Dr. Schweitzer came out to Gabon in 1915. The French colony had been established more than sixty years before, and missionary activity, both American and French, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, had been going on for almost all that time.
The English traveller Mary Kingsley came to Gabon in 1893 and 1895. Her famous book, Travels in West Africa, was published by the house of Macmillan in 1897. (This was the year in which Somerset Maugham published his first novel; it gives a kind of context.)
Mary Kingsley describes a busy river life in Gabon, with traders and missionaries. Dr. Schweitzer, when he came to Gabon twenty years later, in 1915, would not have had to live the life of Robinson Crusoe. Mission life by this time would already have been formalised. African children would have been trained in housework; the missionary whose energy was low needed only conduct a service in his church, which might be next door to his house.
Mary Kingsley writes especially about Dr. Nassau, a very early missionary from the American Presbyterian mission. He had been working among Africans for forty years when Mary Kingsley met him. She is full of praise for him; and he is clearly an unusual man, of high intellect, full of energy, and wise about the ways and beliefs of Africans. The subject of African religion interests Mary Kingsley, too. She consults Dr. Nassau at length about what she calls “fetish,” which is her portmanteau word for African belief, and she gives the subject five chapters in her book, a hundred pages.
Set beside Mary Kingsley and Dr. Nassau, Dr. Schweitzer doesn’t shine. Among Africans his reputation, which has lasted down to our own time, is that of a man who was “harsh” to Africans and was not interested in their culture. This perhaps is the true mystery of the man: not his ability in 1915 to turn his back on the civilisation of the time (though the 1914 war might have been a factor), but the—almost heroic—idea of his own righteousness that enabled him to live apart in Africa for all that time: the ideal of the missionary taken to its limit, the man less interested in serving men than in beguiling them.
Early on her travels Mary Kingsley saw the ruins of the first mission house Dr. Nassau built on the upper Oguwé. It was on one side of a ravine, and in front of it, “as an illustration of the transitory nature of European life in West Africa,” was the grave of Mrs. Nassau. The four or five lines about this—the ruined mission house above the grave—make a telling point about dedication and loss and the swift growth of bush.
Quite different is the cluster of granite crosses beside the Lambaréné hospital building. The crosses are close together. They seem not to leave room for anyone else. These are the Schweitzer family graves. They speak more of possession and triumph than tragedy. Nearby is a caged, depressed-looking pelican, padding about on trampled mud. Dr. Schweitzer had a pet pelican; and this unhappy pelican, flying nowhere, diving nowhere, is kept in his memory.