Who was doing the discovering? KPU historian rewrites history book with decolonial lens

Mon, Mar 4, 2024

They were called “headhunters” by British officials and history books, but historical populations of Northeast India should never have received the disparaging title. British forces, in fact, were the ones collecting human skulls. 

Then there’s the case of early British missionaries, whose initial efforts to make converts were considered a failure. But the other side saw a win, collecting glass bottles, umbrellas, and hymns that made good beer-drinking songs.

In his new book The Mizo Discovery of the British Raj: Empire and Religion in Northeast India, 1890–1920, Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) historian Dr. Kyle Jackson explores the history of the modern-day state of Mizoram, India — from a decolonial perspective.

Dr. Kyle Jackson.
Dr. Kyle Jackson outside the KPU Tech campus in Cloverdale. Jackson's new book demonstrates the urgency of decolonizing history.

“At its heart, the book showcases the urgency of decolonizing history in the region, and globally. It identifies a huge range of historical assumptions and categories of analysis — all received from the colonial era — and then sets out to challenge them, often in ways that end up turning them completely inside out.”

Jackson presents a history of Mizoram told from historical Indigenous perspectives of encounters with empire, shedding new light on the complex and violent processes of how and why diverse populations of highland clans in the Indo-Burmese borderlands came to redefine themselves as Christian Mizos. It’s an endeavour to appreciate the value of thinking not just about the history of colonized peoples and concepts, says Jackson, but also with them.

In the headhunting example, British forces in the region removed skulls from villagers’ homes, took heads from the skeletons of dead prisoners, robbed cemeteries, and in what became Mizoram, cut off the skulls of slain highland forces as part of a wider trade in human skulls in the racist field of colonial craniometry, notes Jackson.

“So, who was really doing the headhunting? Who was really doing the discovering? The book argues that existing approaches to the history of empire in the region miss a fundamental question: How did upland populations discover and make sense of the British Raj (rule) and Christian missionaries, rather than vice versa?”

Conventional histories of Christianity also overlook the perspectives of those who they were trying to convert. Besides hymns, bottles and umbrellas — which they sometimes broke apart to make head-scratchers — others wanted to make use of the missionaries’ belief system.

“Some forced-labourers in that era merely pretended to be Christian so they could legitimately claim a Sunday’s rest, getting out of forced roadbuilding once a week. Others reimagined missionary fashion, with some choosing to mix western-style clothes with Mizo garments in ways that pleased local sensibilities of style. Once, a British missionary was horrified to discover that the Bibles he was selling in Silchar weren’t in fact being used to seek eternal salvation. They were secretly being torn apart. Someone figured out the paper was ideal for rolling joints.”

Jackson says by taking a decolonial approach, and setting aside the conventional missionary yardsticks of conversion and church growth, an era of missionary failure starts to look more like an era of highlander success, an era of Mizo selectivity in assessing foreign missionaries on their own terms.

Mizo diaries, village-level sources, rare newspaper articles, and letters or certificates from private collections provided material for the book. Many were digitized during a British Library-funded Endangered Archives Programme project by Jackson working in collaboration with Mizo scholars and elders. Additional archival work took the author to 20 different repositories, including Delhi, London, and KPU Library’s Special Collections.

“All that certainly took time,” says Jackson. “I once got elbow bursitis because I spent too much time leaning on my elbow across months in the Mizoram State Archive, but the research time was enjoyable as essential.”

The Mizo Discovery of the British Raj is available from Cambridge University Press.