Endangered ethnohistories: preserving and digitising the DF Ellenberger ethnohistorical archive (EAP845)

Aims and objectives

History of the Basuto, Ancient and Modern, compiled by the French missionary David-Frédéric Ellenberger during the second half of the nineteenth century, remains the seminal ethnohistory of the people who today constitute the population of Lesotho. Ellenberger’s work, drawing upon thousands of interviews, details nineteenth-century (pre-industrial) Basotho religious beliefs, marriage and labour practices, land tenure, genealogies (some stretching back to the 1500s), population migrations and clan histories. It remains essential for anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, and even government administrators working in modern-day Lesotho. History covers some 400 years of ethnohistory pertaining to Bantu-speakers. Ellenberger began collecting the materials in his archive in 1866 and gathered oral histories and genealogies until 1905.

Thanks to bequests from Ellenberger and his descendants, Morija Museum and Archives (MMA, Lesotho) possesses the complete archive of History, reflecting the total process of assembling, editing and publishing this work. This includes:

  • Manuscripts of Volumes One and Two of History (published between 1912-7);
  • Manuscripts of the unpublished Volume Three;
  • Correspondence between Ellenberger and colleagues;
  • Ellenberger’s notes from interviews with informants;
  • Ellenberger’s notes on other contemporary works of ethnohistory;
  • Notebooks outlining the narratives within History;
  • Sketch maps of significant locations within History;
  • Ellenberger’s diaries; and
  • Clippings from 19th century newspapers with Ellenberger’s annotations.


This archive offers a rare window onto nineteenth-century Lesotho and colonial knowledge networks. The testimonies that Ellenberger recorded, detail nineteenth-century Basotho traditions and sensibilities, and how these were changing throughout the colonial period: major concerns include the increasing role of the church in state politics and daily life, migration in Basotho history and contemporary labour schemes, and the powers of chiefs under British imperial administration.

This project will digitise the entire archive of 12,000 pages, most of which is housed in trunks in MMA. The Museum lacks the money and facilities to curate, inventory and catalogue all of its contents. Without proper conditions for storing and viewing paper materials, an estimated 30% of the Ellenberger archive has sustained damage. Documents are stacked in piles with no measures taken to preserve the paper or ink and the trunks in which they are housed are highly vulnerable to insects and mould. Knowledge of the archive’s contents currently rests with MMA’s curator – in his absence this knowledge would diminish significantly or disappear.

The fate of the Ellenberger archive remains uncertain and this project represents the best way to ensure its safety and accessibility. As well as being hosted on the British Library website, the digital archive will also be stored on a dedicated computer at MMA.


The project was able to digitise the full D.F. Ellenberger Archive consisting of approximately 1,500 original documents, making up 1,800 scans in total. The material digitised ranged in date from circa 1866 to 1958, as Ellenberger’s children and grandchildren continued to annotate, research, clarify, and pursue ethnographic leads emanating from Ellenberger’s original work.

Ellenberger’s overriding concerns in compiling the interviews and documentary research that would become his archive were twofold: to establish genealogies of the major chiefly lineages in Lesotho in the late 1800s, and to locate a history of Basotho politics and demographic change within larger trajectories of social change in southern Africa. As such, the leads that subsequent generations followed included pursuing individuals or specific lineages through archive and ethnography, and efforts to resolve confusion in ethnic and racial taxonomy which were characteristic of early to mid-twentieth century anthropological study. This material, with its many branches and digressions, thus contains a tremendous amount of information about how anthropological thought in Lesotho changed during a 100-year window and how it intersected with more metropolitan knowledge networks like Cape Town.

Additional catalogue data provided by the project team: PDF download (1,668 KB)

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: