Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

The Historical Background of Missionary Activity in the Southern Sudan

by Edward Miner,

Vandevort undertook her linguistic work with a relatively modest aim: the betterment of the social and spiritual conditions of the Nuer people living around the Nasir mission. Two of the mission services most central to these aims were medical and educational. She was sent to the field specifically for the purpose of undertaking literacy work in support of evangelization: to reduce the Nuer language to a comprehensible set of linguistic rules and lexicon; to create pedagogical materials for both Nuer and non-Nuer; and to produce translations of spiritual reading matter in the Nuer language. In this, her efforts participated in a tradition of Nuer linguistic description that developed in relative independence of colonial governance in the late nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth century; intensified with financial support from the government as part of the policy of Native Administration for the Southern Sudan from 1930 until 1945; and then came under increasing criticism from (Northern) Sudanese nationalists up to Independence in 1955 and thereafter. The linguistic work of the Nasir station finally came to a halt with the expulsion of the last missionaries in 1964, as recounted in A Leopard Tamed. In order to understand the significance of Vandevort’s work, it is necessary to contextualize it within a trajectory of missionary linguistics and education that precedes it by at least two generations.

The Sudanese government was very late in coming to directly administer the South. This apparent neglect can be attributed to (1) a perception that the diversity of languages, cultures, and types of political organization rendered the region ungovernable and (2) that it presented no obvious opportunities for economic development. The Nuer, together with the Dinka and the Shilluk, comprised a Nilotic-speaking bloc that dominated the central Southern Sudan. Unlike other parts of East and Central Africa wherein the nineteenth century geopolitical landscape was characterized by relatively powerful indigenous states, the indigenous societies of the Southern Sudan knew little in the way of centralized political organization. The principle exception to this was the institution of the Reth among the Shilluk, whose duties were as much ritualistic as political. The Azande principalities, though strongly centralized, enjoyed no common political institutions. Apart from these, the indigenous societies did not develop political structures beyond the most local and kin-based; the Nuer may represent the most extreme case of this general condition. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 5) write: “A world of acephalous polities presents severe problems both to colonial administrators and to educators. Not the least severe of these problems is to recognize that such societies exist”.

To understand the development of Christian missionary activity, especially educational activity, in the Southern Sudan after 1898, it is important to understand the rather ambivalent forces structuring the British position in Egypt throughout the nineteenth century. Where the spread of Islam met the culturally conservative and geographically inaccessible bloc of Nilotic speakers on the White Nile, it would make little progress until the time of Muhammad ‘Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, who extended his control over the Northern Sudan in the 1820s. In the 1840s, Muhammad ‘Ali pursued political ambitions against the Ottoman regime in the Levant, while also seeking to secure a monopoly on the ivory trade in the Southern Sudan. Led by naval officer Selim Qapudan, and with the advantage of firearms and Europeanized military organization, the Turco-Egyptians extended their control of the banks down the White Nile. With Muhammad ‘Ali’s defeat in the Levant, however, his claim to a monopoly on ivory collapsed. Consequently, the 1850s saw the influx of European, Levantine, Egyptian, and Northern Sudanese ivory entrepreneurs into the Southern Sudan, who carved out spheres of influence often far beyond the boundaries of official Turco-Egyptian administration.

Southern Sudanese would hunt elephants for ivory to be exchanged with the new foreign entrepreneurial class for trade goods. The economic self-sufficiency of Southern peoples, however, posed a limitation for the growth of the ivory trade, and the market for trade-goods was soon saturated. Having failed in establishing an import-export market, the foreign traders began in the mid 1850s to resort to various forms of predation to secure other tradables: first cattle, and then people. In 1863, the accession of Muhammad ‘Ali’s grandson Isma’il coincided with a more concerted effort on the part of the government to directly administer the Southern Sudan, including an attempt to eradicate the slave trade. Viceroy (later Khedive) Isma’il, finding his program frustrated by the susceptibility of his administrators in the Southern Sudan to bribery from local (largely Northern Sudanese) slave traders, decided to contract higher level administration out to Europeans. Sir Samuel Baker became the first Governor-General of the Southern Sudan, followed by General Charles George Gordon. The new regime, however, whether administered by Turco-Egyptians or by Europeans, proved as generally unpopular among Southern Sudanese peoples as did the slave traders, largely because of their common practice of using arbitrary violence as a means of asserting control. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 11) observe wryly that the indigenous peoples “were at one in their perception of the Government as a violent and purely predatory institution; and in their intense dislike and suspicion of light-skinned outsiders ­ all of whom, Egyptians, Northern Sudanese and Europeans alike, they lumped together as ‘Turks’”.

A confluence of politico-economic circumstances made the Turco-Egyptian regime under Isma’il particularly unpopular in the Southern Sudan. The suppression of the slave trade aggrieved the (largely) Northern Sudanese trading class; the installation of a handful of Europeans in higher level administration chafed the sensibilities of their Egyptian and Northern Sudanese subordinates; the largely Southern Sudanese base of the military garrisons began to coalesce into a creolized, Arabic-speaking community with an at least nominally Muslim identity, and to this extent would sometimes identify with Northern Sudanese resentment of Turco-Egyptian privilege. When the Mahdist revolt against the Turco-Egyptian regime broke out in 1880, for the Southern Sudan it meant a catastrophic breakdown in social order. The Mahdist cause became a pretext for all manner of depredations committed by the former slave traders, lower level government officials, and renegade military units, and intertribal cattle raiding rose to unprecedented levels. During the times that the Mahdiyya exerted some level of military control over large parts of the Southern Sudan, they did little to restore any semblance of social order. Some measure of relief would only arrive with the defeat of Mahdist forces at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 followed by the formation of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government.

Control of the headwaters of the Nile River was perceived as fundamental to British claims on Egyptian patronage, and so a sphere of influence was declared down to the Ugandan border to preempt challenges by the French, Belgians or Abyssinians. With the formation of the Condominium government in 1898, however, the notion of a separate British sphere in the Southern Sudan would appear to conflict with the British role as the guarantor of Egyptian territorial rights. At a point in history in which the cultural cleavage between the Northern and Southern Sudan might well have been used as a pretext for political demarcation and annexation of the latter to British East Africa, the diplomatic imperative to not jeopardize Britain’s influence in Cairo dictated that the future (mis)fortunes of the Southern provinces would be wedded to those of Khartoum, rather than Kampala. Scarcely interested in actively administering the hinterlands of these areas, a British military presence nevertheless proved necessary to enforce Anglo-Egyptian control after the expulsion of a French force at Fashoda and encroachments by Menilek from Ethiopia and King Leopold II from the Independent Congo State. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 15) reflect:

The early years of the British occupation of the Southern Sudan were therefore not so much the first chapter of British colonial administration in these regions, as the last chapter in the local scramble for Africa. The essence of the operation was to establish as quickly as possible a military presence upon the remote frontiers claimed and delineated in Europe, and to keep open lines of communication to these far-flung outposts. Although the Government certainly did not seek conflict, it could not afford to wait upon the time-consuming processes of diplomacy and persuasion in dealing with Southern groups inclined to oppose its advance through their territory. Force, or the threat of force, was therefore freely used. Meanwhile, the problems of actually administering Africans would have to await their turn.

In the absence of ‘actual administration’, British military officers turned colonial administrators would repay the refusal of powerful Nilotic societies to recognize their authority with ‘patrols’ or punitive raids that often as not fell upon villages or groups uninvolved in the particular dispute. Uninformed of local political structures and unconversant in local languages, these first representatives of the Empire provoked enormous ill will that resulted in numerous uprisings from 1902. It is in this context of much misunderstanding and hostility between the colonial administration and indigenous peoples that the first missionary societies were allowed to begin offering something in the way of western style education. A linguistic divide would set the objectives of missionary education at odds with those of the Arabic-speaking lower level of government administration. Missionaries saw the future of mission life in the medium of English and indigenous languages; grass roots administration, however, was generally conducted by the predominantly Northern Sudanese and Egyptian class of lower level officials in the emergent, creolized Arabic that functioned as a lingua franca in the Southern Sudan. Additionally, from the outset, the mission goals of providing Southern Sudanese with a literary education in English was at odds with the opportunities available to them—the government had jobs only for scribes in Arabic, not in English.

Native Administration in the South and the Beginnings of the Nasir Station >

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