Nineteenth Century Missionaries and Education in Bengal: An Analysis of Historical Literature This paper is about how missionaries implemented education and how their reforms reflected the cultural, political, religious, social, and economical situation of Bengal throughout the years of 1793-1837.
Michael A. Laird is clear to state that missionaries did not actually arrive in Bengal until around 1800. However, it is important to analyze the educational climate of England from whence they came. It is true that the state of education in both Bengal and England was in bad need of reform. Even so, Laird argues that although both places had a network of institutions of elementary, secondary, and higher education, Bengal was in greater need of reform.
Elementary teachers were reported as ill-qualified and harshly disciplinarian. Secondary teachers were described as “much superior in intelligence.” However, they failed to exert any more of a moral influence over their pupils than the former. Some of the pandits, or teachers, of Indian higher education, were more moral and intellectual than the former. Education in this realm entailed many subjects, but learning was slow, nonetheless.
Another important factor to add to the backdrop of the educational scene was the decline of the entire educational system. There was next to no funding, obstinacy to modern scholarship, and no longer any creative thought. As a result, people were learning without passion under the thumb of their apathetic teacher who would not hesitate to discipline the smallest mistake.
Laird does state that the English system of education shared some of the same problems. He states that one of the greatest areas of concern in Bengal was the inaccessibility to new modern knowledge such as new medical findings, scientific innovations, and modern social thought. These would be the tools that would unshackle the Indian from his prejudice, religion, and social orientation which would effectively reform the society as a whole.
Laird describes the period between 1793 and 1813 as “a kind of prologue to the great outburst of educational activity which immediately followed.” In 1793, William Carey arrived in Calcutta. He was the first missionary to make a lasting and significant contribution to the education of the people of Bengal. Immediately he took analyzing the educational situations of the indigo-plantation of which he was superintendent. He wrote a plan of reform that apparently did not come to fruition until the foundation of Serampore College in 1818.
It was not until 1813 that a Charter Act was passed legalizing missionary work in East India Company Territory. The Act not only forced the East India Company to allow missionary activity, it committed the Company to pay for the missionaries’ educational reform. Therefore it christened a new era “full of possibilities for missionary educationalists.”
Laird divides the discussion of the development of mission schools between 1793 and 1823 into two chapters. The first focuses on the transformation of educational thought and procedures that took place during that time. Between these years, the interest switched from the study of the ancient languages, Persian and Sanskrit, to English. Also, the missionaries emphasized that a sound education must start with teaching the pupils effectively to read and write their mother tongue. Bengali was, then, implemented as the medium of learning, making education more accessible while mixing English thought into Bengali culture.
It is important to note the change in educational practices, as well. Missionaries were interested in conversion. That is they wanted pupils to think and analyze, not just memorize. Through these means, the missionaries believed that the Hindus and Muslims would then logically see the faults of their religions and the Truth of Christianity. Laird suggests, that missionaries acted as “instigators of an intellectual awakening, or even revolution” because they taught Hinduism, Islam, as well as Christianity, challenging pupils to analyze each. This was effective in appealing to the parents of the students who might have felt that Christianity would be forced. Although parents were not at all open to Christianity or conversion therein, they were open to the education that the Westerners had to offer.
Missionary schools were mostly conducted with the educational principles of Lancaster and Bell who were secular educationalists from Europe. Christianity was supposedly only to be presented in the comparative arena during ethics class. However, missionaries were hopeful that the general attitude and conduct of the school would create an atmosphere of conversion for the Indian people.
The second of Laird’s chapters on the development of missions schools between 1793 and 1823 focuses on missionary publications, teachers, caste and class, secular contributions, and relations between missionaries. One of the most significant contributions of the missionaries during this period was their compilation of textbooks, for both the introduction of the ‘new learning’ of the West in the Bengali education system, and the improvement of methods of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The missionaries were also responsible for the publication and circulation of the first Bengali newspaper ever to be published, the Samachar Darpan. They also published an educational magazine, the Dig Darshan, that presented history, astronomy, geography, and ethics to the Bengali people in English and Bengali. As there was little available to read during this time, these publications were extremely popular.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the missionary educationalists in Bengal was the lack of qualified teachers. Laird explains the difficulties that the missionary educationalists encountered in finding and training suitable teachers. They were generally of low social status and from the pre-existing system of education. The missionaries had to overcome competition from the traditional indigenous schools. In general, they found it difficult to implement their ideology of open discussion and free thought among traditional Indian educators. There were attempts to cultivate new teachers, mainly by Robert May. Unfortunately, his attempts ended in failure as the teacher-trainees were more interested in learning English than in teaching.
A most interesting dynamic of the missionary schools, was that pupils were mixed in caste and were of the same class as those who attended the pathsalas. The pupils were then placed in categories based on their merit. As a result, sometimes the boy of inferior class would excel a brahmin. According to the missionaries, this was ideal because it taught in practicality the Christian creed that God created all men equal. Interesting furthermore is a missionaries report stating, “no wish has ever been expressed by [the brahmins] to be formed in a separate class; nor do we recollect a single instance of a brahmin youth’s having left the school in disgust because associated with soodras.”
Laird concludes his book praising the missionary educationalists for drawing the first comprehensive schemes for education in modern times. He goes on to acknowledge the width of their curriculum as unfounded even in the contemporary schools of England. Furthermore, Laird states that “the missionaries came to play the leading part in the early nineteenth century in introducing the people of Bengal to the elements of modern knowledge.” He commends the missionaries usage of Bengali as the chief medium of education, giving impetus to the ‘Bengal Renaissance.’ He also mentions their success in printing the greatest number of textbooks before 1837.
Overall, Laird attributed much success to the missionary educationalist movement in Bengal of 1793-1837. However, he did end his book with a conflicting statement which rebuked the missionaries for their “bigotry and prejudice” regarding Hinduism, Islam and all other creeds other than Christianity. Furthermore, he mocks the missionaries’ implementation of education for the broadening of heathen minds without keeping their own minds open. This striking statement confused the lector as it seemed to contradict the attitude of the rest of the book.
Kanti Prasanna Sen Gupta effectively dismantles the missionaries’ ideology that education is inevitably followed by conversion using the educational climate of the Hindu College of the time. Although the college was not founded by a missionary, or for the purpose of encouraging conversions, Christian missionaries considered it to “prepare the way...for future reception of Christianity”. Although it is true the college experienced a surge of anti-Hindu ideology, moreover, the students were protesting all orthodoxy, including Christianity.
This reflects the traditional Hindu ideology that all religions are different means to the same ends. What resulted at Hindu College was nothing short of anarchy and undermined all ethics, Hindu and otherwise. Therefore, the western liberal atmosphere shared by its contemporary Christian schools, became a breeding ground for “evils,” one that both the Christians and the Hindus tried to remedy.
Gupta’s overall argument is that the lasting contributions of the missionaries towards the social progress in Bengal came directly from their non-evangelical work and indirectly from their evangelical activities. It was actually more significant that they were westerners than anything else. Gupta argues that the missionaries were most effective in implementing Socio-Religious Reform although that was by far their intention. This was the result of the Renaissance in Bengal, which he agrees was sparked by missionary activity.
Professor Geoffrey A. Oddie wrote a book on a particular missionary, Rev. James Long, who was largely concerned with social reform in India. “Padre Long” as he was called and is still remembered, did not fit into the same mold as his contemporaries. First of all, it is important to not that Long arrived in Calcutta in 1840. He was, then, the second wave of mission work, so to speak. The remarkable thing about Long, was his acclimatization to Bengal. Oddie does a fabulous job tracing the evolution of Long’s educational theology through the process of trials, errors, and experiences.
Originally sent to Calcutta to oversee the Christian Mission Society (C.M.S) Head Seminary, Long was immediately put in charge of elevating the efficiency of an English Vernacular School geared toward non-Christians. (Apparently, the Seminary never opened.) Upon arrival, Long shared the same views as Duff who believed in English only as the medium of education. Shortly thereafter he agreed with Duff in the greater importance of teaching than preaching and the strategy of destroying the students’ faith in Hinduism through rooting out prejudice which would naturally prepare the path for the acceptance of Christianity. In short, Oddie shared the most popular beliefs among his contemporaries. However, even as early as three years into the ministry, Long noted a few discrepancies in the prevailing thought, eventually becoming very disappointed in the outcome of its implementation.
In 1849, when the opportunity arose, Long resigned his position as superintendent of the English school in Calcutta so that he could devote time to a mission located at Thakurpukur. Here he experimented with vernacular education. Long lived here among the people in a house that was built for his family in 1851. Every day involved mixing with the village people which began Long’s acclimatization to Bengali ideology and worldview. He began a school in his house and his mature pupils were subject to hands-on learning as they were required to preach sermons they had learned to write. This was Long’s idea of teacher-training, a method and situation that directly opposed Duff.
It was at Thakurpukur where Long realized the exploitation and social injustice of the simple village people. He decided then that education would help to protect such people from cruel and oppressive zamindars. Oddie is quick to point out that this new purpose for education only appeared in Long in the late 1850’s as a result of a violent Mutiny that took place. This is important because it connects education with social control and therefore yields responsibility to the government. As a matter of fact, Long believed that the problems with education system could only be resolved through cooperation between Government and missionaries. Long proposed the idea of grants-and-aid to the Council of Education through his good friend J.F. Haliday in 1854. July of the same year, funds were rendered to schools with secular education. It marked the beginning of Longs missionary involvement in the Government as well as a long divisive missionary debate.
This is significant because it gave head way to the political involvement that Long undertook in rebuking the mistreatment of the indigo planters, an act that landed him in jail in July of 1861. In the wake of the outbreak of the Mutiny and Civil Rebellion of the fifties, Long was asked by the Indians to intervene on their behalf. By his own convictions he decided to pursue reform measures against the indigo manufacturers.
Meanwhile, one of his students, an Indian ryot, wrote a play in Bengali on the issue, and it was subsequently published. Long was accused of slander by the indigo manufacturers as a phrase qualified the play as “plain but true.” There was a trial in which Long was found guilty and sentenced to a month’s time in the Common Jail of Calcutta.
Long was perceived by the mass of Bengalis as a defender and many of the missionaries remarked in their news letters how previous negative attitudes towards them had been silenced. Frankly, society was stunned at the sacrifice Long was willing to make for them. The incident raised public opinion and emotion which served to unite the Hindu and Muslim communities in favor of the Christians. For the first time, it seemed that the natives were actually interested in the missionary message.
Reverend James Long, then, was a great example of a purposeful missionary. Long’s educational work sowed the potential for change in the minds of his students. He was focused on the future and educational self-sufficiency of his reform. As a result, he linked his ministry with one that would always exist, the government. Through that he lead by example the potential and perhaps the responsibility to petition the government for change. When his student followed his lead and wrote something demanding change, Long not only helped that student get published, but stood for the punishments thereof. He was willingly imprisoned for the protection of the poor and cause of free speech; an example unsurpassable by words, or schools, or theologies.
Abhijit Dutta describes the obstacles and misunderstandings of missionaries in dealing with Hindu religious practices and superstitions. Four conversions of the Derozians at Hindu College by Dr. Duff.
Ferdaus Ahmad Quarishi Describes Indian social and political changes induced by Christian activity in the North Eastern Hills of S. Asia.
Benoy Bhusan Roy and Pranati Ray describe the role of Christian Missionaries for the Education of Women as Failure.
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Oddie, Geoffrey A. Missionaries, Rebellion and Proto-Nationalism: James Long of
Bengal 1814-87. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999.
Sen Gupta, K. P. The Christian Missionaries in Bengal: 1793-1833. Calcutta: Firma K.L.
Dutta, Abhijit. Nineteenth Century Bengal Society and Christian Missionaries. Minerva:
Minerva Associates, 1992.
Quarishi, Ferdaus A. Christianity in the north eastern hill of South Asia: Social impact
and political implication. Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press, 1987.
Roy, Benoy Bhusan. Zenana Mission: The Role of Christian Missionaries for the
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