Missions and Empire

By Norman Etherington; Roger Louis | Go to book overview

10
Language

PAUL LANDAU

Nearly all the world's alphabets are elaborations of a Semitic orthography from Canaan or Egypt. Medieval missionaries brought the Roman version to Europe, and in the modern era evangelists carried it to other continents. Inevitably the British Empire became a party to this dispersion as it grew to administer a quarter of the world's population, but its subjects received their basic education from clerics. Such was even the case in Bengal, where the East India Company funded Hindu and Muslim schools. The alphabet invariably spread through religious teachings.

It was inevitable that Christian missionaries would be interested in language and literacy. Most of them believed that reading was a direct route for grace. On a daily basis, they tested their pupils with recitations and essays, and many of them composed and translated catechisms, prayer books, hymns and Bibles, primers, and spelling books. All such texts asserted that one must acknowledge God, that Christ died for everyone's salvation, that master and servant are both welcome in church, that you are a sinner, that there is life after death. At the same time, as missionaries knew, the Empire's peoples used their texts as they wished. Some of them regarded 'the book' as a charm or form of medicine, while others thought literacy was something that might come from a dream or vision. Hymns might be sung to praise nationalist politicians or beer. Even before missionaries lost their monopoly on the Empire's presses, 'print culture' had expanded beyond their reach.

Missionaries also wrote histories, genealogies, ethnographies, dictionaries, and grammars of 'their' people, for Europeans to read. Some such material became part of the heritage of ethnic and nationalist movements, while at the same time fuelling the concept of the 'tribe', the favoured subunit of imperial governance for African and Pacific peoples. For instance, civil cases entailed appeals to 'native law and custom', preferably written down, which turned history into a kind of eternal repetition. The dispersal of stereotypes in images and texts, coupled with racial science and

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Missions and Empire
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Foreword v
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • Abbreviations x
  • List of Contributors xi
  • 1: Introduction 1
  • 2: Prelude: the Christianizing of British America 19
  • 3: An Overview,1700–1914 40
  • 4: Humanitarians and White Settlers in the Nineteenth Century 64
  • 5: Where the Missionary Frontier Ran Ahead of Empire 86
  • 6: Christian Missions and the Raj 107
  • 7: New Christians as Evangelists 132
  • 8: 'trained to Tell the Truth': Missionaries, Converts, and Narration 153
  • 9: Women and Cultural Exchanges 173
  • 10: Language 194
  • 11: New Religious Movements 216
  • 12: Anthropology 238
  • 13: Education and Medicine 261
  • 14: Decolonization 285
  • Index 307
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