Missionary Ethnography and the Manufacturing of Desire in North-East India
Hamari Jamatia is enrolled in the Ph.D programme of the English Department of the University of Hyderabad. The topic of her thesis is Colonial Modernity in the North-East in which an analysis of missionary narratives produced on the area in the nineteenth and twentieth century and the way they shaped discourses on history, population and gender is conducted. She completed her graduation and post-graduation in English Literature from the University of Delhi.
The paper focuses on the missionary ethnography of North-East India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and how it constructed native cultures as units that could be dismantled and rebuilt through the cultivation of new desires. Missionary ethnography hinged on the idea that a careful conditioning of the impulses surrounding ‘desire’ could ensure that education, cleanliness and scientific outlook appear to be viable alternatives to the indigenous ‘heathen’ culture. Colonial forces, in this case the missionaries, became conduit for the normalization of Christian values that would ultimately manifest itself in the behavioral pattern of the newly converted ‘civilized’ natives. To this end, the paper highlights two related notions of uncivilized behavior that deeply concerned the missionaries—violence and the occult among the natives to delve into how ethnography changed their configuration among the Christianized population of the North-East. The paper does a reading of a few select ethnographic narratives by the American Baptist missionaries who were posted at various stations such as Guwahati, Naga Hills and Garo Hills.
Keywords: Missionary ethnography, myth of boundless desire, heathen, civilized behavior, education, governance.
The memoir, A Corner in India (1907), by missionary wife Mary Mead Clark, begins with a scene of struggle between a tranquil missionary domesticity and its trespassing by native hill men. While living temporarily in Sibsagor, Assam, she describes how a group of Ao Naga men had appeared at the mission bungalow one day and had tried to forcefully sell her a goat that they had brought along. Mrs. Clark recalls that despite her repeated vocal refusals, “these strange, uncivilised men down from their mountain fastness, still persisted in dragging up the steps of the veranda of our bungalow, a large, long and horned hill goat hoping to receive from us double or quadruple its value” (Clark, 1). Even though this was her first time meeting members of the Naga tribe, Mrs. Clark echoes the colonial sentiments passed down from missionary to missionary reserved for people from the hills—that the tribals did not possess the refinement of the Westerners in their mannerisms as evidenced in their lack of respect for the missionary’s privacy. Mrs. Clark elaborates, “Thus was I introduced to these stalwart, robust warriors, dressed mostly in war medals, each man grasping his spear shaft decorated with goat’s hair, dyed red and yellow, and also fringed with the long black hair of a woman, telling the story of bloody deeds…dubbed by the Assamese ‘head cutters’” (1). Mrs. Clark’s description of the Nagas sets off the tone for the rest of her memoir where she studies the tribe in their appearance, lifestyle, and beliefs as part of the missionary ethnographic archive.
Soon after being introduced to the Nagas at Sibsagor, Mr. and Mrs. Clark journey to the Naga Hills and set up a mission village called Molung where they spend their years building the foundation of a strong church. In the early years, it was upon the Clarks to visit natives’ homes and persuade the people to accept their doctrine. The role-reversal is, however, lost on Mrs. Clark who sets out to work among the people with the purpose of changing them while strictly trying to remain immune to any similar counter effect. Mary Mead Clark’s memoir records her experiences among the Ao Nagas where the American Baptist Mission became a success story of proselytization and modernity. In her work she describes her first encounter with the Naga natives and narrates the latter’s subsequent journey from a state of barbarity to a state of civility. In doing so, the memoir becomes an ethnographic study of the Nagas by taking a close look at their lives in their natural habitat. She describes their homes, agriculture, travel, hunting expeditions, weddings and death rituals.
The Clarks joined the rest of the mission workers who had arrived before them, in targeting the indigenous life on the basis of its cruelty, superstitions, filth, violence and polygamy. The missionaries inferred the inferior “nature” of the indigenous population by observing the conduct of the individuals and groups and by noting the various ways in which the tribal men and women failed to live up to the standards of what they touted to be their own superior missionary civilization. This comparison and the resultant evangelical preaching led to a reform movement that brought about rapid drastic changes in lifestyle of the natives. These changes manifested themselves in a rise in literacy, a new taste for cleanliness, and an abstinence from heathen rituals.
The paper argues that missionary ethnography, in this case, that of the American Baptist Mission, coaxed and sustained the discourse that its object—the savage natives—formed a society that could be dismantled and rebuilt using modern management tools. This construction of culture around colonized subjects hinged on the idea of human ‘desire’ as a central force that can be shaped and designed in such a way that a community can be persuaded into reform. The essay understands “desire” as a strong inclination towards certain ideology, self-image and symbolism that ultimately dictates the conduct of the individual and the community. This understanding emerges from the works of Michel Foucault who defines desire as the primary mechanism that determines the action of the individual/population. Foucault defines desire as “the pursuit of the individual’s interest”, claiming that every individual “acts out of desire” (101). He adds that this desire, which appears to very natural, is open to certain mechanisms of power through which it can be moulded and shaped. In missionary ethnographic realism, one can observe that a careful conditioning of the impulses surrounding ‘desire’ ensured that education, cleanliness and scientific outlook appeared to be viable alternatives to the indigenous culture portrayed as illiterate, wild and barbaric. Colonial forces, in this case the missionaries, became conduit for the normalization of these values that would ultimately manifest itself in the behavioral pattern of the natives as good Christians.
To achieve this objective, the missionaries targeted the symbolism of tribal rituals, and redefined the concepts of masculinity, femininity, and respectability among the new covert communities. Through the very act of recording the culture of the tribes of North-East, the missionaries sustained a discourse that validated their need to introduce the civilizing project by comparing themselves to the ‘other’ or the tribals who they deemed inferior. In other words, ethnography provided the platform where the missionaries could study their own self-image against that of the tribes and encourage the othering of the native cultures. In this essay, I highlight two related notions of uncivilized behavior that deeply concerned the missionaries—violence and the occult among the natives to delve into how ethnography changed their configuration among the new population of the North-East.
The paper focuses on selected works of American Baptist Mission workers stationed in parts of North-East India. Apart from A Corner in India, this paper shall study A Garo Jungle Book (1919) by missionary William Carey and The Whole World Kin (1890), a collection of papers and letters by Nathan Brown and wife Eliza Brown, the first missionary couple to Assam. In addition, a few excerpts from Assam Mission, a collection of papers presented by missionaries at the Baptist Mission Jubilee Conference in 1886 have also been included.
The Missionary as Ethnographer
The missionaries’ purpose of living in colonized lands was to convert the population. But, conversion first required knowing the people one was tasked to work among. This meant that missionaries had to routinely engage with and observe the different peoples of the area. Thus, American missionaries working in North-East India, much like the missionaries in the rest of the world exhibited an ardent engagement with ethnographic study. They spent many years and decades living in close proximity with the natives and undertook a close study of their lives. They attended weddings, visited the sick, and witnessed harvest and burial ceremonies as viewers. Annette Rosenstiel, in an essay, argues that the missionaries were the first individuals to take a scientific approach to ethnography and establish it as a discipline. By scientific approach, she meant that the missionaries converted the study of cultures into a discipline in which they judiciously kept a record of their observations and drew inferences that would help them establish a church among the new people. The missionaries also learnt the native language, published their findings and indulged in ‘participant observation’ technique in which they partook of the cultural activities under study. Rosentiel opines that some missionaries such as William Carey1, also promoted non-ethnocentrism. She quotes Carey as writing: “The missionaries must try to understand their (the natives’) moods of thinking, their habits, their propensities, their antipathies, etc. This knowledge may be easily obtained by reading some part of their works, and by attentively observing their manners and customs” (108). According to Rosential, Carey emphasized the importance of the missionary being “one of the companions and equals of the people to whom he is sent” (108). In other words, the missionary ought to display the spirit of egalitarianism that the missions were originally established for.
Yet, despite Rosentiel’s insistence that missionaries were instructed to treat the natives as equals, there seems to be a marked difference between theory and practice. Missionaries arriving to the North-East felt no affinity towards the “animists” who they deemed to be peoples without history, culture and literacy. Nathan Brown, the first American Baptist missionary to reach Assam describes the Singpho tribe thus: “They seem to be perfect savages, entirely in the state of nature, having no books, and are even without a written character to express their own language” (118). He had earlier referred to savages of India as similar to those of Burma, “There are the Singphos, the Miris, the Mishmis, the Abors, the Nagas and other savage tribes, some of whom are in a state very similar to the Karens, and have no written language or books. Here is the spot for missionaries to go in, and sow the seed of life” (111). In his writings, Nathan Brown established himself as an agent for the nineteenth century civilizing mission that would go on to teach the natives how to lead a civilized life. Other missionaries such as A. K. Gurney, who was in-charge of Sibsagor field in the 70s and 80s maintained that there will always be a hierarchy between them and the natives. He states:
Our modes of life, habits and thoughts are different from those of the native Christian. There is a great gulf between them and us. Our position is much above them. We cannot avoid this. We cannot bring ourselves down to them or lift them up to us… The missionary in education and knowledge is far above his native brother, and he belongs to the conquering race, the English and Americans being all the same to a native…. The missionary is so great in the eyes of his native brother, and the latter feels so inferior in knowledge and wisdom that he does not feel like taking the lead when the missionary is near but instinctively waits for him. (Assam Mission 119)
The reflection by Mr. Gurney exposes some of the ambivalence associated with missionaries as ethnographers. The writers recorded natives’ cultures from a vantage point of view and could not help having a condescending attitude towards it. They seem to solidify the understanding of ethnography as an “invention” of cultures where one’s own identity dictated the interpretations of alien societies. Roy Wagner in his analysis of culture writes that in some way, an ethnographer “invents” the culture he works with as he “finds new potentialities and possibilities for the living of life” (13-14). Here, “invention” does not mean that the culture did not exist prior to the ethnographer’s arrival, but that it is made “visible” by the ethnographer’s focus on its “distinctiveness” that marks it as similar or different to his own culture. Wagner declares that what the ethnographer sees as unique about different culture stems from his “use of meanings known to him in constructing an understandable representation of his subject” (16). In short, culture is studied through culture. Wagner briefly adds that the difference between a missionary ethnographer and a secular ethnographer falls in the realm of “relative objectivity.” The anthropologist, inspite of his cultural background, is supposed to “adjust” to foreign cultures and study it objectively whereas a missionary is understood to use his bafflement to view anything native as “cussedness and slovenliness, thus reinforcing their own elitist self-images” (16). In other words, a missionary fails to look at native culture beyond the trappings of his own culture.
It is no surprise then that twentieth century post-colonial critics have been critical of ethnography and have accused missionaries of acting as catalysts for colonization. According to James Buzard, the notion of culture has been criticized for being an “essential tool for making other,” in which a line is drawn between the civilized and the uncivilized where the latter is seen as an appropriate subject for cultural intervention (3). Culture divided the native population into “readily governable thought packets” that came handy in their “control and regulation” (4). The study of culture, therefore, became an imperial project to make the otherwise “barbaric” people easier to govern.
Ethnography in the Nineteenth Century
In addition to James Buzard, the paper derives much of its understanding of ethnography from the works of Christopher Herbert who has analyzed the way nineteenth century developed and treated the concept of culture. Herbert in Culture and Anomie (1991) writes that ethnography as a disciple for the study of culture had just begun to become more distinct as a field of enquiry in the 1860s. This was due to the colonization of Polynesian countries which created a need for the study of the new populations that had come under the Victorian sovereign’s control. British bureaucrats and anthropologists began to take an interest in the lives and beliefs of the natives’ they were administrating. By developing ethnography as a discipline, the colonizers presented foreign cultures in a state of distress that required reform. According to Herbert, the earliest ethnographers noticed that colonized societies were “inferior” in stature as they did not have the refinement that the British middle class exhibited. The Polynesian society was seen as a system of “excess” in which basic human passions were left unregulated. Under the colonial eyes, this perceived exhibition of unbridled senses was seen a symbol of depravity. Herbert argues that the nascent discipline of ethnography hinged on the consciousness that the way a society treated “desire” determined its position in the evolutionary graph of humankind. This meant that colonized societies, with their display of unbridled passions, were inferior to the British society that had learnt to cultivate a restraint or a control on desire, thereby marking itself as a superior civilization.
Herbert goes on to elaborate that this importance of “desire” as a marker of inferior and superior civilization had its inception during the evangelical revival movement that had engulfed Britain between eighteenth and nineteenth century. Under the leadership of Methodist John Wesley, the reform movement created and sustained the belief that the nature of man when left unregulated can prove dangerous. John Wesley asserted that all men were born carrying the symbols of the original sin in which Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace as a result of their lack of control over their desires. Thus, man in his natural state exhibited “the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desire” (31). Wesley’s “mythology of sin” became the basis on which the fetishes of “self-control, discipline, work, ‘purity,’ resignation, self-abnegation” (32) were built in the Victorian culture under the insistence that desires had to be kept under constant scrutiny. This understanding led to the escalation of desire into a moral category in which man’s morality could be gauged through his ability to suppress the beast within. Hence, with the spread of the imagery of man as inherently fallen, the evangelist divided his nature as a “figurative imagery” into the twin category of sin and salvation. What made the situation incongruous was that while religion required docility, it also required an “intense cultivation of desires” (35) in the form of passionate worship rituals. Herbert writes that desire, both encouraged and forbidden, “must have generated as a result no small quotient of tension and ambivalence” (35). Nevertheless, by inculcating the suppression of desires as a necessary precursor to any respectable civilization, the evangelical revival created a discourse for evolutionary ethnography in which the Victorian society, with its overarching focus on self-repression, became the epitome of refined culture. Herbert, therefore, argues that society orchestrated the formation of culture by controlling desire impulses among individuals and groups. He writes that society does not serve as “an expression of immanent natural, divine, or semiological order”, but functions as “an artificial restraint imposed by necessity upon volatile, uncontrollably self-multiplying individual impulses and desires which in a state of unimpaired freedom, could any such state exist, would act without limit” (35). In other words, the formation of culture simulates the construction of individuals and exhibits itself in the form of their conduct by dictating and moulding their desire. Superior civilizations claimed to function under “social restraint” in which individuals who exhibited a heightened sense of self-control became elevated in comparison to the beasts of the wild, which in ethnography referred to colonized societies with their display of unbridled natural impulses.
It was therefore discovered that human conduct, both Victorian and colonized, must not be left to its natural devices but can be and should be shaped through external social forces. Herbert writes, “…human desire by its very nature is keyed to the constitutive principles of a society and acts not to disrupt but, inescapably, to express and to reinforce them” (40). Controlling desire meant conduct had to be governed at every stage. Yet, control did not have to be oppressive or disruptive; rather it worked and still works under the guise of individual freedom or liberty to conform to such laws. “In order for desire to exist in any coherent, active, and potentially satisfiable form, it must embed itself in a fully social matrix, which is to say, become directed towards objects conventionally defined and symbolically coded as desirable by human society” (50). According to Herbert, culture is not a form of control, but a “system of desire” in which aspirations are already predetermined by the society.
“The myth of boundless desire”
With Victorian society touting itself as a superior civilization, the evangelical belief in man’s fallibility or original sin found its new location among the colonized societies. Herbert, who calls it the “myth of boundless desire,” writes that colonization created a circumstance where the colonizers began to derive their own cultural identity through the study and evaluation of foreign societies. Learning about the cultures of different societies and portraying them as a system of excess became a way of establishing themselves as just the opposite. Missionaries in their travels to Polynesia, Africa and India found ample evidence of heathen immorality shaped by the latter’s “uncontrolled following of immediate desires” (Herbert 60). Ethnography as a discipline began to create and sustain the Victorian image of the native as an “uneducated savage” prone to “anarchy” and “selfish restlessness” (62). This gaze continued to permeate across all aspects of native culture, from their traditional way of dressing to the maintenance of their homes to their rituals of death.
In their study of native culture, American missionaries too shared the concept of the British civilizing mission where the native ‘culture’ was denigrated for its exhibition of uncontrolled desires. The first generation of missionaries to the North-East equated native life with lawlessness, laziness, unnecessary violence and superstitions that marked them in need of a civilizing mission. The nineteenth century protestant thought operated under the belief that “civilizing and Christianizing” were the two sides of the same coin and that one must invest in education and civilization before one can effectively implement evangelism (Hutchison 65). William R. Hutchison writes that the American Mission was inspired by the Puritan phrase “errand into the wilderness” that suggested a “heightened activism—the actual transporting of a message and witness to the unknown, possibly fearsome and uncivilized places” (5). In other words, the American Mission, primarily under the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), established in 1810, shared a common ideal with its European counterparts and saw civilizing missions as a pressing requirement in the face of imperialism in which the “white man’s civilization would inevitably superseded that of the less developed cultures,” (64) and even destroy it.
“Errand into the wilderness” also consolidated the image of colonized societies as savage and simplified the missionaries’ claim that in comparison, they themselves were organized, hard-working, peaceful and reasonable. William Carey, the writer of A Garo Jungle Book highlighted that among the tribe that he worked with, “the fiercest passions held sway” (6) that led them to commit terrible bloody deeds. They consistently sustained the images of savagery, barbarity and a dependence on occult to drive home the point that the natives had not yet found the right way to live. And yet, much like Herbert’s Victorian conceptions of desire, the American missionaries too, espoused ambivalence towards its treatment. Whereas they saw native desires as vulgar and uncivilized, their own desire to work among the newly colonized areas was seen as divine providence. Also, the missionaries claimed to know the difference between two sets of desires—those that need controlling and those that need to be fulfilled. This understanding is evoked in a letter that Mrs. Brown, the first female American missionary in Assam, wrote to her sister in America, where she says she is torn between two desires.
I sometimes have an unconquerable desire to see my friends once more before I die. But the Lord has been gracious to me; I should be very ungrateful to speak of trials and sufferings without at the same time acknowledging the goodness of the kind Hand that has so often given me support, and at times such sweet peace and consolation. As much as I desire to see you once more, I have no settled wish to give up laboring in the missionary field and return. (150)
Missionary thought encouraged desire for proselytization but at the same time demanded controlling other desires that would come in the way of fulfilling their mission. The missionaries lived under trying circumstances without modern amenities and support, and lost a number of lives to sudden diseases. Yet, their desire to spread Christianity made them persevere in the plains and hills of North-East, unwilling to surrender to the natives or the environment. The morality of desire, therefore, depended on the subject of its impulse. In this scheme of things, native desires were seen as dangerous and immoral as it promoted savagery and superstition, whereas missionary desire was seen as divine. Therefore, Mrs. Brown found great happiness in noticing that after their arrival, there developed a curiosity for learning among the people: “There is a rapidly increasing desire among all classes, to learn to read; and we learn from many quarters, that a spirit of inquiry concerning this new religion exists among the people” (Brown, 223). The native desire for knowledge is encouraged as it is seen as a positive impulse that will lead people to read the Bible and be persuaded to reform. This desire is also seen as a tool that will counter their ignorance and teach them the Christian way of life.
North-East and Culture
The use of “North-East” in this essay refers to the way the landmass with its seven states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya – has come to be recognized as a post-colonial political terminology. In the nineteenth-century, when maps were fluid, much of the area we understand as “North-East” was clubbed with the Assam province. Today, when the state boundaries have been drawn and earmarked, my primary texts are located in the three states where American Baptist missionary activities were rapidly established—Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya. The term “North-East” does not do justice to the heterogeneity of the land and its peoples. There are multiple problems in clubbing seven unique states together as if they are mirror-copies of one another. Yet, I seek to use the nomenclature “North-East” as a matter of convenience as well as part-acceptance of the way the region has come to be identified since the advent of colonial modernity.
American missionary writings seldom recognized the native lifestyle and ideology as constituting a well-defined culture, choosing instead to define them as “habits” and “customs” of the hill tribes. The missionaries repeatedly termed the natives ‘wild’ and ‘savage’ to highlight the fact that these people lived in a state of nature subsisting on primitive tools and practices. Indeed, several times in their works, the Garos and Nagas are likened to monkeys due to their flair for living in the ‘jungle lair,’ climbing trees and disappearing among the foliage at will.2 The corresponding ethnography resorted to describing the natives under such titles as “The savage at home” (Clark 40), “The savage in costume and at work,” (49) “Savage worship and strange legends,” (57) thereby stripping them of any respectable civilization. The disdain for local cultures exposed the missionaries’ refusal to recognize the existence of multiple cultures around the world. In this regard, James Buzard in his analysis of nineteenth century ethnography has highlighted the lacuna of the earliest ethnographers in identifying local cultures as “the wholeness of a particular people’s way of life” (5). Instead, the discipline fixated itself with a single yardstick “for judging the development of human faculties” (5) based on the European model of civilization. Writing in the context of Victorian ethnography, Buzard notes that anthropology favoured a narrative in which “the evolution of human social forms and technologies, was committed to dealing with levels of human Culture— frequently written with a capital C—from primitive to advanced, and not with separate, relatively autonomous ‘cultures,’ differently evolved under different environmental conditions” (6). In other words, it was believed that there was only one culture—exemplified by the British society—and different societies marked a different stage of civilization, with primitive populations at the bottom of the pyramid and the British at the helm.
Through frequent labeling of colonized societies as “savage” and “wild,” the American missionaries, too, subscribed to the concept of evolutionary anthropology in which they believed in the hierarchies of civilization. The study of local cultures served to strengthen the conviction that the natives required a guiding hand to pull them out of centuries of darkness. The missionaries sought to find inspiration in some of their successful experiences among the American aboriginals where Christianity had made a marked difference. They found similarities between the hill tribes of North-East India and the North American Indians in their fetish surrounding the human skull and the human scalp respectively. They believed that just as Christianity had succeeded in reforming some sections of American Indians, it would achieve an identical accomplishment among the people of North-East. In addition, it strengthened the conviction that certain management tools at the dispensation of missionaries were capable of coaxing heathens into embracing new desires. The flexibility of desire, therefore, became the grounds on which the battle of Christ and culture was fought.
Violence and the Occult Among the Natives
In order for the missionaries to modify the state of the natives, they needed to first break it down into multiple units. Among the tribes of North-East India, this translated into an intense engagement with two concepts that came under constant attack as motifs of their apparent savagery—that of the tribes’ violent temperament and that of the race’s dependence on the occult. As soon as they arrived to the North-East, the missionaries noted that the Nagas and the Garos exhibited a tendency to resort to violence in dealing with everyday situations, unlike those of the peaceful population of the contiguous Bengal. Their narratives therefore portrayed the two “savage tribes” as operating within a cycle of lawlessness and barbarism in which they mostly stayed hidden in the inaccessible hilly ranges only to appear in the plains to raid the villages or to trade in the markets at the foothills. During the raids, the raiding team would attack a hamlet and carry back “cattle, goats and dogs and not infrequently a much prized human head,” (Clark, 116) writes Mrs. Clark. The American mission harked on to this image of the natives as head-hunters in most of their ethnographic writings. They detailed the manner in which this ritual was part of the native identity and how the hill villages had homes that displayed skulls as decorative items. To the missionaries, head-hunting became a demonstration of the backwardness of hill people and a threat to the other, more civilized communities of British India. Other exemplars of the violent disposition of the hill tribes included the penchant for animal sacrifices at every chance, and bloody feuds among personal enemies that ended in murderous rages.
As for the importance of occult in their lives, William Carey in a chapter titled “The Wild Men at Home,” writes that superstitions guided the behavior of the locals at each step:
No journey can be taken unless the fates are propitious, no war engaged in without a sacrifice, no land cleared for cultivation without impaling a monkey or a goat, no marriage solemnized, or birth celebrated, or sickness tended, no experience of the coming of death to take away its victim, without the shedding of blood. (23)
Both acts of head-hunting and the occult happened amidst uncontrolled drinking habits. Mrs. Clark and William Carey were intensely critical of the use of intoxicants among the Nagas and Garos in which every festival and every feast mandatorily included animal sacrifice and a free-flow of alcohol. Carey recalls, “When in liquor the Garos are merry to the highest pitch; men, women, and children dancing until they can scarcely stand. A birth, a marriage, a death, the opening of a market, the sitting of a council, the trial of a delinquent, almost any and every event serves as an occasion for feasting and an excuse for drink” (9). For missionaries and British bureaucrats, this unrestraint merriment and violence pushed the boundaries of native conduct towards immorality with one missionary in Assam Mission declaring, “The Garos are ruined by sin” (67). Here, one can see the “invention” of culture playing out between the missionary-as-ethnographer and his/her interpretation of native lifestyle. Through his/her writing, the ethnographer makes “visible” certain traits of the Nagas and Garos that to him/her appear distinctive due to its shock value. By contrast, the missionary sees his/her own culture as exemplar of peace and love and believes that by displaying patience and suffering, he would inspire the locals into imitating the same.
In Assam Mission, for instance, Mr. Mason while presenting his paper titled “Methods of Mission Work” urges other missionaries to conduct themselves in “a Christ-like love” (Assam Mission 102) so that the converts learn from their teachers how to augment their spiritual life. Some pages later, Mr. W. E. Witter calls on the missionaries to be “living examples of the Word….to exemplify God’s love for the Assamese, Garos, and Nagas by our separateness from sin and our patience with ‘the unthankful and the evil’” (Assam Mission 153). The American missionaries identified native life as synonymous with sin and evil with no room for subtleties. Such a stance highlighted their own role as accomplices in establishing a British government in the North-East. Their ethnography reinforced and supported the official narrative that natives were “incorrigible savages,” making it convenient for the British to annex all hill territories to maintain peace and order.
The bureaucrats and the missionaries were in consonance that long-lasting peace would only come with cultural reformation, that is, if the wild desires of the savages are curbed through a culture of restraint. To this end, the government sought the help of missionaries in silencing dissent. E. G. Philips notes, “Government has not been slow to see, as the Chief Commissioner put it in his Resolution on the Educational Report for Assam of 1881-82, that ‘it is difficult to convince a Garo or a Khasia…of the advantage of learning. The only lever that has been found effective is that of religion’” (Assam Mission 67-68). Hence, the government handed over the management of schools entirely to the missionaries in the hopes that they would be able to tame the savages. The Christian religion was seen as a tool that would modify the conduct of its converts by dismantling its dependence on violence and occult.
Towards a New Symbolic Order
Clifford Geertz writes that culture functions within the gambit of semiotics where conduct is dictated by the meaning it produces. He argues that culture is not “an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (5). To produce this meaning requires that members of a community be aware of the relationship between action and its many interpretations. Geertz explains his idea by citing the difference between a “wink” and a “twitch,” both of which are “identical movements” but which have vastly different connotations. A “wink” as a conduct is an act of communication “in a quite precise and special way,” in which there is a signifier, a sign and a recipient who is part of “an already understood code.” A twitch, on the other hand has no secondary function.
Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and voila!—a gesture. (6)
Human behavior is therefore a “symbolic action” which is shared by members of his community so that communication can take place, and while “winking” is one of the simpler examples of it, any culture is a cauldron of “texts” that constitute “webs of significance.” Thus Geertz sums up culture as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life” (89). Human actions, therefore, create meanings that can be understood by people sharing the same culture.
Keeping this in mind one can witness how an action creates two different interpretations for two sets of cultures. Head-hunting as an act is perceived as barbaric and wild by the missionaries, but among the tribal communities themselves, it served as a sign of masculinity. Mrs. Clark writes that as much as the raids by Nagas contributed as an additional source of income, the act of killing and taking the heads of the fallen enemies was linked with masculine pride and played a catalyst in men-women relationships. “Men were dubbed women or cows until they had contributed to the village skull-house. Young maidens instigated their betrothed to this bloody work, and it was woman’s voice that trilled the cry of victory when these prizes reeking in blood were brought into the village,” (47) Mrs. Clark writes. A Naga man’s worth and a Naga village’s honor were tied to the number of skulls that the community had managed to extract from other settlements.
Similarly, among the Garos, head-hunting served to create bonhomie among its different members as a form of group activity. In A Garo Jungle Book Carey notes that that the Garos “won an evil reputation of murderous raids” and routinely massacred the landholders of the plains for material gains. On their return journey from a triumphant plunder, the tribesmen would collect the “reeking heads; and filling these with wine and food, would eat, drink, and dance, chanting songs of triumph” (Carey 11). Head-hunting, as a cultural behavior, was symbolic of community prowess and therefore contributed to the social status of these tribes as an inseparable part of their identity. Nonetheless, the British government was critical of this activity and tried to ban it as early as 1822. However, the practice continued undeterred for many decades till missionary presence in the hills put a stop to it.
For missionaries to succeed in conduct management, they first had to break the symbolic order associated with certain sinful desires that physically manifested itself in the conduct. A telling instance of this is narrated in A Corner in India where we witness a gradual shift in the factors that determined the making of a desirable youth. It started with a native Assamese preacher—Zilli—guiding the young men of Molung into embracing the Gospel. At first, only one youth was attracted to the new religion. But, that single young man was soon able to influence a friend and bring him to Christ. The following excerpt from a letter by Mrs. Clark records how Christianity sowed its seeds in the new village:
A religious and social reform has been quietly going on at Molung, beginning with a young man, who, strengthened by the Holy Spirit and helped by Assamese teacher Zilli, laid hold of one of his companions, and by persistent, prayerful effort brought him to Christ. Here were now two promising young men, the pick of the village, educated in the school, one, the son of our most influential village official, and the hearts of both filled with the love of Jesus, and set for the defense of his kingdom and social purity…. One after another of the young people were pressed into the ranks, and the White Ribbon Society, without the name, or buttonholes in which to wear the badge, grew in numbers and influence and power. (138)
Some pages later, Mrs. Clark writes that these boys were members of the Training School run by missionaries where they prepared “young men for pastors, evangelists and day school teachers” Meanwhile, young women were trained “to be suitable wives for such men” (148).
The above account of missionary activity among the Naga youth highlights the fact that the manly pride associated with head-hunting was slowly replaced by a pride in being Christian where embracing the new religion became synonymous with literacy, rationality, and modernity. According to Mrs. Clark, the heathen young men would spend their evenings “singing objectionable songs, telling doubtful stories, and engaging in lewd conversation,” whereas the educated young men who had built a separate dormitory could be heard praying and singing songs of praise. In the latter accommodation “purity and holiness” reigned, remarks Mrs. Clark, thus dividing actions into the categories of moral and immoral in which the heathen populace, with its inability to control its vulgarity became subordinate to the new Christian population that had begun to curb their savage instincts.
Education and the Shifting of Desire
What we witness here is the struggle that took place in the domain of desire and the creation of its hierarchies. When the missionaries had first arrived, the natives’ “boundless” desire was seen as the root cause of their destitution. Education was seen as an effective tool to curb the wild desires and channel them towards more productive ones. Arkotong Longkumer in his analysis of educational policies among the Nagas argues that the mission immediately realized that if evangelism was to succeed, it had to first cultivate the minds of the people. Thus, missionary Nathan Brown prepared the Report of the Committee on Schools in 1853 to frame an education policy in which it suggested that schools be established for the “‘training of future pastors and teachers’ and that only Christians should be employed as teachers with Christian books and daily observance of religious services” (Longkumer 3).
Longkumer adds that the ABFMS was channeled by the belief that “prominence of the mind and the cultivation of reason” must precede any attempt at conversion. The human mind “had to be shaped through an emphasis on education, which would ‘eventually lead to the vindication of Christian truth’” (3). Thus, American missionaries wasted no time in establishing schools and enrolling native boys and girls. Soon enough, the results began to show in the shape of young men and women who had begun to reflect upon the two cultures under whose shadow they had grown up—their traditional heathen culture and the western culture—and who now realized that they were more compatible with the new Christian teachings. Hence, some of the first male pupils of missionary schools were also its first converts.
In this context, missionary ethnography focused on narrating the stories of a few converts who not only validated the mission’s self-image as an empowering enterprise but they also became the taskforce for the spread of Christianity in the interiors where the handful of white missionaries could not reach. In his work, Carey narrates the life stories of two Garo converts—Ramkhe and Omed—who journey from heathenism to becoming spiritual leaders and who become the symbols of new Christian conduct in which they are able to differentiate between desires that are forbidden and those that are encouraged. These two names appear frequently in missionary history because of their enormous contribution to the spread of Christianity. In order to add authenticity to the narrative, Carey translated extracts from Ramkhe’s manuscript autobiography, written in Bengali in 1886, to piece together the life and experiences of the convert who questioned his heathen faith in the wake of socio-cultural changes around him.
Carey notes that both Omed and Ramkhe studied at Government secular school in Goalpara, established in 1847, that “provided them with the equipment and opportunity for discovering the truth. It opened their eyes and awakened inquiry in their minds, and was part of the means by which they were taught of God” (52). He further narrates that as boys of the jungle, Omed and Ramkhe witnessed the preparation of more than one raid in which the elders of their village returned home carrying “dripping load of heads” (53). It filled Ramkhe with a particular fear of demons. After being schooled, however, a deeply meditative Ramkhe began to question his long-held beliefs and fears and found solace in Christianity. In his discussion with Omed they agreed that Christianity “is good in every respect” (69).
After leaving their schools and later on their jobs as sepoys, Ramkhe and Omed preached among their people of Garo Hills. They eventually set up two Christian villages in which all motifs of heathenism and the occult were banned. Omed’s hut was built on the foothills where he could preach to the groups of people headed to the market. Carey notes that the hut was a “house of prayer…There are no bamboos stuck around it sprinkled with blood. No priest of the demons goes there to practice his magic spells. No drink is brewed. But there is much reading of a sacred book that sounds good to hear, and much reverent yet familiar speech with the Good Spirit, such as falls, even upon a wild man’s heart, like a whisper of peace” (Carey 88). Furthermore, Omed grew a community of followers who would venture into the Rongjuli market with him to preach the shoppers about Christianity.
Omed’s story confirms the missionary belief that education could play an instrumental role in countering savagery; that it could help a former heathen distinguish between moral and immoral desires. Much like how the white missionaries desired Christianity among the natives despite the dangers that surrounded them, the newly educated converts, too, channeled their energy towards the same object in the face of fierce resistance from members of their tribe. Indeed, things escalated to the extent that Omed and his friends were physically assaulted while they were preaching at a local marketplace. On hearing about the attack, the British Deputy Commissioner, Captain Morton, visited the market and warned all present that anyone who tries to harm the Christians would be punished. This saved the Christians from further harassment. Education and Christianization became a joint project shared by the British officials and the American mission. The mission converted the hill people to Christianity, making them easier to govern, and the British provided them protection from prosecution, creating a group of workers who would either become Christian teachers or take up a government job.
According to Longkumer, education also sowed the seeds for nationalism among the different tribes of the North-East by giving them a common Roman script. The missionaries rapidly learnt the local languages, prepared them in Roman script and went about translating the Bible. At the same time, it taught English at its schools so that the students could access the translations in their own vernacular. Inspite of being a multi-lingual people, the Roman script was common to all, as was English education. Longkumer writes, “Christian conversion, education, and nationalism – was a vital centripetal force that fostered an ‘imagined community’ that brought together disparate tribes under two institutional centres: the school and the church” (9). He argues that sharing a common script consolidated the different tribes and made way for the creation of Naga identity that would later on culminate in a Naga nationalist movement.
The “myth of boundless desire” was an ethnographic creation that was used to classify the world population into civilized and uncivilized. This myth rested upon the belief that civilized populations of Europe and America had developed self-control over their basic, animalistic, dangerous impulses whereas uncivilized people of the colonies had not, thereby making the latter “wild” and “savage”. The American civilizing mission declared itself an enterprise of “love and peace” and attempted to develop self-control among the peoples of North-East so they would rein in their impulses for violence and the occult. At the same time, the mission promoted new desires that it believed were important to the spread, acceptance and practice of Christianity—a desire for learning, a desire for peaceful coexistence, a desire for a new religion, and a desire for a shared language. In other words, the American Baptist Mission did not annihilate “desire” but changed its course among the peoples of North-East. This understanding around the concept of desire prompted and sustained the evangelical discourse and helped give birth to a new population that was Christian in its beliefs and conduct.
The converts had begun to dress modestly, had surrendered many of their traditional rituals, and were rapidly becoming a literate community. The changes were brought about by missionary ethnography’s discursive construction of a native population that unfolded on two levels. At one level, it constructed the ‘heathen people’ who the missions sought to convert into Christianity. It paid careful attention to record and disseminate detailed reports on social and religious practices, which helped constitute the natives as heathen. On the other level, it also constructed the ‘civilized people’ who were produced through the evangelical labor of the missionaries.
1 William Carey (1761-1864) was an English Baptist Minister who established the Serampore College and the Serampore University in Bengal. He inspired the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society in London. The American Mission held him in high regard and dedicated the establishment of their organization to him. In Sophie Bronson’s A Century of Baptist Foreign Mission, she describes Carey’s work as the reason why missionary societies sprang up in New England, America
2 In A Corner in India, Mrs. Clark worries that Naga school-children are prone to disappearing among the trees or the roof of some house at school time (8). Alternately, Carey in A Garo Jungle Book writes that during their resistance against the British, the Garos took to the trees like “like monkeys, still and invisible among the leaves,” (49).
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