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During the second half of 1891 the heroic account of Methodist missionary Owen Watkins's journey from the Transvaal to Mashonaland was published in the Wesleyan missionary Notices. As such it was absorbed into a wider corpus of imperial travel and adventure literature on the colonisation of this area. Scrutinising those fragments of information that were included in Watkins's private journal but removed from the version prepared for publication provides one with deeper insight into the complexity of missionary Watkins's role in the legitimation of British imperialism. In his private journal, Watkins left numerous clues about his reading practices, his methods of obtaining, validating and processing knowledge. Watkins's comments on the books he read are juxtaposed with his reportage on his behaviour in Mashonaland as well as the more general attitudes and convictions he expressed in both the private and the published versions of his diary. From this it becomes apparent that to Watkins, reading served to refurbish his own comfort zones rather than to have moved him to question or to challenge the order of his day. There may be a sense of redundancy in exploring on the page a world similar to the one surrounding us at the very moment of reading. I think of André Gide reading Boileau as he was being ferried down the Congo, and the counterpoint between the lush, disorderly vegetation and the chiselled, formal seventeenth-century verse seems exactly right.
Somehow, this remark in Alberto Manguel's otherwise so enjoyable A history of reading (1997) just does not seem ‘exactly right' when thinking of a Wesleyan missionary reading Ruskin while travelling in 1891 on a wagon through Mashonaland – his mission to paint the map red – for Wesleyan Methodism, but in the slipstream of British imperial expansion. Or is there something more about the books on the Reverend Owen Watkins's wagon that can help us find some counterpoint between reading about ‘home' and writing from ‘abroad'?
Innovation Vol. 35 2007 pp. 56-80