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Magic lanterns and ‘magic’ imperialism

Nineteenth-century imperial societies enjoyed self-aggrandising stories of their technology being mistaken for magic by African peoples. The library’s lantern slides of the Victorian missionary David Livingstone illustrate a famous example.

A magic lantern slide illustration of David Livingstone’s missionary work in southern Africa. The slide depicts Livingstone preaching from the back of a wagon in a Makololo village.
A magic lantern slide illustration of David Livingstone’s missionary work in southern Africa. John Rylands Library: BLS/100, ‘Preaching from a wagon to the Makololo’

Some of the most striking items in the library’s Christian Brethren archive are the magic lantern slides illustrating episodes from the life of the famous Victorian missionary Dr David Livingstone (1813-1873). Focusing on the Scottish missionary’s exploits in Africa, they show Livingstone preaching, encountering exotic beasts, and parleying with armed men. These slides come from a larger set published by the London Missionary Society, and their scenes were no doubt intended to inspire the Christian Brethren members attending the talks which they would have illustrated. But the medium as well as the message tells a story here – and this story sheds an interesting light on the relationship between imperialism, technology, and magic. Stories of African peoples mistaking unfamiliar technologies for sorcery were immensely popular in nineteenth-century imperial societies, affirming contemporary ideas of Western superiority and ‘native’ backwardness, and Livingstone’s missionary travels provided a famous early example of this narrative.

The Christian Brethren’s use of magic lantern slides was part of a missionary tradition which counted Livingstone himself among its earlier pioneers. Hailing the technology as ‘the oxyhydrogen light of civilization’, he packed a bulky projection apparatus and a collection of Biblical slides when he travelled across the interior of southern Africa in the 1850s. The novelty and visual impact of his magic lantern lectures made them a popular evening entertainment for his hosts. But they could also provoke unease, as was vividly demonstrated in an incident at the village of the Lunda chief Shinde in early 1854.

A Biblical magic lantern slide of the type used by Livingstone in his missionary activities. The slide depicts the Chariot of Fire and its winged horses carrying the Prophet Elijah to Heaven.
A Biblical magic lantern slide of the type used by Livingstone in his missionary activities. John Rylands Library: EOS/4/1/10/47, ‘The Chariot of Fire’

With an audience of Shinde and his entourage, Livingstone opened his slideshow with an image of the Biblical patriarch Abraham with his dagger raised, preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Lunda men were impressed by the divine air of the figures, he reported, but the trouble began when he attempted to proceed to the next image:

The ladies listened with silent awe; but, when I moved the slide, the uplifted dagger moving toward them, they thought it was to be sheathed in their bodies instead of Isaac’s. ‘Mother! mother!’ all shouted at once, and off they rushed, helter-skelter, tumbling pell-mell over each other, and over the little idol-huts and tobacco-bushes; we could not get one of them back again.

Although clearly presenting the incident as a humorous anecdote, Livingstone insisted that he also attempted to conscientiously debunk any such misconceptions. He wrote that the ‘almost magical operations of machinery’ like his lantern could certainly provoke awe in African audiences (quoting as a typical reaction ‘Ye are gods, and not men!’), but warned that any pretences to supernatural power were ultimately counter-productive to missionary efforts. Other contemporaries were happy to take advantage of these possibilities, however, like the big game hunter Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming. Livingstone hosted the man he described as a ‘mad sort of Scotchman’, but was scandalised when he opportunistically sold fake gun ‘medicine’ to the locals while trading guns for ivory.

Livingstone distrusted the use of technology to ‘play god’, but his writings helped to popularise the idea. The magic lantern slide depicts Livingstone reading a Bible.
Livingstone distrusted the use of technology to ‘play god’, but his writings helped to popularise the idea. John Rylands Library: BLS/7, ‘Reading the Bible’

Despite his potential misgivings, Livingstone’s story of the magic lantern panic became one of the most famous episodes of his writings – in fact, the incident itself became the subject of a lantern slide, recently acquired by the David Livingstone Trust. Fitting into a heritage of ‘techno-magical’ explorer narratives dating back to figures like Columbus and Cortés, the story also prefigured the strategies employed to overawe and browbeat local resistance by later generations of travellers whose expeditions laid the groundwork for the imposition of imperial rule across Africa. Exaggerated accounts of ‘superstitious natives’ terrified by the ‘magic’ of rifles, fireworks, galvanic batteries, and even false teeth became a recurring trope in African travel narratives, while fictional episodes proliferated in adventure stories like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and in racist imperial humour.

Recovering the reality of such encounters and their varying perspectives is challenging, but contemporary accounts indicate that they were far more complex than these imperialist stereotypes would suggest. Ascribing ‘magic’ powers to a newly-arrived European explorer or missionary did not equate to bowing down before them, but could help to place them in a knowable, controllable social category; the stranger hailed as a rainmaker in one moment was liable to find themselves taxed for causing a drought in the next. For nineteenth-century imperial societies, however, simplified, self-aggrandising stories of these encounters allowed colonised peoples to be firmly placed in a lower rank of development while indulging in the power fantasy of ‘playing god’. Livingstone himself may have disapproved of such impious pretences, but the slides of his activities held in the Rylands archive help to illustrate a seminal moment in the formation of this powerful and enduring imperial narrative.

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