A First Biography

Although I have been producing books for many years, it is only now that I have published my first biography. The Scotland Malawi Partnership did it proud by holding a launch event on Monday in the Edinburgh City Chambers. In case you missed it and would like to catch up they have even posted the proceedings on YouTube – https://www.scotland-malawipartnership.org/events/faith-forum-mission-race-and-colonialism-in-malawi-alexander-hetherwick-of-blantyre-by-kenneth-r-ross

The subject of the autobiography is Alexander Hetherwick, a Scottish missionary who worked in Malawi in the late 19thand early 20th century. The project was attractive to me because his life brought into focus some of the crucial issues that were at stake then and also speaks to issues that are at stake now.

One benefit of exploring critical issues through the prism of an individual life is that this often challenges stereotypes and reveals that matters were more complicated than is often assumed. In Hetherwick’s case, there has been a polarization of views. He played a foundational role in both church and nation in Malawi so he used to be viewed as a heroic figure who could do no wrong. On the other hand, critics who believe that missionary work was complicit in colonialism and imperialism have seen him through this lens and do not have a good word to say about him.

What I have tried to show by taking a close look at Hetherwick’s life is that while there was indeed a close relationship between the missionary project and the colonial one, there were also differences that are no less important historically. On my analysis Hetherwick was influenced by the racist and colonialist thinking that held sway in his time, but he also sustained a pro-African vision that would ultimately transcend colonialism. Rather than settling for lazy stereotypes, I suggest that historians need to tease out such tensions and contradictions.

At a time when racism is resurgent worldwide, Hetherwick is an instructive figure. He started from a strongly anti-racist position but had to try to maintain it as colonial rule entrenched racist outlooks. This was not easy and some of the all-pervasive racist thinking seeped into the life of the mission. Nevertheless, I aim to show that Hetherwick sustained a pro-African vision that would ultimately prove to be subversive of colonialism.

Edinburgh University Press, the Scottish publisher, have kindly made an agreement with Mzuni Press which will allow a Malawi edition to be published later this year.

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