Nature and the Godly Empire: Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795-1850

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Nineteenth-century historians have described how science became secular and how scientific theories such as evolution justified colonialism. This book changes this narrative by offering the first account of the relationship between nineteenth-century science and Christianity outside the Western world. At focus are the intrepid missionaries of the London Missionary Society who reverently surveyed the oceans and islands of the Pacific and instructed converts to observe nature in order to interpret God's designs. Sujit Sivasundaram argues that the knowledge that these missionaries practiced functioned as a popular science that was inextricably linked with religious expansion.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Sivasundaram makes a compelling argument for science as a key plank of evangelical ideology and for missionary natural history as an important form of nineteenth-century knowledge: one that cannot be reduced to merely religion, science or colonialism, but which forms an interlocking modality of colonial knowledge that established a highly influential non-elite science."
-Anna Jonston, University of Tasmania, Victorian Studies

"Sivasundaram tellingly illustrates the missionaries' complex discursive engagement with the Pacific and its mediation through intersecting ideas of religion, civilization, and science...Nature and the Godly Empire offers rich insights into missionary discourse and the metaphorical deployment of nature in an extra-Europe context."
-David Arnold, University of Warwick, Journal of Modern History

"This book explores the interconnections between science, evangelical missions, and empire during the first half of the nineteenth century....The book contributes to a growing body of scholarship challenging the notion that secularization constitutes the Big Story of science during the nineteenth century....The book will force historians to question sharp modern distinctions between science and religion, the spiritual and the material, evangelicalism and Enlightenment, colonies and metropis, tradition and modernity, if they want to understand missionary and indigenous cultures..."
—John Stenhouse, University of Otago, The International History Review

" ambitious, ingenious, erudite, and well-written attempt to explain the scientific role of Christian missions featuring the work of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the southeast Pacific." -Neil Gunson, Journal of World History

‘Colonial knowledge has assumed an increasingly important position in scholarship on British empire building in the Pacific. Sujit Sivasundaram's Nature and the Godly Empire is a key contribution to this developing line of enquiry. This richly textured monograph examines the connections between scientific knowledge and practice and the work of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in Polynesia. Sivasundaram convincingly argues that the understandings of the natural world that missionaries brought to the Pacific were central to the ideology of the mission." -The Historical Journal

‘Nature and Godly Empire is a very interesting study of one of the key motors of Victorian culture and society, and its best sections sparkle with original analysis. It is precise and informative – the section about the LMS museum in London and the society's collecting culture is terrific – and it makes an important contribution to scholarship in the field." -Victorian Studies

‘Sivasundaram's book is a mine of new or off-the-beaten track information... It would appear to be essential reading for the historian of Christian expansion...for the missiologist reflecting on the cross-cultural communication of the Gospel; and to be sure, for any student of British Christianity in the early nineteenth century." -Journal of Ecclesiastical History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Sujit Sivasundaram is Research Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521848369 - Nature and the Godly Empire - Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795-1850 - by Sujit Sivasundaram


Almost half a century had passed since the violent death of Captain James Cook, when Revd William Ellis of the London Missionary Society sat in a house on the island of Oahu in Hawaii with several local chiefs, a folio edition of Cook's Voyages spread before him. While poring over the image of the navigator's demise together with the chiefs, Ellis observed that they were 'greatly affected' by what they saw. 'More than once when conversing with us on the length of time the missionaries had been in the Society Islands, they have said, "Why did you not come sooner? Was it because we killed Captain Cook?"'1 Ellis intended to convey how times had changed: the Hawaiians had converted and adopted the civilised manners of the British. Their absorbed interest in Cook's Voyages supplied evidence of how they could read and write. By describing the Hawaiians' remembrance of Cook, Ellis also testified to how their emotions had been tamed. He added that a missionary station had been built near the village where Cook had been killed. The cave where Cook's remains were deposited for a while was said to be of 'volcanic formation' and 'one of those subterranean tunnels so numerous on the island, by which the volcanoes in the interior sometimes discharge their contents upon the shore ... The roof and sides within are of obsidian or hard vitreous lava.'2 Redeeming Cook's memory involved the rearrangement of the landmarks of the bay of the murder, the conversion of the islanders, and the entry of the site and its people into Western knowledge.

The evangelical missionaries who oversaw a dramatic change in the culture of the South Pacific drew the first idea for their campaign from reading Cook's journals. In London, the published narratives of travel were received in a climate of acclaim and controversy. After the journal of the first voyage was published, not a day passed without letters appearing in the press about its contents. Polite readers blushed as they read of the sexual exploits of their countrymen; while a 'lax magazine culled from the Voyages all the warmest passages to make a new art of love'.3 Cook's achievements were fairly summarised by an anonymous seaman who wrote to the Public Advertiser that it was a very 'edifying and entertaining Account of the most extraordinary Voyages ever attempted'. In its pages he had found 'new Features of human Nature'.4 Cook's description of these far-removed human beings prompted the thought of mission. Among the unlikely readers of Cook's explorations was Revd Thomas Haweis, an Anglican minister with Methodist sympathies. So taken was the cleric by those he described as 'dusky islanders, so favoured by nature' that a mission to the region became the cherished purpose of his heart.5 When the London Missionary Society was formed, Haweis singlehandedly persuaded its patrons to choose the South Pacific as the first location for missionary labour.6 Cook's legacy passed therefore into the hands of evangelical missionaries, who subscribed to a form of moderate Calvinism, and who prayed fervently for the moral foundations of the South Pacific to be transformed.

At first the genres of exploration characterised by scientific explorers and evangelical missionaries seem quite distant from each other. Cook's voyages may be cast as romantic, while evangelical mission is now associated with a rational theology and an ideology of improvement.7 Yet the observation, collection and signification of nature served as an important bridge between the two. Cook set the precedent for an empire of science, and the missionaries became active practitioners of this new knowledge.8 Cook's ships were fitted with the best scientific instruments and on board his vessels were draughtsmen who invented a new genre of scientific vision and painting. One of Cook's crew on his first voyage wrote to Carl Linnaeus, the celebrated natural historian: 'they have all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing, they have even a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom at a great depth, where it is clear'.9 All the instruments, the natural historians and artists came under the direction of Joseph Banks, who upon returning to London became the central figure in a network of field collectors and scientific correspondents. Banks became President of the Royal Society and a guiding force of the London Missionary Society.10 He advised Haweis on how to conduct the South Pacific mission.11

The categories of science and religion occupy a central place in our world. The present work is a concerted attempt to examine the emergence of science and religion and their interdependence outside the West. In doing this it attempts to stretch the burgeoning historiography of science and religion outside its traditional focus on Europe and America.12 It is my claim that the missionaries who followed in the wake of Cook saw themselves as practitioners of science, while their knowledge was avidly consumed by a religious populace. Today evangelical mission is still justified on the grounds of the introduction of science, the spread of literacy and the extension of Western medicine. By historicising the conduct of global evangelism, it is possible to show its peculiar relations to knowledge and empire, and its moments of strength and weakness. The missionaries who travelled to the South Pacific operated on the premise of a trans-oceanic network of exchange. Commodities such as arrowroot were grown in the islands and sent overseas, even as clothes, livestock and printing presses were imported into the Pacific. The missionaries believed that as the whole world was brought together, civilisation and Christianity would prosper and the millennial return of Christ would be hastened. Universal visions of science's powers to solve the world's problems might be traced back to science's theological foundations in the colonial period. The story revealed here shows that the quest for an improved world linked by knowledge and commerce has an evangelical ancestry.

Missionaries' enthusiasm for science and scientific methods should be placed in the context of the Enlightenment. The notion that evangelicalism was shaped by the Enlightenment runs contrary to the traditional historiography. Yet, following a recent volume of essays edited by Brian Stanley, a case may be made for how the missionary movement was remoulded in the light of new philosophies in the eighteenth century.13 The theological study of nature, for instance, attracted unprecedented interest at this time. In addition to gentlemen of science, clergymen and even the working classes could summon the confidence to theorise on nature in a spiritual vein.14 Recent work by Bernard Lightman has shown that evangelical meditations on nature continued to be popular until nearly the end of the nineteenth century.15 Re-evaluations of the metanarrative of how Darwinism disentangled science from religion are therefore needed. Instead of proposing a clean account of how science became secular in the nineteenth century, historians are emphasising the diversity of contexts in which the relations of knowledge and belief were forged. Learned scientific societies were distinct from popular periodicals, schools and lending libraries or the pulpit, as the work of William Astore, Aileen Fyfe and Jonathan Topham has shown. In each of these contexts the history of science and religion could take a distinct trajectory.16 The missionary settlements of the Pacific provide another venue for locating the tense cohabitation of these intellectual traditions.

The missionaries' science and religion could come together at a number of different levels. Science provided a natural philosophy that complemented evangelical theology at an ideological level: missionaries believed that their account of God and the creation was more rational than that possessed by islanders. As practitioners of science they also presented themselves as more civilised than their charges in the manner in which they related to the material world. In addition to this, the study of nature provided a pool of similes and metaphors that pervaded missionary texts. More particularly, the cyclical processes of nature could provide an analogy for the progress of the spiritual life from conversion to death. There was thus a discursive unity between the representations of science and religion. Institutional links with figures such as Banks, and the transfer of accounts of nature back to the metropolis, allowed the later nineteenth century's professional science to be built upon the edifice of missionary knowledge. In all of these ways - ideological, discursive and empirical - missionaries' views of nature could operate quite distinctly from the emerging genre of professional and elite science. The intimacy of these links between science and religion make it anachronistic to clinically separate the two categories. The passing assumption, made by the prominent historians John Hedley Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, that views of nature were shared between missionaries and local peoples needs modification.17

To understand missionary views of nature, it is necessary to leave behind us a modern understanding of scientific knowledge. It was only by the later nineteenth century that the categories of natural history and natural philosophy gave way to specialist disciplines.18 By this time, the professionalisation of science led to the exclusion of amateurs from contributing to it. If modern science was forged to take this form at this historical juncture, it is reasonable to assume that there were many local contestants to this emergent knowledge in the earlier century.19 Expert and amateur science, secular and religious science, elite and popular science, took on contesting existences amongst distinct practitioners. Each of these sciences utilised different forms of material production, while occupying separate spaces of activity. Missionary natural history was one such contestant; it sought to encompass the whole of life within its symbols and theories. Since scripture provided the ultimate word on how evangelicals should govern their lives, missionary science gave language and interpretation a central place. In adopting a distinctive style and starting from a firm belief in its reliability, missionaries hoped to provide a Christian alternative to the proliferation of accounts of exotic nature.

Amongst evangelicals, Pacific islanders were thought to be superstitious cannibals who worshipped nature, and who could not respect the body as the site of the soul. Nature had been benevolent to them; yet they had chosen to worship the created without recognising the Creator. Driven by this characterisation, missionaries hoped to point Pacific islanders to an alternative theology of nature, and away from what was said to be an irrational attitude to the environment. They instructed Pacific islanders to study nature, imitate the European missionaries, convert to rational religion, cultivate the spirit, and become missionaries to other islands. Evangelicals wanted nature to embody theology without drawing adoration. On one occasion, Revd John Williams, who became the foremost missionary to the South Pacific, taught Samoans to see their former god, the sea-eel, as the Serpent.20 Williams was ecstatic to witness a local chief spear and eat an eel in the presence of all his people, with the statement, 'I have become a lotu or Christian.'21 It was the Serpent that had tempted Adam and Eve, and by eating the eel the Samoan demonstrated his rejection of sin and the devil. Speaking of the eel as the Serpent rather than god and eating it could signify conversion, literally and metaphorically.

Ideally, this work would benefit from a study of how islanders responded to these instructions. Despite the constraints imposed by the sources, it is possible to see how local factors always modulated the spread of missionary science, subverting the simple diffusion of knowledge from Britain to the Pacific. For instance, chapter 2 demonstrates how the practices of writing, reading and preaching about nature were resisted and reinvented by islanders. Chapter 6 suggests that when evangelicals sought to distinguish stealing from trade, and to put into force a defined view of exchange with respect to natural commodities, Pacific islanders set up a heretical sect that took a different view of material culture. Elsewhere in this work too, attention will be paid to the fragility of missionary practice. In the process of cultural contact, knowledge about how to relate to nature was changed and reinterpreted through dialogue. The tradition of contemplating nature that predated the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific had an impact on missionary science. Upon evangelisation, local peoples came to an altered view of their environment, which was a mixture of previous customs and evangelical belief. The manner in which colonisers and colonised exchanged scientific ideas is well documented in the historiography of other regions. Christopher Bayly and Fa-ti Fan's work provide excellent examples.22 This argument has recently been stretched further: it is said to be unhelpful to distinguish indigenous traditions from Western knowledge. Rather, according to Eugene Irschick, coloniser and colonised exchanged views about nature in the same epistemic field.23

In studying the place of science in missionary practice, it is possible to intervene in the thriving historiography of science, nature and cultural contact. This body of scholarship has until recently been heavily influenced by the developmental models proposed over the past few decades.24 According to Roy Macleod, for instance, a chronology might be drafted of how science was transported from Europe on exploratory voyages, such as Cook's travels, until it was successfully institutionalised in the colonies. Non-European science was first controlled from the metropolis, until there was leverage for greater local independence, which eventually gave way to co-operation between the centre and the periphery. Many have followed Macleod's lead by focusing on expeditions and the formation of disciplines, careers and formal institutions, in order to come to an idea of science's relations with empire.25 Instead of interpreting science as a discrete body of ideas that could justify colonial expansion and strengthen governance, I hope to pay serious attention to the symbolic and material functions of natural knowledge. For my purposes, science and missionary practice were so closely entangled that it is difficult to speak about the relations between science and empire. Missionary science does not fit a model of diffusion and institutionalisation: it existed in tension with more elite knowledges and it drew on local traditions. It was a popular and religious view of nature, a way of seeing as much as an exercise in theoretical speculation.26

Richard Drayton's suggestion, that Christian ideologies of man's place in nature lay at the taproot of imperial expansion, provides a valuable starting point for this work.27 Drayton uses botany and Kew Gardens as vehicles to explore how Britons attempted to find nature's divine laws and to apply those principles in ordering human social arrangements. For Drayton, Christian theology appears as a primal cause in scientific imperialism. In my work the focus is enlarged. Adamic responsibilities to subdue the earth also had their place in the ideology of Christian missions. Furthermore, in bringing agronomy, mapping and the display of nature together with botany, it is possible to subscribe to a wider notion of nature's improvement. My suggestion is that the Christian rhetoric, to which Drayton pays heed, did not become a secular utopia as the century progressed. Christian ideologies of nature continued to have a crucial place in the public sphere even after they had ceased to hold credibility in the circles that Drayton discusses.

I am heavily indebted to the work of Niel Gunson, who has provided a detailed history of the South Pacific mission in its social context. Because the current work is primarily concerned with the status of natural knowledge, it is possible to rely on Gunson for a wider account of the character of the evangelists sent to the Pacific, and the challenges that awaited them there.28 Gunson has also published an article on the scientific contributions of these missionaries, but has focused specifically on their role as guides and advisers to visiting naturalists, and their stance with respect to Darwinism.29 I take a different route in discussing how missionaries saw their science as more credible than that of the secular visitors. In addition to Gunson, Rod Edmond, Vanessa Smith and Nicholas Thomas provide useful moorings for a study of the material culture of the South Pacific mission.30 These scholars have pioneered the discussion of how the production, consumption and display of artefacts allowed meanings to be changed and exchanged in the context of the London Missionary Society's operations in the islands. Their methods are useful in making sense of missionary science as material culture.31

Through reading, writing, observing and collecting, the missionaries generated artefacts which made faith take form. The material culture of the missionary movement provides useful insights that help explicate how evangelicals ticked. A history that focuses on the production and reception of such objects can clarify the reasons for the popularity and pervasiveness of evangelicalism. There is much value in attending to the theological debates that framed this movement, yet it is the burden of this work to identify how missionaries regulated their time and lives in relation to the world around them.32 Throughout this work a practical definition of evangelicalism will therefore be adopted, which takes the lived experience of believers more seriously. In this mode of analysis a missionary becomes an individual who meditated on nature, educated children, translated scripture and preached on the Sabbath. Such practices defined his sense of self and the community to which he belonged. The intellectual life of British expansion has often been restricted to studies of abstract theories and elite debate. But the knowledge that missionaries cultivated can also be understood if belief is seen as embodied activity.33

The way in which missionaries engaged with nature was central to the articulation of identity, and the first part of this book is concerned primarily with such private practices. Chapter 1 sets the context of the London Missionary Society's emergence, considers its attitude to learning, and the composition of its membership. The manner in which colonialism is used as a category in relation to missions will be explained here. Chapter 2 then considers how nature was implicated in the making of evangelicals, by considering how scientific methods were employed in education. Chapters 3 and 4 widen the discussion by suggesting how, upon conversion, meditations on flowers, oceans and the seed were vital in coming to terms with the passage of the spiritual life. As these chapters suggest, the practices of reading, writing, preaching and meditating on nature allowed missionaries far away from home to define their identity. This private and theological language of nature was also adopted by converts. But the process of replication was not simple; it involved creative appropriation and defined resistance. A close reading of objects exemplifies these claims. Chapter 2 analyses the depiction of a sloth and a beaver in order to show how natural historical creatures fitted into a typology of progress in education. A portrait of a Pacific islander called Temoteitei who was brought to London for conversion and treated like an animal is discussed in chapter 3. By studying an engraving of the demise of John Williams at the hands of alleged cannibals, chapter 4 suggests how a natural history of the environment was linked with notions of demise. The naturalisation of ideas of conversion, civilisation and death indicate how the religious self was linked with nature. Paying heed to the religious and the natural is vital in bringing to light forms of self-definition that operated side by side with race, gender and class.

© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

1. The light of the sun: stimulus for mission; 2. The growth of the mind: nature and mission education; 3. The seed of the soul: conversion illustrated by nature; 4. The body that will bloom: death and its theology of nature; 5. The plants of the land: building settlements of civilisation; 6. The idol of weeds: the exchange and display of nature.

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