Rethinking savagery: Slavery experiences and the role of emotions in Oldendorp's mission ethnography

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Abstract

By the late 18th century, the Moravian mission project had grown into a global enterprise. Moravian missionaries' personal and emotional engagements with the people they sought to convert impacted not only on their understanding of Christianity, but also caused them to rethink the nature of civilization and humanity in light of their frontier experiences. In this article I discuss the construction of 'savagery' in the mission ethnography of C. G. A. Oldendorp (1721-87). Oldendorp's journey to slave-holding societies in the Danish West Indies, where Moravian missions had been established in the 1730s, and his own experiences of the violence of these societies had such an impact on him that his proto-ethnographic descriptions of all the inhabitants of the Danish West Indies - from slaves to slaveholders - broke with traditional representations of savagery. He suggested two different paths for emotional transformation: one for slaves, and another for slaveholders. His views aligned with those of the later abolitionists, yet he was writing sixty years before those movements first gained public momentum in Great Britain. In many ways, therefore, this early mission ethnography reshaped contemporary understandings of 'savagery'. I consider how Oldendorp did this in relation to a Moravian theology of the heart and love of Christ, the emerging Scottish Enlightenment philosophy of 'love of humanity' and its use in colonial encounters between missionaries and local people, and especially the emotions that were provoked by the extreme violence of the slavery system in this colonial contact zone.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0952695119843210
Number of pages15
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Jul 2019

Cite this

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title = "Rethinking savagery: Slavery experiences and the role of emotions in Oldendorp's mission ethnography",
abstract = "By the late 18th century, the Moravian mission project had grown into a global enterprise. Moravian missionaries' personal and emotional engagements with the people they sought to convert impacted not only on their understanding of Christianity, but also caused them to rethink the nature of civilization and humanity in light of their frontier experiences. In this article I discuss the construction of 'savagery' in the mission ethnography of C. G. A. Oldendorp (1721-87). Oldendorp's journey to slave-holding societies in the Danish West Indies, where Moravian missions had been established in the 1730s, and his own experiences of the violence of these societies had such an impact on him that his proto-ethnographic descriptions of all the inhabitants of the Danish West Indies - from slaves to slaveholders - broke with traditional representations of savagery. He suggested two different paths for emotional transformation: one for slaves, and another for slaveholders. His views aligned with those of the later abolitionists, yet he was writing sixty years before those movements first gained public momentum in Great Britain. In many ways, therefore, this early mission ethnography reshaped contemporary understandings of 'savagery'. I consider how Oldendorp did this in relation to a Moravian theology of the heart and love of Christ, the emerging Scottish Enlightenment philosophy of 'love of humanity' and its use in colonial encounters between missionaries and local people, and especially the emotions that were provoked by the extreme violence of the slavery system in this colonial contact zone.",
keywords = "abolition movement, emotions, Moravian missions, slavery, violence",
author = "{Van Gent}, Jacqueline",
year = "2019",
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doi = "10.1177/0952695119843210",
language = "English",
journal = "History of the Human Sciences",
issn = "0952-6951",
publisher = "SAGE Publications Ltd",

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AB - By the late 18th century, the Moravian mission project had grown into a global enterprise. Moravian missionaries' personal and emotional engagements with the people they sought to convert impacted not only on their understanding of Christianity, but also caused them to rethink the nature of civilization and humanity in light of their frontier experiences. In this article I discuss the construction of 'savagery' in the mission ethnography of C. G. A. Oldendorp (1721-87). Oldendorp's journey to slave-holding societies in the Danish West Indies, where Moravian missions had been established in the 1730s, and his own experiences of the violence of these societies had such an impact on him that his proto-ethnographic descriptions of all the inhabitants of the Danish West Indies - from slaves to slaveholders - broke with traditional representations of savagery. He suggested two different paths for emotional transformation: one for slaves, and another for slaveholders. His views aligned with those of the later abolitionists, yet he was writing sixty years before those movements first gained public momentum in Great Britain. In many ways, therefore, this early mission ethnography reshaped contemporary understandings of 'savagery'. I consider how Oldendorp did this in relation to a Moravian theology of the heart and love of Christ, the emerging Scottish Enlightenment philosophy of 'love of humanity' and its use in colonial encounters between missionaries and local people, and especially the emotions that were provoked by the extreme violence of the slavery system in this colonial contact zone.

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