Christian Mission and Victorian Imperialism

burdenThis paper explores the role that Christian mission had in the development of Victorian Imperialism. Balance is important: Mission was neither a “pure enterprise” inspired by the desire to do good, spread peace and justice. Nor was it was simply a tool of Western Imperialism. Bernard Shaw once remarked: “They send in the missionaries. The natives kill the missionaries. The soldiers take revenge, take the country and give thanks to God that more land has been added to the empire.” Shaw’s cynicism is only just overplayed but it suggests in the initial “they” .something of an Imperialist plot which simply did not exist.

The truth is doubtless in a mixture of these two views:hat a variety of motives mingled in every enterprise of the development of Empire.

1. “To trade and not to preach”

Even though there was probably, at root, in every “Englishman abroad”, a concept of Christianity as the civilising force of a superior race, the early stages of Imperialism were “Orientalist” (as in the work of Clive, Hastings) which saw mission as not part of the mandate of the British in India. The early “empire builders” worked with the existing systems, (or round them) and even showed enormous interest in Indian religion, philosophy and civilisation. Ultimately, however, they were there to trade, not to preach. In fact, William Carey, one of the early Christian missionaries, was not allowed to operate in East India Company territory and had to operate in a Danish controlled area. The college, which emerged from his work to offer the first higher education degree in India, developed despite the East India Company, and not because of it. Even though the East India Company was not the Empire in embryo, it certainly provided the foundation for British rule in India.

It was in the interests of making trade more efficient and profitable, that the British began to interfere in counter-productive practices such as suttee, and thugee. All of the transitions that occurred in the successive Charter Acts of 1813, 1833 and 1853 can be understood in this way.

2. “The idea of responsibility”

As the idea of an empire grew, so did the idea of responsibility. 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.

3. “The benefits of civilization”

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 explanation 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.

The work of David Livingstone demonstrates some of this ambiguity between trade and mission. Livingstone began as a missionary but developed as an explorer/ scientist charting new territories and reporting back to his sponsoring organisations in London and Europe. His personal diaries commanded esteem. So though he had made geographical discoveries for European knowledge and inspired abolitionists of the slave trade, he also opened up Central Africa to missionaries who initiated the education and health care for Africans, and trade by the African Lakes Company. The esteem in which he was held by many African chiefs facilitated relations between them and the British.

Partly as a result, within fifty years of his death, colonial rule was established in Africa and white settlement was encouraged to extend further into the interior. On the other hand, within a further fifty years after that, two other aspects of his legacy paradoxically helped end the colonial era in Africa without excessive bloodshed. Livingstone was part of an evangelical and nonconformist movement in Britain which during the 19th century changed the national mindset from the notion of a divine right to rule ‘lesser races’, to ethical ideas in foreign policy which, with other factors, contributed to the end of the British Empire. Secondly, Africans educated in mission schools founded by people inspired by Livingstone were at the forefront of national independence movements in central, eastern and southern Africa

The “benefits of civilisation” also included the products of the Industrial revolution. So the colonies became major market for the consumer goods of the British Industrial revolution. Once more, trade and Christianity are mixed together. The 1851 Great Exhibition demonstrated the principle which could be sloganised as “What is good for Britain is good for the world.”

4”Deliverance from error”

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 delivering the indigenous peoples from pernicious error – whether it be shining Christian light into their lives or even seeking to end slavery Livingstone maintained that a primary aim 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 an astonishing 2% of government expenditure.

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. 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 suttee, 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 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, on occasion, 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, but as we examine various aspects of the development of Empire we see Christianity as part of the identity matrix of the ruling class. Just as English was the language of the rulers, so their religion became the religion of choice. One cannot disparage the noble motivations of pioneers such as Wilberforce and Livingstone, though their legacies betray the mixed motivation of their origins..

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

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