This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Colonialism is often defended as a moral mission, a mission to educate and civilise the non-western world, and often used Christian Missionaries to convey their message. However, this perspective stands to much debate, as through the years the Empires have often been questioned on what the true intentions behind colonialism were. Were they purely moral? Or were they based on profit, and excavating the best resources from foreign land? 

Colette Harris, a political writer on Gender and Development, stated that a Ugandan tribe chief had asked a British Officer to bring Christianity to Uganda as they wanted to “worship the white man’s God.” This encouraged the British Empire to send Missionaries from the Anglican Church of England to Uganda and start setting up a Church along the river Nile. The Missionaries also went through a lot of trouble to help communicate their message and translate the Bible. Across the Ocean, you had Rajah Brooke in the Malay Peninsula, who was seen as the ideal British Imperialist, implementing the ideology of the Civilising Mission, spreading Christianity to the Sarawak tribe, while defending them from pirates. Similar stories can also be said about Thomas Macaulay’s intentions while writing the Indian Penal Code, which is still in use today. 

This makes the civilising mission and its accompanied missionaries, sound very positive. They helped establish a penal code, defended local tribes from foreign aggressors and only established Christianity when the “natives” asked for it. However, all these cases can be further expanded on.

If we look at Uganda’s Missionary implementation, Harris points out a lot of problems that this caused for the locals. “Natives”  had to change their clothing, as the missionaries found it to be very “revealing” and not “European” enough. This clothing change was brought in without building an understanding with the “natives” and as a result the women were now seen as “sex objects”. Harris believes that this is directly related to an increase in molestation. Furthermore, before the Empire, the women were given equal status, and were respected by Ugandan men. However, this contradicted Victorian ideology, and the missionaries made changes to the Ugandan society. After, women had to ask for a man’s approval before leaving home and simultaneously the church taught a man that he was superior. To Harris, the missionaries in Uganda institutionalised male superiority. 

Malay Alex Middleton, a historian focused on British and European imperialism, argues that Rajah Brooke was nowhere close to how he is painted by imperialists in Britain. Middleton believes that Brooke’s intentions were to expand the Empire by any means necessary. Though Brooke opened up free trade, and was seen as benevolent and humanitarian, he often used aggressive means which were defended by baseless causes. For example, he claimed that the Sarawak Tribe had been attacked by the Dayaks and hence forced the British Parliament to send him reinforcements to attack the Dayaks. However, there is no proof that the Dayaks had attacked the Sarawak. Instead, Middleton believes that this was all a ploy by Brooke to increase his naval support to consolidate his rule in Malay by force. 

In India, the missionaries created a communal divide between Hindus and Muslims, legally establishing them as different communities. To further the divide, the imperialist partitioned Bengal in two based on religion, and disallowed anyone to convert to Islam. Christianity was also used as the basis of education in India, as school and universities were based on Christian morals, with hymns and prayers being a part of their daily-routine. Indian politician and ex-UN Under Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor, believed the idea that the Empire was set up to help the Indians is preposterous, showing that Indians Economy was severely hurt by the Empire, and after the Empire left only 16% of Indians were literate which doesn’t seem close to civilising the “natives.”

Finally, we must take into consideration that originally the Empire was based on profit. When Robert Clive came to India and set up the foundation for an Empire, he did so with the purpose of getting rich as fast as possible. When the British East India Company began to take land in India it forced Indian farmers to grow tea and poppy, which incidentally made opium to wage the opium wars and get more tea. In India, the Railways were set up to be used by only the British to get minerals from mines to ports. In East Africa Robert Williams, the Royal African Society’s Vice-President and man in-charge of the Cape to Cairo Railway, explicitly stated multiple times that the Railways were to connect mines to ports and that the tribes on the inside were unhindered. His speeches stated that he wanted to “exploit” copper and gold, and said “Give him [Africa] railways, he loves them, but don’t give him drink,” which is a clear indication that the minerals that were collected weren’t for the use of the Africans but just for the Empire. 

Along with the aforementioned there are many other instances where the “natives” have been exploited and suppressed, like curbing their voices with acts on freedom of Press and Assembly. This shows that the idea of missionaries being sent from to civilise and educate the “natives” was nothing more than an alibi for establishing the world’s biggest Empire.

By Shikhar Talwar