In 1841, the Welsh sent their first missionary, Thomas Jones, to evangelise the tribal peoples of the Khasi Hills of north-east India. This book follows Jones from rural Wales to Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth and now one of the most Christianised parts of India. It is about the piety and practices, the perceptions and prejudices of people in early nineteenth century Wales. The book is also about the ways in which the religious ambitions of those same people operated upon the lives and ideas of indigenous societies of the distant Khasi Hills of north-eastern India. It foregrounds broader political, scientific, racial and military ideologies that mobilised the Khasi Hills into an interconnected network of imperial control. Its themes are universal: crises of authority, the loneliness of geographical isolation, sexual scandal, greed and exploitation, personal and institutional dogma, individual and group morality. In analysing the individual lives that flash in and out of this history, the book is a performance within the effort to break down the many dimensions of distance that the imperial scene prescribes. It pays attention to a 'networked conception of imperial interconnection'. The book discusses Jones's evangelising among the Khasis as well as his conflicts with church and state authority. It also discusses some aspects of the micro-politics of mission and state in the two decades immediately following Thomas Jones's death. While the Welsh missionary impact was significant, its 'success' or indeed its novelty, needs to be measured against the pre-existing activities of British imperialists.
The repercussions of scandal in the Welsh mission had personal ramifications for Thomas Jones and political ones for British authority in the Khasi hills. Jeffrey Cox has suggested that while both European and Indian women are often absent from missionary histories, in reality 'missionary' usually meant a married couple. Ann Jones and Mary Lewis played similar yet at times contradictory roles as missionary wives and as missionaries themselves. The public role of Ann Jones and Mary Lewis as missionary wives was seen as properly restricted to efforts in female education. The Welsh missionaries had initiated a programme of native education for the Khasis, but Cherrapunji also offered its salubrious location as the setting for an educational institution for the children of Europeans. The propriety of marriage was tightly circumscribed among the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, as with other Nonconformist denominations in Britain.
The north-east was an important node in shaping ideologies of colonial science. Scientific explorations between Sylhet, the Khasi Hills and Assam constructed knowledge of the economic potential of natural resources, which in their turn helped to build power and feed the British Empire in India and beyond. The surveys of the Khasi Hills that informed road engineering or military movements also elicited a range of narratives in which ideals of science, race and empire. The Indian north-east that was constructed through this period was a novel place; part of what Matthew Edney has called the 'geographical rhetoric of British India'. According to Nathaniel Wallich, John Gibson would have been glad to send his harvest of orchids 'forests and all if he could'. The vast majority of the plants in the Linnean Society's East India Herbarium catalogued as having come from Sylhet, Pandua, Cachar and Khasi Hills were sourced in Cherrapunji.
In mid-January 1848, Thomas Jones opened the letter from John Roberts informing him of his dismissal as a representative of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). At Cherrapunji, George Inglis presented the extraordinary gift of a thousand oranges to Daniel Wilson. The late eighteenth-century British collectors in the Sylhet district, Lindsay and Thackeray, had made their fortunes out of the lime trade. The Company's commercial ascendancy in the region had been assured after the British victory over the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey in 1757. Thomas Jones sent a petition to the government of Bengal, against the nepotism of the Cherrapunji Court and incompatibility of the lime and orange interests of Harry and George Inglis with the dispensation of justice across the hills. In November 1848 the government ordered Scottish-born John Dunbar, the Commissioner of Dacca, to proceed to Cherrapunji to investigate the charges against Harry Inglis.
The predominant narrative of both new and old histories of the Khasi mission is the pre-eminence of Ann Jones as founding missionary and bringer of the book. The prime architect of the Christianisation of the hill tribes, the de novo 'father' of Khasi literature in his role as the man who put the Khasi language into written form using Welsh orthography. Many missionary and other published accounts tend to skip over the role of indigenous informants in the process of translation. With no knowledge of Bengali script, Jones employed the Roman alphabet when recording Khasi words. Thomas Jones went to the Khasi Hills with the express aim of educating the Khasis. The importance of education for the Welsh was stressed by generations of their leaders and preachers.
The desire of the Welsh to send their own missionaries to India was representative of far more than just generalised evangelical religious ideologies. On 20 June 1811, the first eight preachers from north Wales were ordained at Bala, a flannel manufacturing town in Merionethshire at the foot of the Berwyn mountains. At mid-century, the Irish-born population was around four times that of the 20,262 Welsh-born, but Liverpool would be characterised by the 1880s as 'a kind of auxiliary capital for north Wales'. The persuasiveness of the public preacher and the warmth of the communal experience meeting nurtured the spiritual experiences of the Calvinistic Methodists, but it was conversionism that underscored evangelical religiosity. The Welsh Missionary Society reported the progress of their research to the Dolgellau Quarterly Association finally decided to send Thomas Jones to the Khasi Hills on account of its favourable climate and relatively cheaper cost of living.
On his tours through the hills, Thomas Jones encountered many villages where the inhabitants had not set eyes on a European since the British had taken possession of the region in the 1820s. John Roberts in Liverpool brokered the supply of gifts and supplies; the paper correspondence between the mission secretary and his field agents was itself a material and symbolic transaction of personal and professional power and authority. In accepting the missionary's gifts, the headmen were actively manipulating the introduction of new material goods as part of their own tactics of control and modernisation. In the space between how gifts were given and how they were received by the Khasis, however, lies a transvaluation of the meaning of the objects. Letters were important lifelines in maintaining professional and personal relationships. The exchange of letters between Jones and Roberts reinforced the physical separation between the two men.
In the geo-politics of empire from the 1770s to the 1830s, the northeast was undergoing a period of transition, in which a zone of indeterminacy became an edge, and a barrier became incorporated into a known region. Cherrapunji thus became a distinctive landmark, a node in the imperial network. At an intimate and personal level, the Khasi Hills were becoming a domesticated destination and end point as much as a staging post and site of transience. The regional subtleties of climate in India may not have been fully understood either by the London Missionary Society (LMS) or the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). The Khasi Hills were something altogether different and unexpected. 'The tranquillity of the borders', asserted Francis Jenkins, 'can only be effectually and economically provided for, by maintaining our ascendancy in the Hills'.
Through August 1841, the rains were incessant; 264 inches of rain fell at Cherrapunji, or a staggering twenty-two feet. William Lewin was promoted to Lieutenant in May 1825, and in that year saw service during the First Anglo-Burmese war. On his 1822 voyage to India, Lewin was shocked at the brutal slave economy around the Dutch settlement at Paarl at the Cape Colony. The nature of William and Jane Lewin's presence in Cherrapunji from the early 1830s was unusual. William's long-term invalid status enabled him, Jane and the children to be domiciled there as a family group. Lewin ideas of fatherhood were bound up in a Christian model, and his paternal role was a metaphor of God's own authority. The categories of 'soldier' and 'Christian' might seem contradictory, or perhaps too easily assume the more fixed categorisation of later versions of Christian militarism or of the soldier as popular hero.
In the decade or so prior to the arrival of the Welsh missionaries, elements of Khasi religion had been superficially described by European visitors to the hills. They barely advanced on late eighteenth century characterisations of the tribes of north-east India as heathen savages who practised human sacrifice. The first generation of Welsh missionaries rarely chronicled Khasi religious beliefs. The baptism in 1848 of Ka Nabon was a moment of particular celebration for the Welsh mission, and the subject the following year of a published account of her conversion and persecution. Intervention into the ritual and spatial worlds of the village was a more clear-cut method of domination and control. Visual and textual representations of tribal women in the north-east, and across India more generally, reveal much about what Europeans imagined of the savagery of Indian sexualities.