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Who was the greatest missionary, Livingstone or Sechele?

20 March 2013

When a blogging friend sent me a link to this article, I thought it was worth blogging about, but wasn’t sure whether to do so here, or in our family history blog. It is interesting both for missiological and family historical reasons, and perhaps for general historical reasons too. BBC News – The African chief converted to Christianity by Dr Livingstone:

According to the title of one biography, David Livingstone was “Africa’s Greatest Missionary”.

This is an interesting claim about the Lanarkshire-born man, considering that estimates of the number of people he converted in the course of his 30-year career vary between one and none.

The variation is because Livingstone himself wrote off his one convert as a backslider within months of his baptism.

The irony is that this one backslider has a much better claim than Livingstone to be Africa’s greatest missionary.

This man on whom Livingstone gave up became a preacher, a leader and a pioneer of adapting Christianity to African life – to the great annoyance of European missionaries.

His name was Sechele, and he was the kgosi or chief of the Bakwena tribe, part of the Tswana people, in what is now Botswana.

Why family history?

Sechele (Sethele), Chief of the Bakwena

Sechele (Sethele), Chief of the Bakwena

Well, though neither Livingstone nor Sechele were “family”, Sechele was, in a sense, a family friend. Though I do have Livingstone ancestors, I know of no connection between them and this David Livingstone. But my wife Val’s great great grandfather, Fred Green, and his older brother Charles were friends of Sechele, and perhaps acquaintances of Livingstone, and the story is quite an interesting one.

On their 1852 trip to Lake Ngami, Charles and Fred Green visited the Bakwena chief Setshele at Kolobeng, and left 50 cattle with him for their return journey, as they were planning to travel in country infested by tsetse fly. At some point on their journey they fell in with Samuel Edwards (son of a missionary), J.H Wilson (Setshele’s son-in-law) and Donald Campbell, with whom they explored the north shore of Lake Ngami, and travelled some way up the Taokhe River (Tabler 1973:18). They had travelled about 120 miles west of the Lake, where they reached elephant country. But it was also fly country, and the tsetse fly killed 34 horses and 50 head of cattle. They only shot six or eight elephants. On their return, however, they found that Boer raiders had made off with the cattle they had left with Setshele, and taken some two hundred women and nearly 1000 children into slavery (Schoeman 1988b:45). Livingstone likewise returned to find that his house had been plundered by the Boer raiders (Walker 1965:280).

Charles and Fred Green returned to Bloemfontein early in January 1853, accompanied by Setshele, and Edwards, who acted as Setchele’s interpreter, to lay a complaint with the British authorities there, in the person of their brother Henry Green, the British Resident. After deciding that a trip to the Cape Colony was unlikely to achieve very much, Charles Green held a collection for Setshele, and apparently took him home again (Schoeman 1988b:46), though some sources say that Setshele actually got as far as Cape Town before returning. The Greens were probably put off taking the matter further by a letter from Sir George Cathcart, Governor of the Cape Colony, to Henry Green, dated Grahamstown 23 January 1853:

Take great care what you are about with Sichely [sic] – remember that all alliances have been disclaimed with native tribes across the Vaal – do not give cause by your conduct to suppose that you in your capacity as H.M. Resident – are taking upon you to espouse his cause.

Your brothers I fear have done you an ill service by bringing their ill used friends to seek your support.

By the Sand River Convention of 1852 Britain had recognised the sovereign independence of the South African Republic (Transvaal), and in this letter Cathcart was saying, in effect, that what is now Botswana was outside the British “sphere of influence”, and within that of the Transvaal.

In early 1853 four of the Green brothers were in Bloemfontein. Henry the eldest, was 34, and was British Resident of the Orange River Sovereignty. Charles (28) and Fred (23) were birds of passage, using Bloemfontein as a base for their hunting trips to Lake Ngami. Arthur was 21, working as a clerk in Henry’s office. At this time Bloemfontein was still a small town of some seventy houses and thirteen shops. The civil and military establishment formed a closed social circle, and had little to do with the shopkeepers and other townspeople (Schoeman 1988b:11). The Green brothers (all of them unmarried) associated mainly with the army officers (their father, William Green, who was in the commissariat department of the British army, had been transferred to the Cape from Canada about 1846), and a few farmers who had retired from military service.

The British abandoned the Orange River Sovereignty in 1854, and it became the Orange Free State. One result of this was that hunters and traders like Fred and Charles Green no longer used Bloemfontein as a base, and the Transvaal government tried to stop traders going to Lake Ngami through their territory. From 1854, therefore, the Green brothers and others preferred to use the western route, through Walvis Bay, and moved their base to Damaraland (now part of Namibia), and so saw much less of Sechele.

So much for the family history and general history aspects of the article on Sechele.

There remain the missiological (or missional, or missionary) aspects of the story, which actually illustrates something much more general. When people in Southern Africa speak about “the missionaries”, and especially those of the 19th century, the picture that they usually have in their minds is of people like David Livingstone, and not people like Sechele.

This is true whether the people with the picture in their heads are secular historians who believe that the primary purpose of “the missionaries” was to introduce capitalism, or clergy of various denominations, who love to make unthinking dogmatic assertions about what “the missionaries” did. “The missionaries”, though plural in form, has actually become a kind of singular folkloric ogre.

Though the stereotyped “the missionaries” is a (usually male) foreigner from overseas (usually Europe or North America), in fact most Christian missionaries in southern Africa, in the 19th century and at other times, were far more like Sechele. It was through such missionaries, rather than through foreigners, that Christianity was spread in Africa.

The reason for the false impression is that the foreign missionaries got their financial support from their churches “back home”, and the people who gave money for their work wanted reports so that they could know that their money was being well spent. So there is a great deal of documentation of the work of the foreign missionaries, usually about what they themswelves were doing, in order to persuade their supporters to send them more money. The local missionaries (like Sechele) were far too busy preaching the gospel and were generally self-supporting. In fact their missionary methods bore a much closer resemblance to those of St Paul describe in the Acts of the Apostles than were those of the foreigners.

So in this respect, Sechele was not exceptional. He represents one of many thousands of people who promoted the spread of Christianity in Africa.

And it is these considerations that prompted me to try to set up a database of African Independent Churches and African church leaders, both local and foreign, male and female, ordained and lay, who played a part in the spread of Christianity in Africa. In part this has also been taken up by the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB), though that consists mainly of completed publishable research, whereas the database collects little snippets of information, and fragments that are the building blocks of biography.


Schoeman, Karel. 1988. The Bloemfontein diary of Lieut W.J. St John. Cape Town: Human & Rosseau.
Tabler, Edward C. 1973. Pioneers of South West Africa and Ngamiland 1738-1880. Cape Town: Balkema.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. petrujviljoen permalink
    20 March 2013 7:08 pm

    This is so interesting and very welcome information. I recently read two books by Karel Schoeman, a biography on Olive Schreiner in which I got to know South African history a lot better than what they taught us at school. The other was a biography on Susanna Smit, wife of a missionary, Abel Erasmus. Forgive me, it’s a library book and I already returned it,and I don’t remember the dates. Healing history?

  2. 21 March 2013 10:50 am

    Thanks for your very interesting comments on this article Steve.

    It brought to mind to me that famous “saying”, which I once heard Desmond Tutu use (I wouldn’t ascribe it to Tutu, as I had read it somewhere years before):
    “When the white people came to Africa we had the land and they had bibles. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the bibles and they had the land”.

    • 21 March 2013 2:16 pm

      Yes the saying has been used by a lot of people over the years. It sounds like the kind of thing that might have been originated by Nosipho Majeke.

  3. 21 March 2013 11:30 am

    By the way there’s an older poignant article about Sechele, which I also recommend, here:

    “Nothing is left of Kolobeng except a few stones in the waste. Livingstone went on his way, wretched because he had lost a soul to Satan. Now there are towns and schools named after him all over the world. But Sechele, who remained to face famine and the Boer cavalry, who understood something about life on earth which Europeans are now learning only a century and a half later – why is there no centre of wisdom named after him? “

  4. johannasawyer permalink
    22 March 2013 7:13 am

    Fascinating information. Sechele sounds like a faithful Gospel preacher and builder of the church of Christ.

    The database you are building also sounds incredibly valuable. I pray that the project would be greatly blessed.

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