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



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 desiccation 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 desiccation. The chronology is then used as a framework within which to view missionary perspectives on drought and desiccation. Major influences upon the development of desiccationist 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 desiccation are identified as having been made during periods of severe drought. This is used to suggest that the most widely propagated evidence for desiccation may, therefore, simply be the end-product of periods of short-term drought rather than long-term climatic deterioration.