Nineteenth Century Christian Mission: The ideological arm of Western Imperialism?

sierra-leone
A bishop visits his flock: Sierra Leone c1880

During the first half of the nineteenth century, academic societies and private associations often sponsored exploring expeditions, usually by selling financial shares in the enterprise. Geographical societies naturally wished to advance knowledge and make discoveries. Several rival expeditions originating from Britain, for example, intended to explore the African river systems and identify the mysterious source of the Nile. On these expeditions new kinds of questions were asked about indigenous peoples, animal and plant distribution, local diseases, acclimatisation and useful economic commodities. But an important extra element was often a religious, Christianising purpose. Livingstone’s expeditions in central Africa demonstrate these forces at work. They were financed at first by the London Missionary Society and then by the Royal Geographical Society of London and also by the government. His letters reflect this constellation of interests.
In this he was not alone. The role of Christian missionary work was often not central to such an expedition, but increasingly it developed a logic and vitality of its own. Economics and power are the traditional explanations of overseas expansion, and undoubtedly, wealth and prestige are the primary driving forces behind imperialism. Christian Mission provides a less fashionable explanations for Britain’s empire. Increasingly, through the nineteenth century, evangelical motivations contributed to imperial presence. The British flag and the Bible were part of the same colonization process.
Simply put, the evangelical embraces the idea of seeking to convert, advance or civilize colonial populations. It can be regarded as a micro-rationale for imperialism as opposed to broader, macro explanations like national wealth or balance of power concerns. Interestingly, there are (and were) doubts over traditional explanations: Adam Smith argued that the whole enterprise of empire was economically counter-productive. There were those who thought empire was a waste of money. Even Disraeli, an avid imperialist, said that the colonies were ‘millstones’ around Britain’s neck. It follows that there must have been other factors accounting for Victorian imperial gains.
Since Shakespeare’s day, Britain’s literature evidenced a curiosity and enchantment with far-off lands. Shortly before Victoria’s accession, Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented the fantastic faraway in a popular poem:
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea…
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!’

‘Kubla Khan’ presents both positive and negative religious reflections to Christian readers. Curiosity about distant ‘savage’ places was stimulated, above all perhaps, by Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. Tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba and the Jinni presented the Victorian public with a profoundly un-Christian Oriental world of theft, greed, the erotic and the wicked. In a similar vein, it was the idea of a Godless, dark continent of Africa that drew in the likes of the nineteenth century’s most famous missionary explorer – David Livingstone. Younger Victorians may have been attracted to colonialism by the imperialistic jingoism of The Boy’s Own Paper. This comic (produced weekly from 1879) included contributions from Colonel Baden-Powell (founder of the Scout Movement) who urged readers to lead ‘manly and Christian lives.’ Stories portraying soldiery and bravery from around the world no doubt excited and enticed British youth. Could both ‘manly and Christian’ pursuits be integrated within imperialism however?
For some, there was a religious dimension to empire work. Indeed, India’s viceroy at the close of the nineteenth century, George Curzon, asserted: ‘The sacredness of India haunts me like a passion.’
While missionary activity was designed to convert colonials to Christianity, it was also designed to elevate or ennoble. Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta 1823-26, penned the following hymn:
‘From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain’

There was a sense of assisting local populations – whether it be shining Christian light into their lives or even seeking to end slavery. David Livingstone maintained that one of his primary aims was to stamp out the ‘trade of hell’. Indeed, he maintained that the bedrock of British liberal imperialism was ‘commerce and Christianity’ and that the two strands were inseparable.
William Knibb of the Baptist Missionary Society similarly witnessed the slave trade in Jamaica: ‘I have now reached the land of sin…where Satan reigns with awful power.’ On his return home in 1832, he worked tirelessly to rally opinion against slavery. Some missionaries, such as the Clapham Sect in Sierra Leone, set up trading companies in order to diversify the local economy (away from trade in humans.)
Missionary activity brought churches but often hospitals, dispensaries, schools and colleges across Britain’s empire. Despite seemingly carrying out God’s work, missionaries reinforced both the cultural and power structures of the empire. By the end of the nineteenth century there were 12,000 British missionary workers across the globe. Missionary societies spent 2 million pounds per year – the equivalent of 2% of government expenditure! There was an imposition of British values from the noblest to most mundane levels as evidenced by an advertisement for Pears’ Soap which uses the theme of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden to encourage the British to teach cleanliness to colonials.
‘Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need’

There was, then, a sense of civilizing work. Some missionaries were aware that their task was not merely to convert to Christianity but also to convert to Western culture. Such liberal imperialism involved the provision of higher education (e.g. the Madras Christian College) and schools, whether they were Presbyterian, Jesuit, Church of England, Franciscan or convent institutions.
There was great confidence in the civilizing role performed by Christian advocates and teachers. Evidence was derived from places such as Sierra Leone where there had been a rapid growth of the Church among the erstwhile slaves. In Zambia too there are still some 150 churches in the town named after Livingstone. Such missionary confidence and efforts, however, stemmed largely from the idea that locals, in Africa and the South Seas for example, appeared ‘primitive’, having no written works and little or no morals. The Indian subcontinent was a different case entirely.
In India sophisticated beliefs and structured religious practices were commonplace. For the most part, however, they offended Christian sensibilities. Missionaries were particularly concerned with the apparent hideousness of Hinduism i.e. idols with elephant heads on human bodies and eight-armed goddesses. Beyond this, India was home to such practices such as sati, and other forms of self-immolation, thugee (ritualized murder) and, in some temples, animal sacrifices.
Monier-Williams reflected Victorian Christian opinion when he wrote of ‘grotesque forms of idolatry, and the most degrading varieties of superstition.’ In 1882, fellow academic Max Muller maintained: ‘The Hindus… are now in some places sunk into a grovelling worship of cows and monkeys.’
Victorian churches and missionary societies believed that many colonial cultures were under the control of ‘the Evil One’. Unfavourable descriptions of non-Christian religions played an important part in stimulating missionary enterprise. A number of mid-Victorians thought that missionary success would hasten Christ’s return and were therefore full of expectation in the founding of a transformed world through the conversion of humanity. Whether facilitating the Second Coming or serving their ‘captive’s need’, those engaged in evangelism further embedded Britain’s empire.
More directly, missionary work also stimulated imperialism. In the 1873, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society conducted a successful parliamentary campaign to persuade Disraeli’s government to annex the Pacific island of Fiji. In 1883, John Mackenzie of the LMS formed a South African Committee to apply pressure on Britain’s government to establish a protectorate over Bechuanaland. The British did so and Mackenzie was appointed commissioner.
Missionaries often possessed an unrivalled knowledge of local conditions. In Nigeria, they provided the British government with geographic and strategic information about the Yoruba, Niger and Benue regions. Mary Slessor’s efforts in Nigeria are particularly well documented, while the likes of John Budden in northern India made significant headway in terms of both Christian and colonial conversion. In such ways Christian missions were, according to historian Brian Stanley, the ‘ideological arm of Western imperial aggression.’
By and large, missionaries sought to make a difference by sharing the Gospels. Britain’s empire was a vehicle for such evangelical work yet it also offered new, exciting lifestyles. Individuals were able to enhance their personal status too; being a missionary was a dignified position. An Indian Christian, writing in 1889, said of the missionary: ‘he moves on the most intimate terms with the Collector or Doctor or Engineer of the station; and receives the same homage from the natives.’
Those involved in evangelism were often keen to elevate themselves as well as their flock. They too were tempted by a fresh start or a ‘place in the sun’. Colonial evangelism may often have been motivated by personal gain as well as genuine altruism. Beyond this, there was an evangelical impetus to pave the way for Christ’s return; in doing so, missionary work helped to spread and embed both British culture and trade. Such missions were an influence on, and explanation of, Britain’s empire. Without doubt, Christian and civilizing rationale constitute neither the traditional nor textbook reason for overseas expansion; however, they are plausible reasons for many individuals involved. Arguably, the archetypal Victorian imperialist held a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. In some cases, it can be said that the British flag followed the Bible into new territories.
As far back as 1870, empire commentator Sir John Seeley maintained that: ‘we seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.’ Seeley suggests that there was no coherent plan to British overseas expansion; instead, the empire was an unpredictable entity made up of a series of motivations: certainly the evangelical fits neatly into such an interpretation.

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This entry was posted in A Level History, British Empire, British India, History, Imperial Expansion 1815-1870, India and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Nineteenth Century Christian Mission: The ideological arm of Western Imperialism?

  1. Malerly says:

    Who took the picture

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