Metal on the Missionary Road

Imagery from Robert Moffat's 1842 Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa

Imagery from Robert Moffat’s 1842 Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa

Ships went out to Africa with holds full of brass idols and rings, while cabins were occupied by missionaries, an edifying example of a material good in competition with an immaterial one.
Henry Hamilton (1926) History of the English Brass and Copper Industries

This project received preliminary funding in the form of a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant to Chris Wingfield for £18,521. This made it possible for Mark McGranaghan to be employed for six months from February to July 2017 to compile eyewitness accounts and visual evidence in a project database and to begin to explore relevant archival sources. This project is a central strand of the larger Re-Collecting the Missionary Road project.


When European missionaries first traveled beyond the Cape Colony’s northern frontier at the turn of the 19th century they encountered societies actively engaged in trading, mining and smelting metals – chiefly copper and iron. Missionaries documented metal industries and collected examples of their products, while at the same supplying metal items themselves – in 1820 John Campbell could not help comparing the copper producers of Kaditshwene to the manufacturers of Sheffield and Birmingham.  By the end of the nineteenth century local production of copper and iron had effectively ceased, overwhelmed by imports of industrially produced metals from Europe.

The potential for a ‘combined source… multi-disciplinary approach’ to shed light on the circulation of metals in South Africa’s recent past has been noted by Chirikure, Hall and Maggs (2009), and this project develops this ambition through the identification of artefacts, documents, and images associated with encounters and exchanges on ‘the missionary road’.  The project will build on research already undertaken by Wingfield on the museum of the LMS, and other missionary collections in Europe, which has made it possible to identify a number of metal items with precise provenances – including items collected in Kaditshwene in May 1820 and from defeated ‘Mantatee’ warriors at the battle of Dithakong in 1823.

Research will extend to collections and accounts made by explorers, traders and administrators such as William Burchell, Andrew Smith and Hinrich Lichtenstein – who used mission residents as guides, and mission stations as stopping points on their journeys. Textual and museum-based research will be undertaken alongside analytical testing to distinguish locally manufactured from imported metals, as well as the ore sources of particular metals.

Research Objectives

The longer-term goal of the proposed research is to develop a more nuanced understanding of the social and cultural impacts of industrially produced metals on ‘the Missionary Road’ through the identification, compilation and analysis of artefactual, textual and visual evidence. The project encompasses 6 primary Research Objectives (ROs):

RO1: Metal Sources. To identify the chief sources of ores from which locally smelted metals (particularly copper) were produced. This will make it possible to establish their characteristic chemical signatures, but also to identify mining and smelting communities likely to have been particularly impacted by overseas imports.

RO2: Manufacturing Techniques. To understand the techniques involved in the processing and manufacture of metal goods, in order to establish whether the substitution of locally produced copper and iron for industrially produced brass and iron impacted on the types of artifacts produced. The supply of sheets of brass, in particular, may have sparked the development of new artefact forms.

RO3: Artefacts Types. To generate a typology of artefact types made from particular metals, and the chief variations in form that they exhibit. Historic images, museum collections and archaeological finds provide a complementary set of sources.

RO4: Exchange Values: To compare records of exchanges at various locations from different dates, in order to assess the changing value of metals, as measured by their equivalence to other trade goods.

RO5: Exchange Networks. To understand the directionality of exchanges in order to assess the likely impact of metal imported at coastal ports and other entrepôts. Missionary and other accounts suggest that metal production was concentrated at certain locations, but traded to others in exchange for ivory, skins, beads and livestock.

RO6: Environmental Impacts. To develop an understanding of the temporal sequence through which the surrounding landscape was reshaped through the impact of imported iron tools – particularly ploughs. Historic ridge furrows are still visible at a number of locations today, and fieldwork will be necessary to develop an understanding of the extent and impact of metal tools.


These Research Objectives will be approached through the identification, compilation and analysis of data from complementary textual and artefactual sources, as well as through developing a programme of field research. Fundamental to the project will be the development of a relational research database, though which these different forms of evidence will be compiled and compared. This will be undertaken through six interconnected approaches:

  1. Assembling eyewitness accounts. Travel accounts (e.g. Sparrman, Thunberg, Campbell, Moffat, Livingstone, Burchell, Smith, Lichtenstein etc.) will be closely read, and database records generated for all references to the use, exchange and manufacture of metal goods. Where possible, records will encode precise temporal and geographical locations, so that the database can be interrogated in these terms.
  1. Compiling visual evidence. Digital copies of images of metal items, largely engravings from travel accounts and missionary publications, will be attached to database records, recording details of their original source.
  1. Engaging archival sources. Administrative records, both those associated with missionary societies and colonial government(s) will be searched for evidence relating to the export of metals beyond the northern limits of the Cape Colony.
  1. Excavating collections. Museum collections, both those in Europe associated with missionary societies and travellers, and those in South Africa that hold archives of archaeological excavations, will be treated as ‘sites of deposition’, in which artefacts associated with ‘the missionary road’ have been preserved. Artefacts will be identified, examined, photographed and recorded in database records, and where possible linked to visual evidence and eyewitness accounts to provide them with more precise provenances.
  1. Artefact analysis. Well-provenanced artefacts, particularly those that can be associated with traveller or missionary accounts and depictions, will be selected for further analytical testing using archaeometallurgical techniques and methods more commonly applied to excavated materials. Characterisation studies based on physical examination and analytical chemistry will be used to determine the likely geographical sources of ores, but also to distinguish between locally made and imported metals. Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry may be helpful in determining chemical or isotopic fingerprints that can be correlated with the elemental composition of metals to indicate the geological body from which ores were extracted.
  1. Excavation and field research: The development of a long-term multi-season field project, beginning with survey and remote sensing at Kuruman, will develop an understanding of the ways in which the environment was re-shaped through the impact of iron tools, particularly ploughs. Focused excavation in areas associated with metal working will also seek to understand the scale and nature of metal working undertaken at the site, and its impact on local resources such as firewood, through the consumption of charcoal.


Chirikure, Shadreck, Hall, Simon & Tim Maggs (2009) ‘Metals beyond frontiers: exploring the production, distribution and use of metals in the Free State grasslands, South Africa’ in Swanepoel, Natalie, Amanda Eststerhuysen, and Philip Bonner, eds. 2008. Five Hundred Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp. 87-101.

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