The subject of Missionaries in the 19th century Arab world has a habit of coming back to me again and again. I have already written a blog on some copies of the journals of the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. In a Boston bookshop, I recently came across a copy of a history of the American Mission in Egypt, 1854-1896.
This copy itself appears to have come via the American School in Algiers:
The book was written by Andrew Watson, who worked for the Mission and had access to many of its official papers and the private papers of many of its members. He tells the story from its inception to the time he was writing and he relates the (many) tribulations and the (few) successes that it had.
The history of the American missions has been written in much more detail by Heather Sharkey already but there are a few interesting things buried in this book.
The missionaries seem to have viewed Egypt as a hardship post, among people who were largely hostile. Watson views the people almost exclusively through their religious or confessional identity.
He had rather little to say about individual Muslims, whom he must have met and dealt with with some frequency. However, as a whole, he saw them as fanatical, intolerant and probably violent. He is always worried that an anti-christian riot will erupt and his encounters on a day-to-day basis were unfriendly. They do manage to convert one Muslim, Ahmed Fahmy, to Christianity but it comes as something of a surprise. He is taken out of the country to study medicine in Edinburgh, from where he goes to become a doctor in China. He dies in Golder’s Green in 1933.
Largely, Watson seems unconcerned with Jews. He sees the attempts of some groups to try to convert members of the “ancient religion” to Christianity as basically futile and misguided. Jewish people are background players. In one instance he mentions that the Jews of Alexandria, worried that their daughters are all going to Christian schools, start a school of their own. But that is all he says about it.
The real target of these missionaries is the Copts. Watson says:
“It is well known that the work of our mission had been largely among the Copts, not because the mission was established for them only, but because their need of a knowledge of the scriptural plan of salvation was seen to be almost, if not entirely, as great as the need of the Muhammadans, and because the door of the Copts was open wide, while the door to the Muhammadans was generally closed and double barred.”
So they spent time educating and discussing the Bible with Copts. Watson’s view of this denomination of Christianity is far from positive. He thought they had corrupted the Lord’s word, were kept ignorant of the Bible by their clerics and were (variously) lazy, stupid or drunken. The only good words he has to say about individual Copts make sure to remind the reader that they were exceptional cases, wholly different from their fellow Egyptians. Perhaps it is for this reason that the work of conversion was so slow and so few Egyptians were converted to Protestantism.
Though, it should be said that those Egyptians who did convert must have been fascinating characters and that, the Protestant church still exists in Egypt and there are a sizeable number of Protestants there.
Missionary work has a complex history in Egypt and, despite their obvious prejudices, we cannot say they were all bad. Still, Watson’s view that the only true word of God is that of Protestantism, means that it is hard not to feel a little glee at his consternation when one of their number converts to the new sect of Plymouth Brethren.
In 1868, Watson says that on his return from America, he stayed for a few days with on Mr. Pinkerton and “noticed evidences of his adoption of strange views and practices, some of which almost led to the belief that his mind had lost its balance.”
Inspired by some stories from Germany and some Quakers whom he had met, he had “imbibed some deep mystical notions. In order to get in communion with Christ he thought it was only necessary to retire to a solitary place, shut the eyes, meditate and wait for the “power” to come from on high by the Holy Spirit.”
Pinkerton even believed that he had healing powers, which he tried to used on a sick woman called Miss S. Gregory. Worst of all, he was starting to convert some of the missionaries to his sect.
Eventually they Society decided that Pinkerton had to go. He, eventually, complied and “opened a service on Plymouth Brethren lines” in Egypt. At the time of writing the book, this service was still going, “supported as it has been to some extent by some Englishmen of that sect.”
After 1869, Pinkerton established himself in Syria but over the winter he was accustomed to come to Egypt and circulate tracts in support of Plymouthism. He managed to gain some support for these views among Egyptians but, according to Watson, his “attempt to produce a serious schism failed.”
As well as attempting to convert people, the American Mission was particularly invested in education. They circulated cheap books (Christian texts printed in Beirut or Malta) and started several schools for both girls and boys. Although they did not hide their missionary associations, these school took students from any religion. Their attempts to convert them were minimal (if present) and mostly limited to a few classes of bible study.
In addition to their missionary work, the author of this book tells one very curious and perhaps rather unsettling story of the marriage of the Maharajah Duleep Singh to Bamba, the illegitimate daughter of a German banker called Ludwig Muller and his Abyssinian mistress.
The prince was the son of Runjit Singh, the late king of the Punjab, and had been raised as a Christian in England. In 1864 he was passing through Egypt on his way to India. He spent a long time with American Mission, visiting its schools and talking to the missionaries. At the girl’s school he saw a young student called “Bamba”, whom he was informed was the only girl to publicly profess her Christianity.
A few weeks later he sent a note to Mr John Hogg, who was high up in Mission at the time.
He said that he wanted to ask the missionaries “in the matter of getting a wife”. To ward of the temptations of bachelorhood, he wanted to take a wife. He did not want to marry an Indian noblewoman, educated in England, as Queen Victoria had advised him. He wanted someone “less acquainted with the gaieties and frivolities of fashionable aristocratic life.” He said that “his preference was decidedly for an Oriental” and that she had to be Christian and so he thought to ask in Egypt.
Immediately the missionaries thought of Bamba. Mr Hogg told the Maharajah that she “was a girl of a very pleasing exterior, graceful, winning manners, of most transparent simplicity, and above all a true, devoted Christian. We told him also of her parentage, of her humble mode of life with her Abyssinian mother, that she had a very limited education except in the great truth of our holy religion. The prince remembered well having seen her, and he had been very much taken with her personal appearance, and said that as far as the circumstances of her birth were concerned he would count that nothing if in every other way she commended herself to us as a truly Christian girl.”
He wanted to propose marriage to her. The schoolteacher, Miss Dales, was sent to make the proposal. Bamba’s father was consulted, who said that the decision was hers. She spend four days thinking about it and on 28th March sent a letter, saying:
“After praying for a long time, waiting for an answer to my petitions, the light of His countenance dawned upon me, and it has now become clear to me that it is His will that I should leave the school and serve Him in this new position, and if it please God I wish to live for Christ and glorify His name all the days of my life.”
The Maharajah sent a ring and waited for Bamba’s agreement, which she gave. Away in India, he sent some instructions for his return.
“I think it is desirable that she should learn English and music, and to give her own orders. Do you not think it would be a rather good thing that she should go out driving a little, so that she may be accustomed to going unveiled? But her own feelings should be consulted as to this. I am having a pair of earrings made for Bamba, which I hope she will be able to wear. I think she should wear a half Eastern and half Western dress, like myself.”
He returned to Egypt in the summer and on 7th June 1864 they were married by John Hogg, about a month before Bamba’s sixteenth birthday.
This story is troubling for many reasons, which I hope should be obvious. At the time, of course, this was not a shocking as it is now. Andrew Watson seems very happy to talk about it. He also add some rather uncomfortable details about the financial arrangements, saying that the story is “very interesting in itself, and fraught with important results for the mission.”
At their marriage the Maharajah gave the mission £1,000 in Bamba’s name as a thank offering to the Lord and “has also undertaken to give £500 to support two missionaries during the remainder of their lives.”
For thirteen years after this he gave an annual gift of £1,000 on the 7th June. One year it stopped coming and the Mission was sad to learn that “bad company had had its influence upon him.” He was led to “a rejection of Christianity, a re-acceptance of heathenism, and an open opposition to Great Britain.” Fortunately for the mission, in 1890 he was reconciled with God and gave two sums of £2,000.
All in all, the Mission made £18,500 from the marriage between Bamba and the Maharajah Duleep Singh.
The couple had five children, including the suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh and Prince Victor Duleep Singh. In another interesting Egyptian connection, Victor Duleep Singh’s wikipedia page claims that he had an affair with the wife of Lord Carnarvon (of Tutankhamen fame) and that the 6th Earl of Carnarvon was his illegitimate son.