To the Editor:
The author of "Tranquebar: Charting the Protestant International in the British Atlantic and Beyond" in the January 2017 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly (vol. 74, no. 1, pp. 3–34) is to be highly commended for his rigorous effort to claim the small fortress in southwest India called Tranquebar for those wonderful English missionaries bent on converting the non-Christian world. After briefly describing efforts at Christianizing Native Americans and comparing these efforts with Dutch mission enterprises in the East, as well as some modest references to late eighteenth-century attempts by the East India Company to bring the word of God to the unbelieving in Asia, the author claims that the efforts in bringing Christianity to the people on the Coromandel coast were chiefly initiated, funded, and directed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, based in London, with the energetic support and help of Congregational and learned clergymen such as Cotton Mather in Boston, Massachusetts. Thus in this author's view the glorious and pious efforts of British missionaries were extended from New England in the West to Tranquebar in the East for the glory of the Lord. It is a nice story.
The only trouble with this story is that it starts out with a wrong idea about the founding of the mission activities at Tranquebar, mistaking the laudable efforts of Cotton Mather in collecting money for a missionary enterprise as proof that the Christian British Atlantic extended to the Indian Ocean with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the middle as the guiding force. As scholars who have worked on Atlantic missions for a number of decades, we ask ourselves, of course, how such a major blunder could have happened and why probably the finest American scholarly journal for the early modern period and a distinguished list of readers were unable to discover the wrong premises on which the author based his analysis.
On the surface the author seems to have done his homework. Impressive footnotes document his learning and his efforts to buttress his case with a large number of publications. And for those scholars who only read English texts, his case no doubt is persuasive and convincing. Only scholars who are familiar with studies that extend to missionary work outside the British field will immediately notice the wrong premises on which the study is based.
The implication of what we have pointed out in the last two paragraphs is simple: obviously the author is totally unfamiliar with Danish- and German-language scholarship on eighteenth-century missionary activities. That shows already in his few remarks on the Moravian Church. But his [End Page 815] lack of knowledge of contemporary European scholarship becomes really catastrophic when we look at what he has to say about Tranquebar. Lest we are accused of being specious, let us hastily add that the author overlooked not only key publications on Tranquebar in German and Danish but also those published in English. The most important publication on Tranquebar without any doubt is Halle and the Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India, edited by Andreas Gross, Y. Vincent Kumaradoss, and Heike Liebau.1 This publication is well-known in the Atlantic world, has been reviewed in many leading scholarly journals (but not of course in the William and Mary Quarterly), and is available in leading American libraries as well as British and European ones. The New York Public Library holds a copy, and the College of William and Mary's Swem Library holds at least one journal in which this publication has been reviewed.
The story is simple and straightforward: the Danish trading company, with the active support of the Danish court, established a trading post on the Coromandel coast. The Danish king's clerical advisers, who maintained close relations with Halle and August Hermann Francke, suggested that the Danish king's desire to establish a Christian mission in the trading post be realized by asking Francke to select two Protestant German clerics who would at the expense of...