Welsh missionaries and British imperialism

The Empire of Clouds in north-east India

Author: Andrew J. May

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.

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‘Andrew J. May's Welsh missionaries and British imperialism succeeds in terms of originality of topic, excellent methodology, readability of text, and richness of sources. Researchers and university students of every level will be able to use this monograph to develop a thorough idea of missionary history and colonial experience. Furthermore, his microhistory is both captivating and illuminating, engaging with broader imperial ideas of race, religion, and space. May's work deepens our understanding of British colonial experience in 19th-century northeast India.'
Professor Andrew J. Avery
July 2016

‘A beautifully written and extensively researched study of mission and empire ... May is particularly good at thinking about the contingent, disjointed and fragile nature of the colonial experience. As such he gives an excellent sense of the mutual interdependence of European actors inhabiting sometimes ambiguous and oftentimes shifting roles on the colonial and spiritual frontier.'
Emily Manktelow, University of Kent
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

‘His exploration of forgotten and remembered actors from north Wales and the Khasi hills, juxtaposed against meta-narratives of imperial science, religion, commerce, and politics, is a notable, new-style biography that makes a virtue even of the multiple archival silences it encounters.'
Jayeeta Sharma, University of Toronto
Indian Economic and Social History Review

‘It is not only in regard to language that the book demonstrates sensitivity to methodological concerns. May's work is also significant for its contribution to our understanding of the affective relationship between the historian and their subject.'
Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield
Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

‘It's been a pleasure to watch a master historian at work, taking care not to be cavalier with his facts and interpretations, yet delivering a considerable emotional charge. I get the feeling that this book is something new and special in the field, and it is unarguably of considerable importance to Welsh history-making.'
Nigel Jenkins
November 2011

‘This highly-engaging, well-researched and theoretically-interesting history of mission and empire in a historiographically neglected corner of the British Empire uses the stories of intriguing individuals to flesh out, as well as to question, standard received notions of the interplay between the religious and imperial incursions of the British into Asian societies....May has provided us with a richly detailed and highly-persuasive history, and a thoughtful interrogation of that history, of one phase in the expansion of British religion and empire. For this we are deeply in his debt.'
Arun W. Jones, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies
June 2015

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