Carol Percy

Fixing English in British India: Baptist Missionary Perspectives in Bengal to 1835

  • Abstract

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Keywords: Missionary Linguistics; Indian English; Colonial Education.

English was officially supported as a medium of higher education in British India after the Macaulay Minute of 1835. Advising the Governor-General, Macaulay sought to resolve long-term conflicts about the appropriate language(s) for administration and education and about the obligations of British civil and religious institutions in providing education at all. This paper's main aim is to show the sometimes slow process of linguistic imperialism by telling a rich history of one of these institutions. The Baptist Missionary Society's representatives in Bengal remind us that English was not the only linguistic instrument of cultural imperialism: indeed, the three missionaries from working-class backgrounds known as the Serampore Trio are remembered for establishing standards and status of the local vernaculars eventually established in elementary education. By contextualising their concerns, I also address questions about the relation between linguistic medium and cultural message. While the Trio felt that European learning (Christian specifically) would persuade an audience in any language, Macaulay felt that in Bengal only "our own language" could mediate the "intellectual wealth" of Western "nations". Through the paper I also observe how contemporary comments about good (or poor) English are also discussions about Britishness and about control. Ambitious Indians' good English did not ensure their acculturation, despite the fact that typical curricula combined advanced English with Christian scripture and honest commerce. And the English available to Indians was not necessarily good, although the lifelong learning of the low-born missionaries exemplifies the transformative potential of education for all individuals.

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