The Pastoral Power Dialectic: A Foucauldian Reading of The Slayer Slain



Mini M Abraham

 Dr. Mini M Abraham is an Assistant Professor of English at Bharata Mata College Thrikkakara. Her current research interests include Cultural Studies, Algorhythmic governance, Assessment and Ranking framework in higher education.



     The Slayer Slain, a novel published in Vidya Sangrah, the CMS College magazine in 1864, holds a unique position in 19th century Indian literature in English as the first missionary novel written by a woman. Set in nineteenth century Travancore, the native Syrian Christian characters seen through the missionary lens appear shallow and ritualistic. The benign solution to all crises proposed in the novel is to turn away from everything perceived as native and thus fallacious, to traverse the salvific path outlined by the Western Protestant Missionaries.  Although the novel appears to manifest the humane and benign side of colonialism, this paper argues that it actually exemplifies Foucault’s pastoral power and good shepherd model of governance. The essential aim of such power is “salvation of the flock”, through the “power of care” using a spiritual trajectory.   Pastoral power acts as an “individualizing power” wherein each individual within the flock is guided with a proper model of rectitude and penitence to act in ways which are for “their own good”, a good which, on their behalf is decided by another.  This willing transformation and remodelling the ‘self’ into a western protestant model, points to a manipulative power which ultimately results in the making of a fragmented, uneasy self, dependent upon the emancipatory potential of the colonizer’s religion to make sense of one’s life.


Keywords: The Slayer Slain (Novel), Nineteenth Century literature, Pastoral Power, Syrian Christians, Western Protestant ideology, good shepherd model of governance.



In order to take stock of the impact of Christian missionaries in 19th century India, it takes a nuanced understanding of the history and influence of colonialism and of colonial modernity. Bellenoit reports that Anglican missionaries were allowed by the British government to enter the Company territories first in 1813 and later in 1833. According to him, there was a general consensus among missionaries that Christianity, western scholarship and European civilization were all intertwined and that these should be implemented in the colonies (25). He further points out that due to such beliefs, the missionary engagements in India were initially confrontational in approach. At an ideological level, Christianity in the nineteenth century was closely interlinked with the expansion of colonial power and its influence in the world. Missionaries wanted to win adherents to their spiritual as well as worldly empires. No conflict was seen by them between the priorities of the world and the other-worldly empires. Dilip Menon points out that the 19th century imperial state was “mirrored and informed by a British Protestant spiritual empire” (1673). Thus, the missionaries exerted a kind of parallel governing influence in conjunction with the colonial masters.

While the colonial masters were primarily interested in capitalist endeavours and allied political activities, the missionary presence was more complex. Evangelical Christianity saw inequality and superstition as the defining features of the indigenous societal structure, which generated assent among some groups and revivalist dissent among others. Missionary rhetoric posited the idea that all individuals should be subjected equally before the rule of law.  But the abstract idea of the individual was presumed to be within a well defined hierarchy. While the caste system subordinated the individual within the community, missionary rhetoric harped on a “new community based on equality and brotherhood in Christ” (Menon 1674).


     During the 19th century, colonial endeavours were pervasive and at the zenith of power.  Within the purview of this paper, 19th century Indian Literature in English is limited to the works written in English by Indian authors (by birth or settlement) about the Indian experience. The prominent names include Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Henry Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Toru Dutt and Krupabai Satthianadhan. Mrs. Frances Wright Collins, the author of The Slayer Slayer Slain,(henceforth TSS) was the wife of a missionary, Rev. Richard Collins who was the Principal of The College, Cotym (now CMS College Kottayam) from 1856- 1864. Due to ill health and untimely demise, she could not complete the slim novel, which seems be her sole literary output. Her husband completed and published it in Vidya Sangraham, the quarterly magazine of the college, in serialized form between 1864 and 1866. Although it lay in obscurity for over a century, the novel is now considered as a significant document for tracing the colonial modernity in Kerala, reflecting the social conditions then prevailing in Travancore. It contributes to the corpus of Victorian literature by giving a firsthand account of the life and practices of the small but powerful Syrian Christian community in Kerala, albeit through a missionary/colonizer perspective. The notion of nation and revolt which was taking shape in north and central India hadn’t quite taken hold of the Keralite’s imagination. It is also interesting to note that the Syrian Christian tradition in Kerala pre-dates the Western Christian tradition by at least a few centuries1. Moreover, in order to appreciate the power dynamics during 19th century Kerala, it is pertinent to note here that TSS can never be treated as just a piece of fiction as most of the events fictionalized in the story are based on actual events referred to in the missionary records like the Madras Church Missionary Register, The CMS Intelligencer and the Travencore Cochin Diosesan Record. They mention the burning down of slaves’ churches and the conversion of a Brahmin in Mavelikkara under Rev. Joseph Peet. It has to be treated as a (fictionalized) documentary evidence of the socio-economic relations in the nineteenth century. Mrs. Collins is concerned with issues of caste as well as the superiority of Protestantism over Syrian Christianity. Menon observes the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in the plot, where man's inhumanity to man is alluded to. In both novels, compassion, repentance and redemption form the focal themes. As missionaries considered caste to be a local variant of slavery, a connection is established between race/slavery in the western society and caste/subordination in India, pointing to an extraterritorial affinity(1674).




     Next, the question of the kind of power wielded by the missionaries: Did they make inroads into the hearts and psyche of the natives? This paper argues that the missionary influence revealed in TSS is the perfect exemplar of Foucault’s exercise of pastoral power through a good shepherd model of governance (124-129). Although the novel appears to manifest the humane and benign side of colonialism, a closer reading reveals darker layers of meaning and signification. The plotline follows the lives of Koshy Curien, an arrogant Syrian Christian landlord, and his family who are upper caste Syrian Christians; Poulosa, a lower caste untouchable slave; a local pastor and his family and an old Brahmin among others living in the picturesque background of Travancore and the Meenachil river. Koshy Curian is brought up in the Protestant faith, but reverts to a ritualistic, shallow and materialistic lifestyle. The novel deals with his change of heart of occasioned by the compassion and generosity of his untouchable pulaya slave. A parallel subplot traces the life of his exemplary daughter Mariam. She is educated at the mission school on liberal education and is heavily influenced by the Western Protestant school of thought. She is portrayed as an ideal Christian character in the western protestant worldview. The conversion of an old Brahmin to Christianity forms another important part of the novel’s plot. Thus, it is seen that the three major characters in the novel represent three different types of turmoil in the turbulent times- Koshy Curien represents the upper caste anxieties over ruptures in the existing land and labour relations. In the person of Paulosa, we see the eagerness to question the existing relations of hierarchy and the embrace of a faith that promises equality in the eyes of God. Mariam, the 14-year-old daughter of Curien, is the voice of the mission school educated woman, questioning the existing gender role assigned to her as well as pondering on the essence of spirituality and goodness (Thomas 75).


The novel reveals three different forms of power coming into play. The first and the obvious one is the caste dynamics prevalent in 19th century Kerala. The upper caste Hindus and Syrian Christians equally ill-treated the lower castes as is seen in Koshy Curien’s ill treatment of his slave. When the slave Poulosa requests for a break from work on Sabbath, he is beaten up and abused by Curien. “It is all your teaching and reaching, and you shall bear the suffering. Seize him! Seize him!... and his stick was raised again to add weight to the command…”(Collins 16).  The caste subjugation in the slaves’ minds was such that despite vastly outnumbering the master, they stood cowering, terrified and submissive in the face of violent abuse. Curien’s blow meant for Poulosa accidently kills his grandchild. This incident in the novel has strong historical roots. John Thomas affirms that in the mid-19th century, many of the untouchable slaves were converted to protestant Christianity, generating widespread fear and anxiety among the propertied Nair and Syrian Christian landlords over the possible breakdown of the existing socio-political economy and caste structure. This fear was often translated into “brutal and violent persecution of the slaves, especially those who were inclined towards Christian instruction and conversion” (69). Syrian Christians considered the missionaries responsible for instigating the slaves to flout existing rules. Thomas adds that the continuance of the caste structure in Travancore was partly due to the labour-intensive agrarian practices which required a steady stream of cheap labour for its sustenance. For this purpose, the lower castes- the pulayas and the parayas, were kept “in a perpetual state of landlessness, poverty and dependence by the upper castes, through denial of alternative forms of employment” (65). They were treated as commodities to be owned, bought and sold.

The second kind of power was that of the colonizer over the native. An example is the incident where the minions of Koshy Curien put Poulosa in chains and immerse him in muddy water with his head uncovered in the blazing sun. The native pastor, passing by, rescues Poulosa by threatening to report the minion’s misconduct to the sircar. He intimidates the servants with the threat of bringing sircar peons to arrest and throw them in jail- “It will require but a few minutes to have a dozen Sircar peons on the spot, and when once within the walls of the Thanah you will find it no easy to get out again” (Collins 29).  This shows that even an indirect subordinate of the missionaries of the colonizing sircar wields more power than the rich and powerful in a colony. It may be acceptable for the prevention of atrocities, but the larger question about the right of the colonizer to control native lives remains unanswered. The other examples are not so obvious. As part of their proselytization-based doctrine, the missionaries made inroads into the hitherto limited educational spaces of the state. The Western ideology was taught and disseminated through the educational spaces. Mission high schools and colleges sometimes became sites of struggle between competing sets of eastern and western values as in the case of Mariam. This encouraged her to denigrate and reject her traditional Syrian Christian practices in favour of Western Protestant ones. This implies a willing acceptance of the colonizer’s religion and practices as opposed to her older and native traditions.



The third and the most pervasive power is seen in the form of what Foucault calls “pastoral power” (125-26). Pastoral power and how it plays out in the novel will be explored in the following paragraphs.

A perusal of the history of power reveals that we have come a long way from the “might makes right” credo. According to Freud, the simplest and immediate conception of power is that of “might makes right.” But in The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche had preceded Freud in pointing out that in human society the weak, including women, will violate Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest by conspiring to topple the strong by way of cunning and banding together (Freud, Nietzsche and Foucault qtd. in Rapaport 250-252). This being the case, the powerful realize that the overt display of power becomes intolerable and hence leads to unstable relationships. Foucault argues that the current social expressions of power, like, bureaucratic power – act as a response to and transformation of the ‘might makes right’ concept of power (Freud, Nietzsche and Foucault qtd. in Rapaport 250-252). This gives way to alternate forms of power like pastoral power. The paper argues that though the missionaries were not directly in charge of local governance, they exercised the invisible form of pastoral power or the good shepherd model of governance over the colonized natives.

Foucault argues that the pastorate in Christianity gives rise to a dense, complicated, and closely woven institutional network coextensive with the entire Church and the Christian community. He adds that in Christianity the pastorate practices an art of “conducting, directing, leading, guiding, taking in hand, manipulating men, of monitoring and urging them on step by step, thus taking charge of them collectively and individually throughout their life and at every moment of their existence” (164-65). In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault discusses this good shepherd model of governance, which originated in the Near East and established a foothold in early Christian societies.  Foucault summarizes the central attributes and features of this model as follows: Firstly, “the shepherd’s power is not exercised over a territory but, over a flock, even in its movement from one place to another. The shepherd’s power is essentially exercised over a multiplicity in movement” (129).  So, whereas the Greek god is territorial, the Hebrew deity (the shepherd) wanders. In TSS, the missionaries form a parallel power structure either directly or through the local network of pastors, where they take up a beneficent role in educating the locals and being sympathetic towards them. They travel to the homes of the needy to render help and solace, as opposed to the needy going to the deity to pray for his needs. The whole of chapter 11 of the novel describes such benevolent deeds of the local pastor, who represents the local variant of the colonial missionary. He visits the dilapidated homes of the poor, cooks food for them and spreads the message of God. He also visits a Nair’s house where some men try to draw him into gossip. He chastises them for whiling away their time. Thus, the administration of kindness is over a whole flock, irrespective of religion and territory. And the emissary of the deity in the form of the pastor visits and comforts the flock.  In another instance, Mariam, a product of liberal missionary schooling, acts as a peace emissary and comforting angel to Poulosa by visiting his home- “Mariam took a Jack-leaf , and with ready fingers formed  it into a kind of spoon, into which her grandmother dropped a piece of sugar and some powerful mixture, which Mariam with the help of the old woman placed in the mouth of the sufferer”(Collins 31).   Thus, while the British governing officials became more isolated from Indians and resorted to scientific racism to justify their rule, the missionary educators directly or through a pastoral network became more engaged with Indians and grew increasingly sympathetic to Indian culture, and adamantly opposed scientific racism (Bellenoit 22-24). In essence the ‘good’, ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ characters are all who follow the western Protestant practices.


      Elaborating on the second feature of pastoral power, Foucault states, “pastoral power is fundamentally a beneficent power … its only raison d’etre is doing good …” (115). The essential aim of such power is “salvation of the flock” (115). This is an exercise of power akin to the violent conquest of enemies, the display of omnipotence through symbolism, and the prudent governance of a society, but its emphasis is decidedly spiritual. Moreover, such power is what Foucault calls the “power of care.” (127).  The shepherd cares so zealously that he puts the well-being of the flock ahead of himself. Unlike the despot in Plato, the good shepherd provides for the flock; he does not make the flock tremble before his power, as that is detrimental to the flock’s well-being. The missionaries’ agenda seems to be almost entirely spiritual- they are interested in winning souls for the kingdom of God. For this, they preach the good news of the word of God with its central message of equality, protection, redemption and salvation. So, the persecuted slaves are drawn to the philosophy and are willing to convert to a religion which potentially offers them dignity and liberty. The missionaries’ endeavours do not seem to have any agenda or purpose apart from doing good. The exemplification of this power is again manifested in the local pastor who goes around doing good to all the needy, irrespective of caste or religion. He does not seem to seek any self-aggrandizement. Poulosa’s forgiveness towards Curien is also the result of manifestation of this beneficent power wherein he fully believes in the power of repentance and redemption. He does not feel the need for having a ‘reason’ in the worldly scheme of affairs to do good. He feels that praying for his enemy Koshy Curien will bring about his repentance and salvation.


At a socio-political level, Dilip Menon observes that “The colonial state, while it adopted the rhetoric of freedom and individual dignity, was reluctant to dismantle social structures like slavery that would involve both a loss of revenue as well as the allegiance of the landed groups who were their bulwark” (1667). He adds that “Missionaries rushed in where the colonial state feared to tread” (1677). In 1855, following the intervention of missionaries, a royal proclamation for the abolition of slavery was issued. Here, the missionaries come across as good shepherds who care for the flock without any benefit to themselves. They also seem to attempt to establish equality before the law. But the document was vague enough to maintain existing labour relations without disrupting the existing social dynamics.


      The third feature according to Foucault is that “pastoral power is an individualizing power” (169-70).  The shepherd not only has to look after the flock as a whole, but each individual within the flock. He must correct the sheep that act in ways that are not for their own good, which the shepherd does by acting as the proper model of rectitude. The shepherd is powerful insofar as his example reveals itself to be salvific and therefore one that has to be followed by way of emulation. The assumption here is that whether master or slave, the attitudes of the natives is fallacious and needs to be corrected using the western Protestant faith. The novel persistently evokes the premise of the superiority of Protestantanism over Syrian Christian faith. 


Now, a note on the individualizing power at work in the novel: The earliest example is the reaction of Poulosa to the murder of his grandchild by Koshy Kurien.  Poulosa is a Christian convert who is taught to practice the virtues of repentance and forgiveness. Filled with agony at the sight of his dead grandchild, he looks heavenward and gasps, “Saviour of mercy, Saviour of love, look down and pity us. Bless and forgive my cruel master. Lay not this sin to his charge, Amen, Amen”(Collins 18). Even under such harrowing circumstances, he is able to forgive and pray for his antagonist even if part of his behavior may be attributed to utter helplessness. Hence, instead of holding a grudge against his master, he returns good for evil. He saves the life of Mariam from drowning. When the boat carrying Mariam and her grandmother capsizes, Paulosa jumps into the raging river to save the life of the young girl. Later he throws a challenge to Koshy Curien saying "You killed my child, but I have saved yours. We are now equal"(Collins 38).  Poulosa is claiming that they were equal in the spiritual realm. This ‘insolence’ shown by Poulosa in throwing a challenge to his master is also a reflection of pastoral power. He is taught about equality and brotherhood in Christ. This is what gives him the courage to speak thus.


The next example is the reaction of Koshy Kurien to Poulosa’s challenge. Despite his haughty and violent behavior towards the slaves, Curien is eaten up by guilt about the death of the child but is too proud to admit it. This guilt and his inability to act upon it could be a reflection of his assertive Syrian Christian male identity constructed upon ideas of affluent lineage and feudal legacies which sets him above the slave whom he considers as nothing more than a commodity that he owned. But he is also a product of Western Protestant upbringing despite his Syrian Christian bloodline. Hence, he searches for Poulosa and on finding him, seeks Poulosa’s forgiveness. Overcome with remorse, Koshy goes to the extent of accepting the pulayan as his teacher and equal, if not moral superior. "From now on, you are not my slave. I have known that you are more suited to be my master. I wish to learn from you"(Collins 79).  This echoes the missionary rhetoric of equality and brotherhood in Christ. It also echoes the influence of Foucault’s pastoral power in the way the haughty Kurien humbles himself before a slave. It is also interesting that despite the heavily patriarchal society of the time, he is consistently polite to his mother even when he doesn’t agree with her actions, and is affectionate towards his beautiful wife. Further, he is absolutely besotted by his lovely 14 year old daughter Mariam, who is gentle, firm and bright.


As a new convert, Poulosa says that in his pre-Christian days, he used to steal and be dishonest, but after conversion, he became honest and straightforward. Koshy Curien’s ritualistic, materialistic and cruel ways are attributed to his Syrian Christianity. When he decides to mend his ways through repentance, it is only under the guidance of the pastor, and hence construed as the corrective influence of western Protestantanism and individualizing power. Next is the example of Mariam who is described as a model of piety and goodness. She tells her siblings stories from the Bible, and is actively responsible for the conversion of Poulosa into Christianity when she was but a child. When she goes to his home(an unusual act for a Syrian Christian woman to visit the house of a slave in those days), Poulosa recalls how she told him about the love of Jesus Christ and advised him against stealing mangoes. She argues with her father about his abusive attitude to slaves and his practice of meaningless religious rituals. When her father arranges a very advantageous marital alliance with Ummen Thoma’s son for her, she actually persuades her father to back out of that socially advantageous marriage. She insists that the boy was uncouth and unread and that it was a spiritually incompatible match. Her attitude of placing compatibility and spirituality over material wealth and comforts is another reflection of her mission school education. She eventually marries a Protestant minister’s assistant who is educated and decent, but not rich. Her worldview forms a direct reflection of the pastoral power embedded in her missionary school education.

The pastor’s wife was initially an illiterate, irresponsible person and an avid gossiper uninterested in pious activities. After her elder son’s death she repents, mends her ways and turns to the Bible under the guidance of her husband. This is yet another example of individualizing pastoral power where the native is incapable of goodness without the guidance from the missionary network. And the old brahmin’s ideology too is perceived as fallacious. His account of and his salvation is also through conversion into Christianity. He confesses that the Vedas had given him no solace even though he went to Kasi. His reading the book on atonement impressed him and facilitated his conversion to Christianity. This event can be called the crowning glory of the triumph of pastoral power as the upper caste Brahmin relinquishes his faith to embrace the faith of the colonizer. Thus, each individual’s redemption is a result of conversion. And this power of accomplishing willing conversions from individuals is a manifestation of this individualizing power. And for each individual, the pastors follow up the case. And after conversion too, care is disseminated in many forms.

The texture and tone of the novel through the above examples seems to read like a sweet, feel-good text dealing with the higher, refined human emotions like repentance and forgiveness, and the triumph of the meek and humble over the proud reverberating the biblical verses. But this paper argues that these instances actually reveal an art of the missionary network in conducting, directing, leading, guiding, taking in hand, manipulating men, of monitoring and urging them on step by step, thus taking charge of them collectively and individually throughout their life and at every moment of their existence. For the missionaries, the Syrian Christians represented the ‘prodigal son’, who had strayed away from the ‘true’ faith and become estranged, and therefore, in need of a conversion experience.




     In conclusion, it can be said that while tracing the modus operandi of the missionaries in the colonial machinery, we can see a shift away from the “might makes right” impulse which is wrought through social repression and the formation of bad conscience. In the “Good shepherd model”, we see a reversal in practice whereby the despot who only cares about himself to the point that he does harm to the community, is replaced by the good shepherds who really care about the flock. But due to false consciousness and camera obscura, the colonizers perceive the actions, rituals and religion of the native as deficient and fallacious, conveniently ignoring the fact that as per evidence, Syrian Christianity in Kerala claims a history to be far older than their own European one. And in order to rectify the perceived fault lines, the colonizers in conjunction with the missionaries resorted to the “Pastoral power” politics instead of the overtly coercive “might is right” ideology. This means that instead of subjugating the natives through brute force, as done by the colonizing government, a parallel power structure is unleashed by the missionaries. This is more of an invisible power which rewrites the centuries old construct of the identity of the native individual in the social hierarchy. It is a form of power which threatens to destabilize and reconstitute the existing social dynamics. It shapes shapes and trains the psyche of the individual into completely trusting and following a spiritual ideology very different from his own. In this expression of power, the individual within the flock is coaxed and guided  with a proper model of rectitude and penitence to act in ways which are for “their own good” , a good which is decided by someone else though. The powerful and long-lasting psychological impact of this invisible power was to colonize the mind of the native, to devalue his own history and traditions, to make him internalize the faith of the colonizer and to completely modify his attitudes and behavior. This willing transformation and remodeling the ‘self’ into a western protestant model, points to the Pastoral Power dialectic proposed by Foucault- a power which ultimately results in the making of a fragmented, uneasy self, dependent upon the emancipatory potential of the colonizer’s  religion to make sense of his life.  




1.      In A Survey of Kerala History, Sreedhara Menon states that Christianity was introduced in Kerala in the first century A.D., which is three centuries before it gained official recognition in Europe or became the established religion in Rome. Legend has it that Apostle St. Thomas landed at Maliankara, a place adjoining Muziris, in 52 A.D., converted several Brahmins and others and founded seven churches on the Malabar coast. Though some historians have questioned the historicity of this claim, Menon maintains that it is not an improbability considering the extensive trade relations prevalent between Kerala and the Mediterranean countries from the 7th century BC onwards. There are traditional accounts preserved by the Jews who came to Cranganore in 68 A.D. which contain a reference to the existence of a Christian community at the place. Further, the statement of Pantaenus, the head of the Alexandrian school who visited Kerala in the 2nd century A.D. that he found a flourishing Christian community here is also cited as evidence in favour of the Apostolic origin of the Kerala Church. Since the introduction of the Christian faith in Kerala, it has come to be accepted as an indigenous faith despite its foreign origin.






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