A Microhistory of the British Empire: Evangelical Christianity, Global Networks and Local Experience in the Long Nineteenth Century

William Carvosso was born in 1750 in the village of Mousehole on the Cornish coast and grew up among smugglers and fishermen. His father had been impressed into the British navy, but Carvosso had little taste for life on the sea and moved his young family inland around 1790. There he became a farmer, the leader of the local Methodist community, and a missionary to a growing population of tin and copper miners. Over the course of the next century his children and grandchildren became missionaries to the convict colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, the forts and factories[1] of the Canadian fur-trade, post-emancipation Jamaica, the cosmopolitan boomtown of mid-century Shanghai and the gold fields of British Columbia. The Carvossos travelled about the margins of the British Empire, evangelizing to its poorest and least powerful subjects, trying to realize what Jean and John Comaroff have called the missionary dream of a “multiracial Christian commonwealth.”

The Carvosso family inhabited a British Empire very different from the one that has been the traditional subject of historians. The politicians who fought over imperial policy, the diplomats who established its boundaries, and the officials who managed its machinery have, for good reason, been studied intensely. As a consequence, however, the Empire in the history books has often looked suspiciously like the Empire as it was imagined by its own “official mind.” Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton have recently argued that the bureaucratic logic that divided the Empire geographically by region, and chronologically by administrations, failed to account for the manner in which people, commodities and ideas actually moved about. The Carvossos, who were driven by an entirely different set of motivations than the inhabitants of Whitehall, provide us with an outstanding example of how unofficial systems of exchange and mobility cut across the political, social and cultural units used by metropolitan theorists to organize the Empire.

The period following the Napoleonic Wars had been a glorious time for evangelical Christianity in Britain, a quarter century during which non-conformist denominations such as the Methodists constituted a powerful and vocal minority. Their influence reached a heady climax with the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 and the abolition of slavery in 1834, but in the years that followed it began to ebb. As British imperialism grew more aggressive and self-confident, its justifications became more racist and nationalist in their tenor, and accounts of the Empire that emphasized the common humanity of its subjects, such as those of abolitionists and missionaries, were marginalized by the mainstream press as absurd and unrealistic fantasies. During this same period the metropolitan leadership of Wesleyan Methodism was working hard to not only professionalize and centralize the conference but to make it more respectable. To the displeasure of many of its most enthusiastic members Methodism became less an instrument of reform than of conservatism. The younger Carvossos continued the work among the dispossessed and the alienated, much as their parents and grandparents had, but they no longer had the influence, or the optimism, of their forbearers.

The many excellent works analyzing the construction of racial and gender categories in the British Empire have tended to focus on the period of “high imperialism” that began in the last third of the nineteenth century. In so doing they fail to account for the continuing efforts of evangelical Christians to argue against the new idiom of scientific racism, just as they had fought against slavery. It is this alternative, and often overlooked, ideology of colonialism that I am reconstructing. The Carvossos were part of a community that did not celebrate British hegemony as the triumph of Anglo-Saxon civilization, but as a vehicle of Christian universalism. They were proponents of what David Hempton has described as an “Empire of the Spirit,” an empire that was of a different order than either the sugar-and-slave empire which the Evangelicals had helped destroy, or the free-trade and wage-labor empire which they had helped create, but which overlapped with – and outlasted – both.

The manner in which I will explore this “other” Empire is loosely modeled on Catherine Hall’s ground-breaking efforts in Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 . Like Hall I will track my subjects as they traverse the Empire, but I will focus on a single non-conformist family, one whose history spans the traditional divide between the First and Second British Empires. While future research will require visits to Canada and Australia my most pressing need is to reconstruct the social and political milieu from which this remarkable family came. Cornwall was then considered a savage and barbarous place, as much on the outskirts of civilization as more distant mission fields. Cornish Methodism – the nursery of the Carvossos’ Empire – was stubbornly independent of metropolitan influence and is where I need to begin. There are only a few good secondary sources on Cornwall and since Cornish newspapers have yet to be digitized, and are available only in London or Southwest England, a trip to the United Kingdom is a necessity. Furthermore William Carvosso’s son Benjamin, and his grandsons Joseph Carvosso and Robert Rundle, were all missionaries with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) and their correspondence with that society, their candidacy papers, and some of their journals are held by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. I would also like to further develop the kinship networks I have already mapped by examining the baptismal, marriage, death and property records of the family in the Cornish parishes where the Carvossos lived. Those records, in addition to substantial holdings on Methodism in Cornwall, can be found at the Cornwall Record Office in Truro. In a single, month long trip to Britain I could visit the British Library for the newspapers, the SOAS for the WMMS papers, and the archives in Truro for family and chapel records.

The very nature of my subject means the primary sources I need have not been concentrated in any single national – or regional—archive, but are scattered across the globe. Following the Carvossos about the fringes of the British Empire through footnotes, digitized newspapers, missionary publications and interlibrary loans of microfilmed material has allowed me to establish the parameters of my project, but such research can only take one so far. To illuminate the existence of the unofficial networks that Ballantyne, Hall and Burtonette have encouraged historians to explore, while exciting, is merely a first step in their analysis. Men and women such as the Carvossos’ imagined the British Empire as a global phenomenon, but their experience of it was always mediated by local conditions, and it is in these local conditions that I wish to ground their Empire. The challenges facing any student of transnational history are formidable, and particularly so when that history is situated, as I hope to situate mine, firmly in the archives.


Airfare from Raleigh-Durham to London with taxes: $960.00

Accommodation in Britain at $50 a day: $1500.00

Meals at $50 a day: $1500.00

Local Transport including a rail journey to Truro: $250.00

Total: $4210.00

[1] Trading post.