Author: Dr. Joan Plubell Mattia

Walking the Rift – Idealism and Imperialism in East Africa. 

Alfred Robert Tucker (1890-1911)

(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017)


Joan Mattia has written a fine, insightful book on Bishop Tucker, who served as an Anglican missionary bishop in East Africa and Uganda for 21 years, 1890-1911.  His two predecessors, James Hannington and Henry P Parker, served just one year each, one was killed travelling, the other died of fever. Tucker, who had set walking records in the English Lake District with his brothers, was strong enough to cope with walking thousands of miles and recovering from fevers. And advancing British imperialism reduced physical dangers through its law and order.


Mattia’s central question is this: Is Tucker simply a pious imperialist who domesticates native Africans and thus enables British colonialism to oppress, subjugate and exploit indigenous peoples in East Africa? This after all is the master narrative of those who criticize European Christian missionaries.  How can this important question be answered?  What would be the evidence base?  Joan Mattia’s evidence base is basically two-fold: a) Tucker’s 4,500 letters which Mattia not only reads but word processes 3,000 of them plus correspondence with the Church Mission Society sponsoring Tucker; b) Tucker’s sketches and paintings.  Tucker’s two volume autobiography is often guarded because people were still living.  However, in his letters Bishop Tucker is frank and direct and I am impressed that Mattia read and typed so many.  I think she would have a real sense of who Tucker really was, almost intimately, from reading so many letters.  Tucker was also a professional artist.  How does he see Africans and Africa? This can also be revealing.  I think Mattia’s two-fold research methodology is sound.


Mattia is looking for evidence in both Tucker’s candid letters and in his art of both imperialism and also a contrasting vision/project of a multiracial, egalitarian community, the kingdom of God, where there is no African or European, no colonizer or colonized, no male nor female (Galatians 3:27-28).  Is Tucker assisting exploitive imperialism or is he Christian idealist?  What does she find?


Tucker is both, in a complicated way.  In the end though he is perhaps more loyal opposition to British colonialism than abetting it. He is more prophet than chaplain to British Imperialists.  His leadership style is both autocratic and pastoral and also mentor.  He is a bishop in the hierarchical Anglican church whose supreme governor is Queen Victoria, and he also comes from a Quaker background and is married to a Quaker. In him is the tension of British Christianity at perhaps its most extremes.  In the end he is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing but a Quaker/Evangelical Christian in Anglican vestments. He fiercely believes in, and consistently promotes a self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating/ evangelizing church. He admires African Christians and sees that in many aspects they are much more effective missionaries than Europeans yet, often it is Europeans who are supervisors.  He uses London, the imperial capital as the Apostle Paul used Rome when it is to his advantage.  But Tucker is seeking the New Jerusalem. And the Ugandan church thrives.  The present Archbishop of York is John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu from Uganda and he writes a review on the back of Mattia’s book.


So why am I so interested in Mattia’s book?  I heard stories of Bishop Tucker as a boy.  He was the brother of my great grandfather, Hubert Tucker/Coutts.  He was one of five brothers, I was one of four boys.  I loved that he was artist and athlete and, following his example, I tried hard to do both.  His Christian commitment also quietly influenced me in a gentle, positive way.  Tucker was a robust all-rounder and I liked that.  In the end I gave up art but knew how good the Tucker brothers were.  The fact that Tucker paid for his Oxford education by painting was impressive to me.  I enjoyed sports and ran for my college in cross country, but had no great talent.  I did end up coordinating 200 congregations in 10 countries in Asia for 9 years.  It is not easy developing self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating churches.  So, Bishop Tucker is a giant and his example helped me get further than I would have done otherwise.  I am very grateful for Great, Great Uncle Alfred Tucker’s legacy, and Mattia’s carefully nuanced book on him.


Andrew Bolton, PhD

Leicester, England


Reviews of “Walking the Rift: Imperialism and Idealism in East Africa”

The Most Rev’d and Rt. Hon. Dr. John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, Archbishop of York

Though I was born a full 35 years after his death, my parents named me Tucker, after East Africa’s second Anglican Bishop, by then already a legend. When my grandfather Yeremiya Jagenda died in Boga, Congo, while on a mission there with Apolo Kivebulaya, Bishop Tucker helped my father to train as a primary school teacher. In missionary history a fault line runs between, on the one hand, romantic hagiography, and on the other, the unquestioned criticism of missions as inevitably steeped in colonialism. Alfred Tucker’s ministry affords evidence on both sides, but Joan Mattia’s discerning study explores the nuances and contradictions with deep respect for one who was both a man of his time and well ahead of it. I commend this book.

Werner Ustorf, Professor Emeritus, Birmingham University.

Demythologizing the pseudo giants and the corresponding pseudo dwarfs of the imperialist era is the working principle of Joan Mattia’s fascinating study. In the end, there are neither dwarfs nor giants, but human beings. And at that point the talking begins.

Elizabeth C. Parsons, Author of What Price for Privatization and Colonial Encounter With Development Policy on the Zambian Copperbelt 

Contemporary versions of colonial-era mission activity often come in the form of international aid and development efforts. Those involved who are honest with themselves will experience tensions of the sort Walking the Rift identifies in the life of Bishop Alfred Tucker. By examining meaning-making behind this nineteenth-century missionary’s actions, Mattia’s fine work offers guidance for current international workers uncovering their own cultural assumptions — and wisdom for living with what they find.  Elizabeth C. Parsons, Author of What Price for Privatization and Colonial Encounter With Development Policy on the Zambian Copperbelt.