The Missionary Archive

Material traces for interdisciplinary research


Manual of the South Arcot District. British Library, Flickr collection

 by Hephzibah Israel

I’ve worked with archives associated with Christian missionary movements in South Asia for nearly twenty years. Each presents us with its own set of idiosyncrasies, some better organised than others, a few easier to access and more welcoming of the researcher armed with pencils, laptops and digital cameras or smartphones. I have over the years reflected on the collections, speculating on missing items, annoyed many a time with that careless archivist who hadn’t bothered to preserve a document that I think will have been of great importance to my research. But it is only over the past year or so that I have started writing a critical reflection on the missionary archive after working with a few new collections to pull together information on autobiographical conversion accounts for the research project ‘Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography’.

Missionary archive as a conceptual category

Although I use the term ‘missionary archives’ as if this were a distinct, self-evident category, I should say at the outset that much of the materials associated with mission societies are currently housed alongside various other collections which have little to do with the Christian missionary movement.

I use ‘missionary archive’ as a conceptual category that comprises a motley range of materials: unpublished documents written by missionaries (letters, diaries, reports, translations, photographs etc.); printed materials authored by missionaries; print materials on any topic and not authored by missionaries but published by a mission press. These were initially collected and housed by each mission society during much of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century but eventually handed over to either national or university libraries in Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. (There are a few exceptions: for instance, the Leipzig Mission Society’s Archive is still located, curated and directed by the Leipzig Mission.)

The sheer range and geographical spread of missionary archives globally is impressive.   The collections represent most parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as European attitudes to a variety of social, cultural and political issues at ‘home’ and ‘abroad.’ They reveal the travel of ideas in both directions, key changes in administrative policies, agreements and dissonance with imperial ideologies and colonial governance.

By and large, missionary archives are located in European and American cities as well as in the countries that nineteenth-century Christian missions functioned in. I list archives associated with South Asia, since my research focuses largely on South Asia:

Amongst archives of the Protestant missions working in South Asia alone, there are in the UK

Researchers based in India may not often realise that almost all the archives listed above give free access to catalogue searches, so it is possible to prepare lists of documents available at each repository before getting there. However, several archives also have a further, more detailed paper catalogues, that have not yet been digitised.

A useful centralised online portal for a comprehensive list of missionary archives is available through the Mundus Gateway []. The database is fully searchable and is available free to the general public, and better still, researchers are not required to first register and login before getting access to this database.

In Germany, the Evangelische Lutheran Mission’s archives are located mainly at the Franckesche Stiftungen, Halle and Archive of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society Leipzig, Leipzig. The Franckesche Archives hold a unique collection of Tamil and German palmleaf and paper manuscripts from the early eighteenth century, and with the more recent addition of online catalogues and digital collections, it has become far more accessible than when I first spent three months researching there in 2001. In Switzerland, the Basel Mission Archives have a good collection of photographs and paper manuscripts pertaining to the Deccan regions;  and in the US, archives at the universities of Columbia, Yale, and California have collections from the American Baptist Society, which worked across South Asia.

South Asia

In comparison, mission archives located in South Asia are fewer but often contain rare materials: the archive at United Theological College, Bangalore is a good example of a place with a collection of paper and palm leaf manuscripts in several Indian languages that cannot be found elsewhere. Although not listed clearly on the UTC College library website, the small archive in the basement of the library is a hidden gem that is well worth a visit. The Bible Society of India (BSI) offices in Bangalore held a somewhat haphazard collection of materials relating to Bible translation in most Indian languages until the late 90s/early 2000s but I haven’t visited them since, so can’t vouch for their continued interest in archiving materials. I recall one of the officers gleefully telling me that sacks of letters of protest against the latest Tamil Bible (Tiruvivilium) that had been received by BSI had been destroyed to make room for more worthwhile materials!

I have only named archives with substantial Protestant mission collections so far and this list would be longer by far if I were to include smaller collections located at other institutions. For Catholic archives relating to South Asia, there are archives in Goa, Pondicherry, France, Portugal, and the Vatican Library in Rome but I will not elaborate on these as it is best other scholars who have worked with these specific archives add to this information, perhaps in a separate blog dedicated to these.

My purpose in writing this blog is partly to draw attention to the mission archives spread globally but also to point out that these materials don’t merely offer information specific to research on ‘Indian Christianity’ or Christian missions in South Asia. The collections have potential to contribute to historical research in a range of areas across the humanities—comparative religions, social and cultural history, caste, gender, tribal societies, languages and literatures, translation, South Asian print and book history, photography, modern systems of education, colonial medical history in South Asia, colonial history and imperial policies, architecture, urban planning and many more. And yet, missionary archives are routinely ignored by researchers working in these areas!

Of course, researchers would need to engage critically with the missionary archive as with any other. There will be the unexplained silences, gaps in materials, haphazard recording, ideological biases and constraints, the exciting and the mundane but again this is no different from other kinds of archives. So why ignore these as the exclusive stamping ground of mission historians? There is much to be exploited at missionary archives by researchers not working on Christianity or Christian history. Equally, missionary archives have much to gain from such an opening up of its materials to the scrutiny of scholars interested in historical perspectives from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

Attitudes to language and translation

My own recent interest in the missionary archive focused on attitudes to translation displayed in the missionary archive. Any historian working with archives is well aware of the fragmentary and unreliable nature of collections of past or present objects. The missing pieces frustrate attempts to re-construct stories but also provide clues to the networks that tie the collection of (random?) information to the control of knowledge.

Examining the value placed on translation by missionary archivists and archives allows me to probe one set of mechanisms by which specific forms of knowledge and representation are constructed as “evidence” of past events or experiences despite or through the very act of destroying material evidence of translation.

While some components of translation projects are carefully preserved and interpreted, others are discarded; but importantly, both seemingly contradictory acts work together to control and fix one set of interpretations as valid. Paying attention to translation and engaging it as a tool of critical interpretation is one way to answer Burton’s call (in ‘Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,’ in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History, 2008: 8) to ‘denaturalize’ the production and boundaries of archives and historicize the production of archival collections.

Translation traces

Drawing on Foucault’s critique of ‘the archive’ and his argument for an ‘archaeological’ engagement with archives, Matthias, my co-author and I examine how to treat what we term ‘translation traces’ in the documents we uncovered: bilingual texts, translated extracts, fragments, and evidence of repeated relay translations.

An ‘archaeological’ engagement with the missionary archive raised a set of new questions regarding the relationship between ephemeral religious experiences such as conversion and the material presence of ‘evidence’ of such experiences in archival acts. What role does translation, invisibilized as it is, play in the documentation of lives?

Could we think of the archive as a ‘contact zone’ where languages, texts, and collective memory intersect through translation? While archives of the past inevitably shape our study and understanding of the material presence and function of translation in specific historical periods, we argue that highlighting the role of translation also opens up new ways of conceptualising and working with missionary archives.

The article, ‘Translation Traces in the Archive: Unfixing Documents, Destabilising Evidence,’ is published in a special issue of The Translator (forthcoming, 2020). To read full article, click here.

Hephzibah Israel is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh. Her book, Religious Transactions in Colonial South India: Language, Translation and the Making of Protestant Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) explores the translation history of the Tamil Bible.

She recently led an AHRC-funded collaborative research project under their ‘Translating Cultures’ theme which focused on the role of translation in the movement of religious concepts across languages and the ways in which this impacted autobiographical writing about conversion experiences.

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