Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa

The Swiss missionaries played a primary role in explaining Africa to the literate world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book emphasises how these European intellectuals, brought to the deep rural areas of southern Africa by their vocation, formulated and ordered knowledge about the continent. Central to this group was Junod who became a pioneering collector in the fields of entomology and botany. He would later examine African society with the methodology, theories and confidence of the natural sciences. On the way he came to depend on the skills of African observers and collectors. Out of this work emerged, in three stages between 1898 and 1927, an influential classic in the field of South African anthropology, Life of a South African Tribe. At the same time Patrick Harries examines how local people absorbed imported ideas into their own body of knowledge. Through a process of interchange and compromise, Africans adapted foreign ways of seeing and doing things, and rapidly made them their own. This is a history of new ideas and practices that shook African societies before and during the early years of colonialism. It is equally a history of ordinary people and their ability to adapt, change, and subvert these ideas. Professor T.O. Ranger says: 'Now, really for the first time, Harries sets these arguments in a wonderfully persuasive, detailed and dynamic context. He really understands the principle of nineteenth-century botany and insect classification, the organising concepts of linguistics, and the changing assumptions of ethnography and anthropology. One gets a profound sense of intellectual formation of debate and development of ideas. Missionary ideas are themselves no single thing but constantly in debate and in flux.'