Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Visions for Racial Equality

Harri Englund

Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland and the Church of Scotland World Mission Board.

Current campaigns for racial equality implore White people to learn from racialized others. Visions for Racial Equality: David Clement Scott and the Struggle for Justice in Nineteenth-Century Malawi presents a little-known historical case of listening and learning in a racialized encounter. A missionary from the Church of Scotland in Central Africa, David Clement Scott developed a vision for racial equality that set him on a collision course with the Church, colonial government, and the White commercial interests spearheaded by Cecil Rhodes.

Visions for Racial Equality is a study of justice in its epistemic as well as moral-political dimensions. ‘Epistemic injustice’ has emerged in contemporary philosophy and intellectual history as a key notion to examine how failure to recognize some people as co-knowers may underpin various other injustices. Historically, European missionaries in far-flung places would seem the prototypical perpetrators of epistemic injustice. Was it not, a still-popular attitude even among some academics asks, intrinsic to the missionary vocation to denigrate other forms of knowledge?

Visions for Racial Equality identifies strikingly different orientations to knowledge within the nineteenth-century missionary movement. At issue is not only the contrast between the self-righteous and the liberal missionaries. Scott’s vision throws into stark relief the limits among liberal missionaries themselves to recognize Africans as co-knowers. Much as Africans were for these missionaries worthy of respect, it was respect that tended to place Africans and Europeans into mutually incompatible cultures. Scott’s vision arose against such backhanded expressions of respect – which could also come to justify racial segregation for the alleged good of all parties. Common humanity, not cultural differences, lay at the core of his vision for racial equality.

The more Scott immersed himself in the vernacular language, the more he discovered its philosophical riches, a learning that he put into use in his innovative translations of the Gospels as well as in his 700-page dictionary. Ignoring the objections from the Church in Edinburgh, Scott led an industrial mission in which spiritual growth and practical work were two sides of the same coin. Not only did it shape the race relations, it also gave girls and women – both African and European – unprecedented opportunities through schooling and new sources of income. In a move that caused controversy in Scotland, Scott allowed unmarried White women to work with a Black man in a newly-established mission station.

In Scott’s theology of reversals, teacher became learner and had no monopoly over knowledge. It was not a reversal of roles, as if various hierarchies could simply be wished away, but a theology of reversals for the way in which the figure of the risen Christ inspired Scott to envisage the race relations. Africans as the risen Christ were strangers demanding the recognition of one’s own limitations in understanding. In this vein, they confronted the Scottish missionary with knowledge that was not confined to their ‘tribal’ cultures but stood to enrich humanity as a whole. For the twenty-first century reader, Visions for Racial Equality poses the challenge of doing epistemic justice to Scott’s vision – how can we allow a White male Protestant missionary in the nineteenth century enrich our contemporary debates on racial equality? The struggles for racial equality are bound to look different now than in the late nineteenth century, but in Scott’s evocation of the risen Christ lies a challenge of timeless consequence: how open to the stranger are the philosophies by which we live?

Visions for Racial Equality By Harri Englund
Visions for Racial Equality By Harri Englund

About The Author

Harri Englund

Harri Englund is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. A Fellow of the British Academy, he has three decades of research experience in Southern and Centr...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!