A Very Funny School: Youth and the Work of the Word at Antananarivo

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Seminar Date
June 2, 2010
Perhaps no foreign Evangelical mission in the early nineteenth century was as spectacularly successful in its literate objectives as that of the London Missionary Society to a kingdom in highland Madagascar, in a region to the center of the Big Island and known as Imerina. The mission society’s first period of toil in Imerina during the early 1820s was staffed by three excessively feuding and independently thinking Nonconformist ministers—two Welshmen and an Englishman—together with their wives, and a number of artisanal auxiliaries who, along with later-arriving missionaries, drifted in and out of the island over the years. 8 With the enthusiastic assistance of their patron, King Radama of Imerina, British missionaries early dedicated themselves to the task of teaching small groups of urban children to read and write, and shortly thereafter set the youth to the foundational task of converting scriptures into the vernacular. The results were impressive. Within eight years of their arrival, by June 1828, LMS missionaries and their first students were managing some thirty schools with an enrollment of over 5,200 students. 9 By March of 1830 Nonconformist schoolmasters and their assistants had completed and published a vernacular New Testament of which they quickly circulated some 5,000 copies to novice and by all accounts avid readers. The entire Christian scriptures in King Radama’s tongue issued from the LMS press at Antananarivo in 1835, the first complete Bible translated into an African idiom in the context of western mission. 10 Between 1827 and the departure of the last LMS missionaries from Imerina in mid- 1836, well more than 100,000 copies of individual and collated books of sacred scripture, religious tracts, primers, spelling books, and ecclesiastical readers had been printed and distributed from the mission press in Antananarivo. Schools for children continued to function in the absence of the missionaries, and many adults began to acquire the art of reading from youth who had passed through them. By 1840 as many as 25,000 highland Malagasy had gained some experience in reading and writing their language in the Roman alphabet, or some five percent of the population of Imerina. 11 This rate of literacy compares favorably with those of Britain and France of the day. Ever on the move, literate Christian emigrants from highland Madagascar traveled to Mauritius, to the Comores, and to the Cape Colony in the 1830s, where they sought to teach Malagasy speaking compatriots and ex-slaves to read and write in their mother tongue. These mobile communities exchanged Malagasy language letters with each other across the Big Island’s diaspora in the western Indian Ocean. Transactions within this precocious oceanic ecumene of Malagasy letters—the sort of epistolary network of which Vukile Kumalo has also written—is the subject of my recently published book, Ocean of Letters. 12 In this essay I want to investigate the earliest foundations of this expansive community of Roman-alphabet Malgachophone letters in the western Indian Ocean. The focus here is on what transpired within the royal-LMS schools of Antananarivo between late 1820 and about mid-1824. Summarized here, those developments are traced out in the balance of this paper: The missionaries earliest language helpers were multilingual slaves. British clerics employed the school classroom as much to learn as to teach.
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