Think Piece

The Politics of Theo-Colonial Encounter: Observations from South India

by guest contributor David Martin

By David Martin

…Christianity and the palmyra have appeared to flourish together. Where the palmyra abounds, there Christian congregations and schools abound also; and where the palmyra disappears, there, the signs of Christian progress are rarely seen.

—Robert Caldwell

This lyrical description of Christian proselytism in South India was written by Caldwell in his Lectures on the Tinnevelly Missions, which appeared in perhaps the most momentous year in Colonial Indian history, 1857. It speaks of a Victorian idyll of India, a tropical dream where the spread of Christianity is elegantly measured against the geographic distribution of the palmyra tree. Notwithstanding the strong likelihood that this piece of self-congratulatory oratory is meant to detract from the momentous events of 1857, Caldwell’s rhetorical strategy offers a window into the history of “theo-colonial” encounters in South Asia. He was writing at a particular moment when evangelical forms of Christianity were fighting to keep a foothold in the region, against the increasingly dominant strain of orientalist rhetoric in British policy towards India. As such, only the most efficacious methods of proselytism could be allowed to grow, and then be pushed as hard as possible; which prompts the question: why was Caldwell’s economically savvy form of anthropological Christianity more effective than any other form?

One way to approach this question is to compare Caldwell’s practice with that of another minister, however, most of Caldwell’s contemporaries tended to follow fairly similar methods when their goal was conversion plain and simple. One must look a little further back in time to find a good counterpoint, a missionary who’s first and only aim was to make converts, but one who took a radically different approach—Roberto de Nobili. This minister’s inability to make any lasting impact on South Asian history, religious or otherwise, is instructive since it belies a historical paradox: why is it that in an age when missionaries were given free rein to choose any proselytizing method did de Nobili pick, and stick to one which categorically failed, while in a time when proselytizing activities were more policed by the colonial government, Caldwell succeeded? Both missionaries focused on the “Tamil Country,” the imagined Tamil heartland which stretches between centers like Madurai, Thirunelveli, and Tiruchirapalli (among numerous others), but their similarities end there.

De Nobili seemed to implicitly believe that religion belonged to the sphere of culture and had little to do with social politics or economics, while Caldwell, was forced to act differently. Effectively, these two missionaries represent two sides of a feature of colonial history, which could be termed as ‘theo-colonial encounters’, i.e. that part of the colonial experience based on religious interaction. They both played the missionary-anthropologist, to varying degrees; living with, working alongside, and producing knowledge about the people they attempted to convert. This, of course, is not an innocent act by any measure, as Rupa Viswanath has demonstrated in her seminal work The Pariah Problem. Proselytism was not a simple act of trying to understand the native to construct the best method to convert them; it was also a matter of these native groups negotiating certain socio-political and economic structures in order to derive certain benefits from the missionary encounter. In effect, a complex epistemological game is made out of the relatively simple question: “What will it take to get you to pray to my god?”

Southern section of British India, from the The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The temptation here is to invert the paradigm and understand missionaries as unwitting participants in local power dynamics. However, this idea is no less problematic than its foil. Both Caldwell and de Nobili came to South India with a certain amount of baggage. The former was a member of the London Missionary Society who had been denied a place at Oxford due to his Irish ancestry, while the latter was an Italian noble, and nephew to a cardinal—facts which very likely mapped on to the almost opposing styles of missionary work which the two utilized.

Precious little is known about De Nobili’s life before arriving in India in 1608; thus, even his purpose in coming to South India remains unclear. He was, as mentioned earlier, a well-placed nobleman with a sufficient number of connections not only in the Catholic Church, but also among the Italian noble families. For such a privileged individual to abandon his homeland and set out to foreign shores just to juggle alien customs and religions would have been difficult to say the least. Notwithstanding the Portuguese settlements he would have encountered, de Nobili’s first impulse seems to have been to construct a mini-Italy in his new home.

From this point, the records become much clearer: de Nobili tried and, by all accounts, failed, to produce as many converts as he would have liked, with most of those who did convert coming from the lower castes. Some commentators, like Manu Pillai have argued that it was only after this initial failure (in de Nobili’s mind) that he learnt about the caste barriers that existed in the region, impelling him towards reimagining himself within the theo-aristocracy of the Tamil Brahmins, adopting their manners and a good degree of their customs (especially ones that reinforce hierarchical divides). It is not surprising, then, that historians and scholars over the centuries from Francis Ellis to Arun Shourie have given him various appellations to unify the two facets of his identity as a European and one trying to integrate into the upper echelon of South Asian religious hierarchy; names like the “White Brahmin” or the “Roman Brahmin”. In effect, de Nobili’s approach to conversion was a socio-cultural push to re-create a certain form of Italiana within the hierarchical systems of South India which placed the priestly Brahmanical caste (and the Brahmanized de Nobili) at the top.

Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While this did work for a time, and indeed many Catholic communities in South India quite proudly trace their ancestry to the Brahmins of yore, de Nobili ultimately had no theological or intellectual descendants. His peculiar methods, which included dressing in sanyasi style orange garb and often speaking of the Bible as a lost “Fifth Veda,” earned him the ire of the Jesuit establishment in South India. The turmoil that ensued put him in conflict with the Archbishop of Goa, and was only resolved by the intervention of Pope Gregory XV, who effectively ended his methods of proselytizing. One could further argue that his own brahmanized converts found no real benefit in putting their own lives or good standing with the Portuguese at risk by trying to defend the increasingly unfavorable Roman Brahmin. When push came to shove, both his high and low caste followers found no good reason to follow him. In 1656, he died in Mylapore as nothing more than a fascinating footnote in the history of Catholicism in South Asia.

In Marina Beach, a few kilometers away from de Nobili’s final resting place, a proud statue stands as a gift from the Church of South India to the Government of Tamil Nadu — a memorial to Robert Caldwell, who is sometimes thought of as a founding father of that Church. At first glance, one might wager that if a well-connected and culturally sophisticated missionary like de Nobili could not manage to lay a sound foundation for Christianity in South India, another outsider like Caldwell would be even less likely. By the time he arrived in South India, the British Raj was quickly moving towards the orientalist mode of engagement according to which the Indian population ought to be left to practice their religions without interference from missionaries, making his Christianizing mission that much harder. Caldwell’s early successes in conversion were comparable to de Nobili’s, since both of them relied heavily on conversion from one particular caste, and they both experienced some big setbacks in their work — de Nobili running up against the Jesuit establishment, and Caldwell having to come to terms with the orientalist stance of the British Government, especially post-1857.

Robert Caldwell Statue at Marina Beach, 2013. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, the Victorian world of utility and industrial efficiency had created a man who was a near dichotomic opposite to de Nobili in terms of approach. Where the Roman Brahmin attempted to insert himself into a cultural milieu and adapt it to his own interests, plain Caldwell was content to leave cultural norms alone and focus on practical questions like living conditions and work ethic. In 1844, Caldwell arrived in Madras and was assigned the Tinnevelly district (modern day Thirunelveli). He was quick to take note of the people’s “pleasant” mannerisms, but most impressed by their hard lifestyle which was a prophylactic to laziness (the “fount of all vices”, as he put it), and their “inclination towards spiritual matters”. His insistence on mapping Christianity onto labor was different from de Nobili’s proto-cultural appropriation-based approach to conversion, as can be seen in the opening quote, given that toddy-tapping from palmyra trees was the major profession of the caste he worked with, the Shanars.

I would suggest that the answer to the conundrum in the opening section of this piece, that Caldwell’s mission succeeded in producing a lasting intellectual and social impact while de Nobili’s did not, lies in their modus operandi. While de Nobili attempted to create a cultural dialectic between the Brahmins and the Catholics, effectively relegating religion to the realm of culture, Caldwell subverted such classification altogether and produced a socially and economically grounded religion. It also appears probable that his own experiences of identity-based discrimination would have led him to have a much more sympathetic view of the Shanars, who were themselves a marginalized group at the time. He certainly favored a business-like demeanor in his approach to his work, following in the Victorian way. In his works, he constantly praised the work ethic of the Shanars and implicitly made an economic argument in their favor, aiming to persuade the British government to stop the traditional discrimination against this caste. This extra layer of economic advocacy from Caldwell takes the place of cultural synthesis in de Nobili’s work. Vishwanath’s argument that caste groups picked and chose what they took from their missionaries as much as their missionaries tried to turn them into ideal objects for conversion rings true. As Robert Hardgrave points out, it was in the Shanar’s (now rechristened ‘Nadars’) best economic interest to do so convert.

Thus, Caldwell’s success was not simply an exercise in colonial proselytism. Rather, it represents an idea that only recently received serious academic consideration—that Christianity in South Asia was as much a matter of politico-economic negotiation as a social, cultural, or spiritual change. In Caldwell’s case, conversion constituted a unique form of socio-economic negotiation wherein the simple paradigm of “colonizer vs. colonized” was problematized and, to a certain degree, inverted: a theo-colonial encounter where salvation was a good bargain.

David Martin graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil in Modern South Asian Studies and is currently an independent researcher and lecturer at Christ University, Bangalore. His interests lie in intellectual and global history, and the intersection of religion, politics, and economics.

Featured Image: Illustration from Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, QUARTERLY PAPER, No. LVIII.–April, 1851. Courtesy of Project Canterbury.

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