On missionaries vs colonisers (I)

Robert Woodberry describes the battle Protestant missionaries fought with the British East India Company.



Robert Woodberry describes the battle Protestant missionaries fought with the British East India Company.


It’s difficult to separate missionaries from whatever power relationship that they are working in. So, missionaries went anywhere they could. They were often in places before colonisers arrived. Sometimes they came after, sometimes they came before. They tried to get wherever they could, whether or not there was a colonial power there. But they had to deal with whoever was in power, whether it was a local ruler or whether it was a colonial power.

Colonisers often made it easier for missionaries to be there by creating stability and by at least … okay, at least British colonisers, for example, in the 19th and 20th century, made it easier for missionaries. Now it was always a complex relationship though. So originally the British East India Company, for example, banned missionaries from entering their territories. So the early Protestant missionaries had to go to Danish colonies or to non-colonised areas.

They tried to force the British East India Company to allow them to enter their territories in 1793 and they failed. So they spent 20 years building political infrastructure and in 1813 they blocked the British East India Company charter. And they had enough political support at that time that they could prevent the charter from being renewed unless the British East India Company did several things. One, allowed missionaries to enter their territory. Two, set aside a certain proportion of their profits for education, creating the grant-in-aid system. So you had state-funded education in the colonies way before you had it in England. Three, to allow non-company traders to work in British colonial territory – so, breaking up the monopoly of the trade companies, which allowed missionaries to have a business to support themselves, because transporting money, at the time, was quite difficult, but also opened up the beginning of free trade or freer trade in British colonies.

Now they didn’t do that by themselves, they did it in co-operation with others. But they forced the British to allow missionaries, and they forced them to spend money on education. After that, it was a process of expanding their rights. So the British East India Company didn’t like the fact that they were forced to allow missionaries, so they only allowed British missionaries. And when the American missionaries showed up in India, for example, they got kicked out – which is why it went to Burma, which was not colonised by the British yet.

So in 1833 they blocked the charter again and forced them to allow non-British missionaries, but also forced them to actually spend the grant-in-aid system. So originally they were angry about being forced to put aside money for education, which they legally did, but they didn’t spend it. So then they got forced to spend it after 1833.

Similar in terms of slaves. Missionaries didn’t have legal permission to work with slaves, they needed permission of slave owners. The process of fighting for the ability of missionaries to work with slaves and organise them into churches was one of the crucial factors that led, eventually, to the abolition of slavery because, over time, missionaries came to believe that missions and slavery were incompatible, and that slavery was leading to the eternal damnation of the souls of black people. And without getting rid of slavery they couldn’t, effectively, do mission work among blacks.