Missionary, Teacher and Writer
Mildred Eleanor Gibbs was educated at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Church High School and later Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University where she gained a First in the School of Modern History. She served as a missionary to India for over thirty years between 1932 and 1962 and witnessed first-hand the end of the British Raj. In 1972 she published her fascinating ‘History of the Anglican Church in India’. With access to records and archives never previously seen she brought together a great deal of interesting and valuable material to tell the very complex story of Anglican Christianity in India.
The very idea of the British Raj—the British rule over India—seems inexplicable today. Indian written history stretches back almost 4,000 years and in 1850 had a population of at least 200 million. Britain, on the other hand, had no indigenous written language until the 9th century, almost 3,000 years after India, and its population was about 21 million in 1850.
After the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope on Africa’s southern tip in 1488, opening sea lanes to the Far East by piracy on ancient trade lines in the Indian Ocean, the European powers strove to acquire Asian trading posts of their own. On 31st December 1600 The East India Company received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth. The company was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, initially with the Moghuls of India and the East Indies, and later with Qing China. The East India Trading Company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium.
During its first century of operation, the focus of the company was trade, not the building of an empire in India. The company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century and by 1757 the British East India company and its large private army (twice the size of the British Army) established Company rule in India.
Many British Christians believed that the conquests in India had a providential purpose, and that imperial Britain had been called by God to Christianize India through an alliance of Church and empire and in 1813 the first missionaries arrived in India. Their evangalising efforts as well as the rapid cultural changes imposed by the British led to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, resulting in widespread devastation in India. The East India Company was condemned for permitting the events to occur and in 1858 rule of the East India Company was transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria who was proclaimed Empress of India. Victoria promised that the British government would work to ‘better’ its Indian subjects and Christian missionaries were ideally placed to help deliver this promise.
Due to the perceived dangers of an insanitary climate and unpredictable ‘natives,’ the mission enterprise was at first a male-dominated project. By the mid-century, however, male missionaries were realising their attempts to propagate the Gospel were hampered by their inability to appeal to Indian women. Female colleagues were required, particularly as they could go ‘beyond the veil’ and gain access to the zenana quarters of Muslim and high-caste Hindu households. At first, British women entered the mission field as wives, but single women’s recruitment increased with advances in female education and their increased employment in roles such as nursing and teaching. By 1900 62% of the missionary workforce was female.
The death of nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers in the First World War led to a ‘Mutilated Society’ in Britain, where, according to the 1921 Census, there were one and three-quarter million ‘Surplus Women’. These women posed a moral and economic problem and there were many unmarried women who felt themselves ‘burdensome to their fathers or brothers’ for whom becoming a missionary offered a respectable solution.
Mildred Eleanor Gibb served at St. John’s College, Agra, for over thirty years. She arrived in 1932 and her time there coincided with a period of dramatic political change. The First World War increased India’s presence on the world stage and strengthened rising Indian nationalism. Missionaries found themselves traversing the gap between the ruling race and its awakening subjects. Mildred Gibb occupied a unique position during this period of profound political change and her book contributes to multiple overlapping histiographies, not only to the history of Church and mission, but also to that of gender, the British Empire, Indian nationalism and decolonisation.
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