The position of missionaries

Missionaries, Rebellion and Proto-Nationalism
April 14, 2000

Christian missionaries are under siege and worse in India today. Though their number is small and their means non-violent, they have been abused, a few brutally murdered and numerous of their churches burned, apparently by fringe groups of the present dominant political party.

Therefore, it is with pleasure that one turns to this excellent and suggestive study of a 19th-century British missionary, James Long, who came to love India, contributed to its positive development, and had his love reciprocated by Indians of every class even as he was appreciated by many of his brother and sister missionaries. Coming from Irish roots, Long served as an Anglican missionary, leaning in an evangelical direction, to Bengal under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society from 1840 to 1872. The author demonstrates that Long was a rather unusual missionary. Working mainly in the educational field, he first tried English instruction as a means of both education and conversion, but gradually saw that it was essential to reach Bengalis through their own language if there was to be both successful education and conversion, though the number of conversions was minuscule.

His skill at Bengali and his concern for the wellbeing of the ordinary peasantry next led him to participate in the indigo issue in Bengal, which heated into a rebellion by some impoverished Bengali peasants against British planters who were exploiting them. Long testified before the indigo commission in the 1850s, which was investigating conditions of the peasants, and was asked to provide a translation of a play by Dinabandhu Mitra, Nil Darpan , which attempted to explose the evils of the system. Since the play condemned the planters and was circulated much more widely than Long had anticipated, and had an introduction by him, the planters sued him for libel in 1861. With inept legal representation, a biased judge, and a jury packed against him, Long was convicted, fined and sentenced to prison for one month. Long did not name those more responsible than himself for the play's publication and went to prison. A wealthy Bengali paid his fine.

He then became one of the earliest and most famous martyrs of the justice system of the Raj. Officials, many other missionaries and Bengalis from every stratum of society rushed to praise him. After serving his sentence, he went on with his work, which came to include some of the earliest social surveys of rural life in Bengal. He has been called a pioneer sociologist and throughout all he remained a missionary of the Church of England. In 1872 he retired, spent some of his remaining years in Imperial Russia and died in 1887.

The book deals much more with missionary and religious and educational activity than with rebellion or proto-nationalism. Besides producing a highly readable life of Long based partly on archival sources not utilised before, Geoffrey Oddie has a few other fish to fry. He is critical of Blair Kling's well-known study of the indigo rebellion, The Blue Mutiny (1966), for misrepresenting and underplaying the anti-planter sentiment of the missionaries. In Oddie's final chapter, he decides, quite appropriately, to take on an even larger fish: Edward Said and his Orientalism (1978), which condemns almost all western writing on Asia as tainted by imperialism. Oddie argues that the missionaries' (including Long's) concern was not the West and the Other, but the saved and the damned. So Said's categories do not fit the writings of missionaries as neatly as they fit officials and more direct rationalisers of imperial rule; furthermore, Said virtually ignores missionary sources, though he lumps them together with other orientalists. Oddie also points out, quite correctly, that in Orientalism Said ignores the responses of the Asians to those who read them out of history, but it is also true that Said tried to make up for this particular deficiency in his more recent work, Culture and Imperialism (1993).

And what Oddie also objects to is that Said and his followers give little credit to such as James Long, who treated Indians as equals (more than any other missionary of his time in Bengal) and who contributed to the study of Bengali literature and society. This blindness is something that fine biographies such as this one here in some measure attempt to remedy.

Leonard A. Gordon is professor of history, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, United States.

Missionaries, Rebellion and Proto-Nationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814-87

Author - Geoffrey A. Oddie
ISBN - 0 7007 1028 0
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 261

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