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.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book describes the history of one particular mission station in the under-studied north-east region of India with alternative readings of the interactions between missionary, indigenous peoples and other British imperial agents. It explores the arrival of Welsh missionaries in India in 1841. The book also explores the origins of their Calvinistic Methodist denomination in the eighteenth century, their split from the London Missionary Society (LMS) as an assertion of Welsh identity. It focuses on the voyage to India and their arrival in the Khasi hills at a time when earlier missionaries from Serampore had already wielded some influence. The book provides the work of the first generation of missionaries in relation to language translation, education, proselytism and negotiation with native polity. It examines the scandals of mission.
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.
After losing sight of the Welsh mountains and Ireland, Thomas and Ann Jones headed for the Cape of Good Hope and on across the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Bengal. As days became weeks, John Roberts plotted the Jamaica in its imaginary course to Calcutta. Lieutenant-General Hay Macdowall, who had gone down with the Lady Jane Dundas, had been returning to England in the aftermath of rebellion and disaffection in the Madras Presidency. The burial registers at St John's Church in Calcutta had numerous entries for passengers and crew who had sickened and died by the end of their voyage. In a sense, the India they had constructed was unspecific, not anchored to the detail of this particular time or that particular place. At another level, however, the Thomas Jones's voyage of discovery became an expedition that confirmed and validated the real India.
The original intent of the East India Company (EIC) to prevent missionary work throughout India was clearly eroded by the amendment to the Charter in 1813. The Serampore missionaries were the benchmark of all Indian missions. In 1804 Carey wrote to John Ryland, one of the founding members of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), detailing the modus operandi of the Baptist mission. In early 1813, Krishna Chandra Pal and Gorachund, another native Christian, set off for the eastern region of British Bengal. In December 1813, after Pal's return to Serampore, Carey secured the services of a pundit to undertake the Khasi translation of the gospels, believing him to be 'the only one in that nation who could read and write'. Direct missionary intervention in the Khasi Hills, sustained primarily by the Serampore Baptists.
The first sighting of the Khasi Hills from the plains of Sylhet in June 1841 was a long anticipated moment for the missionary. Thomas Jones travelled up to Cherrapunji on the back of a mule, and his possessions were carried up the mountainside by a hundred 'coolies'. From the 1770s to the early 1840s, a succession of imperial agents confronted the mountains of the north-east from the plain at Pandua. Over sixty years before Thomas and Ann Jones ascended to Cherrapunji, Robert Lindsay stood in the foothills at Pandua. By the mid-1820s there were new reasons for a British foothold in the frontier. The desirability of establishing a medical station for invalids in the hills had first been suggested to the government by David Scott, Political Agent to the Governor-General on the north-east frontier of Bengal.
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'.
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.
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.
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.