarrels between various missionary groups for example Catholics versus Protestants was a hindrance to their activities. This could create divisions and biases among the believers thus weakening their capacity to convert more converts.

f) Poor transport was a hindrance to the missionary activities in East Africa. This was due to undeveloped roads at the time to help in the movement of missionaries from one place to another.

g) Presence of hostile tribes in East Africa was also a problem that faced Christian missionaries. The Nandi and Maasai who believed that strangers were not supposed to pass via their land could attack and kill many missionaries thereby reducing their numbers compared to the increasing number of converts.

h) The presence of wild animals was also a threat to the missionary activities in East Africa. Man enters in Tsavo National Park consumed and threatened many whites. This clipped their activities at times.

i) The missionaries faced the problem of lack of supplies. They for example lacked enough money, accommodation and drugs. This was because they originated from very far (Europe) thus making it difficult for them to have full time and constant supplies. Such put their lives at risk and could sometimes lead to death.

j) The Christian missionaries faced the problem of stiff contradiction and rivals between European missionaries and traditional Africans. Customs like polygamy, satanic worship, etc were deep rooted into African communities which proved a threat for the missionaries to successfully uproot them.

k) The missionaries made their work difficult by involving in politics and judicial systems which were beyond spiritual jurisdiction. Local leaders could misinterpret them as political rivals and organize their masses for resistance against missionary activities.

Effects of missionaries in East Africa

(a)  They spread Christianity and baptized many converts. Catechists were also trained who helped in the spread of Christianity for example, in Kenya by 1911 many people had been converted and many cathedrals and churches were built like the Kikuyu churches (Charismatic Arathi or spirit churches.)

(b)  African religious beliefs, culture and traditions were despised and demoralized for example the birth and murder of twins, human sacrifice.

(c)  They established hospitals and clinics which offered modern medicine plus research in tropical diseases like malaria, small pox, yellow fever and sleeping sickness which had claimed many lives. For example, the Mission Hospitals at Rabai, Thogoto, Kaimosi e.t.c.   Dr Albert Cook built Mengo hospital.

(d)  They introduced the European system of management and styles of dress and architecture which have been adopted by many people in East Africa today.

(e)  They put to an end the inter-tribal or inter-village wars and established a stable and peaceful society under one faithful leader (centralization).

(f)  They studied African languages and translated the Bible into various languages. For example Kraft translated the New Testament of the Bible into Swahili, Bishop Edward Steere based inZanzibar learnt and studied Swahili and translated books from English to Swahili, published the New Testament and the entire Bible in 1891.

(g)  They established printing presses like Marianum press and published newspapers.

(h)  They opened up primary and secondary schools as well as training collages for teachers and trade schools for craftsmen e.g. Alliance High School, Kisubi Vocational School. In the technical schools, carpentry and brick laying skills were obtained.

(i)  A new class of elite emerged. Africans educated mainly in English and French emerged, these later served as doctors, lawyers, clerks, teachers, catechists, agriculturalists and priests who played a great role of spreading Christianity. For example, in 1890, Africans were ordained as priests of the University Mission to Central Africa in Tanganyika.

(j)  They paved way for the improvement of agriculture through establishing experimental farms and plantations where new crops, better methods of farming and equipment   were introduced for example cotton was introduced by Kenneth Boroup in 1903 and Africans were taught how to use a plough and how to grow coffee.

(k)  Missionaries improved communication and transport which in turn led to the opening up of the hinterland of Africa. The building of strong boats and ships gave Europeans courage to travel far from home.

(l)  Missionaries destroyed local industries like craft industry e.g. blacksmiths, pottery work were all destroyed and replaced with European products e.g. manufactured items like cups, saucepans, etc.

(m)  They contributed to the rise of nationalism. This was made possible through education where the African elite emerged and started demanding for independence e.g. Tom Mboya, Obote, Nyerere, and Kenyatta.

(n)  They fought slave trade which was later abolished and equality and liberty for all was encouraged in East Africa.

(o)  Mission stations were developed in towns like Rabai missionary station near Mombasa.

Role of Christian missionaries in the colonization of East Africa

a) Missionaries signed treaties which were later used by colonialists to take over colonies e.g. Tucker, a British Missionary interpreted the 1900 Buganda Agreement to the regents of Kabaka Daudi Chwa II. This led to loss of political, economic and social powers to the British protectorate government. Sir Harry John stone who signed on behalf of the British government confessed that;

b) Missionaries supplied information to the colonialists which they utilized to plan how to effectively impose their colonial rule on how to crash the African resistance. In the religious wars in Buganda, the British fought behind the Protestants.

c) In fact there was a reciprocal relationship between missionaries and the colonialists that is why missionaries laid the ground work before the partitioners offered missionaries protection for the success of their evangelization mission.

d) The Church missionary society managed to raise enough funds for Imperial British East African Company for its staying in Uganda for at least 2 or more years. The church missionary society and Captain Lugard viewed that the company’s withdraw would live theBritish and the protestant party in a dangerous position versus Moslems.

e) Missionaries enhanced the growth of tropical raw materials like coffee, cotton to satisfy the British industrialists urge but disguising everything in Christianity. Bishop K. Boroup for example introduced cotton in Uganda.

f) They appealed to their home governments for protection in case of attack. It is in this light that Britain came to Uganda during the religious wars of 1884-1892 and later occupied Uganda.

g) They created a collaborating class by luring it religiously and materially. This class helped colonialists to fight resistors despite the fact that they were all Africans.

h) In their evangelization role, they brain washed Africans with biblical teachings as “love your neighbor as you love yourself”, “blessed are the humble for the kingdom of God is theirs”, etc. With these preaching’s they made potential resistance important.

i) Religion was a mechanism of divide and rule. The converts and the non-converts hated each other which caused division to the advantage of the Europeans.

j) Collaboration with chattered companies, European Christian missionaries and their converts worked hand in hand with the Imperial British East African Company to defeat Kabalega’s resistance.

k) Missionary stations served as military bases from where the European colonial forces launched attacks on the resisting Africans. African Lugard used old Kampala hill as a military base against Kabalega.

l) Mission stations served as colonial government headquarters. The established mission infrastructure was used to help in the establishment and sustenance of European colonial rule.

m) Colonialists lacked skilled manpower, so the missionaries by design or accident were very faithful servants of the colonial government i.e. they were Colonial government servants.

n) They created a peaceful atmosphere for the germination of colonialism in areas of hostility. This is because they emphasized the centralized leadership where peace and obedience were expected.

o) Missionaries also trained manpower through introduction of education which was used by colonialists. This was done through teaching those academic subjects and manual skills like use of a plough and how to grow coffee.

p) They acted as interpreters e.g. Tucker in the 1900 Buganda agreement.

q) Through conversion of the Buganda chiefs and pages before Buganda commoners it meant that each party i.e. the Church Missionary Society and France had gained converts. This was a political security of sympathy to the Christian missionaries as against the Kabaka in Buganda’s leadership. This indirectly undermined the Kabaka’s authority and respect i.e. his traditional power base was being eroded.