«“My forefathers were the most ferocious headhunters among the Naga tribes. We were living in the Stone Age. What could we do? We were like animals. ...»
MISSIONARIES, COLONIALISM AND THE WRITING OF HISTORY
AMONG THE NAGAS
“My forefathers were the most ferocious headhunters among the Naga tribes. We were
living in the Stone Age. What could we do? We were like animals. Tit for tat. We didn't
know any other way of doing things. Christianity taught us tolerance. As God said,
‘Revenge is mine.’ Had missionaries not come, maybe we would still be living like animals.”
- A 46 year old man from the Sumi Naga tribe 1 “It is a process in which the “savages” of colonialism are ushered, by earnest Protestant evangelists, into the revelation of their own misery, are promised salvation through self- discovery and civilization, and are drawn into a conversation with the culture of modern capitalism – only to find themselves enmeshed, willingly or not, in its order of signs and values, interests and passions, wants and needs.”
- Jean and John Comaroff 2 Among the nationalities and tribes who have taken to Christianity from late 19th century onwards, especially under the auspices of Evangelical missionaries, it is not strange or unusual to come across the kind of sentiment expressed by the 46 year old man from the Sumi Naga tribe quoted above. When asked about their history, or how they came to be who they are, it is common to hear a narration of history that moves from the ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’ and headhunting pre-missionary past to a more ‘civilized’, ‘tolerant’ and soul hunting age that was inaugurated by the ‘benevolent’ missionaries. In short, a historical narrative which has a teleology that moves from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, from ‘sin’ to ‘redemption’, from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization’, from ‘head hunters’ to ‘soul hunters’ and from ‘ignorance’ to ‘enlightenment’. This understanding of history, which has been naturalized over the years, is shared by most people, right from the man on the street to the intellectual in the university to those fighting political battles. It is the aim of this paper to critically examine and explain the origins and the making of such an understanding of history among one nationality group in the northeast, the Nagas, and the problems it poses towards a more objective and clearer understanding of the nature of colonization among them.
Mr. John Thomas is a Ph. D Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi Manpreet Singh, ‘The Soul Hunters of Central Asia’, 1 http://www.nagalim.us/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=50, as viewed on 19 November, 2007.
2 Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Vol. 1, Chicago and London, 1991a, p.xii.
Prior to the coming of missionaries, like many other tribal formations, Nagas had their own ways of recording, narrating and passing on their history. This was largely done through stories, songs and tales. According to J. P. Mills, every village had a body of traditions which narrated the origin of clans, the doings of their ancestors and the feasts some of their prominent ancestors hosted. While some of these stories were of “purely local interest”, some were common to the tribe as a whole. 3 J. H. Hutton, in his work on the Angami Nagas, also refers to the importance of stories as carriers of history. According to him, stories were of three kinds. First, there were traditions, which recounted stories of village feuds. Second, there were the legends, which recounted the early history of villages and clans. Finally, there were stories known as ‘contes’, which was not meant to be a recording or a narration of history, but a collection of fables about animals and human beings. These three kinds of story telling may not have maintained a strict separation from each other and could have overlapped. 4 Many of these stories were narrated during festive occasions when the whole village came together. Some others were also narrated during a march or around a camp fire, when questions related to a particular locality or some incident of the day was raised. 5 Some stories, anecdotes and histories may have also been narrated and passed on during the course of ordinary conversations, as Stuart Blackburn shows in the case of the Apatanis. 6 The presence of this lively tradition of recording, narrating and passing on history, dispels on the one hand the assumption that tribal societies existed in a static, timeless void, and on the other hand the evangelical understanding that “the message of Gospel was the beginning of all things in Naga history.” 7 To the contrary, it points towards a society that had a tremendous sense of history, a society that was conscious of its past and was able to live the present in constant interaction with that past.
However, from the beginning of 20th century onwards, this historical tradition came to be gradually undermined. In 1926, a much concerned J. P. Mills, a colonial anthropologist and
the Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills, while writing about the Ao Nagas indicated:
“Another generation and hardly a memory will remain of the stories and songs which the Aos have handed down from father to son for untold ages… the past is being allowed to die.” 8 Mills held the missionaries and their activities among the Nagas responsible for this
state of affairs. With much frustration he wrote:
J. P. Mills (1973), p. 307.
3 J. H. Hutton, The Angami Nagas, 1969 (Originally published in 1921), p. 253.
4 5 Ibid, p. 253.
6 Stuart Blackburn, ‘Colonial Contact in the ‘Hidden’ Land: Oral history among the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh’, http://tribaltransitions.soas.ac.uk/publications/sblackburn1.pdf, as seen on November 27, 2007.
7 Visier Sanyu, Nagas in History, Nagas’90, Souvenir, Kohima, 1990, p. 9.
8 J. P. Mills (1973), p. 307.
Despite his silence over the fact that it was his own predecessors who felt the need for and invited missionary work in the Naga Hills so that it would provide security for their own economic and political pursuits in the region, it needs to be granted that there was much substance in the apprehensions that Mills and other colonial anthropologists of his time had over the impact of missionary work on the recording, narrating and passing on of history among the Nagas. To understand why and how this might be the case, it is necessary to turn our attention towards the character of American Baptist missionary project. It will be seen in the course of this paper that from the beginning, making of a new ‘civilized’ and ‘enlightened’ being out of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ was one of the central thrusts of the American Baptist missionary project and practice. It is in this construction of a new self that a new history comes to be written.
Towards the late 18th century, there began among the educated elite of New England in the United States a religious revival, popularly known as the ‘Second Great Awakening’. It should be remembered that in the 17th century, New England was the region where Puritans 10 escaping religious persecution in Europe came and settled in the New World.
As they settled in this new region, they felt it was their calling to begin a process of building a church and society that would be based on Puritanical values. 11 It was from New England that puritanical and later, evangelical ideas took root and spread to other parts of the United States.
By the beginning of 19th century, the revival, which had begun in New England, spread among the farming and small trading communities in the frontier regions. This religious revival, recorded as an important event in the annals of American Evangelical movement, was marked on the one hand by periodic ‘camp meetings’ and ‘revivals’ that concentrated on nurturing earnestness in personal Christian devotion and life, on the other hand by Ibid, p. 307.
9 Puritans were those who set themselves apart from the reformed Church of England in the name of 10 maintaining the ‘purity’ of worship and doctrine. It not only stressed the maintenance of ‘purity’ in church doctrines but also the need to follow strict ‘puritanical’ disciplines regarding aspects of one’s social, political and economic life.
11 Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards, ‘Forging an Ideology for American Missions: Josiah Strong and Manifest Destiny’, in Wilbert R. Shenk (ed.), North American Foreign Missions, 1810-1914 – Theology, Theory and Policy, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004, p. 165.
3 establishment of societies for taking out evangelizing missions around the world and organizing campaigns on issues of slavery abolition and temperance. 12 Moreover, the revival popularized and firmly established Evangelical theology as the dominant framework within which Protestant Christians in the New World would conceptualize their Christian faith. Wherein, firstly, Bible was understood as an authoritative and dogmatic text which could not be questioned and which required complete and unconditional obedience to. Secondly, eternal salvation was understood to be possible only through regeneration, by being ‘born again’, which involved personal trust in Jesus and his atoning work. Thirdly, it was not only enough that one be ‘born again’ into committing one’s personal trust in Jesus but he or she also had to adopt a transformed moral conduct, develop personal devotion such as daily Bible reading and prayer, and have a zeal for evangelism and missions. 13 It is important to note that the instilling and spread of Puritanical and Evangelical ideas and values accompanied a certain political project in the United States. When the emigrants from Europe came and settled in the New World, they saw themselves as the ‘chosen’ people of God who have been ‘elected’ to demonstrate purity of life in church and society to England and the world. Moreover, following the revolutionary war and independence, it was also felt that they were to become the instruments of God in accomplishing a millennial kingdom on earth, which would not only involve the preaching of the gospel to the entire humankind but also “the reorganization of ‘human society in accordance with the law of God’.” 14 This task would be undertaken by religious voluntary societies, various home and foreign missionary societies such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) from which later the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (ABFMS) emerges.
The American Evangelical impulse for the reorganization of “human society in accordance with the law of God” was best exemplified in the missions they carried out among the American Indians. Henry Warner Bowden indicates that conversion of the American Indians to Christianity “meant not only their accepting a new worldview replete with referential symbols and an otherworldly orientation; it also involved adopting a new ethos with unfamiliar economic routines, work ethic, family structure, the English language and untested conception of personal fulfillment.” 15 In other words, among the American Indians, the project of Christianizing was so intertwined with the project of ‘civilizing’ them into the ways of the white man. This caused serious cultural disorientation among Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to Present Day, Part II, Peabody, Massachusetts, 12 2004, p. 245.
13 George M. Marsden, ‘Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism’, Mircea Eliade (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 5, New York, 1987, p. 190.
14 Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards (2004), p. 167.
15 Henry Warner Bowden, ‘An Overview of Cultural Factors in the American Protestant Missionary Enterprise’, in R. Pierce Beaver (ed.), American Missions in Bicentennial Perspective, South Pasdena, California, 1977, p. 48.
In the light of the westward expansion of United States and the acquisition of new territories, and new impulses for evangelization in these newly acquired territories, the first half of 19th century witnessed a growing assertion of American nationalism and the religiously sanctioned idea of ‘manifest destiny’. The latter, according to John O’Sullivan who coined the term, was the destiny of America “to manifest to mankind the excellence
of divine principles”. 17 This would be done in the following manner:
“For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field.” 18 Following the civil war in the latter half of the 19th century, the notion that America “had a providential role to play for the progress of humankind” became much more prevalent. 19 And it was best personified in someone like Josiah Strong, for whom there was “no difficulty in identifying Christianity with American (occasionally British) customs and then championing that amalgam as the one viable culture for anyone wishing to live effectively in the modern world.” 20 The optimism that went with the imperialist advances of America in Central America and the Far East, following its victory over Spain, infused the missionary movement with greater ambitions. 21 This was much reflected in the call made by Evangelical leaders of this period like Dwight L. Moody for “rescuing the perishing from the sinking ship that was the condemned world”, 22 giving a new lease of energy to protestant missionary societies such as the ABFMS, to re-invigorate their mission work among the ‘heathen’ races.
Molded by this Puritanical and Evangelical background, which ascribed providential role to the white missionary in the ‘redemption’ and ‘progress’ of humankind, the American Baptist Missionaries came to work among the Nagas in the mid 19th century and in a more consistent manner in the 1870s. Their work among the Nagas was very much part of their ‘manifest destiny’ to ‘Christianize’ and thereby, ‘civilize’ the ‘savage races’ around the Ibid, p. 48.
16 Quoted in Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards (2004), p. 168.