A cat may look at a king…

A cat may look at a king, as the saying goes in English – and a retired historian is surely not expected to be silent when his former employers’ long history is being celebrated, as it is in this year.

Blog Number 1: A problem of focus and balance. The Swiss Radio’s day of broadcasting about Mission, 2nd April 2015.
My first comment takes up two elements in a day-long string of broadcasts on the theme of “Mission” on Swiss Radio’s Second Programme on April 2nd. This was a radio response to the Basel Mission’s 200th anniversary. It looked at the idea of “mission” in more general ways, but returned frequently within this broad context to look at the Basel Mission’s past and its successor’s – Mission 21’s – present and future.
The problem with a jubilee of this kind, of course, is that it may turn out to concentrate too much on a single organisation or a single simple identity in order to call up and consolidate its supporters’ loyalty….whereas in fact the history of a missionary society is at least essentially a bilateral, and often much more a multilateral, matter. In this time when backward-looking emphases on national identity are endangering ecumenism, internationalism and the discovery of the dignity of other cultures, a narrow focus can be a retrograde conservative step.

The myth of the Basel Mission and Ghana’s cocoa industry.
A Swiss economic historian fell into this trap twice over in a long contribution on April 2ndon the Basel Mission and cocoa-growing in Ghana. She ascribed much more importance than she should have done to the Basel Mission’s efforts to introduce cocoa to Ghana. But she went on – her personal loyalty is probably to secular intellectual radicalism – to criticise the Basel Mission Trading Company for engaging already before 1914 in price-fixing with other Western companies when buying Ghanaian farmers’ cocoa. This would be a fair accusation against the successor organisation after 1918 (best known now as Union Trading Company, UTC). But other and more fundamental and positive things need urgently to be said about those pre-1914 years.
The origins of cocoa-growing in Ghana? True, Basel missionaries in Ghana tried to introduce cocoa as one part of their policy of introducing possible new cash-crops in the third quarter of the 19th century. But their plants did not thrive, and there is no evidence to link these efforts to the boom in cocoa-farming in Ghana in the 1890s. Indeed, while UTC attempted a glossy campaign to stress their ancestors’ role in the introduction of cocoa, when Ghana was becoming independent, the Ghanaians were propagating a vivid story credible as an oral counter-tradition. It was Tetteh Quarshie, they said, who brought cocoa seedlings from Fernando Po and inspired numberless other Ghanaians to start cocoa-farming off their own bat in the 1880s and 1890s. For a sober historian Tetteh Quarshie is a fair personification of the colossal range of Ghanaian initiatives which from 1890 quickly made Ghana the world’s leading cocoa-producer.
The emphasis on the Basel Mission as the initiator of coca-farming in this contribution had to slide past one of the classics of African economic history – Polly Hill’s Migrant Cocoa-Farmers of Southern Ghana, originally published in 1963, and republished in full in 1997. Hill followed up Government surveys of cocoa-farms, especially those started in the quarter of a century before the outbreak of the First World War. She published fascinating maps of the farmers’ land-holdings which showed that their traditional organisation dominated and directed what they were doing – not European ideas of plantation agriculture. And her analyses of the stories the farmers told her of their organisation of co-operation, in the clan or in spontaneous companies, according to their ethnic origins, made the same point. This was not only a massive expression of Ghanaian initative – it was Ghanaians working together in their own ways.
African History is in one sense a massive history of African migrations and the colonisation of empty lands, and this must be one of the best studies ever of an African colonisation movement. Of course, each colonisation is different. Here in the interior of the GoldCoast Africans were selling and buying land already around 1850 for palm-oil cultivation. And African farmers were already behaving like capitalists by the 1890s, putting their heads together to buy up land from a local chief when they had capital or could raise a loan at favourable interest, dividing it up and holding it in fallow until prices favoured the investment of labour to start a yet another new cocoa farm.
Polly Hill – also committed to secular radicalism, I think – put her telescope to her blind eye when she might have written about the Basel Mission and Ghanaian coca-farmers. But she should have thought beyond the image of missionaries and evangelisation and a church discipline which didn’t like to see its Christians migrating to remote places to farm cocoa, if that was how she saw the Basel Mission. And Andrea Franc, the author of this contribution, should have thought further than the later exploitative price-fixing of the big buying companies when looking at the broad Basel Mission involvement in what happened. In the 19th century the Basel missionaries were themselves connected to a traditional movement of villagers looking for empty land to settle and new cash-crops to grow prosperous with. Their German families of origin were also often sending people off in the German emigration to the empty lands of the United States, Australia and (European) Russia. Contact with Basel missionaries will have meant for Ghanaian farmers contact with people with, at base, a strong sense of the importance of a questing, explorative, expansive attitude to agriculture. Contact with Mission trading posts also meant contact with fair and honest services for African farmers, both in buying raw materials (palm oil even before cocoa) and in selling – not alcohol and weapons but – useful objects like tools, cloth, lamps, bicycles – and books and paper. Ghanaian farmers upscaled their efforts to an incredible degree in producing cocoa in the 1890s and 1900s. The Basel Mission Trading Company upscaled its efforts to provide services for the farmers and their massively increased need to shift cocoa by using, selling and servicing motor vehicles. The “Basel Mission” in this sense was probably the first organisation to import cars and lorries to the Gold Coast in any numbers, already c.1910.
The idea that the Basel Mission initiated cocoa farming in Ghana is merely a legend. It was Ghanaian farmers who initiated coca-farming, backed up with a Government supply of cocoa seedlings. And in the years just before 1914 experts on African development knew that Ghanaian cocoa farmers provided an impressively successful example of self-driven development to set against self-serving colonial ideas of African primitivity and incompetence unless “African labour” was organised and disciplined by the West. So we have to go further and say that a pleasant legend for people celebrating the Basel Mission jubilee is not only misleading. It blocks us from remembering and understanding the scale of initiative and competence people in Africa can develop if they have the chance. But the practical general development work of the Basel Mission, which provided services to handle the results of this Ghanaian initiative, does deserve to be newly defined and carefully evaluated.

Mission 21, North-East Nigeria and the Americans
In the same set of programmes an interview was broadcast with Claudia Bandixen, the Director of Mission 21, about the organisation’s work in North-East Nigeria, the region suffering from weekly, indeed probably daily, atrocities committed by Boko Haram. This was encouraging in the way what began by describing Mission 21’s work there spread, step-by-step, under the questioning of Maya Brändli, first to include the bilateral relationship with a Nigerian partner church (though I don’t think it was ever named) and then the trilateral relationships involving also that church’s American partner.
Maya Brändli had been responsible for putting together the marathon series of reports and discussions of mission on 2nd April, and it was, for me, an observation which she introduced into the discussion which opened things up and led to talk about the American involvement. The Swiss Radio Africa correspondent, she told Ms Bandixen, had been in Nigeria and been horrified by the number of highly conservative American missionaries responding to Boko Haram by going to Nigeria to preach an aggressive anti-Islamic message – in my words the “tea-party” in action. Ms Bandixen could immediatgely respond by telling listeners that she had indeed been visiting the partner church in Nigeria recently. She was able immediately to say how in the refugee camps in which you find members of her partner church you also find many Muslims. Moderate middle-of-the-road Muslims are also suffering under the depredations of Boko Haram. So a key point in Mission 21’s strategy is to be as even-handed as possible between Christians and Muslims in any assistance it may be able to give. Furthermore the Nigerian partner church has its doors firmly closed against the new wave of conservative missionaries stirring up trouble.
And then came, for me, the key opening. The Basel Mission’s partner in North-East Nigeria has also, Ms Bandixen said, an American partner, which was in fact the mission which founded that Nigerian church decades before it invited the Basel Mission to join its work there. Ms Bandixen is planning a visit to that church in the USA to sign a mutual code of conduct on their policies in this tense and difficult situation. If I understood it rightly, this will regulate the way the two organisations try to co-operate to eschew aggressive Christian radicalism, to dampen down all dangers of even broader inter-religious conflict, and to stand for a liberal, open attitude to people practising a moderate Islam in the region.
I would have liked more to have been said about those Americans – energetic, practical people, a church with a beautifully-organised democratic tradition, in which – when I was able to be there – four thousand men, women and children took a week’s holiday to meet for an annual conference conducted at an impressively high level. Their ancestors had been religious refugees, Anabaptists from the German-speaking world. Ancestors in Canton Bern had been sent to the galleys in Genoa. Two ancestors from the old Canton Basel (from Füllinsdorf/Frenkendorf!) had been imprisoned in Basel’s Spalentor (at one end, nowadays, of Mission 21’s Missionsstrasse of Mission 21), before being expelled. But the major thing we need to know when we think about them and Nigeria is that they are a peace church. Many of them have practised pacifism for generations. It’s bad enough meeting something like Boko Haram when you are from a Christian tradition which takes up armed defence when it is attacked. But to meet Boko Haram as pacifists? That involves a whole new dimension of anguish and self-questioning which we ought to hold in our hearts when we think about them, and the church they inspired in North-East Nigeria.
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Back to the question of how one celebrates a Basel Mission’s 200th anniversary. I think it would be fair to say that as you listened to the beginning of Ms Bandixen’s interview about North-Eastern Nigeria you wouldn’t have expected it blossom into an interesting presentation of Mission 21 as part of a dynamic triangle of fellowship with one foot in the USA, where many of the key battles about the nature of protestant mission have to be fought out. It seemed to begin by being orientated to strengthen loyalty to, and identity with, Mission 21 among people in Switzerland already supporting it. But Maya Brändli opened up. Sadly, there was no-one there to ask the necessary awkward questions about Dr Franc’s both over-patriotic and falsely critical presentation on the Basel Mission and the Ghanaian cocoa industry before 1914.