Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa


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Medical Doctor [Livingstone]. Hail, friend! How very many medicines you have about you this morning! Why, you have every medicine in the country here.

Rain Doctor. Very true, my friend; and I ought; for the whole country needs the rain which I am making.

M. D. So you really believe that you can command the clouds? I think that can be done by God alone.

R. D. We both believe the very same thing. It is God that makes the rain, but I pray to him by means of these medicines, and, the rain coming, of course it is then mine. It was I who made it for the Bakwains for many years, when they were at Shokuane: through my wisdom, too, their women become fat and shining. Ask them; they will tell you the same as I do.

M. D. But we are distinctly told in the parting words of our Savior that we can pray to God acceptably in his name alone, and not by means of medicines.

R. D. Truly! but God told us differently. He made black men first, and did not love us as he did the white men. He made you beautiful, and gave you clothing, and guns, and gunpowder, and horses, and wagons, and many other things about which we know nothing. But toward us he had no heart. He gave us nothing except the assegai, and cattle, and rain making; and he did not give us hearts like yours. We never love each other. Other tribes place medicines about our country to prevent the rain, so that we may be dispersed by hunger, and go to them, and augment their power. We must dissolve their charms by our medicines. God has given us the knowledge of certain medicines by which we can make rain. We do not despise those things which you possess, though we are ignorant of them. We don’t understand your book, yet we don’t despise it. You ought not to despise our little knowledge, though you are ignorant of it.

M. D. I don’t despise what I am ignorant of: I only think you are mistaken in saying that you have medicines which can influence the rain at all.

R. D. That’s just the way people speak when they talk on a subject of which they have no knowledge. When we first opened our eyes, we found our forefathers making rain, and we follow in their footsteps. You, who send to Kuruman for corn, and irrigate your garden, may do without rain; we cannot manage in that way. If we had no rain, the cattle would have no pasture, the cows give no milk, our children become lean and die, our wives run away to other tribes who do make rain and have corn, and the whole tribe become dispersed and lost; our fire would go out.

M. D. I quite agree with you as to the value of the rain; but you cannot charm the clouds by medicines. You wait till you see the clouds come, then you use your medicines, and take the credit which belongs to God only.

R. D. I use my medicines, and you employ yours; we are both doctors, and doctors are not deceivers. You give a patient medicine. Sometimes God is pleased to heal him by means of your medicine; sometimes not—he dies. When he is cured, you take the credit of what God does. I do the same. Sometimes God grants us rain, sometimes not. When he does, we take the credit of the charm. When a patient dies, you don’t give up trust in your medicine, neither do I when rain fails. If you wish me to leave off my medicines, why continue your own?

M. D. I give medicine to living creatures within my reach, and can see the effects, though no cure follows; you pretend to charm the clouds, which are so far above us that your medicines never reach them. The clouds usually lie in one direction, and your smoke goes in another. God alone can command the clouds. Only try and wait patiently; God will give us rain without your medicines.

R. D. Mahala-ma-kapa-a-a! Well, I always thought white men were wise till this morning. Who ever thought of making trial of starvation? Is death pleasant, then?

M. D. Could you make it rain on one spot and not on another?

R. D. I wouldn’t think of trying. I like to see the whole country green, and all the people glad; the women clapping their hands, and giving me their ornaments for thankfulness, and lulli-looing for joy.

M. D. I think you deceive both them and yourself.

R. D. Well, then, there is a pair of us (meaning both are rogues).

The above is only a specimen of their way of reasoning, in which, when the language is well understood, they are perceived to be remarkably acute. These arguments are generally known, and I never succeeded in convincing a single individual of their fallacy, though I tried to do so in every way I could think of.1

The weak point in the logic of the savage is not his inability to adduce sustaining arguments but his assumption of wrong premises, which in turn is due to incorrect interpretation of experience. Thus the experience of death has given rise to various interpretations and "illogical" forms of behavior. In many tribes the camp must be removed to a different locality on the occurrence of any death. The assumption is that a spiteful or revengeful spirit has begun operations in the group and will continue to operate. This interpretation may have been assisted by the fact of the contagious or infectious nature of some prevalent disease; first one and then another of the members succumbs, and the removal is a flight from the magical influence. In some tribes the camp is not moved but the (black) members of the family in which the death occurred paint themselves white, as a disguise. In other tribes (Africans, Samoyedes) parents on approaching old age insist that their children kill them, the assumption being that the future life is an indefinite continuation of the present one, and they wish to reach it while they are still young enough to enjoy it. In other cases, the wives, slaves, and dogs and horses of the deceased may be buried with him, the interpretation being that if the future life is a continuation of the present one, these persons and animals are essential to its normal continuance. Among the Aztecs a dog was killed on the death of a child in order that its spirit might guide the inexperienced spirit of the child to the spirit world. In some cases a hunting or war party will turn back if a given animal is seen, say a bluebird or a jackal. In this case the interpretation is based on a coincidence or series of coincidences. If on previous expeditions which proved futile or disastrous one of these animals had been associated with the situation one or more times a causal relation was assumed between its presence and bad luck. In all of these interpretations there is a certain reflection and a certain logic. The widespread poison ordeal as practiced in Africa to determine the guilt or innocence of a person accused of crime seems monstrous and irrational. But in the mind of the African, the poison is not properly speaking a poison but a test. It is a selective agent, a detector, and has the quality of poisoning only those who are guilty. They use a bad premise but by no means contemptible arguments.

For the most part the arguments about the savage lack of logic are based on this employment of magical interpretations. Lévy-Bruhl, in his thesis that savage mind is "prelogical," uses no other data than those from the field of magic. One of the manifestations of prelogical mind which he emphasizes (following Durkheim) is the principle of "participation," by which he means a singular merging of personality in surrounding persons and objects. Thus a woman visits the missionary and proposes to take the medicine in place of her sick husband. A man has a mystic connection with a totemic animal, so that when it is thirsty he feels faint, when it is pursued he pants, when it dies he dies; it is, in a manner of speaking, his alter ego, his external soul; if it is a tiger, it may at his wish tear his enemy, or if a snake, poison him. This is the magical participation of personalities, and it is indeed a principle of wide application not only among savages but in Christendom. We read, for example, in I Corinthians 7:14: "The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife." And our whole scheme of salvation is, in fact, one of magical participation.

Another "prelogical" trait of the savage, according to Lévy-Bruhl, is his confusion as to which one of several standpoints he ought to occupy in a given case. If, for example, a crocodile seizes a woman he assumes that this misfortune was mediated by a wizard by virtue of a mystic participation between the wizard and the crocodile, but whether the wizard turned himself into a crocodile or the crocodile acted as the emissary of the wizard is a point on which he is not at all clear. In speaking of the incident he may occupy successively both positions. But these spiritual questions are very confusing at best, and it does not appear that the indeterminateness of the savage is greater than that of the church fathers and later ecclesiastics on questions relating to the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, transubstantiation, and witchcraft. It was in fact usual at one time for the best white thinkers to occupy alternatively logically contradictory positions. Giordano Bruno expressed surprise when he was condemned to be burned in spite of his explanation that in the heretical passages he had been speaking as "philosopher" and not as "theologian."

1Livingstone, D., n/an/an/an/an/a , 25–27.


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Chicago: "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa," Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XRDXP6MK3DI9RDL.

MLA: . "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa." Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XRDXP6MK3DI9RDL.

Harvard: , 'Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa' in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XRDXP6MK3DI9RDL.