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Dupont, Joseph
1850 to 1930
Catholic Church
Zambia / Malawi


Joseph Dupont was the first Catholic missionary bishop of a diocese that covered two thirds of modern Zambia and the whole of modern Malawi, a total of 300,000 square miles. He was a colourful and original personality, impulsive, energetic and adventurous. Always optimistic and using superlatives, he displayed panache and indulged in self-dramatization. His character is reflected in his African name Bwana Moto Moto or "man of fire".

Dupont was born in France at Geste, near Cholet in Maine and Loire on July 23, 1850, and was baptized next day with the name Joseph. He was the third child of Angevin peasant parents who hailed from Vendée. At an early age he announced his desire of becoming a missionary priest, and in 1864, at the age of fourteen, he entered the diocesan college of Beaupréau. Dupont was very far from being an academic. Later, as bishop, he discouraged further studies for his missionaries and, in retirement, a characteristic saying of his was "(academic) discussion leads to division, not action." Dupont was twenty when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Although, as a seminarian, he could have avoided conscription, his college director thought a military career might suit him better, and did not apply for exemption in his case. Dupont enjoyed his military service so much that, after the war, he offered to fight the Paris Commune. In this conflict he exhibited considerable bravery, personally disarming and capturing a Communard leader in the Père Lachaise quarter.

Dupont, however, overcame the attraction of a military career, and, to everyone's surprise, returned to college in 1872 to complete his studies. Two years later he entered the major seminary of Angers. Here, the missionary call was heard again, and Dupont became connected with the Geographical Society of Paris. He experienced some difficulty in securing release from his diocesan bishop, but eventually in 1879 was admitted to the Society of Missionaries of Africa after priestly ordination and made his novitiate year at Maison Carrée, Algiers. After his missionary oath, he spent the next four years as a teacher at the College of Saint Louis of Carthage at Thibar in Tunisia. This was not a congenial posting, but it enabled Dupont to know his missionary society better.

Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the Missionaries of Africa, had been entrusted by Pope Leo XIII with the evangelization of central, equatorial Africa. In 1879 his missionaries had already begun work on the eastern side of the continent in the area of the Great Lakes and upper Congo. Anxious to begin work in the west, Lavigerie invited the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans) to help him evangelize this vast region, while, at the same time, planning a mission of his own in the same area. In 1885, he sent Dupont and two other missionaries to found a station on the Congo above Stanley Pool, at Kwamouth in the country of the Bayanzi. Journeying up river by road and steamer, Dupont managed, with considerable difficulty, to begin work at Bungana in 1876. Meanwhile, the Spiritans lobbied the Propaganda Fide congregation in Rome to obtain jurisdiction for themselves. King Leopold II was also anxious for Belgian, rather than French, missionaries. At length in 1887, the Pope consented to give the territory to the Spiritans and Dupont was obliged to withdraw.

With a heavy heart, Dupont returned to the uncongenial task of being a teacher again for four years at the apostolic school of Saint Laurent d'Olt in France. He was rescued from this servitude in 1891 to be made leader of the tenth caravan of the missionaries of Africa to Equatorial Africa, arriving at Karema on Lake Tanganyika in 1892. Here he was again in his element, building and fortifying Karema mission settlement, securing the goodwill of local chiefs, playing a part in suppressing the activities of the slave raiders and even appointing chiefs, with the subsequent approval of the German administration. Appointed superior of Karema mission, by Bishop Lechaptois of Tanganyika, he founded a number of outstations, and acted as diocesan administrator in the absence of the bishop during 1894-1895. A fellow missionary remarked that Dupont had discovered the secret of perpetual motion.

Bishop Lechaptois of Tanganyika was responsible for the Nyasa mission (modern Zambia and Malawi) which became a provicariate in 1895. In fact, it was a paper jurisdiction only, having the single station of Mambwe at the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika, staffed by four missionary priests and one brother. Dupont was appointed provicar. In the 1880s and early 1890s, the "brigands" of the area were the Bemba. This was a warrior tribe which had made pacts with slave traders and had a practice of raiding neighbouring villages and passing caravans. They had also skirmished with the Germans (in modern Tanzania), but had not yet submitted to the British administration of Nyasaland (modern Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia). Their socio-political organization was also complex and fraught with violent conflict. The major authorities of Bembaland were the rival chiefs known as Mwamba and Chitimukulu, the latter a ritual paramount or divine king. There was also a Bemba speaking client chief, known as Makasa.

Dupont and the Bemba "fell in love" with each other at first sight. Dupont admired the intelligence and fine physique of the Bemba, and the fearlessness and proud independent spirit of their warriors. He adopted the social categories which the Bemba gave him and responded to their expectations. Dupont was quickly identified as a reincarnation of Lukyele Nganga, a mysterious priest, healer and diviner of Bemba oral tradition. His medical apostolate and skills in minor surgery were cited in support of this, as was his successful intercession against prevalent locust swarms. Dupont's military bearing and authoritarian manner were also appreciated. Dupont entered into the internecine politics of the Bemba rulers and was soon able to establish a mission station at Kayambi in Makasa's chiefdom.

Here he founded what he called with characteristic hyperbole his "college." This was a kind of youth association centred on Kayambi. There was no fixed enrolment of students. The free spirits of Bembaland would not tolerate the discipline of a true boarding school. Over a period of three years, some 800 Bemba youth passed through Dupont's college, attracted by the kindness and generosity of this stranger who loved them. Together, they went on hunting expeditions, during which Dupont would give them catechetical instructions. Some of the youngsters joined the catechumenate and others were expected to influence their families at home. It was an experiment which was geared to the rhythms of Bemba life, but it depended entirely on the personal magnetism of Dupont. It did not survive his departure.

At the death of the Chitimukulu in 1896, the reigning Mwamba became the effective Bemba paramount and Dupont decided that the time was ripe to enter the Bemba heartland. He therefore set out with more than one hundred attendants to confer with Mwamba in his kingdom of Ituna. After protracted negotiations, false promises and false starts, the mission station of Chilubula was eventually established in 1899. Meanwhile, two important events took place. In 1897 Dupont became the first vicar apostolic of Nyasa and was consecrated bishop by Lechaptois at Kayambi, taking as his Episcopal motto accendatur, "would that the fire be kindled" (Luke 12:49). His titular see was none other than Thibar, where he had held his first appointment. Then, in 1898, the Mwamba died, having confided to Dupont that he wanted the latter to inherit his kingdom. Dupont, in characteristic style, made the most of his chiefly status, declaring that he was the inheritor of the dead chief's wives and children.

Probably, Mwamba intended him to be a temporary regent and protector of the Kingdom. Dupont certainly prevented the bloodshed customary after a Mwamba's death and he secured the allegiance to the British of his thirty three junior chiefs. For this, the British were grateful. Even after the succession of the legal heir in 1899, Dupont was granted concessionary status at Chilubula, as a native authority, exercising civil power over the villages to a radius of ten miles. This, however, was only a temporary anomaly tolerated by the British. Dupont's missionaries had greater misgivings. The bishop's style was decidedly military, issuing written orders and imposing strict discipline. Even the gentle Lechaptois complained to the Superior General of the Missionaries of Africa that Dupont conducted his affairs in a military manner. Moreover, the bishop's predilection for the Bemba meant that the remainder of his vast diocese was neglected. When hepatitis forced him to take sick leave in Europe in 1899, the vicariate consisted of three Bemba mission stations, with eight priests and four brothers.

Dupont was absent from his diocese for four years. In his absence, his administrator, Mathurin Guillemé, founded several mission stations in the country of the Ngoni and Achewa across the Lwangwa river in Nyasaland (modern Malawi). These were Mua, Likuni, Kachebere and eventually Ntakataka. For his part, Dupont in Europe arranged for the first Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa to go to Bembaland, and signed a contract with the Montfort Missionary Society to staff the extreme south of Nyasaland (Malawi). This agreement was made with Dupont's usual impulsiveness, forgetting entirely to secure the approval of Rome. As a result, the Montfort Missionaries were recalled and Dupont spent a fruitless time at the Vatican trying to secure approval for his fait accompli. The matter was only rectified, after Dupont had been severely reprimanded, and the Cardinal Protector of the Montforts had himself became Prefect of Propaganda Fide.

Dupont returned to his diocese in 1904. He was still a sick man. Moreover, he found that the large Bemba concentrations around his missions had dispersed. The Bemba were, after all, shifting cultivators and the Pax Britannica encouraged population dispersal. Many missionaries despaired of the Bemba altogether. They believed the future of the diocese lay in Nyasaland and thought the bishop's predilection for the Bemba misplaced. Dupont's faith in the Bemba was eventually justified, but not until he had set up a catechist training centre at Chilubula and espoused methods of evangelization that were more orthodox.

It was becoming clear that Bembaland and Angoniland would have to become separate jurisdictions. Dupont wanted to remain forever with his beloved Bemba. Theirs were the language and culture he knew. Bembaland was also his power base in the diocese. He therefore suggested that Nyasaland should become a separate prefecture apostolic. The anomaly was, however, that he was vicar apostolic of "Nyasa." His superiors at Algiers requested that he leave Bembaland and take direct responsibility for the rest of his huge diocese. This he was unable to do. In 1910, Livinhac, the Superior General, requested his resignation. With a broken heart, he obeyed, his resignation being accepted by Rome the following year, 1911. His last act was to consecrate at Chilubula the Montfort missionary Auneau, as vicar apostolic of Shire in southern Nyasaland.

After brief stays at Minson in Marne and his home parish of Geste, Dupont left France and retired to Thibar, Tunisia, the place of his Episcopal title. Here he lived out his exile from Bembaland, a venerable, if pathetic, figure until his death on March 19, 1930. In 1997, the centenary of his Episcopal consecration, his bones were taken to Kasama, Zambia, to be buried in the land of his beloved Bemba. In the oral tradition and folklore of the area the love affair of Bwana Moto Moto and his Bemba warriors continues unabated to this day.

Aylward Shorter M.Afr.



Bibliography:

Brian Garvey, Bembaland Church: Religious and Social Change in South Central Africa 1891 to 1964 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994.)
Roger Heremans, L'Education dans les Missions des Pères Blancs en Afrique Centrale 1879-1914 (Brussels: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1983).
L. Leloir, Un Evêque Missionnaire - Roi des Brigands (Brussel: Editions du Rendez-Vous, 1945).
Ian Linden and Jane Linden, Catholics Peasants and Chewa Resistance 1889-1939 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974).
Henry Pineau, Evêque-Roi des Brigands - Monseigneur Dupont, Premier Vicaire Apostolique du Nyassa 1850-1930 (Paris: Province de France des Pères Blancs, 1937).
Friedrich Stenger, White Fathers in Colonial Central Africa - A Critical Examination of V. Y. Mudimbe's Theories on Missionary Discourse in Africa (Munster, Hamburg, London: LIT Verlag, 2001).


This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.