The Société des Missionnaires d'Afrique, more commonly known as the Pères Blancs or White Fathers, began its work of proselytizing in northern and sub-Saharan Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their archives, located in Rome, are a treasure trove for Africanists of all disciplines. In founding the order in 1868, Cardinal Lavigerie, archbishop of Algiers, charged its members to bring Christianity to Africa not by imposing European civilization on Africans but rather by converting the inner man while maintaining the external indigenous forms of dress, food, shelter, and especially language. Lavigerie wrote that it was thus indispensible for the fathers to learn the local language as rapidly as possible, and in areas where the language had not yet been studied, one member of the mission was to spend one or two hours each day compiling a dictionary. In addition, the superior of each post was to keep a daily journal in which he entered, among other matters, information gleaned from the local people about their history, geography, and customs. This journal, Lavigerie wrote, could easily become “une mine féconde.” Another obligation of the superior was to send a monthly letter to the Maison-Mère in Algiers describing the progress of the mission, the health of its members, and any extraordinary local events or activities by the authorities.
These injunctions of Lavigerie have yielded a very valuable collection of material on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa that is housed in the White Fathers' headquarters in Rome. (The transfer from Algiers took place in 1952.)