British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793–1861

British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793–1861

By Sutapa Dutta

‘British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793-1861’ looks at the role and contributions of the early British women missionaries in Bengal, in eastern India, between 1793 and 1861. It traces the role of and challenges faced by women missionaries from Hannah Marshman to Hannah Mullens in the context of colonial evangelism.

Hardback, 192 Pages


November 2017

£70.00, $115.00

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About This Book

‘British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793-1861’ focuses on the contributions made by Dorothy Carey, Hannah Marshman, Mrs Yates, Mrs Pearce, Mary Ann Cooke, Mrs Mundy, Miss Bird, Mrs Weitbrecht and Hannah Mullens, even if some were to only suffer silently while others were more active in their mission to educate and uplift native girls and women. These women rendered invaluable service in running schools and boarding houses for girls, and providing shelter and security to widows and orphans in the missions. Their work was a pioneering contribution which helped build a defining space and agency for women’s activities within a patriarchal colonial society. Their role and the challenges they faced have greatly shaped our understanding of the ‘woman’s question’ and future mission activities by women, for women in the Indian society.

The period under study sees the advent of the British in India and the beginning of colonialism and argues that the arrival of the Western missionary women led to extensive contestations and transformations in the role of women, in both India and Britain. It is important to understand exactly what was at stake when white women were brought in with a special imperial ‘burden of civilizing’ their counterparts in the colonies. ‘British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793-1861’ focuses on the contradictory nature of such positions in terms of dominance and subordination. These ‘sisters of mission’ were, albeit to a limited extent, seen as empowered agents responsible for civilizing and liberating their ‘other’ sisters. As the book works to illustrate, these first generation of emancipationists were not doing it for a universal, suffering, downtrodden sisterhood; neither were they articulate in their arguments for female emancipation. On the contrary, there was the struggle to adapt themselves to the challenges of complex factors like physical displacement from home, emotional bareness, economic dependence, family responsibilities, diseases and death, and psychological pressure to fit into a stereotype of a good missionary/wife – a role predetermined for them and many a times without their consent, which suited the largely male-dominated colonizing and proselytizing missions in British India. The issue of ‘woman’s question’ was more about the demonstration of white women’s moral authority, as distinguished from political authority exercised by men, and clearly differentiated in the private and public domains. Their moral superiority, though limited to domestic spheres, helped ratify the public imperial space as beneficial. This then was their responsibility towards their race, nation and for the empire itself.

‘British Women Missionaries in Bengal, 1793-1861’ chronicles and historicizes women missionaries’ contributions in Bengal, from the participation of the wives of missionaries, particularly the Baptist missionaries of Serampore and Calcutta, and their role typically as ‘helpmeets’, to single women missionaries who began arriving in the latter part of the period under study. The transition from ‘wives of missionaries’ to ‘missionary women’ was one of negotiation – a negotiation of women’s position within a very constricted patriarchal colonial framework. As ‘agents’ of emancipating the ‘other’ women, these women missionaries inadvertently opened a similar space for themselves which largely redefined their roles and identity. The book also demonstrates that the initial stages of missionary activities, secular or for conversion, were often without reflecting or internalizing native women’s position, place or their identity in the present society. Part of what has created a veritable tension between women’s role and imperialism has been the way Western feminism has ignored the realities and complexities of feminism and has universalized Western women’s experiences as representative of ‘problems of women’. Their entire exercise of educating and ‘uplifting’ native women for the purpose of ‘empowering’ the other woman undermines and overlooks the agency with which such women are already empowered. The early missionaries ostensibly did not want to ‘interfere’ in the status quo and the internal affairs of the country but brought in their baggage of ideas regarding social transformation. Ideologies of ‘ideal’ womanhood from a Western-centric authoritative position leading to much bewilderment and questioning of existing native institutions of marriage, family and role of women. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the activities of the women missionaries helped to shape the conditions under which women in future, both whites and natives, articulated and engaged in their struggle for power.


‘This is the most significant work on early British missionaries in India since the publication of Daniel Pott’s pioneering book half a century ago. While all earlier works have focused on male missionaries, Sutapa Dutta has presented the first detailed study of the long forgotten early female British missionaries in Bengal.’
—Meenakshi Jain, Member, Governing Council, Indian Council of Historical Research

‘Dutta’s book is a significant and substantial contribution to the larger body of scholarship on the impact of Christianity in India as well as the history of feminism in that country.’
—David Dabydeen, Author, Post-colonial Literary Critic and Professor, University of Warwick, UK

‘Comprehensive in scope, the book focuses on the impact women missionaries had on elite Indian society and on their often-contradictory relationship to the “civilizing mission”.’
—Antoinette M. Burton, Professor of History and Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, University of Illinois, USA

‘This compelling study probes the seismic encounter between Indian and British cultures and religions. Women, too often overlooked by historians, take centre stage.’
—Penelope J. Corfield, Emeritus Professor of History, Royal Holloway, London University

‘An important exploration of women’s role as agents of transformation during the colonial encounter. This study operates at the cusp between two cultures at a key moment in their entwined histories, placing women missionaries at the heart of a hitherto-untold story.’
—Radha Chakravarty, Professor of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi, India

Author Information

Sutapa Dutta teaches English at Gargi College, University of Delhi, India. She received her doctorate in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures; Acknowledgements; Abbreviations; Introduction; Part One: On a Double Mission; 1. Merchants, Mercenaries, Missionaries; 2. Representing ‘Otherness’ and the Agenda of Reform; Part Two: Female Agency; 3. ‘Helpmeets’ and Wives of Missionaries; 4. ‘Mothers’ and Single Women Missionaries; Part Three: Intertwined Images; 5. ‘Ladies’ and the Zenana; 6. The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’ Sisters; Notes; Index.


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