In the middle of the nineteenth century, single women missionaries began travelling to India in increasingly large numbers to evangelise Indian women, contributing to the imperial ‘civilising mission’. Over the decades, these women missionaries produced a vast amount of colonial knowledge and discourse about Indian women concerning their overall ‘condition’ and their characteristics. Their writings were exported back to Britain in the form of letters, magazines and books, making Indian women ‘accessible’ to the public at home. They were read by people of all ages, with certain texts aimed at adults, and simpler books written for children and young supporters of the missions. However, these texts are far more representative of the colonial relationship between British missionary women and indigenous women than of the people they claimed to represent. By deconstructing these texts, we can unpick some of the dynamics of this relationship, as well as begin to piece together the voices of the Indian women that these missionaries encountered.
As white women operating within the colonial environment, women missionaries were in a position of power accorded them by the simple fact that they were European. They were able to speak on behalf of Indian women and portray them in whichever way suited them, with little, if any, input from the women they wrote about. When we look at the writings of women missionaries, characteristics such as ‘degraded’, ‘oppressed’ and ‘heathen’ were common, and these imposed traits seemed to apply universally to all the Indian women that the missionaries encountered. Many missionary writers added to this imagery with descriptions of the ‘bigotry’ and ‘ignorance’ of the women they worked with, compounding their negative portrayals of these women. It is easy to observe from these texts the frequent Orientalist and reductive ways in which British women represented Indian women; this is just one way in which the colonial power held by European missionaries manifested itself. However, these texts are also valuable in revealing how certain Indian women resisted attempts to convert them.
Very few of the historical studies of women missionaries working in the colonies attempt to illuminate the voices of indigenous women from with these texts. This is unsurprising since indigenous women have typically been silenced throughout history, and their voices are notoriously difficult to recover, with some much postcolonial theorists believing that it is impossible to represent their voices. Nevertheless, in the texts written by women missionaries, the narrative of the ‘oppressed’ Indian women is at times, broken by moments and nuances of resistance and negotiation. Examining these instances of resistance and negotiation gives us a way to partially recover these voices, for two reasons. Firstly, because they reveal the malleability of the colonial relationship between missionaries and Indians and secondly, because in doing so they begin to overcome the erasure of indigenous voices by demonstrating where indigenous actors chose to exercise their agency and take control of their situation. Resistance could come from either the women the missionaries worked with, or from their friends and relatives who opposed evangelisation by Christian missionaries. So how exactly did Indian communities resist the actions of missionaries?
One of the most frequent modes of resistance that appears in the writings of women missionaries was non-violent interference, typically by the relatives and communities of the Indian women targeted by women missionaries. Sometimes this could be as small as an older family member keeping a close eye on missionaries whilst they conducted lessons with younger women, to ensure that they did not teach them about Christianity. Such cases were reported frequently in missionaries’ reports from the field. However, non-violent resistance could also go as far as forcing the closure of missionary-run services, such as dispensaries, by making ‘things too unpleasant’ for the missionaries running it. This is what happened in Krishnagar in 1890, an event which revealed the limitations of missionary dominance in the city, and the extent to which Indian communities could assert their own power.
Perhaps more interestingly, missionaries often also faced resistance directly from the women whom, they claimed, were the grateful recipients of missionary aid. This resistance was usually fairly passive: sometimes Indian women would be disinterested in the lessons and sermons delivered by the missionaries, frustrating their aims by simply not paying attention. Similarly, many would refuse to fully engage in missionary lessons due to fear of religious defilement. The disinterest and disengagement of these women may not constitute conscious opposition, but it certainly made the task of converting these women patients difficult, and clearly frustrated and disheartened the missionary women involved. In another, far more overt case, a missionary reported that one student, Kemala Bai, was deliberately negotiating her spiritual status with her teacher., in 1881 Mrs. Lewis wrote that ‘it is difficult to convince her [Kemala Bai] that she is a sinner… she had said “I am not a sinner; what sin have I committed?” …Our talk, how vain! How utterly useless!’. Here the narrative form usually adopted by missionaries – in which Indian women were portrayed as passive, meek or oppressed is challenged and reveals just how assertive and tenacious Indian women could be when faced with unwelcome missionaries.
Texts produced by women missionaries working in colonial India typically presented Indian women in a one-dimensional manner. This was more representative of the colonial domination of European missionaries over indigenous populations, than of the actual lives of Indian women. However, by digging deeper into these texts we can build a more nuanced account of the experiences of Indian women at the hands of European missionaries; one in which indigenous people exert their agency and, in some cases, even upturn the power balance between European and Indian. This demonstrates that deconstructing these narratives is essential to the process of avoiding a reproduction of colonial stereotypes, reclaiming indigenous voices and decolonising our knowledge of history, people and places.
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Spivak, G. C., ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in P. Williams and L. Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (London, 1994). More about Spivak
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