Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800-1860


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The CMS, like other Protestant missionary groups, was male-dominated in terms of administrative hierarchies and organisational control. Additionally, women were marginalised by the patriarchal administration, male-dominated official literature and mission historiography which tended to emphasise theological and policy issues, from which women were generally excluded.

In terms of numbers, however, the missionary enterprise was an increasingly feminised profession; the mid to late nineteenth century saw a world-wide and cross-organisational increase in the number of female missionaries. White female missionaries did not arrive in Uganda until quite late in comparison with other areas of the British Empire. The CMS refused to allow female missionaries into Uganda until the British declaration of the Uganda Protectorate; 30 only with official British colonisation was the region deemed safe for CMS women.

Regardless of the delayed arrival of female missionaries, the situation of the CMS in Uganda certainly reflects the wider feminisation of the mission enterprise. In , despite men having had an eighteen-year head start, women already made up twenty eight per cent of the official CMS workforce serving in Uganda. The preoccupation with the civilised performance of gender, and the opportunity to emphasise heroic images of men in the imperial landscape, meant that the contribution of the increasingly female CMS workforce went largely unacknowledged.

Civilised gender relations, however, were not just performed: they were taught. Much of the missionary project was concerned with encouraging the adoption of specific forms of marriage, family structure, gendered division of labour and child rearing. The position of women in society was considered a marker of civilisation and the supposed equality of British women was used to argue the advanced stage of British civilisation.

In the eyes of missionaries, polygamy was the ultimate system of male oppression, and they firmly believed that monogamous, Christian, companionate marriage was the most effective way to improve and make more domestic the position of Ugandan women. Carol Summers explores the way missions and colonial administrators made an association between polygamy, syphilis and supposed immorality in the early twentieth century.

Summers argues that from to the Ugandan colonial administration grew increasingly concerned about low fertility and high rates of infant mortality attributable to sexually transmitted diseases STDs , which they believed threatened the future of the Ugandan population. Missionary doctor A. CMS missionaries promoted European ideas in regard to marriage, family and gender roles; yet they sometimes went much further than this.

The CMS brand of Christianity was inextricably linked to British cultural ideas, and this meant that missionaries also endorsed many related, but more tangible, changes. Similarly, Ugandan dress, hygiene and bodies also needed to be altered to reflect a Christian lifestyle. Christianity and morality were closely linked to appearance, and, as a result, missionaries encouraged particular hygiene and dress habits. Missionaries also sought to change African bodies, particularly female ones.

Missionary Writing and Empire, : Anna Johnston :

Most obviously they wanted Ugandan women to be slimmer, and to better reflect British ideals of beauty. Several white judges of a Ugandan beauty contest, including Barbour, projected their own ideas about female beauty on the Ugandan contestants. Two female missionaries remove Muhindi from her home, hoping that a new generation of girls will leave behind old traditions.

Clean, tidy homes are now seen, and carefully cultivated land in place of the pestilential filth and gaunt elephant grass. Happy family life is springing up among the people.

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Fisher made it quite clear that missionaries did not only seek to promote their particular brand of morality, but believed that morality, physical appearance, environment and gender were all intimately related. The Christian restructure of Ugandan society was not only a moral and religious one; it meant the literal restructure of homes and the transformation of physical appearance based on a British model. These restructures and transformations were almost always aimed at women, girls and domestic spaces; to civilise missionaries felt they needed to target, elevate and refine Ugandan womanhood.

Thomas Beidelman argues.


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Administrators and planters aimed at limited ends such as order, taxation, profits, cheap labour, and advantages against competing Europeans; and in that quest they sometimes attempted psychic domination as well. Missionaries invariably aimed at overall changes in the beliefs and actions of native peoples, at colonisation of heart and mind as well as body.

Pursuing this sustained policy of change, missionaries demonstrated a more radical and morally intense commitment to rule than political administrators or businessmen. This is probably too harsh a judgement, and an over-simplification of colonial relations; Beidelman, however, convincingly argues that missionaries played an important role in the colonisation process, as colonisers of everyday life and purveyors of British moral beliefs.

Though often not linked to the British imperial enterprise in any official capacity, missionaries were, at the very least cultural imperialists, whose actions helped to further the imperial cause. The relationship between the Ugandan colonial administration and the CMS was by no means always harmonious; missionaries often came into conflict with the administration or objected to certain elements of the colonial enterprise.

Missionaries were critical of the Ugandan Railway, believing it to be a source of temptation for local men, and partly responsible for the spread of immorality and venereal disease. Though missionaries did not always agree with specific policies or practices of the colonial administration, ultimately they supported the co-existence of empire and the missionary enterprise. Though not official agents of empire in the same way as colonial administrators, missionaries directly associated Christianity with British national and imperial culture, and propagated ideologies, particularly related to gender, that extended and deepened the effect of the British imperial project.

Baily, Susan F. Women and the British Empire: An annotated guide to sources. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. Barbour, Isobel E. Journal letters: Uganda and Kenya. Accessed via Empire Online Database. Beidelman, Thomas O.

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Lutkehaus, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Johnson, Anna. Missionary Writing and Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Kipling, Rudyard. The Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling. Midgley, Claire. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 58 3 pp. Pacific Studies 10 1 pp. European Medicine in the Cook Islands. London: Routledge pp. The mind and method of the historian. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Lindstrom Lamont. Postcards from the Edge.

Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800-1860

Meanjin 53 4 pp. Mackenzie John. In: Andrew Porter ed. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co pp. McCormick Eric. Omai Pacific Envoy. Auckland: Auckland University Press. Merivale Herman. Lectures on colonization and colonies. London: Green and Longmans. Miller Graham. Live a history of Church planting in the New Hebrides to Moorehead Alan. London: Hamish Hamilton. Murray Archibald. London: John Snow. Newbury Colin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Patterson George.

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Peel John. Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 3 pp. Pelling Margaret. Cholera Fever and English Medicine: — Porter Andrew. Religion versus empire? Manchester: Manchester University Press. Pratt Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Prout Ebenezer. London: London Missionary Society.

Rigby Nigel. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Kent. Samson Jane.


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  • In: Brian Stanley ed. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment 1st ed. Cambridge: Eerdmans pp. Sherman James. Sivasundaram Sujit. Nature and the Godly Empire. Indian Economic and Social History Review 44 2 pp. Smith Bernard. European Vision and the South Pacific. London: Oxford University Press. Smith Vanessa. Extract taken from the 9th of January Stanley Brian. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment: A Reevaluation. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment. Grand Rapids Michigan: W. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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