Drought, dessication and discourse: missionary correspondence and nineteenth-century climate change in central southern Africa

G.H. Endfield, David Nash

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

This paper examines the role that representatives of the London Missionary Society in central southern Africa during the nineteenth century may have played in the development of geographical debates concerning the long-term dessication of the African continent. Observations on climate included within missionary documents are used to reconstruct a chronology of intra-decadal climatic variability for the period 1815-1900. This reveals six drought periods and seven wet phases that affected large areas of the region, but identifies no evidence for progressive dessication. The chronology is then used as a framework within which to view missionary perspectives on drought and dessication. Major influences upon the development of dessication theory appear to include the prevalence of contemporary moral economic explanations of climatic variability, as well as the uptake and acceptance of indigenous understanding of climate change. Significantly, many of the key observations by eminent missionaries used as supporting evidence for progressive dessication are identified as having been made during periods of severe drought. This is used to suggest that the most widely propagated evidence for dessication may, therefore, simply be the end-product of periods of short-term drought rather than long-term climatic deterioration.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-47
Number of pages15
JournalThe Geographical Journal
Volume168
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2002

Keywords

  • Southern Africa
  • climatic
  • variability
  • documentary evidence
  • missionary correspondence
  • dessication
  • David Livingstone

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