The early story of Christianity in Northeast India

Roderick Wijunamai
In 1840, Reverend Miles Bronson wrote to the Political Agent and Commissioner of Assam Francis Jenkins about the difficulties he was facing in converting Nagas to Christianity, and about a year later, his decision to withdraw from the Naga highlands, then still largely terra incognita to the British. A century after, Christian convictions formed the heart of the emergent struggle for Naga independence. Today, the State of Nagaland is popularly dubbed a ‘Christian State’. Amidst the escalating influence of Hindutva in India, Naga politicians and Pastors remind their electorate to protect their Christian faith, culture and identity at any cost.
The Nocte Naga village of Namsang (in modern day Arunachal Pradesh) where Reverend Bronson set up the first Naga mission station in 1839 was the cradle of Naga Christianity. Strangely, however, the story of Reverend Bronson and his mission field is largely forgotten today, perhaps because it was so short-lived (less than a year) or because it did not yield any converts. Instead it is Reverend Edward Winter Clark and his wife Mary who are often foregrounded. On 22 November, 2013, a statue of Rev. Edward Winter Clark was unveiled in Akhoya village, in Nagaland, casting him as ‘the first missionary to the Naga soil.’ This description, however, is not substantiated by historical fact.
In its initial years, the British East India Company prohibited evangelising amongst the colonies. They feared it could hurt local sentiments and consequently hurt British commerce. Their stance changed with the Charter Act of 1813, which allowed missionary activities, and was enacted in response to pressure from the British public.
In 1792, prior to the Charter Act, the British missionaries William Carey and John Thomas had arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and had begun their ‘groundwork’ while camouflaging themselves as indigo makers. Not permitted to evangelise in public, they set up a base in Serampore, which at the time fell under the Danish flag. They stayed on in Serampore after the new legislation was passed, which formally opened up the Indian mission field.
Tea and Christianity
By the time of the Charter Act, the Assam Valley and the hills surrounding it were still situated outside the Company’s ambit. However, Burmese incursions and the first Indo-Burmese war led the British into the region, which became formally annexed in 1826. Soon, Company officials discovered tea, and the manufacture and trade in it came to define politics and policy-making in the region for a long time to come.
An early key-player in tea cultivation was Charles Alexander Bruce, who became the Superintendent of Tea Culture in Assam. Tellingly, it was also Bruce who insisted on the need for Christian missionaries and offered significant financial donations to that end. His interest in promoting the gospel in the Naga Hills was arguably due to his conviction that conversion would pacify the Nagas, and thus end their regular raids on his plantations, which encroached on their ancestral lands. A similar sentiment was shared by several other Company men, who were also traders with high stakes in the resources and potential revenue of the region.
This interest served the missionary enterprise.
In 1835, spurred on behind the scenes by Bruce, then Political Agent and Commissioner Captain Francis Jenkins wrote to the American Baptist Mission (ABM) Board, requesting for missionaries to be sent to the region. The Board gladly seized the opportunity to expand its mission field. Two ABM missionaries, Nathan Brown and OT Cutter were already stationed in Burma and were now relocated to Assam. The ABM was ambitious and intended to evangelise the highlands between Burma and India, which, they reasoned, would open a gateway to the ultimate target population: China.
Missionaries had visited the region earlier. After the annexation of Assam, on the invitation of the first Political Agent, David Scott, the English Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) missionaries James Rae and Robinson Williams (Jr) were already imparting Christian education in the Garo Hills. And in 1813, a Bengali convert, Krishna Pal, had been sent by Carey from the Serampore base to Sylhet, where he had made some inroads among the upland Khasis. Seven years after the establishment of the Assam mission, in 1836, the English Baptists officially left the mission field in the hands of the ABM, due to financial constraints and stillborn converts.
The missionary struggle
While the above situation unfolded in the hinterlands of the Northeast, Miles Bronson was studying at Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution (now known as Colgate University) in New York. On 17 October 1836, Bronson and his wife, Ruth Montague Lucas, who he had just married, set off from Boston for Calcutta. They were accompanied by another missionary family, Jacob Thomas and Sarah Maria Willsey. Both families arrived safely on the shore of Calcutta six months later, on 11 April 1837. From Calcutta they headed by a smaller boat up the Brahmaputra. During the journey, Bronson fell very ill; he caught jungle fever, and they had to halt the journey midway to Sadiya. In his attempt to bring medical help, Jacob Thomas was killed by the sudden fall of a tree. Thus began the first of many misfortunes that was to befall the Bronsons.
With heavy hearts, and accompanying a bereaved Sarah Maria, the Bronsons arrived at Sadiya on 17 July 1837. The Cutter and Brown families welcomed and comforted them. Eventful years however awaited them, and a later missionary Victor Hugo Sword (1935) wrote:
The following two years were full of incidents… The struggle which these missionaries experienced in order to sustain life was not small, and sickness and death were their ever near companions. They were in constant danger of hostile raids by the Khamtis and Singhpos. Their missionary activities were checked by continuous tribal warfare; and their hopes to enter among the hills tribes were shattered.
One such raid made the missionaries resolve to relocate further west, to Jaipur. From Jaipur, Bronson first looked at the Singphos, but soon found them “to be extremely difficult if not impossible”. His next target became the highland Nagas.
Bronson made his first attempt to come in contact with the Nagas in the year 1838. In his letter dated 5 June 1838, he writes about two Naga youths he was expecting to enrol in the school that he along with Mrs Hannay (wife of Captain Hannay, who would soon be appointed Second in Command of Upper Assam) had established in the Jaipur plains. In the same letter, he also mentioned, with “high hopes”, his plan to visit the Namsang Naga Hills that winter, to ascertain their stance on setting up a mission base.
Bronson also discussed his mission plans with Capt Hannay, who discouraged Bronson from working among Singphos, citing the population as “treacherous and revengeful”. An advantage of evangelising among the Naga, Hannay said, was that they already knew Assamese due to their long-standing salt trade with the plains. Like CA Bruce, Hannay’s nudging Bronson to the Naga was also, in part, spurred by self-interest. He had only recently discovered a coal bed in the Naga foothills, the exploitation of which was made difficult by political instability. Christian conversion would bridge this difficulty in many ways, or so he hoped. Time and again, capitalist investments and their protection would surface as a central motivation to Christian evangelisation.
The first long-term missionary in the Naga Hills then was an Assamese, perhaps not something the Naga clergy wishes to accept today.
Having decided on his mission field, in 1839 Bronson ascended for his first survey tour of the Naga Hills, inhabited by the Noctes. A three-day walk brought him to the gates of Namsang village, some of whose inhabitants he had met around the tea-gardens of Jaipur. Here he was met with suspicion. The Naga Chief and his attendants thought him to be a spy, a ‘Company Man’, and therefore a potential threat. It took Reverend Bronson several days to convince the villagers that this was not the case, and that his sole intention was to bring ‘book’ to the villagers. ‘Book’ here referred to both education and the Bible. After finally convincing them of his non-political intentions, he readied himself to begin his evangelising, only to hear of an impending Khamti attack on Jaipur. This news made him rush back to protect his family.
By December that year, Bronson had printed two elementary Naga books, which he had prepared through an interpreter, and with these in hand he ascended to Namsang for the second time, now “hoping to be able to communicate to them some of the truths of gospel”. On reaching the village, he was again met with an opposition by one of the [lower-ranked] chiefs, who rebuked him: “Who wants a religion from a foreigner, and who will alter the customs of their father to receive books?” After a gentle appeal to the people in the crowd, reminding them about their previous agreement, he was invited in. (To be contd)