National histories have been and still remain influential. Yet historians increasingly explore the history of Britain in terms of the histories of the various parts of Britain’s former empire. How might we view Reformation as part of Britain’s imperial experience?
Throughout the past year, the University of Sheffield has hosted a range of activities connected to the theme of Reformation. In late April, I spoke about my core research at Sheffield Central Library. The talk covered art, power, and early British Indian empire, and was linked with the BBC Civilizations season. Afterwards, I began to ask myself about how “Reformation” might matter to me as a historian of British India.
European Reformation outside Europe
Reformation in Britain is usually understood within the framework of Britain’s relation with the rest of Europe. The ‘non-European’ world is largely absent from the discussions. Yet this ‘non-European’ world became the theatre of conflict between different European parties, and those parties were divided by Reformation. Beginning with Henry VIII’s declaration of English independence, the Reformation helped define what became a British national identity. This idea of the British nation was accompanied by a British understanding of the ‘other’ (as explained in Linda Colley’s work).
Struggles to uphold the Protestant character of Great Britain often coincided with key developments in her empire. Considering the histories of Britain and British empire together lets us highlight the importance of Protestantism. We then come to see Reformation as an important factor.
Protestant Christianity and national identity
The idea of Britain as a free, parliamentary state with a Protestant monarch on the throne became part of national pride. This national pride led to the discounting of others. This applied to ‘others’ within Europe and to ‘others’ within the empire. Both were viewed as tyrannical, backward, and even uncivilised. Ideas of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Otherness’ were as much cultural and social as they were political. So Protestantism defined the ‘Britishness’ of the British nation and supported a claim to British ‘uniqueness’. This created a contrast with the rest of Europe. It also served to justify the subordination of Britain’s colonies.
Reformations beyond Europe?
Scholars have studied the impact of Protestantism in British empire through the analysis of missionary activities. Yet such studies should be brought in dialogue with a broader understanding of what the Reformation is. This is only possible if the legacies of the Reformation are understood in terms of the worldview and actions of the British empire. Scholars of European Reformation ought to pay attention to developments in the non-European world, its religions and cultures. European countries may have determined the historical and political fate of the non-Europeans. Yet their own (European) histories cannot be understood in isolation.
I would like to see scholars engage with moments of religious, cultural, and political change outside of Europe. Combining the history of empire and the Reformation could challenge Eurocentrism. Widening the scope of history in this way would also improve how non-white researchers are represented at all levels of the academy.
Apurba Chatterjee is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield working on the visual representations of British imperial authority in India during the mid-eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Her research interests lie in the intersection of imperial history, art history and conceptual history.
Featured image: “View of the west end of St John’s Church, Calcutta, showing houses fronting onto the churchyard and the Rohilla monument,” watercolour, by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep. (Digital version: The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/largeimage68452.html.)
Built and consecrated in the 1780s, the architecture of this church in colonial Calcutta is based on that of St. Martin-in-fields, London. The church used building material from the ruins of mosques and monuments from Gaur, the Islamic capital of Bengal in the medieval and early modern periods. The courtyard of the church housed several British memorials. There was a huge controversy surrounding the acquisition of land for the church. It was truly a statement of British power, and presented its spiritual basis.