Jesuit Historiography in Africa
(8,011 words)

Festo Mkenda, S.J.

Last modified: January 2017


Jesuit history in Africa can be easily divided into three main periods. The first period goes back to the earliest Jesuit missions in Africa, which began in the former Kingdom of the Kongo (1390–1857) and in Morocco in 1548 and lasted until the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portuguese dominions in 1759. Although this period encompasses minor missions like that in Cape Verde, which lasted from 1604 to 1642,1  I shall focus only on the major ones in the Kingdom of the Kongo, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, which have been studied by several historians. The second period extends from the first return to Africa after the 1814 restoration of the order to the end of World War II in 1945. After the restoration, Jesuits entered Madagascar as early as in 1832. However, since no lasting ministry was established on the island before 1861, the inaugural mission of the second period is appropriately that of French Jesuits in Algeria, which began in 1840. The period’s large missions are those in Madagascar, Southern Africa, and the Congo region, whose historiography will be considered at length below. Its smaller missions in Fernando Pó (now Bioko, part of Equatorial Guinea) and Egypt will not be discussed. Although they are a part of the second-period history, Jesuit presence in Fernando Pó between 1845 and 1859 is just being discovered,2 whereas Jesuit presence in Egypt has always been studied in the context of the Middle East.3 The closing date for the second period—the end of World War II—is based purely on the enormous increase of Jesuit activity on the continent after the war. Although other authors have considered the decade of political independence in Africa (1960s) to be the tail end of the second period,4 we observe significant increase of Jesuit activity in Africa even earlier. The third period extends from World War II to the present and is marked by the multiplication and spread of Jesuit works beyond the three major missions of the second period—Madagascar, the Zambezi region,5 and the Congo region—to other parts of the continent.


Historiography of the First Period, 1548–1759

Lasting over two centuries, the first period of Jesuit history in Africa is chronologically the most expansive. During this period, Jesuits produced several documents of a historical nature. These exist mainly as primary sources in the form of letters and reports, which have been used by historians for the study of the regions where the Jesuits worked. For his works on the history of southern Africa, for example, the monumental historian George McCall Theal (1837–1919) admitted to have relied considerably on such Jesuit records, describing them as “the clearest, best written, and far the most interesting documents now in existence upon the country.”6

Despite the existence of such primary records, there was very little effort to study the history of the Jesuits in Africa during the first period of their missions on the continent. With the exception of Ethiopia, which we shall see below, the Jesuits themselves did not write a history of their missions. Instead, they produced biographies, catechisms, ethnographies, and literature of an adventurous nature. A basic historiography can, however, be distilled from these books. The biography of Gonçalo da Silveira (1526–61), first published in Latin in 1612 with extensive details of his martyrdom at the Kingdom of Monomotapa (present-day Zimbabwe),7 could easily be the earliest book-length account of actual events that happened in the interior of southern Africa to be written in a European language. Its Jesuit author, Nicolau Godinho (1569–1616), set out not only to narrate the martyrdom of one Jesuit in the heart of Africa, but also elaborated on a mission that involved three Jesuits and lasted between 1560 and 1572. To a very large extent, however, the history of that brief mission has focused almost exclusively on the story of the one who served it only briefly, that is, the martyred Silveira. The trend has been continued for a purpose. As William Rea would write in 1960: “When so much is being said about the Europeans who oppressed them [the blacks of Southern Africa], it is only right to keep in respectful memory Silveira, and others like him, who uncomplainingly served and died for them.”8

Godinho also wrote Silveira’s story in the hope of inspiring others to go to southern Africa. Indeed, the publication, approved by Claudio Acquaviva (1543–1615), then superior general of the Society, came out just as another Jesuit attempt to enter into the Mozambique region was gaining momentum. This second mission, which later history would call the first Zambezi Mission, started in 1610 and lasted until the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portuguese dominions in 1759. Besides the kind of primary sources that Theal praised,9 there is no known historical study of this mission that is contemporary to the events. Even after the restoration of the Jesuits in 1814, the Mozambique story was mentioned in passing in broader narratives about the Society in Portuguese dominions. The complete absence of a serious treatment of Mozambique in Francisco Rodrigues’s História da Companhia de Jesus na Assistência de Portugal10 probably communicates wilful avoidance of what some considered a failed mission than ignorance of close to two centuries of a history that was so obviously relevant to the author’s topic.11 In fact, prior to his monumental work, Rodrigues had already written about Mozambique in a small pamphlet.12 The first serious treatment of the subject came only in 1967 with António da Silva’s study of the missiological mentality of the Jesuits in Mozambique.13

The practice of making only a cursory mention of the first Zambezi Mission without much analysis or of ignoring it completely remained dominant in works written in English, even after Silva’s ground-breaking study. William Bangert, for example, said nothing about this mission in his 1972 general history of the Society, even though he paid some attention to Jesuit activities elsewhere in Africa.14 A notable exception to this trend is William Rea’s (1908–80) The Economics of the Zambezi Mission published in 1976.15 Initially written as a doctoral thesis, the book builds on Silva’s Mentalidade missiológica dos jesuítas em Moçambique and, going beyond it, provides an in-depth analysis of the way the Jesuits financed their activities during the first Zambezi Mission. Rea exposes the weaknesses in a poorly financed undertaking that was doomed to fail even if the 1759 suppression had never happened. Subsequent works in the Portuguese language have given the mission some attention, albeit by narrating events without in-depth analysis of reasons for successes and failures or of opportunities that were either taken or missed.16

Unlike the first Zambezi Mission, pre-suppression Jesuit work in the present-day Congo–Angola region received greater attention after the restoration. In his history of the Society in the Portuguese Assistancy, Rodrigues included an extensive chapter on the missions in Angola and Mazagão (now El Jadida, Morocco).17 The chapter is essentially an account of Jesuit involvement in the evangelization and civilization of the inhabitants of an inhospitable area, which fits well into standard European narratives about Africa before World War II. However, the chapter stands out as a good narrative of the mission’s basic events and more prominent personalities and, as such, serves as a primary source material or at least a pointer to the existence of such material. Another useful summary of the same events and of the role played by the Jesuits in the primary evangelization of Angola is found in Manuel Nunes Gabriel’s (1912–96) Os jesuítas.18 In this little book, as in several other places,19 much is appreciated about the extent and depth of Jesuit work in this part of Africa. The book shows, for example, that, unlike in Mozambique, the Jesuits in Angola made an effort to translate the faith into a cultural language that would be understood by their indigenous hearers. Himself a former archbishop of Luanda, Manuel Gabriel remains faithful to harmless ecclesiastical history and, as one reviewer of another work of his puts it, provides “a conventional narrative to show how, if not why, Angola has become one of the most Christianized countries in Africa.”20

Even though Jesuit history in Angola has not been studied extensively, systematically, and critically, the historiography that can be discerned from disparate writings is interesting, not least because it is neither a narrative of complete failure nor of unmitigated success. David Livingstone (1813–73), the nineteenth-century Protestant pioneer missionary, praised the Jesuits in Angola for their exploitation of locally available resources to finance their work, but lamented their dismal performance in imparting lasting faith on their converts.21 The standard narrative has largely oscillated between these two positions, with some historians applauding Jesuit industry and achievement in Angola and others decrying their co-existence with a colonial regime that sanctioned the regretted trade in African slaves. An excellently nuanced but brief discussion of the Angola mission before the Society’s suppression, which is largely based on examination of original sources, appears in Dauril Alden’s The Making of an Enterprise. Questioning the claims of extensive missions to natives and revealing significant tensions between the Portuguese governors of Angola and the Jesuit missionaries, Alden shows that there were multiple and divergent opinions about nearly every aspect of Jesuit work in the south-western part of Africa.22 If Gabriel carefully stays within the bounds of ecclesiastical history, Alden wastes no time on what a colleague has called “hagiographic Christian history.”23

Even though the Jesuits were in Angola much longer than they were in Ethiopia during the first period, the history of the latter mission has attracted greater attention. Jesuits themselves wrote histories of the Ethiopian mission even before the suppression of the order (1767; papal brief Dominus ac Redemptor, 1773). Pedro Páez’s (1564–1622) Historia Aethiopiae,24 which was completed just before his death, was written as a general history of the country, but contains significant material about the first Jesuit mission to Ethiopia under Bishop Andrés de Oviedo (1518–77). Although later historians present Oviedo as a failed diplomat and a somewhat cut-down version of Páez, the latter paints an image of the bishop as both a heroic missionary and a Christian martyr.25 It is Páez, however, who stands out in later interpretations (especially, though not exclusively, by Jesuits) as a successful protagonist in the middle of a narrative about a mission that had a troubled beginning and a disastrous ending.26 The ending involved the expulsion of the Jesuits from Ethiopia in 1632 and the violent deaths of eight of their number, some of them through public execution. The most common narrative has apportioned a significant share of the blame to Alfonso Mendes (1579–1659), Páez’s successor and Catholic patriarch of Ethiopia, whose diplomatic skills, like those of Oviedo, pale in comparison to those of the hero of this historical viewpoint.

That viewpoint has been dominant indeed, but extant multiple interpretations of the same events do not suggest that that was the only one possible. In a work published in 1963, Girma Besham and Merid Wolde Aregay dispute the portrayal of Mendes as an outright villain who bears greater responsibility for the collapse of the Jesuit mission in Ethiopia, and assign a humbler place to Páez.27 More recent authors have carried this assessment further. Adrian Hastings, for example, argues that Páez could have even contributed to the later misfortunes that befell the mission.28 The long editorial introduction to Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia by Boavida, Pennec, and Ramos could easily be considered the most recent and most concise scholarly opinion on this matter. They present a varied reading of Páez’s role: a discoverer of the sources of the Blue Nile; a linguist and a competent author;29 a victim of Portuguese-Spanish nationalistic antagonism, whom Jesuit authors excluded from prominence in previous years;30 an immodest author-narrator, who “gave himself a leading role in the process by which the Jesuits gradually established themselves in Ethiopia and gained the royal ear”;31 and a subject of a new plot to make him a hero, started by Jesuits and now carried forward by others, especially Spanish scholars and diplomats.32 This varied interpretation clearly points to recent shifts in the historiography. Probably no one is better positioned to highlight this shift than Leonardo Cohen, who, together with Martínez d’Alòs-Moner, produced a comprehensive analytical bibliography of the Jesuit mission in Ethiopia from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.33 In another place, Cohen points out that old conclusions are being reconsidered and new questions being raised, which await further research:  “How much of the failure of Catholicism can be attributed to the patriarch’s lack of flexibility? How much was Mendes himself a victim of post-Tridentine conceptions of his age and to what degree did he have to submit to the demands of the Propaganda Fide which held ultimate responsibility for the Eastern missions after 1622?”34 In a similar vein, and in his recent monograph that aims at being a comprehensive narrative of the entire mission and at filling gaps in existing historiography, Martínez d’Alòs-Moner still argues that “the interpretive possibilities which this episode offers are far from being exhausted,” adding that “the amount of historical information available is such that more studies are urgently needed.”35

Besides the focus on the Jesuits as such, the early missions in Ethiopia have been studied for other purposes, including ethnological, political, geographical, economic, and architectural ones. In such histories, the Jesuits appear as an essential part of nearly every Ethiopian national narrative.36 Sometimes they are viewed positively as those who contributed to culture, especially art and architecture,37 and at other times they are presented as intruders and detractors, who were defeated by peasant resilience and by the great emperor, Fasilides (1603–67).38 All this helps to show that, compared to the other Jesuit missions in Africa, that in Ethiopia in the first period has the richest and most varied historiography, and yet it remains widely open to new discoveries and fresh interpretations.


Historiography of the Second Period, 1860–1945

The second period of Jesuit history in Africa runs concurrently with nineteenth-century European incursions into the continent and its adjacent islands.39 French Jesuit activity in Madagascar opens up this period. By the 1860s, they had established a number of stations around the colony and had founded a mission that would go through a series of persecutions and expulsions before it finally became a stable presence in 1896 and lasted to our day.

The Jesuits are counted among the primary evangelizers of the Red Island, as Madagascar was sometimes referred to. For this reason, every major study of Christianity in Madagascar addresses the experience of the Jesuits on the island in some significant way. In such works, the Jesuits simply appear as the vanguard of Catholicism in a history that is largely one of a Catholic-Protestant contest. Momentary victory on either side depended on the inclination of whoever occupied the royal throne at the center of Malagasy politics in a particular period. Such is the general historical overview presented in Camille de la Vaissière’s (1836–87) Histoire de Madagascar;40 it is still the dominant narrative in more recent works of the same nature.41 When they make reference to Madagascar, more general Jesuit works view the recurrent expulsions of Catholics from the central part of the island as resulting from Protestant machinations.42 Among the problems faced by the Malagasy Jesuit mission, for example, Thomas J. Campbell (1848–1925) included not only “the gross immorality of the people who are, in consequence, almost impervious to religious teaching,” but also the easiness with which such alleged immorality was “captured by the money that pours into the country from England and Norway”43 —the two countries symbolizing Anglicanism and Protestantism in general.

Deserving a special attention is the work of Adrien Bourdou (1876–1945) that was published in two volumes in 1940 under the title Les jésuites à Madagascar au xixe siècle.44  The author was an experienced historian; actually he had published other works before he moved to Madagascar in 1928. At the beginning of Les jésuites à Madagascar, he made his perspective clear to the reader: “I have written this history with the greatest sympathy for those who actually lived and suffered at that time. As one who belongs to the religious family and to the mission of those that I have put on stage, I have no need to defend that or to quash those feelings.”45 His is thus primarily a sympathetic history of the Jesuit mission in Madagascar, although it is also one that was meticulously researched and whose sources were professionally interrogated. Moreover, he boasted of having treated Protestants sympathetically as well, giving them credit when they merited it, and speaking bluntly about their errors.46 The link between the history of Christianity and that of politics in nineteenth-century Madagascar manifests itself clearly in Boudou’s two volumes, further making his work both groundbreaking and indispensable reference for the modern historian of the island. It must also be mentioned that, while in Madagascar, Boudou published the first biography of Jacques Berthieu (1838–96),47 who was later recognized as a martyr and was canonized in 2012. Today, Saint Jacques is the most obvious link between Malagasy Catholicism and Jesuit history on the island.

The encounter between Jesuits and Protestants in Madagascar, shaped as it was by the local political context, is material for an interesting chapter in Jesuit missionary history. From the Jesuit perspective, sources for the study of such history are abundant. For example, abridged or entire letters of nineteenth–century French missionaries to Madagascar were made accessible in the journal Lettres de Vals, which was published under different titles since 1838.48 However, the subject remains hopelessly understudied, and the historiography is yet to be developed beyond the point where Boudou left it in 1940.

Like their companions in Madagascar, nineteenth–century Jesuit missionaries in southern Africa were involved in primary evangelization of the region. Theirs came to be known more properly as the Zambezi Mission—the second after the largely unfruitful efforts in Mozambique before the suppression of the Society. Arriving via present-day South Africa in 1875, the Jesuits in the mission then proceeded to Zimbabwe and Zambia and, at different times, also covered Mozambique. Directed from the headquarters in Rome, and with its manpower mobilized from various provinces and nationalities, the second Zambezi Mission was the largest Jesuit undertaking in Africa since the founding of the Society.

A history that is contemporary to the mission is to be found in twenty-four chapters that was serialized in the mission’s journal, The Zambesi Mission Record, from the first volume (1898) to the third (1909). This first history endeavored to be a complete narrative of the mission from its very beginning, with details of persons involved, places crossed, communities encountered, and activities carried out at every specific moment. It was designed to portray the bare facts of the mission, as it were, and that in an interesting narrative—a view of history that was not too uncommon amongst scholars of the period. In a way, collections of letters and diaries from the mission, some of them published in the missionaries’ lifetime, were not viewed merely as source material for a future study of that undertaking, but as expositions of its historical facts, which in themselves would be of interest to the targeted readership of that time.49 Their style aimed at raising curiosity among “home readers” in England to whom The Zambesi Mission Record was addressed, or colleagues and family members in Belgium, as well as “the benefactors of the Zambezi Mission,” to whom the printed letters were sent. Thus, significant aspects of their content fit into a genre in colonial historiography where Africa and the African are described to the curious outsider, with the period’s common value judgments carefully weaved into the narratives.

Because of the imposing magnitude of the operation, and probably as a result of easy access to the sources related to it, the second Zambezi Mission has attracted significant attention in the literature. Besides the Ethiopian mission in the first period, the Zambezi Mission is the most mentioned Jesuit activity in Africa in early twentieth-century histories of the Society. However, the little space allocated to it is almost entirely taken up by adventure-like descriptions that are situated in contexts of hostile natives and inhospitable environments. For example, to describe the “splendid manifestations of the old heroic spirit of the Society” that he claims the mission evoked, Thomas Campbell writes about Charles Wehl (1838–81), “who was separated from his companions and wandered for twenty-six days in the bush, luckily escaping the wild beasts and finally falling into the hands of some Kaffirs who were about to put him to death, when he was saved by the opportune arrival of an English gold-hunter.”50 The style is dictated by a target audience that is constituted by curious outsiders, allowing little room for the analysis of the mission’s actual performance.

A change in the historiography of the second Zambezi Mission appears much later in the twentieth century when historians, Jesuits as well as non-Jesuits, began to study the endeavor from a post-independence perspective. Their studies draw from a broader approach that demanded the Africanization of nearly everything, including Christianity,51 or at least a view of things from the perspective of the most common African. Francisco Correia applies this critical approach to his 1992 study of the missionary methods of the Jesuits in Mozambique during the second Zambezi Mission.52 Correia situates the Jesuit story in the context of nineteenth-century Africa, which he considers to be the most controversial period of African history. It is within that context that he presents the church as a significant player, who has had an undeniable impact on the religious, cultural, and economic history of present-day Africa. Judy Anne Ryan’s 1999 Master’s thesis, which is on the second Zambezi Mission, applies the post-independence approach rather masterfully.53 In a rich analysis, she places local Jesuit missionaries in the Zambezi region within regional and global contexts in order to assess their strategies and overall performance. Paying attention to indigenous lay actors, she shows how much the mission’s success actually depended on the Jesuits’ ability to collaborate with them towards an inculturation of the new religion. In the end, Ryan goes beyond simple narration of the mission’s successes and failures and tells the reader why the Jesuits succeeded or failed. Nicholas Creary uses a closely similar approach in his 2011 book on the Jesuits and the inculturation of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe.54 Treating a contemporary subject (inculturation) within an ambitious timeframe (1879–1980), he tells a simple story of institutional failure, albeit one in which voices of lay actors that his work would have benefited from are scantily listened to.55 Rather than reflecting a failure on the part of the author, the shortcomings in Creary’s work manifest the lofty demands of post-independence historiography in Africa, whether political, ethnological, or ecclesiastical.

Another important mission in the second period is that of the Belgian Jesuits in the Congo region that constitutes today’s Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which started in 1893. Like their counterparts in the Zambezi region, the Jesuits are counted among the primary evangelizers of the DRC where as many as ninety-one of their members served a population of about 60,000 Catholics in 1931. Belgian Jesuits published a missionary journal, first called Précis historiques (1852–98), then Mission Belges de la Compagnie de Jésus (1889–1926), then Revue missionnaire des jésuites belges (1927–51). Although the journal does not contain a systematic presentation of the history of the Belgian Jesuits in the DRC, it remains an indispensable source for its study. Diaries of individual missionaries serialized in the journal were probably designed to have the same effect as the publication of letters from missionaries in the second Zambezi Mission. Similarly, biographies of Jesuit missionaries in the DRC that were published fairly early in the life of the mission seem to have been designed to attain the same goal.56 The first attempt at a history of the Jesuit mission in the DRC is that by Ivan de Pierpont (1879–1937), which covers 135 pages in a 1906 volume that also treated Belgian Jesuit missions in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Bengal.57 Faithful to the style of the time, Pierpont’s history is largely descriptive of the mission and its African context. By telling a story of Jesuit heroism in the midst of inhospitable lands and among indigenous Africans who were, in general, “incapable of understanding,”58 Pierpont set the tone for a narrative that would last through most of early twentieth century.59

Pierpont dedicated a whole chapter to the “chapel-farms”—a short-lived Jesuit missionary innovation in the DRC—which involved the creation of little villages exclusively for the youth, each consisting of a chapel, a missionary lodge, a farm, and accommodations for children and for a few married couples. The chapel-farms were also linked by a road network that was designed by the missionaries. In the early days, they attracted praise and criticism in equal measure. The Jesuits were even accused of reconstructing in the DRC the “reductions” of Paraguay, a charge they vehemently refuted.60 In recent times, the chapel-farms have been re-evaluated: at times viewed as a misplacement of nineteenth-century “poorhouse farms” of Flanders, which had been designed as “decentralized depots for human misery,”61 and at other times as evidence of missionary contribution to the material development of the Kwilu region of the DRC.62 Given the controversy around them, the chapel-farms remain an open subject, probably calling for a monograph of exposition and critical analysis.

The mission of the Jesuits in the DRC has received great attention in recent times, with articles and dissertations written on aspects of it,63 and with some of the dissertations turned into monographs.64 A 1993 collection of colloquium papers published as La Compagnie de Jésus et l’evangélisation en Afrique Centrale,65 which marked the centenary of Jesuit arrival in the DRC, represents another major effort at demonstrating Jesuit contribution, achievement, and legacy in the country. Two themes stand out in these recent works: first, Jesuits as agents of positive evangelization and material development in the DRC; and, second, Jesuits as mediators between oppressed African populations on the one hand and oppressive colonial government on the other. Regarding the latter theme, instances of disagreement on policy matters and of direct confrontation between the Jesuits and the Belgian colonial government are usually showcased. Influenced by the post-independence historiography in Africa, some of the authors approach their sources critically, thus going beyond the earlier praise of Jesuit heroism in hostile contexts and, instead, highlighting contributions of indigenous actors and the general impact on the mission of local context, including the cultural. However, the general style remains that of sympathetic ecclesiastical history, suggesting that, to a large extent, the full impact of post-independence historiography is yet to be felt in the study of the Jesuit mission in the DCR. For instance, although a Jesuit–Protestant contest theme is alluded to in some cases, it is nowhere developed beyond simple mentioning to actual encounters, whether cordial or confrontational.66 In a situation where most of the Jesuits were Belgians in a Belgian colony and their Protestant counterparts were either British or American, it would be interesting to find out how national politics might have influenced Jesuit–Protestant encounters in the DRC.


Historiography of the Third Period, 1945–2016

It is probably too early to undertake an analysis of Jesuit historiography in Africa in the third period. This is because history is still unfolding, and not much has been written about Jesuit initiatives in Africa after World War II. However, the post-war initiatives are by far the most expansive geographically and the most localized in the entire history of the Society’s involvement with the African continent, a fact which commands some attention. When Africans clamored for political independence, the Society of Jesus also returned to Ethiopia and from their broadened activities to other countries beyond those covered by the Madagascar, the Zambezi, and the DRC missions. The histories of today’s Jesuit provinces of Eastern Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda), West Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central Africa, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal), and North-West Africa (Ghana, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone) belong entirely to this third period. There seems to be an unstudied link between political independence and increased Jesuit activity in Africa, as, indeed, missionary activity in general.67

Nevertheless, there has been a growing interest in Jesuit history in Africa in recent years, and even the old missions are being studied afresh. Works like that of Creary’s Inculturating a Religious Import, which I discussed above, flow from the second period to the third, and use an approach that is substantially post-independence. Another notable attempt in the same approach is the volume edited by Edward Murphy under the title A History of the Jesuits in Zambia, which traces the entire history of the Zambian segment of the second Zambezi Mission from its beginning to the time of the volume’s publication.68 Murphy’s is more of a library with books on various themes than a book with a thematic focus. If post-independence historiography demanded highlighting the African context and appreciating local input, this particular collection of papers does it to the extreme. The Jesuit story appears almost choked by chapters on the global revival of missionary activity in the nineteenth century, the Tonga (a Zambian people’s) view of the past, a general history of Zambia, a general history of the church in Zambia, to name but a few. The history of the Jesuits in Zambia is thus proposed as an overarching narrative about a complex reality, whose appropriate understanding demands a conceptual framework embracing the social, cultural, political, and economic nexus that is the Zambian reality today.69

In his preface to the volume just discussed, Murphy points to the quest for a coherent narrative of the Society’s mission in Africa, which Jesuits could pass on to successive generations.70 Recent attempts at comprehensive histories have tended to respond to that quest as they have seemed to deal with a genuine frustration about what looks like a missing chapter in Jesuit history. Two articles published in the Year Book of the Society of Jesus, both by men who were councilors at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, could be counted among the first in this new trend.71 In a similar vein, a small booklet by Brian McGarry, most likely printed in 1987 and probably designed for those seeking to join the Society, situated the story of the Jesuits in Africa in a broader context of their global history, even as it showcased various missions and activities in different parts of the continent.72 Leon de Saint Moulin’s already cited Histoire des jésuites en Afrique: Du xvie siècle à nos jours is just the latest development and also the most comprehensive in this trend.

Following the same style are a number of recent publications that focus on specific regions in Africa but attempt to be comprehensive narratives of the entire Jesuit history in the regions concerned. From Generation to Generation is a volume by the Jesuits of Nigeria and Ghana, who, on the thirtieth anniversary of their mission, sought, on the one hand, “to set forth a professionally accurate account of the growth of the mission based for its detail on primary sources,” and, on the other hand, “to create a narrative that would more easily communicate to readers the broad outline of the mission’s growth and accomplishments.”73 To merit a place in post-independence historiography, the book contains some material on the political history of Nigeria and Ghana, and pays some attention to the impact on the mission of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70). In the end, however, the authors stuck to the Jesuit story, largely avoiding the complexities of contextualization. Two other books written in a closely similar style pay greater attention to the complex relationship between politics and Jesuit missions in Africa. The first is this author’s already referred to Mission for Everyone, which traces Jesuit presence in Eastern Africa from 1555 to 2012. It contains substantial material on the Canadian Jesuits’ interactions with the government of Emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) in Ethiopia, Indian Jesuits’ involvement in the Sudan after European missionaries had been expelled from the country in 1964, and Pedro Arrupe’s (1907–91) influence on the growth of the Society in post-independence and post-Vatican II Africa. The second and most recent publication in this category is Stéphane Nicaise’s Les missions jésuites dans l’Océan Indien, which covers the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius.74 Nicaise situates the Jesuit missions not only in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence context of the three islands, but also in the middle of the maritime trade that connected Europe and Asia. In the end, if Jesuits settled and thrived in the three islands, Nicaise suggests, it is because of a combination of factors, some of which were quite accidental to the Jesuit missions themselves. And, in turn, the Jesuits left their marks on the specific identities of Madagascar and the so-called Sister Islands of Réunion and Mauritius.

The historiographical survey presented here fails to speak for the whole of Africa, especially for those parts of the continent that have not yet enjoyed a thorough scholarly coverage by historians. For broad outlines of general histories, a number of anniversary articles in the Year Book of the Society of Jesus—on Central Africa (DRC and Angola),75 Eastern Africa,76 Mozambique,77 North-West Africa,78 and Rwanda–Burundi (Rwanda and Burundi)79 —could be handy. These present comprehensive, if condensed, chronologies of persons and events in the named provinces and regions. However, to a large extent, they showcase Jesuit work and achievement over the years without pretending to analyze reasons for success or failure.


For more bibliographical information, consult Boston College Jesuit Bibliography: The New Sommervogel Online (NSO).


^ Back to text1. For a study of this mission see Nuno da Silva Gonçalves, Os jesuítas e a missão de Cabo Verde (1604–1642) (Lisbon: Brotéria, 1996).

^ Back to text2. The only study of the mission known to this author is Jean Luc Enyegue, "The Jesuits in Fernando Pó (1858–1872): An Incomplete Mission," in Jesuit Survival and Restoration: A Global History, 1773–1900, ed. Robert A. Maryks and Jonathan Wright (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 482–502.

^ Back to text3. See, for example, Henri Jalabert, La vice-province du Proche-Orient de la Compagnie de Jésus: Égypte, Syrie, Liban (Beyrouth: Imprimerie Catholique, 1960), and Charles Libois, La Compagnie de Jésus au "Levant": La province du Proche-Orient; Notices Historiques (Beyrouth: Dar-el-Machreq, 2009), 41–58, passim.

^ Back to text4. Léon de Saint Moulin, Histoire des Jésuites en Afrique: Du xvie siècle à nos jours (Namur: Éditions jésuites, 2016), 10.

^ Back to text5. "Zambezi" is the current and more appropriate spelling of the name in line with local pronunciation, although old sources in English spell it as "Zambesi," due to Portuguese influence. While I have opted for the current spelling, I have retained the old one where it appears in titles; for example, Zambesi Mission Record.

^ Back to text6. George McCall Theal, A History of Africa South of the Zambesi: From the Settlement of the Portuguese at Sofala in September 1505 to the Conquest of the Cape Colony by the British in September 1795, 3rd ed., 3 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1916), 1:442.

^ Back to text7. Nicolao Godigno, Patris Gonzali Sylveriae, Societatis Iesu sacerdotis, in urbe Monomotapa martyrium passi (Lyons: Sumptibus Horatij Cardon, 1612).

^ Back to text8. W. F. Rea, Gonçalo Silveira: Protomartyr of Southern Africa (Salisbury: Rhodesiana Society, 1960), iii; see also Hubert Chadwick, Life of the Venerable Gonçalo da Silveira of the Society of Jesus: Pioneer Missionary and Proto-Martyr of South Africa from Original Sources (London: Manresa Press, 1910); Francisco Correia, O Venerável Padre Gonçalo da Silveira: Proto-mártir da África Austral (1521–1561) (Braga: Editorial A. O., 2006).

^ Back to text9. These would include, for example, the extensive report of Francisco de Monclaro (1531–95) now appearing under the title "Relatio de expeditione Monomotapensi: Annis 1569–1573," in Documenta Indica (Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu), ed. Ioseph Wicki, 8 vols. (Rome: MHSI, 1964), 8:673–739.

^ Back to text10. Francisco Rodrigues, História da Companhia de Jesus na Assistệncia de Portugal, 7 vols. (Porto: Livraria Apostolado da Imprensa, 1931–50).

^ Back to text11. Thomas J. Campbell, The Jesuits, 1534–1921: A History of the Society of Jesus from its Foundation to the Present Time (Boston: Milford House, 1971 [1922]), 85; W. F. Rea, "Agony on the Zambezi: The First Christian Mission to Southern Africa and its Failure," Zambezia 1, no. 2 (1970): 46-53.

^ Back to text12. Francisco Rodrigues, Os jesuítas portugueses na África Oriental 1560–1759: 1890–1910 (Porto: Tipografia Porto Médico, 1927).

^ Back to text13. António da Silva, Mentalidade missiológica dos jesuítas em Moçambique antes de 1759 (Lisboa: Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, 1967).

^ Back to text14. William V. Bangert, A History of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1972), 89–91, 161–63.

^ Back to text15. William Francis Rea, The Economics of the Zambezi Mission 1580–1759 (Rome: IHSI, 1976).

^ Back to text16. See, for example, José Augusto Alves de Souza, Os jesuítas em Moçambique, 1541–1991: No cinquentenário do quarto periodo da nossa missão (Braga: Livraria Apostolado da Imprensa, 1991), 63–67.

^ Back to text17. Rodrigues, História da Companhia de Jesus, 4/1:221–51.

^ Back to text18. Manuel Nunes Gabriel, Os jesuítas na primeira evangelização de Angola (Cucujãs: Biblioteca Evangelização e Culturas, 1993).

^ Back to text19. See John Baur, 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa: An African Church History, 2nd ed. (Paulines Publications Africa: Nairobi, 2009), 73–74.

^ Back to text20. Gervase Clarence-Smith, Review of Manuel Nunes Gabriel's Angola: Cinco séculos de Cristianismo, Journal of African History 26, no. 4 (1985): 441.

^ Back to text21. David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa (London: Ward, Lock & Co. Limited, 1957), 204, 330.

^ Back to text22. Dauril Alden, The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond, 1540–1750 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 212–18.

^ Back to text23. From a private correspondence with Dr. Angus Crichton (research associate, Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide).

^ Back to text24. Petrus Paez, Historia Aethiopiae in vol. 2 of C. Beccari, Rerum Aethiopicarum scriptores occidentales, 15 vols. (Roma: Excudebat C. De Luigi, 1903–17). A recent English translation of this work is Isabel Boavida, Hervé Pennec, and Manuel João Ramos, eds., Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia, 1622, trans. Christopher J. Tribe, 2 vols. (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2011).

^ Back to text25. See Boavida, Pennec, and Ramos, Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia, 2:64–79.

^ Back to text26. For Jesuit authors see Balthazar Tellez, The Travels of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (London: J. Knapton in St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1710 [1660]); a translation of Manoel Almeida’s work in C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntington, eds., Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593–1646: Being Extracts from the History of High Ethiopia or Abassia by Manoel de Almeida Together with Bahrey’s History of the Galla (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1954); Philip Caraman, The Lost Empire: The Story of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985); Festo Mkenda, Mission for Everyone: A History of the Jesuits in Eastern Africa, 1555–2012 (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2012), chapters 2–4. For non-Jesuit authors, see J. B. Coulbaux, Histoire politique et religieuse de l’Abyssinie depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à l’avènement de Ménélick II, 3 vols. (Paris: Geuthner, 1928), 2:118–247; A.H.M. Jones and Elizabeth Monroe, A History of Ethiopia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 88–101; George Bishop, A Lion to Judah: The Travels and Adventures of Pedro Paez, SJ (Gujarat: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1998).

^ Back to text27. Girma Besham and Merid Wolde Aregay, The Question of the Union of the Churches in Luso–Ethiopian Relations (1500–1632) (Lisbon: Junta de Investigações do Ultramar and Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1963).

^ Back to text28. Adrian Hastings, The African Church, 1450–1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 157–58.

^ Back to text29. Boavida, Pennec, and Ramos, Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia, 1:45, also see 34, 36, 44, and 49.

^ Back to text30. Ibid., 1:44.

^ Back to text31. Ibid., 1:37.

^ Back to text32. Ibid., 1:44 and 45 (especially footnote 1).

^ Back to text33. Leonardo Cohen Shabot and Martínez d’Alòs-Moner, "The Jesuit Mission in Ethiopia 16th–17th Centuries: An Analytical Bibliography," Aethiopica 9 (2006): 190–212.

^ Back to text34. Leonardo Cohen, review of Festo Mkenda, A Mission for Everyone: A Story of the Jesuits in Eastern Africa (1555–2012) (Paulines Publications Africa: Nairobi, 2013), Journal of Jesuit Studies 1, no. 4 (2014): 627–29 (doi:10.1163/22141332-00104008).

^ Back to text35. Martínez d’Alòs–Moner, Envoys of a Human God: The Jesuit Mission to Christian Ethiopia, 1557–1632 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), xxv.

^ Back to text36. See, for example, David Mathew, Ethiopia: The Study of a Polity 1540–1935 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1947), 46–53; Jones and Monroe, A History of Ethiopia, 88–101; Richard Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800 (London: Lalibela House, 1961), 81–86; Richard Pankhurst, ed., Travellers in Ethiopia (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 36–50.

^ Back to text37. See Jean Doresse, Ethiopia, trans. Elsa Coult (London: Elek Books, 1956), 157; David Buxton, The Abyssinians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 53, 133, 148, 150; see also Leonardo Cohen, The Missionary Strategies of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (1555–1632) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009), 146–60; J.J. Hespeler–Boultbee, A Story in Stones: Portugal’s Influence on Culture and Architecture in the Highlands of Ethiopia 1493–1634, 2nd ed. (British Columbia: CBC Publishing, 2011).

^ Back to text38. See Merid W. Aregay, "Japanese and Ethiopian Reactions to Jesuit Missionary Activities in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," in Ethiopia in Broader Perspective (Papers of the XIIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Kyoto, 12–17 December 1997), 3 vols., edited by Katsuyoshi Fukui, Eisei Kurimoto, and Masayoshi Shigeta (Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Co., 1997), 1:694–96.

^ Back to text39. Bangert, History of the Society of Jesus, 474.

^ Back to text40. [Camille] de la Vassière, Histoire de Madagascar: Ses habitants et ses missionnaires, 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Victor Lecoffre, 1884).

^ Back to text41. See, for example, Bruno Hübsch, ed., Madagascar et le christianisme (Antananarivo: Editions Ambozontany, 1993), 257–321; Bruno Hübsch, L’Église avant la colonisation: Aperçus sur les origines du catholicisme à Madagascar (Antananarivo: Foi et Justice, [2008]), 157–71.

^ Back to text42. See Joseph Burnichon, La Compagnie de Jésus en France: Histoire d’un siècle 1814–1914, 4 vols. (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1914–22), 4:596–97.

^ Back to text43. Campbell, Jesuits, 820.

^ Back to text44. Adrien Boudou, Les jésuites à Madagascar au xixe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne et ses fils, 1940).

^ Back to text45. Boudou, Les jésuites à Madagascar, 1:xxvi; the translation is taken from the Dictionary of African Christian Biography at–adrien.html

^ Back to text46. Boudou, Jésuites à Madagascar, 1:xxvii.

^ Back to text47. Adrien Boudou, Le Père Jacques Berthieu (1838–1896) (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne et ses fils, 1935).

^ Back to text48. The journal, which contained what was called letters édifiantes (edifying letters) from missionaries, first appeared in 1838 as Lettres de scolastiques de Vals before acquiring the title Lettres de Vals. In 1882, upon the expulsion of the Jesuits from France, the journal was published from Uclès in Spain and was renamed Lettres de Uclès. It reverted to Lettres de Vals in 1897, but became Lettres de Gemert between 1903 and 1914. See Gerald M. Berg, "The Archives of the Jesuit Province of Toulouse Relating to Madagascar," History in Africa 5 (1978): 357-59, here 357.

^ Back to text49. See, for example, Trois ans dans l’Afrique Australe, le pays des Matabélés: Débuts de la mission du Zambèze; Lettres des Pères H. Depelchin et Ch. Croonenberghs, S.J., 1879, 1880, 1881 (Bruxelles: Imprimerie Polleunis, Ceuterick et Lefébure, 1882) and Trois ans dans l’Afrique Australe, au pays d’Umzilachez les Batongas, la vallée des Barotsés, débuts de la mission du Zambèze: Lettres des Pères H. Depelchin et Ch. Croonenberghs, S.J., 1879, 1880, 1881 (Bruxelles: Imprimerie Polleunis, Ceuterick et Lefébure, 1883). The former volume now exists in English as Journey to Gubulawayo: Letters of Frs H. Depelchin and C. Croonenberghs, S.J., 1879, 1880, 1881, trans. M. Lloyd and ed. R. S. Roberts (Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1979) and the latter as, Journeys Beyond Gubulawayo to the Gaza, Tonga and Lozi: Letters of the Jesuits’ Zambesi Mission, 1880–1883, trans. Veronique Wakerley and ed. R. S. Roberts (Harare: Weaver Press, 2009).

^ Back to text50. Campbell, Jesuits, 821.

^ Back to text51. See, for example, M. D. Odinga, "Decolonizing the Church in East Africa," East Africa Journal 4, no. 4 (1967): 11–15.

^ Back to text52. Francisco Augusto da Cruz Correia, O método missionário dos jesuítas em Moçambique de 1881 a 1910: Um contributo para a história da missão da Zambézia (Braga: Livraria A. I., 1992).

^ Back to text53. Judy Anne Ryan, "An Examination of the Achievement of the Jesuit Order in South Africa, 1879–1934" (MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1990).

^ Back to text54. Nicholas M. Creary, Domesticating a Religious Import: The Jesuits and the Inculturation of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, 1879–1980 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

^ Back to text55. For a discussion of this shortcoming, see Carol Summers, "A Church History of Jesuit Catholicism in Zimbabwe," H. Africa, H–Net Reviews (September, 2011) at https://www.h–, being a review of Creary, Domesticating a Religious Import.

^ Back to text56. See, for example, Paul Peeters, Henry Beck de la Compagnie de Jésus: Missionnaire au Congo Belge (Bruges: Société de Saint Augustin, 1898); Eugène Laveille, L'Evangile au centre de l'Afrique: Le P. Vanhencxthoven, S.J., fondateur de la mission du Kwango, Congo belge, 1852–1906 (Louvain: Museum Lessianum, 1926), and Pierre Tromont, Le Frère Frans De Sadeleer SJ: Un missionnaire des temps héroïques, co-fondateur de la mission du Zambèze et de la mission du Kwango (Congo Belge) (Louvain: Éditions de l’Aucan, 1932).

^ Back to text57. Ivan de Pierpont, "La Mission du Kwango," in Au Congo et aux Indes: Les jésuites belges aux missions (Tours: Alfred Cattier, 1906).

^ Back to text58. See Pierpont, "La Mission du Kwango," 22.

^ Back to text59. See for example, Campbell, Jesuits, 822–23.

^ Back to text60. "The Catholic Missions in Belgian Congo: A Statement of Facts," The Tablet (January 20, 1912), at–january–1912/30/the–catholic–missions–in–belgian–congo–a–statement (accessed June 13, 2016).

^ Back to text61. Bruno De Meulder, "Mavula: An African Heterotopia in Kwango, 1895–1911," Journal of Architectural Education 52, no. 1 (1998): 20–29, here 27; see also F. Cordi, "Les Fermes Chapelles du Kwango et la campagne anti-missionnaire 1909–1914" (Licentiate dissertation, Louvain, 1970).

^ Back to text62. See Anicet N’Teba Mbengi, La mission de la Compagnie de Jésus au Kwilu: Contribution a la transformation d’une région congolaise (1901–1954) (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2010), 356–64.

^ Back to text63. See, for example, Gustave Lobunda Ngembe, "The Jesuits and Colonial Power: The Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo," Hekima Review 16 (1997): 57–66; Nkay Malu Flavien, "La croix et la chèvre: Les missionnaires de Scheut et les jésuites chez le ding orientaux de la Républic Démocratique du Congo (1885–1933)" (PhD diss., Université Lumière, 2006); Jacques Nzumbu Mwanga, "Leadership et vision ignatienne du monde: L’experience des premiers jésuites au Congo-belge" (MA thesis, Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2015).

^ Back to text64. See, for example, Fernand Mukoso Ng’ekieb, Les origines et les débuts de la mission du Kwango (1879–1914) (Kinshasa: Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa, 1993); Madiangungu L. Kikuta, L’environnement historique de l’evangélisation missionnaire Jésuite chez les Yaka du Moyen-Kwango dans l’ancien mission du Kwango (1893–1935) (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2001); and N’Teba Mbengi, La mission de la Compagnie de Jesús au Kwilu (2010).

^ Back to text65. Anonymous, La Compagnie de Jésus et l’evangélisation en Afrique Centrale: Esprit, histoire et perspectives (Kinshasa: Editions Loyola, 1993).

^ Back to text66. For a treatment of Protestant activity in the context of the Jesuit mission in Congo, see Kikuta, L’environnement historique de l’evangélisation missionnaire jésuite chez les Yaka du Moyen-Kwango, 139–56.

^ Back to text67. Mkenda, Mission for Everyone, 179.

^ Back to text68. Edward Murphy, ed., A History of the Jesuits in Zambia: A Mission Becomes a Province (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2003).

^ Back to text69. Murphy provides a helpful summary of the story of the Jesuits in Zambia in an article, which readers might find more accessible. See Edward Murphy, "A Hundred Years of Jesuits in Zambia, 1905–2005," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 45 (2005): 136–38. Over the years, the Zambian segment of the second Zambezi Mission came to be staffed by Jesuits from Ireland and from Poland. It would be interesting to read Murphy’s A History of the Jesuits in Zambia alongside the Polish Wśród ludu Zambii (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Apostolstwa Modlitwy, 1977) by Ludwik Grzebień and Adam Kozłowiecki (1911–2007, metropolitan archbishop of Lusaka, 1959–69; cardinal since 1994), which was written with a view to exposing the toils and legacies of Slavic missionaries in the heart of Africa. The language barred this author from properly assessing the historiographical component of this book.

^ Back to text70. Murphy, History of the Jesuits in Zambia, 15.

^ Back to text71. Victor Mertens, "The Society of Jesus in Africa and Madagascar," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 12 (1971/72): 7–15, and Otene Matungulu, "The Presence of the Society of Jesus in Africa from the Beginnings to the Present Day," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 39 (1999): 31–34.

^ Back to text72. Brian McGarry, Jesuits in Africa (Harare: Transworld Printers, [c. 1987]).

^ Back to text73. Anonymous, From Generation to Generation: The Story of the Nigeria/Ghana Mission of the Society of Jesus (n.p.: Something More Publications, [c.1993]), v; for a useful review of this book, see Mobolaji Adenubi, "From Generation to Generation: The History of the First Thirty Years of the Nigeria–Ghana Region," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 37 (1997): 13.

^ Back to text74. Stéphane Nicaise, Les jésuites dans l’Océan Indien: Madagascar, La Réunion, Maurice (Namur: Éditions Jésuites, 2015).

^ Back to text75. Raymond da-Via, "A Hundred Years in Central Africa," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 34 (1994): 116–119; Léon de Saint Moulin, "Central Africa 50 Years (1961–2011): Facing the Future with Hope," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 52 (2012): 29–31.

^ Back to text76. Festo Mkenda, "Jesuits in Eastern Africa: A Long and Varied Presence," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 52 (2012): 37–42.

^ Back to text77. José Augusto de Álvares de Souza and the Vice-Province of Mozambique, "The Jesuits in Mozambique: A Golden Jubilee," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 33 (1993): 46–47.

^ Back to text78. Patrick J. Ryan, "The Nigeria–Ghana Mission," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 29 (1989): 116–17; Gabriel Ujah Ejembi, "Story of Success: The Golden Jubilee of the North-West Province of Africa," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 52 (2012): 25–28; Ujah Gabriel Ejembi, "Ten Years of a Province," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 56 (2016): 85–87.

^ Back to text79. Jean-Claude Michel, "Jesuits in Rwanda and Burundi: 50 Years," Year Book of the Society of Jesus 43 (2003): 138–43.

Cite this page
Festo Mkenda, S.J., “Jesuit Historiography in Africa”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 30 March 2017 <>
First published online: 2016

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