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Review of Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery and Tragedy on an African Mission


By Kevin Ward

Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery and Tragedy on an African Mission. Tim Couzens. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2005. Pp. 474. ISBN. 9 780813 925295 0 (pb). $25.

On Wednesday 22 December 1920 the Jacottet family sat down for a midday meal in the dining room of the mission house at Morija. Soup was served. Soon they were all in the garden wretching, vomiting the arsenic which they had absorbed with the soup. Five diners recovered. Unfortunately, the pater familias, Reverend Monsieur Edouard Jacottet, had had a second helping. He did not survive the night. Three people were eventually accused of the murder but, after a preliminary hearing, the case was dropped and they were never brought to trial. The murder was a big scandal at the time in Basutoland (modern Lesotho) and among the white society of South African, but it remained unsolved. Tim Couzens revisits the case 80 years later, attempting to solve the mystery. The case has all the elements of a classic Agatha Christie – a big house, a limited number of suspects, a dramatic death. There is even a plan of the house on p. xix, á la Cluedo, showing kitchen, dining room, study, master bedroom and cabinet de toilet. There is no billiard room, but there is a room described ‘the theological
school’ – the classroom where M Jacottet taught the Basotho who were training
for ordination. Couzens plays Hercule Poiret. The suspects are paraded to our
view, somebody is accused and a solution offered.

The brilliance of Couzens account is that he uses the structure of the English detective genre to unfold a brilliant historical analysis of the relationship between religion, politics and society among the Basotho, the importance of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society for the
creation of Sotho identity and nationhood, as well as questions of the relationship between
Christianity and Sotho culture, mutual understandings and misunderstandings. Basically there are three possible areas which might explain the events of 22 December 1920: was it a dispute within the Jacettet family? There were plenty of domestic dramas involving different family members which might have made M. Jacottet a target. But there were also tensions within the Paris Evangelical Mission, rivalries and jealousies. Perhaps some fellow missionaries felt sufficiently jealous or aggrieved to take extreme measures. Then, there was the complex, often abrasive relation between the PEM and the native authorities, the continuing attempts of missionaries to impose certain cultural values on their Basotho converts, not to mention the
religious tensions between Protestant and Catholic which had existed from the time of King Moshoeshoe. Could certain elements among the Basotho elite, either traditional or Christian, wish to dispose of Jacottet?

Couzens explores all these diverse strands with a skilled critical eye, utilising a wealth of historical archive material. Couzens utilises the detective genre to structure his narrative, but this does not detract from the judicious use of the historical sources. Those who are captivated by the page turning character of the mystery, told with brilliance and panache, may be a bit frustrated by the leisurely unfolding of the complex historical and social and religious background in Southern Africa. But this only accentuates the suspense. I can imagine some people finding the detailed examination of the theological tensions within Swiss Protestantism between rationalists and adherents of  the Reveille (the Swiss revivalist movement) rather tedious. But it does throw important light on Jacottet’s own attitudes to Lesotho culture and I found these sections particularly illuminating.

I would thoroughly recommend this book. It has all the ingredients of a superbly told crime novel, with the suspense and the false leads and the exhilaration of solving the clues, but it is also provides great insights into the history of mission and of Lesotho culture, politics and society.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 76-77]

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