Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA)


Ron Trevelyan


            This may seem somewhat outside the normal run of subjects for the Exhibition Study Group Journal, but I have been persuaded by Bill Tonkin to put pen to paper. Bill has had a long-standing interest in missionary postcards, which in some cases have been linked with exhibitions, whereas in my case I have been attracted by the Rhodesia / Nyasaland subject matter shown on a number of the UMCA cards.

            It did not take me long to realise that Bill had done an enormous amount of research on the UMCA cards. These were published for sale in the UK for a period of about 40 years -from 1903 until the outbreak of the Second World War, The postcards were intended to raise the profile of the missionary work being carried out in Africa by UMCA and hopefully raise funds through donations and the sale of the cards. The cards showed scenes of everyday African life and the influence of the missionaries there.

            Bill's research has come up against considerable difficulty over establishing when and how the postcards were published, but his records have been improved by information received from an archivist at the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) via another collector. The USPG resulted from a merger of the UMCA with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1965. It appears that the cards were published in a number of series (12) in packets containing coloured, toned and black and white cards, as well as some striking silhouette ones. The accuracy of these findings has been undermined by the number of reissues and reprints which exist. Nevertheless the cards can be sorted into a rough chronological order by noting the address of UMCA on the back of the cards. From 1897 this was Dartmouth Street, Westminster and in 1929 it became Central Africa House, Wood Street, Westminster (later Great Peter Street). There are no clues as to who the artists or publishers were and little guidance can be obtained from postmarks on the postally used cards. These are in a minority and in any case cards can be left in a drawer for years before being used. Despite all these problems the fact remains that most of the cards are very attractive and collectable and portray a period of social history. I am leaving it for Bill to provide a few examples.

            Whilst I enjoy having a collection of UMCA cards with the benefit of information gleaned from Bill, I admit that my interest stems from the historical background of the mission. The Rhodesian Study Circle takes a close interest in all missionary activity in the early days, because missionaries formed a large part of European settlement and much research has been carried out on how the mail reached these isolated outposts.

            The idea of a mission to Central Africa was started by David Livingstone who was in the UK following his journeys in Africa between 1841 and 1856. In 1857 he gave a lecture to the Senate House at Cambridge University where he exhorted the audience of undergraduates to carry on his work in Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity. Some of his audience formed the UMCA. Similar enthusiasm was raised at Oxford University which led to the formation of the Oxford and Cambridge Mission to Central Africa, The Universities of Dublin and Durham also became interested so that the name was changed to the UMCA.

            David Livingstone left the UK for Africa in 1858 to begin his Zambesi Expedition, whilst the UMCA became established here. Its ambition was to pursue evangelistical, medical and educational work in East and Central Africa and to make a major contribution in the fight against slavery and leprosy. In 1861 at the invitation of David Livingstone the UMCA sent an ill-fated mission to the Shire Highlands. It encountered problems through the lawlessness of the region and first attempts at forming a mission there proved disastrous. There were many deaths from fever. There was public criticism of David Livingstone when they heard of the dangers to which the mission had been exposed. In 1863 the UMCA withdrew to Zanzibar to establish a network of missions in East Africa.      Despite this bad start the UMCA returned to Central Africa in 1880 and the Diocese of Nyasaland was created. It proved to be the forerunner of much missionary activity by other organisations. Its separate existence in London until 1965 shows how initial problems were overcome. The 140th Anniversary of the UMCA was celebrated in 1997 with Eucharist at Great St. Mary's University Church in Cambridge.

            I hope this will help to show what an interesting background lies behind the publication of a few postcards.


© Exhibition Study Group 2012