‘Local Agency and Missionary Work:
Situating George Matthan and his engagement with
modernity in 19th century Travancore’
Dr. John Thomas,
Indian Institute of Technology,
Generally, historical accounts on missionary interactions with local societies have tended to understand missionaries as a homogenous group united in thought and action. This was how missionaries often wanted to portray themselves and this is how posterity has come to understand them. However, recent researches have insisted on complicating this understanding, and have stressed the need to acknowledge the differences among missionaries on the lines of gender, race and nationality, and the extent to which these differences determined the character of missionary engagement with local societies. This revisionist understanding on the one hand has been able to give agency to various local actors and institutions; on the other, it has brought out the thoughts and lives of individual missionaries, and their distinct ways of thinking about and relating to local people and communities. It is in the light of this revised understanding on missionaries and their interventions in state and society that this lecture on the life and thought of a local missionary, George Matthan, becomes significant and meaningful. Born in 1819, George Matthan was brought up in a social and intellectual milieu that was keen to engage with modern ideas and institutions. Attracted to their reformist religious formulations, he joined the CMS missionaries in the early 1840s, though his role within the missionary society was rather constrained on account of him being a ‘native’. Between 1845 and 1870, among other things, Matthan wrote and spoke extensively on questions of religion, philosophy, language, education and medicine; meticulously documented and called for doing away with various social practices such as caste and agrestic slavery. Much of his writings felicitated a dialogue between local culture and modernity, and was informed by a religious understanding that affirmed the potential of a society to reform itself. The lecture will delve into an understanding of the social context that shaped him, an inquiry into his own personal history, a study of his writings and tracing the development of his thought, and finally, the significance of his thought at a time when Travancore state and society were experimenting with modernity. Finally, the lecture will conclude by pointing out how the life of this local missionary compels us to rethink not only some of the given assumptions on missionaries and their work in India, but also narratives tracing the intellectual and social roots of reform in modern Kerala.
Dr. John Thomas is Assistant Professor of History at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. He received his doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and much of his research has been on the role of religion in mediating the formation of cultural and political identities in South Asia. He has primarily worked on the relationship between caste, agrestic slavery and the shifting perspectives of missionaries on labour in 19th century Central Travancore; and the role played by the missionaries, the local church, and the colonial and post-colonial states in promoting and sustaining a particular understanding of Christianity, and how that came to have an impact on the formation and nature of Naga nationalism in India’s Northeast.