Setting the Stage: Learn about the historical background of The Convert
The Convert begins in the late months of 1895 and is set in Rhodesia (what we now know as Zimbabwe). Here are a few things you need to know about what was happening in that part of the world leading up to the events of the play:
• This play is about the Shona people, a large population grouped by language though comprised of several distinct traditions, who migrated to Southern Africa in the 11th century.
• Largely a peaceful and agricultural people, they settled in an area that became known as Mashonaland, passing down land and traditions to the next generation.
• In the 1820s, a faction of the Zulu tribe from southern Africa called the Ndebele migrated north into the lands occupied by the Shona, settling in an area that became known as Matabeleland. The Zulu were trained as warriors and spent most of their existence in battles over land and resources.
• The Ndebele, led by their chief Mzilikazi, absorbed many tribes into a centralized kingdom. Mzilikazi descended on the largely peaceful Shona demanding tribute, which the Shona paid, preferring to share the plenty of the land.
• Mzilikazi proclaimed himself leader of the entire area of Matabeleland and Mashonaland, though not everyone agreed whether he had the authority to negotiate for the entire population. He was succeeded by his son Lobengula in 1869.
White European Settlers
• The early 19th century brought white European settlers to all of southern Africa, many in search of gold, diamonds, land for agriculture and cheap labor. In addition to Dutch, British and Portuguese colonists, there was also a flood of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the large native populations.
• Also arriving at the time were businessmen and politicians seeking to capitalize on the wealth and resources of the region, chief among them was Cecil John Rhodes, who established the DeBeers Mining Company and had ambitions of British imperial expansion into Africa.
• John Smith Moffatt, continuing the work of his father – missionary Robert Moffatt who had known chief Mzilikazi – established the first permanent mission in Matabeleland in 1859. Moffatt knew chief Lobengula, who trusted him because their fathers had been friends.
• In 1888, Rhodes used John Smith Moffatt as an ambassador to gain the trust of chief Lobengula to negotiate the Rudd Concession, granting Rhodes and his company exclusive mining and mineral rights over all of Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Though these rights were not Lobengula’s to sign away and he was misled as to the details of the contract, Rhodes used the Rudd Concession to establish the British South Africa Company in 1889, eventually receiving a charter from Queen Victoria. As white European settlers began to arrive in droves, Rhodes assembled the Pioneer Column to occupy Mashonaland and establish rule over the “savage natives.”
• The people of Matabeleland and Mashonaland lived in villages. They were subsistence farmers and raised large numbers of cattle on the plateau, which they used to barter and trade. They had no currency.
• The British settlers sought to shift the economy of the land, not interested in subsistence and bartering, but rather in currency and mining, and they sought to take advantage of the plentiful, cheap labor.
• 1896 was the turning point. There was a massive epidemic of rinderpest, which wiped out most of the cattle in the region. The effects were devastating. Many Shona and Ndebele lost their only source of wealth, as well as a source of meat and milk. This left many with no other option than to work for the white settlers.
• The Shona and Ndebele had no interest in leaving their farms and tribes to work for meager pay in unsafe, dark and dirty mines. To give them further motivation, the British government established a Hut Tax that every native had to pay per hut. As the British only accepted currency for this tax, many had to go to work in the mines to pay.
• The first major uprising against the British, the First Matabele War, occurred in 1893. The spears of the Shona and Ndebele were no match for the advanced weaponry of the British. Knowing he was about to lose the war, Lobengula fled north, abandoning his chiefdom.
• In the absence of a chief, the lands were officially renamed Rhodesia in 1895.
• While the white Europeans continued to expand their dominion across Rhodesia, unrest continued to smolder, especially as the settlers’ wealth grew and the quality of life and opportunity for the Ndebele and Shona plummeted.
• The Jesuits were among the first to establish missionaries and schools, sharing food and medicine with the native populations. They reached out to Lobengula and assured him they were not a threat to his kingdom. However, after the Rudd Concession, Lobengula and many of the tribes began to distrust all white Europeans, including the well-intentioned missionaries.
• While some Shona and Ndebele practices were antithetical to Catholic Church teachings (polygamy, spirit mediums, animal sacrifice, ancestral worship), many lined up well, like the belief in one remote high god, a strong connection to family and community, and a moral responsibility to take care of others.
• The Church did offer some opportunities not present in traditional culture, providing education to all, including women, for example.
• Accepting the Church also secured a place of belonging and, occasionally, authority in the white world that felt like it was quickly overtaking the traditional cultures.
The Convert begins here. The Shona and Ndebele people who embraced the Church often ended up conflicted because acceptance of the Catholic faith meant having to leave traditions behind. As tensions rose between the white Europeans and the tribal people, there were many who felt that the natives who had chosen to side with the whites – by working in the mines as supervisors, joining the police force that executed brutal punishments on behalf of the white owners or joining the Church and attempting to convert their fellow natives – were traitors. Those who had embraced white culture over their own were often the first targets during the many rebellions and uprisings that rocked Rhodesia from the late 1880s through the 1960s.
For Further Consideration
• Which characters do you most identify with in The Convert? Why?
• All of the characters in the play exhibit respectable behavior as well as objectionable behavior. In a complicated world like the one in The Convert, how do you identify who is a good person or a bad person?
• What did the sections of the play in the Shona language bring to the story? Can you imagine the play without them? Why do you think they were there?
• Which of the characters experienced their conversion by choice, which by association, which for convenience and which by force?
• This play is a historical example of what happens when two very different cultures collide. What other examples of culture clash – from history or from present day – does The Convert make you think of?
• How do you choose between incompatible beliefs or values in your own life?