‘The only means of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat’ - Discussed by Chief Investigator Jane Lydon

                                                                  Title slide, Chromolithograph, 1880s-1890s, private collection. 

‘The only means of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat’ - Discussed by Chief Investigator Jane Lydon

I must start by admitting that I have been struggling with this assignment because I love so many magic lantern slides and it is very hard to choose just one. In a kind of provisional and reluctant way I decided to write about a magic lantern slide I bought in London at the start of this project, showing scenes from the life of African missionary extraordinaire, David Livingstone (1813-1873). My souvenir is brightly, if crudely, painted. It shows key scenes from the famous explorer and missionary’s life: ill on a stretcher, being carried through the jungle by his devoted followers; attacked by a lion; aboard a canoe rowing across an African lake; teaching himself by reading in brief moments snatched from his gruelling childhood factory labour. And in the centre, our hero, modelled upon his portrait as it appeared in his famous 1857 book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. His portrait in turn rests on the literary triumvirate of bible, journal and Missionary Travels itself, pointing towards the fertile cross-media culture of the late Victorian period.

It was probably made during the 1880s or 1890s, a period that saw the resurgence of magic lantern slides and their wide use by missionaries and other social campaigners, including Barnardo’s Homes, the Salvation Army and temperance organisations such as the Band of Hope. Livingstone considered his projector and slide collection an essential part of his equipment, and in an observation that somewhat softens his dour Scottish over-achiever image, once noted, rather dryly, ‘[t]his is the only means of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat'. 

 But Livingstone’s impact was felt not merely among the Africans he sought to convert to Christianity- he became a hero to the growing Victorian missionary movement, and inspired young men (and women) around the world who decided to emulate his brilliant career. At least one other celebratory Livingstone chromolithograph slide series made its way to Australia, earlier than my slide, and  can be seen in Museums Victoria’s superb digital archive. By the late nineteenth century, activist missionary heroes had contributed to a genre of ‘muscular Christianity’, a profoundly gendered phenomenon that linked ethical and spiritual activism to more secular values of bravery and heroism. Livingstone was the most famous of all muscular Christians, even before his 1857 Missionary Travels sold 70,000 copies and earned £12,000. Missionary Travels told a story of a new land and the adventures to be had there, and infused an ancient tradition of representing Africa as Europe’s ‘other’ with the new goal of ‘commerce’, that Livingstone argued would ‘open’ up the continent to Christianity and the abolition of slavery. Livingstone’s life and works were intensively promoted by the late Victorian missionary movement – especially through use of magic lantern slides. The ‘halo of romance’ that surrounded Livingstone was only enhanced by the reception of his life and works after his death in 1873, when his journals were edited by his disciple Horace Waller to render him a saintly, Christ-like figure.

Livingstone inspired many imitators, including Australian missionary John Brown Gribble, who saw himself as a pupil of Livingstone’s. In 1884 Gribble travelled to London and visited Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Cathedral, confiding (slightly incoherently) to his diary,
In reading his name my heart gave a peculiar kind of throb. I could have poured forth my soul in tears if I had been alone. what [sic] an inspiration new and full came to me as I stood there. I afresh gave myself to Livingston Master for the very same kind of work for Australia’s black sons and daughters which he prosecuted for Africa’s children had helped me to him as he followed them.’

Gribble returned to Australia and in 1885-6 made his own heroic journey to Western Australia, one suspects seeking the hardship and contumely that his hero had endured before him. He certainly found it, although from the local settlers more than the wildlife, and was drummed out of the colony.

Gribble then travelled extensively during 1889-1892 throughout the eastern colonies giving magic lantern slide performances to raise money for his Aboriginal mission work. In October 1891, Gribble spoke to a packed audience in Brisbane’s St. Paul's Church Sunday School room, showing scenes of his labours in building Warangesda mission in New South Wales, as well as scenery from the Bellenden Ker district, the site of his new mission, Yarrabah, in north Queensland. He drew on the classic ‘before and after’ logic that had always characterised missionary ‘propaganda’, showing what could be done to transform Indigenous peoples. He ‘illustrat[ed] his remarks by means of the magic lantern illustrations’, comprising ‘the teacher and his native assistants, felling trees by means of axes with very long handles, in order to form a clearing for the first missionary station.’ These images were contrasted with ‘more improved buildings until the most modern shape of a mission township, with most creditable edifice for a church was reached’. Portraits of Indigenous people demonstrated that they were intelligent Christians.

However in Melbourne in 1892 he took a more sensational approach in a talk entitled, ‘Amongst Cannibals’ – clearly capitalizing upon Norwegian Carl Lumholtz’s book of that title published in 1889, as well as contemporary reports of cannibalism in northern Queensland in Victorian newspapers. His urban audience would have relished the frisson of danger evoked by this taboo. The Cairns Post was less impressed: owned by anti-missionary plantation owner John Wimble, the Post attacked the ‘charming ingenuousness displayed by the reverend gentlemen who recently flashed like meteors on North Queensland in the mission line.’ Caricaturing Gribble’s media savvy, the Post wrote ‘lo! they go South with some cheaply acquired photographs of tame niggers*, and some doubtfully obtained native weapons, and they give a magic lantern entertainment and lure the half-pence from the pockets of unsuspecting youth. ... and the dear old ladies say ‘Oh what terrible risks the dear missionaries run.’ Poor Gribble was not to see Yarrabah thrive. He contracted malaria and retired to Sydney, where he died on 3 June 1893.

So my luridly heroic Livingstone slide speaks to me of this imperial network of ideas, stories and performances, in which Australians participated as much as those in the metropolitan capitals. The Che Guevara poster of his day, my slide evokes the glamorous mix of moral idealism and worldly adventure that drew young activists from around the world to tread in their hero’s footsteps – however misguided they might seem today.

*I have chosen to retain this offensive contemporary usage to convey the competing, opposed historical views of settlers and humanitarians such as Gribble.


Updated:  26 March 2018/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications