“I am black, but my soul is white”: the Christian Neophyte and his Alienation in 19th Century Anti-conversion Anglo-Indian novels

Ayusman Chakraborty, Jadavpur University, India


This article studies how the Christian convert is represented in three nineteenth century Anglo-Indian novels. On the basis of their attitude towards conversion, Anglo-Indian novels can be classified as pro-conversion or anti-conversion. In pro-conversion novels, conversion to Christianity is presented as a smooth transition. Anti-conversion novels, in contrast, portray conversion as a harrowing experience that shatters the mental stability of the convert. Alienation and isolation inevitably follow conversion. The three texts discussed here show how the authors highlight the alienation of the Christian neophyte to discourage proselytization. The alienation of the convert is thus strategically articulated in these texts.

[Keywords: Christianity, Conversion, alienation, Hinduism, Caste, The Missionary, Sydney Owenson, Seeta, Philip Meadows Taylor, The Old Missionary, William Wilson Hunter.]

The issue of conversion became very important in nineteenth century Anglo-Indian literature. This was not an isolated occurrence, unrelated to mainstream English literature. As Gauri Viswanathan shows, conversion became a popular subject of discussion in nineteenth century Britain. The nineteenth century witnessed progressive secularization and liberalization of British society and state. This was not a smooth passage. There was a heated debate on whether to incorporate the religious minorities like the Jews, the Catholics and the Nonconformists into the wider concept of nation. The orthodox groups like the Evangelicals insisted on the conversion of the minorities to Anglican faith before they could be incorporated. At the same time, they also called for the Christianization of the colonies. On the other side, there were those who wished to preserve religious differences. Their goal was to Anglicize the minority groups without tampering with their religious identities – to convert a Jew to a non-Jewish Jew, in the words of Viswanathan. In such an atmosphere of conflicting ideas, novels on conversion acquired added importance. Viswanathan states, “It is no accident that novels about the conversion of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity had wide popular appeal in nineteenth century England, not merely as wishful testimony to the efficacy of missionary ideology but more compellingly as exotic displacements of the pressing and often explosive issue of whether to admit Jews, Catholics, and Nonconformists into the English nation state” (Viswanathan 27).

The Novel, as Viswanathan’s study suggests, became a battleground where the pro-conversion and anti-conversion ideologies confronted each other. Indeed, on the basis of their attitudes towards conversion, novels can be classified as pro-conversion or anti-conversion. In the pro-conversion Anglo-Indian novels, conversion generally becomes, to quote Viswanathan again, “a straightforward, overdetermined spiritual movement to Christianity” (Viswanathan 28). That is, in such novels conversion to Christianity is portrayed as smooth and unproblematic. In contrast, anti-conversion novels problematize conversion. Such novels focus on the alienation of the neophyte to tacitly discourage conversion to Christianity.

This article aims to examine how three anti-conversion Anglo-Indian novels strategically describe the alienation of the Christian neophytes. In such novels a neophyte always appears as a tragic figure. Rejected by the Hindu society, he does not find place among his new co-religionists. His attempts to mingle with the Europeans always meet with rebuff. The anti-conversionist authors do not portray conversion as a joyous rebirth. Rather they portray it as a painful experience involving isolation and separation.

It is necessary to understand at the very outset why some colonial authors were so much against conversion. The stated aims of colonialism were the three ‘Gs’ – God, Gold and Glory – or the three “Cs’ – Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce. However, the conversion of the natives always induced an anxiety in the colonizers. In so far as the neophyte proclaimed the triumph of Christianity, he or she was seen as the “reformed, recognizable Other”, to use a phrase by Bhabha (Bhabha 122). However, much like Bhabha’s ‘mimic man’, the neophyte also acted as a menacing presence. This is because, united to the colonizers by a common religion (Christianity), he/she claimed like Blake’s “little Black Boy” – “And I am black, but O! my soul is white” (Blake 45). This claim challenged the colonial signifying practice by partly obliterating the barrier between the self and the other. The only way colonial authors could render the neophytes innocuous was by presenting them as failed converts. Their attitude towards the neophyte was therefore ambivalent; it oscillated between compassion and contempt. This in turn influenced the way they portrayed the neophyte and his alienation.

A few words on the concept of alienation is necessary here. The word ‘alienation’ has become so much saturated with meanings that it is difficult to arrive at a concrete definition. At best, one can provide only a working definition of the term. For the purpose of this study, we will accept the very basic definition of alienation. As Irving Louis Horowitz points out, “At its source the word ‘alienation’ implies an intense separation first from objects in a world, second from other people, third from ideas about the world held by other people. It might be said that the synonym of alienation is separation, while the precise antonym of the word alienation is integration” (Horowitz 231). Alienation, as Horowitz shows, can have both positive and negative effects – that is, can be “constructive as well as destructive” (Horowitz 233). However, as long as it is imposed from without, it generally has a destructive effect on individuals. It produces only negative feelings–the feelings of “powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement” as recognized by Seeman (Seeman 783).

The ostensible object of colonial authors in portraying the alienation of the Christian neophyte was to condemn the Hindu caste system. In this the pro-conversionist and the anti-conversionist authors were in agreement. It is interesting that the nineteenth century Anglo-Indian writers portrayed mainly Hindu converts in their novels. Despite the fact that the Muslims formed a substantial portion of the Indian population, the novelists rarely portrayed their conversion to Christianity. Now, as polytheists, the Hindus were felt to be more in need of ‘truth’ than the Muslims. After all, the Muslims also worshipped the one true god, while the Hindus were just ‘idolaters’. Islam was certainly an ‘errant faith’; but it was a monotheistic one, sometimes more rigidly monotheistic than Christianity. As T. R. Metcalf argues, “Islam in the end was a religion which commanded respect, even a covert envy, among the British in India” (Metcalf 144). But more importantly, the British were afraid of the Muslims. Unlike the pliant Hindus, the Muslims were ‘zealous’ and ‘fanatical’ in their eyes. The British feared that they had already earned the animosity of the Muslims by ousting them from a position of power. They were not ready to try their patience further. Hence, the British writers put more emphasis on the conversion of the Hindus than the Muslims…Access Full Text of the Article

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