Introduction to Visual Interpretation of the
Basel Mission Archive Photo Project

Emmanuel Akyeampong (Harvard University)

The Social Setting of the Basel Missionaries
The Basel Mission Society (Evangelische Missionsgesellschaft Basel) was founded in 1815 in the city of Basel by members of the Deutsche Christentums Gesellschaft. One notable feature of the Basel Mission was that it was international and interdenominational from its onset. Its patrons were drawn the Pietist circles of Switzerland and neighboring southern Germany. The Pietist movement emerged in Germany in the late 17th century, and shared important commonalities with the Protestant movement. It stressed the decentralization of church management and life, and preferred action to formalism. Protestantism had been declared in Basel in 1529. The Kingdom of Württemberg and the Principality of Baden in Germany were both major supporters of the Basel Mission.[1] The establishment of the Basel Mission was part of a general trend in Europe towards the formation of mission societies among Protestants and the deployment of trained missionaries in foreign fields. The late 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792; the London Missionary Society (non-denominational) in 1795; and the Church Missionary Society (Anglican), the Wesleyan Missionary Society (Methodist) and the Scottish Presbyterian Society were all formed in 1799. In North America the Board of Foreign Missions was established in 1810. These mission societies were an active part of the drive for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in European colonies. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they extended their activities to the African continent in an endeavor to rectify the harm done by centuries of slave trading. The Basel Mission College was set up in 1816 to prepare missionaries from all over Europe for foreign mission work, reflecting a network that encompassed Pietists and Protestants.

Basel trained missionaries would labor in the mission fields of other Protestant denominations in line with the international outlook of the body. Thus cooperation with the Church Missionary Society lasted into the 1850s, the Basel-trained missionaries worked in the early British colony of Sierra Leone. When the Bremen Missionary Society was established in 1836, it trained almost all its missionaries at the Basel Mission College. Basel missionaries also came from different European nationalities: Swiss, German, Danes, and others. The Basel Mission would later establish its own missionary enterprise, operating as a complete mission society with its own overseas programs. Its workers would be both Swiss and German, just as funding came from Switzerland and Germany. Eventually, Basel Mission activity would extend to West Africa, India and China. Understanding the social origins of Basel missionaries is crucial, as they did not spring from a social vacuum. Their background shaped their beliefs and their missionary calling, and this provides and entry to their use of photography – what they chose to photograph. Metropolitan demands or exigencies also influenced mission photography, especially the need for funds to support mission work. Appealing photos were sent from the mission field to loosen the purse strings of metropolitan patrons.[2]

The early missionary recruits for the Basel and Bremen Missions were men of modest backgrounds from rural settings or small towns in Switzerland and southwestern Germany. As Schweizer and Meyer have emphasized, these were practical people rooted in agrarian and artisan traditions and who subscribed to the Pietist ideal of living close to nature.[3] Many were from Wurttemberg, known for its strong Pietist traditions, and its mixed economy of both small and large-scale traditional farming, crafts and trade, as well as modern industrial production.[4] Many of these missionaries were thus skilled in farming and craftwork, and adept of the use of simple agrarian and industrial technology. Hence, they would become important conduits of technologies such as brick making, the manufacture of shingles, new architectural styles, etc. in mission fields such as colonial Ghana. Training at the Basel Mission College also included botany with an element of agriculture, language analysis, the basics of medicine and surgery, the history of cultures and other relevant subjects, which all informed what missionaries considered photo-worthy. The Basel Mission Photo Archive thus abounds in landscape scenes; scenes depicting the transfer of technology – knitting, carpentry, and architecture; photos showing customs such as rites of passage; and those showing indigenes in different diseased or medical conditions.

Basel Mission Work in West Africa: the Examples of Ghana and Cameroon
Missionaries trained in Basel served in Sierra Leone under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society in the first half of the 19th century, and later in Liberia. Both enterprises ended unsatisfactorily. In 1828, the Basel Mission would respond to the invitation of the Danish authorities at Christiansburg (part of present day Accra) to establish a mission school for the education of Danish mulattoes. After a rough staff, which saw diseases decimate the ranks of Basel missionaries, the Basel Mission enterprise in Ghana was established through the instrumental work of Andreas Riis, incidentally nicknamed “Osiadan” for skill in building houses. Instructively, Riis was Danish. Basel Mission work extended from Accra to the inland state of Akuapem on the Akuapem mountain range, a much healthier environment than the Accra plains. A sort of informal understanding between the Basel, Wesleyan, and Bremen Missions ensured that both operated different spheres of missionary activity in Ghana that prevented conflicts. Basel Mission activity extended later to the Akyem and Kwahu states, and eventually to Asante after the exile of the King of Asante, Prempeh I, in 1896. Whereas Andreas Riis can be referred to as the founder of the Basel Mission Enterprise in Ghana, Friedrich August Ramseyer and his wife, Rosa Louise, stand tall as two personalities who consolidated the work on the Basel Mission in Ghana. The Ramseyers, married in 1866, labored in the Gold Coast from the 1860s. They established the Abetifi Station in Kwahu and the Kumase Station. Rosa Ramseyer died in 1906, and Friedrich Ramseyer returned to his native Switzerland in 1908, and passes away in 1914. Ramseyer’s photographs from 1888, and his Four Years in Ashantee (1875), documenting his imprisonment in the Asante capital of Kumase, have become important sources on the history of Ghana. The Basel Mission was forced to end its work in Ghana in 1918 – in spite of its avowed neutrality -- because of its Germanic links and in the general context British-German antagonism in World War I. Basel Mission work by then covered half of the territory of the modern nation-state of Ghana.

In 1889 a young German explorer, Eugen Zintgraff, explored the Cameroon Grassfields. He reached the kingdom of Bali, and approached the frontiers of the neighboring eastern kingdom of Baum. German rule arrived in this area around 1902, and lasted until 1915, when defeat in World War I ended German presence in Africa. The first German colonial post was sited at Bali.[5] Missionaries followed. Basel missionaries arrived in Fumban, the capital of the kingdom of Bamum in 1906. German colonial rule and the Basel missionaries encountered King Njoya, a colorful, enduring, and astute king, who ruled Bamum from the mid-1880s until his exile by the French in 1931. The large kingdom of Bamum was enmeshed in a trade network that encompassed the Atlantic trade, the Cross River Basin to the West, and present-day northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria. Islam entered Bamum from the north around 1894, when the Muslim Fulbe of northern Nigeria intervened at Njoya’s invitation during an attempted coup d’état. The complex traditions and politics that came into play in the history of Bamum are ably captured in the Basel Mission’s photographs, as Njoya played off the Germans against the Fulbe, Christianity against Islam in a continuing effort to maintain his autonomy.[6] King Njoya was an adept at imagery and manipulated photography in a conscious construction of his – and his kingdoms – identity. The arts in Bamum were very developed – wooden sculptures (including portraits), the carving of thrones, beadwork, brass casting – and King Njoya appreciated the utility of photography. Christraud Geary reports that Njoya owned a camera in the 1920s and had photographs taken of him and his court and displayed in his palace.[7] The interaction between Basel Missionaries and King Njoya, both aware of the usefulness of photography in representation, is a particularly complex one. Basel Mission photos of Bamum largely focus on the elite, reflecting not only a German infatuation with the Bamum court, but, perhaps, also the success of Njoya’s self-representation.[8]

Mission Work in Asia: the Indian and Chinese Dimensions
It is believed that Christianity arrived in India at the beginning of the Christian era, though its presence became more marked after Vaso Da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498. The first Protestant missions arrived in India in 1706. Mission activity in China commenced from the early 19th century. Unfortunately, I did not come across published works on the Basel Mission presence in the parts of India and China, where they were active. My search for E. Edona’s work on the Basel Mission in Kerala, India, mentioned by my colleague, Sugata Bose, proved futile. But there are suggestive parallels in Basel Mission – or for that matter mission society – activity in Africa and Asia. These are evident not just in the quest to convert souls to Christianity, but in the general interest in indigenous languages and reducing vernaculars to writing, in the establishment of schools, in the interest in local histories and cultures, in the endeavor to provide medical care, and in the drive for social justice and the improvement in the status of women – manifested in Africa in the opposition to polygamy and slavery; in India in the stance against caste by 1850; in China in the movement for the abolition of opium use, in the opposition to the tying of the feet of women to induce the “lotus gait,” and so on.[9] It is thus not surprising that in both continents people of low social background, the oppressed, and women were among the earliest converts to Christianity. The Basel Mission was among the earliest missions to advocate for the education of women in India, and trained female missionaries for this.[10] Mission work in Asia and Africa also reinforced each other. Thus, the missionary doctor, Dr. Hans Meister from Switzerland, had worked in China before moving to Agogo, Ghana, where he worked at the Presbyterian Hospital at Agogo from 1952-1973. This hospital had been built solely by Basel Mission funds between 1928 and 1931. Sister Vreni Fiechter, a Swiss missionary who worked in China, subsequently relocated to Ghana and established the Agogo Nurses Training College in the 1950s.[11]

Interpreting Photographs: the Basel Mission Photo Archive
Photography was invented around 1839-41 with Monsieur the Frenchman Louis Daguerre and the Briton Henry Talbot Fox as pioneers of two methods of photography. The complicated processes at this stage required the skills of a chemist to develop photographs, and it is from the 1860s and 1870s that the processes became more simplified for a general audience to take up photography. By the 1880s, industrially manufactured negative films had become available with the invention of the cellulose nitrate film in 1887. Already by the 1850s and 1860s, missionaries in West Africa were utilizing photography, and sending photos back to a home audience that supported foreign mission work. Schweizer cites the Methodist pastor, Daniel West, as the first mission photographer in West Africa (1856-57). In the early 1860s both the Basel and Bremen Missions in Ghana had resident photographers in the persons of Wilhelm Locher and Christian Hornberger, respectively. Christraud Geary highlighted the instrumentality of photography in mission work:

Photographs helped to popularize the missionary effort and raise support from benefactors and congregations. The viewers back home sought proof of success and accounts of the moral betterment of people they viewed as heathens.[12]

But missionaries were also doctors and nurses, teachers, amateur anthropologists, botanists, and historians, and several of their photographs mirrored these interests. Their photographs are thus an important source of history.[13] In using these photographs, similar to the use of any other text, it is important to remember, as Geary reminds us, that: “A photograph is a cultural artifact that articulates a photographer’s visions, biases, and concerns.”[14]

I have used my selection of photographs from the Basel Mission Archive in two ways.[15] The first approach uses the photographs as an “aid to historical reconstruction,” inserting relevant photos where appropriate in the text. This is evident in my treatment of historical figures, which are adequately documented in the historical record, or in specific historical developments such as slavery and the slave trade. These photographs then present visual illustration or amplification of themes or arguments already advanced in the text, based on sources other than photography. This is a standard use of photography by historians. The second, and less common, use by historians is of photographs “as historical interpretation.” In this respect the themes proceed from photographs, analyzing implicit and explicit messages encoded in images. This has been the dominant approach in my interpretation, as I have sought to draw in a more general audience through a discussion of health and disease, religious encounters, social and cultural life, clothing and identity, architecture, leisure activities and other themes prompted by the photographs themselves.

Peter A. Schweizer, Survivors of the Gold Coast: The Basel Missionaries in Colonial Ghana (Accra: Smartline Ltd., 2000), Part I; and Birgit Meyer, Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), ch. 2.

For a useful discussion, see Megan Vaughan, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 55-76 & 155-179.

Schweizer, Survivors on the Gold Coast, p. 29; and Meyer, Translating the Devil, ch. 2.

Meyer, Translating the Devil,p. 30.

Aletum Tabuwe and Fisiy Cyprian Fonyuy, The Traditional Political Institutions of Bali-Nyonga and their Contributions to Modern Politics in Cameroon (Yaounde: Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, 1985), ch, 1.

A good overview and discussion of these themes – mission presence, colonial role, Bamum politics and identity, and photography – can be found in Christraud M. Geary, Images from Bamum: German Colonial Photography at the Court of King Njoya (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988); and idem, “Art, Politics, and the Transformation of Meaning: Bamum Art in the Twentieth Century,” in Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris I. Hardin, eds., African Material Culture (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1996).

Geary, Images from Bamum, p. 40.

Ibid., p. 41.

For insightful studies, see Peter Haenger, Slaves and Slave Holders on the Gold Coast: Towards an Understanding of Social Bondage in West Africa (Basel: P. Schlettwein, 2000); S. Manickam, Studies in Missionary History: Reflections on a Culture-Contact (Madras: Diocesan Press, 1988); John K. Fairbank, ed.,The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).


Schweizer, Survivors on the Gold Coast, p. 30.

Ibid., p. 71.

Geary, Images from Bamum, p. 30.

See, for example, Paul Jenkins, “The Earliest Generation of Missionary Photographers in West Africa and the Portrayal of Indigenous People and Culture,” History in Africa, 20 (1993), pp. 89-118.

Geary, Images from Bamum, p. 11.

For a good discussion of the use of photography in African history, see Andrew Roberts, “Photographs and African History,” Journal of African History, 29: 2 (1988), pp. 301-311.