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Profit and proselytism

15 November 2013

Michael Doe reads a study of the Empire's early days


The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858
Penelope Carson
Boydell & Brewer £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code CT734 )

THERE is a story that when the Evangelical Henry Martyn went out to Calcutta as a chaplain to the East India Company in 1805, he was appalled to discover that the recitation of the Magnificat at evensong had been banned. Any suggestion that "He hath put down the mighty from their seat" might stir up opposition to British rule!

Whether or not that is true, the fact is that, throughout its history of representing Britain's interests in India, amassing great fortune from trade with the East, and becoming a quasi-imperial authority with its own largely sepoy army, the Company had an uneasy relationship with Christianity and anything approaching proselytism.

It is not true, as it sometimes said, that the Company prevented any missionary activity until forced to allow it in the renegotiation of its Charter in 1813: from the start, it had affirmed the Roman Catholic presence in former Portuguese territories and accepted the German missionaries supported by SPCK. It was not opposed to the Anglican episcopate established in 1814. What it feared was any religious activity that might disrupt trade by alienating the Hindu and Muslim population.

This is a very well-researched book, based on primary reports and letters, showing the uneasy path that the Company had to tread. In 1793, Parliament, led by William Wilberforce, called for more work on the "religious and moral improvement" of the Indian people, and, as the Evangelical movement in Britain grew, so did the pressure on the Company to allow more overt missionary activity. To Western eyes, certain customs, such as suttee and the caste system, were signs of Indian "depravity"; but for Hindus such criticism was a direct attack on their religion, and the Great Uprising of 1857 was the beginning of the long journey towards independence.

For the more general reader, this may be a disappointing book. It does not enter into the more ethical issues raised by the conflict between commercial activity, respect for indigenous people and their religion, and so-called Western "improvement", either at the time, or as they continue to be featured with the multinational companies that are in many ways the successors of the East India Company.

It also stops when the Company was nationalised in 1858, before the full flowering of British imperialism and its missionary movements. But, for the more specialist student of missiology and imperial history, its drawing on such precise historical material will make it an invaluable resource.

The Rt Revd Michael Doe is a former General Secretary of the USPG, and is the Preacher to Gray's Inn.

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