Gender, Power and Sexual Abuse in the Pacific: Rev. Simpson’s ‘Improper Liberties’ is an uncomfortably timely microhistory of a child sexual abuse case in the South Seas Mission of the London Missionary Society. It aims to give voice to those whom the archive has silenced, and to listen to what they have to tell us about gender, sexuality and abuse in the modern world.
NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?
Manktelow: In June 1843 Rev. Alexander Simpson, an evangelical missionary at the South Seas Mission of the London Missionary Society, was accused of sexually assaulting several young girls at the mission under his care. The girls in question were aged about 11 to 17 at the time of the alleged assaults, and were the daughters of the reverend’s missionary colleagues. Simpson was exonerated by his associates – the fathers and brothers of the abused girls – despite what now reads as overwhelming evidence of his guilt. This book investigates these extraordinary events through the lens of microhistory, feminist and gender studies, and the history of Christian colonialism. It reveals a world structured by patriarchal authority, undercut by female networks of informal sanction, and sustained by carefully-guarded hierarchies of gender, race and power. Along the way, the book examines the authority of the colonial archive, the politics of victimisation, and the role of the historian as a character in the process of making history.
NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?
Manktelow: During my PhD studies (the basis of my first monograph, Missionary Families: Race, Gender and Generation on the Spiritual Frontier), I spent a good deal of time in the London Missionary Society archives at the School for Oriental and African Studies. In 2009 I stumbled across an extraordinary piece of paper – a letter fragment with very little contextual information. It described the attempted rape of the writer by her teacher Rev. Simpson, while she lay asleep in the same bed with two of her fellow students.. ‘About the middle of the night,’ it began, ‘being very dark, he came to our bedroom and awoke me by pulling off the bed clothes in spite of all I could do to keep them on.’ The more I read, the more extraordinary – and disturbing – the story became. I was hooked.
It is an uncomfortable truth that when I found this fragment I was equal parts horrified and elated. Horrified obviously at its contents, elated about its existence. It is rare to find something so explicit in Victorian writing – let alone that by evangelical missionaries – and something recorded from the perspective of the marginalised rather than the marginaliser. While missionaries were always keen to talk about the ‘deviance’ of so-called ‘heathens’, to uncover a record of deviance within the mission community in such detail was unusual. As I worked my way through the folders and box-files containing the material, the story began to come together. I became something of a detective – piecing together events, accusations and defences, many of which were undated, unattributed or misfiled. I remember one evening I had been so engrossed in those papers throughout the day that I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I blundered my way onto the tube and managed to make it almost all of the way home when I saw my brother-in-law and his bunch of slightly rowdy mates walking towards me. Heaving a huge bag of books, my mind still scrolling through the dusty papers and difficult descriptions of the day, I couldn’t quite handle the coordination and social energy required for any sort of sensible interaction, and instead tripped over my shoelaces and flailed a few steps before managing to regain my balance. My brother-in-law and his friends burst out in fits of raucous laughter. I righted myself, shot off a self-deprecating grin as my cheeks burned with embarrassment, and stumbled home. Does this happen to anyone else? Being so mentally exhausted and so intensely distracted by your thoughts that simple physical tasks (like walking and waving at the same time) become impossible? No? Just me?
The point, I think, is that this case became engrossing. I ended up with files and files of colour-coordinated notes. I managed to put most of the evidence into chronological order, and intercalated the responses from London to the many epistles that flowed in from the South Pacific. I wanted to know everything about the case, from the important things like what happened, down to the minutiae of the context. I spent a week finding out about the LMS headquarters in London, thinking that when I turned this into a bestselling public history book I would need to be able to describe in scintillating detail the two-story, twelve-windowed town house which had cost the princely sum of £3,080 (c. £200,000 in today’s money, or over 40 years of the wages of a skilled tradesman, according to The National Archive’s currency converter).
But, but, but – life intervened. I needed first to finish the PhD. Then get a short-term job. Then get a permanent job. Then get a REF-submission. Public history books don’t please Directors of Research. The research became an article. Then a chapter in an edited collection. Numerous conference papers. I kept thinking I was done with it, but there was always more to say. How can one account for this man’s acquittal by the very family members of his victims, an evangelical missionary supposedly held to a higher moral standard? To answer that question, you need a context: about mission, about empire, about gender, and about power. Eventually I decided that I couldn’t put the case away until I wrote it out fully. Even if it was just for me. In the Prologue to the monograph I include a quote, if insufferably pretentious, from John Bunyan that captures this process ‘When at first I took my pen in hand // Thus for to write, I did not understand // That I at all should make a little book… Before I was aware, I this begun… Well, so I did; but yet I did not think // To shew to all the world my pen and ink // In such a mode; I only thought to make // I knew not what; nor did I undertake // Thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I; // I did it my own self to gratify.’
NOTCHES: Other than the history of sex and sexuality, what themes does your book speak to?
Manktelow: This book is about sexuality in the sense that it starts with illicit and disturbing sexual acts. But it’s really about power, in the same way that sexual violence is as much about power and domination as it is about sexual desire. I found that I couldn’t let go of the central betrayal in this microhistorical tale. Not the betrayal of vulnerable students by a teacher, but the betrayal of daughters and sisters by their kin. I could not get over the fact that the missionaries involved believed Simpson and not their own daughters. I call this the politics of credulity in the book. It was easier for the families to believe the word of an authoritative male colleague than the unstable and problematized testimony of young women who were characterised as unreliable, sexually compromised and culturally interstitial. The book thus takes on some very modern themes – and perhaps that speaks to why I could not let it go. White, male privilege, the dismissal of female speech, the politics of belief in an age of accusation, and of course most troublingly, child sexual abuse. All of these issues come down to power, and the lengths that people will go to safeguard their privilege. But the book also reveals a history of agency and survival. These are resonant themes for our age.
In the book I mention that the first peer review of the manuscript was extremely negative. That reviewer (who remained anonymous) ultimately concluded that the events in the book were ‘unsurprising’ with the implication that they were not worth further examination. I found this conclusion deeply troubling. As I say in the book:
To find cases such as these ‘unsurprising’ works to normalize or naturalize them. I believe that we should and must keep talking about it, and keep on being ‘surprised’ by it, however ‘unsurprising’ it may be, until we as a society can start to work through our prejudices about victims of various races, classes and genders. It bears repeating here what I have said earlier: unpicking the operations of race, class and gender in perpetrations and representations of abuse remains vital to our tackling of this issue in the present (p. 126).
This book is about gender, power, and authority. The vagaries of academic publishing and the need for book titles to hit keywords in a library search meant this even had to become the title! Sexuality is the mechanism to explore these wider issues, in the past and indeed in the present.
NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)
Manktelow: Something that really intrigued me in this case was the role of speech, talk and gossip. I have been interested in the history of gossip for some time and in particular its role in policing and enforcing social and cultural boundaries, at the same time as sometimes transgressing or traversing them. The source material for this book was almost exclusively letters sent between the missionaries at the South Seas Mission and the Directors in London. What began to intrigue me about this form of evidence is the way it fossilises certain truths while excluding others. Rev Simpson, and his faithful wife Sarah, spent a lot of time telling the London authorities that his accusers were untrustworthy. Female testimonies were reduced to gossip to trivialise and neutralise them. Yet in making that defence, the Simpsons were essentially gossiping into the archive, telling tales about the young ladies involved to traduce their characters and destabilise their ability to make truth. This made me wonder to what extent all archives are an exercise in formalising gossip, preferencing the words of some at the expense of others. Of course, this is just another way to say that archives reflect and create power structures, something that historians of colonialism (and others of course) are very familiar with. I think this is something I am still working through, and in trying to write myself into this history. As the character of The Historian, I am to some degree trying to ‘show my working’ in puzzling through this particular quandary.
Having said that, one of the things that attracted me to this case was the unusual amount of testimony and direct writing from the ‘young ladies’ (as they were always referred to in the documents) themselves. Of course, this was in itself an artefact of their own privilege, as white, educated and literate women in the Christian colonial context. Nonetheless, it is uncommon for such papers to exist. This evidence kept bringing me back to my central objective in the book: to give these women their turn on the record.
This book’s mission is to give voice to the ‘young ladies’ in this case – to allow them, and their perspective, to shape the truth of their experience, if only in this historical moment. ‘Giving voice’ is a complex political act. It troubles the authority of the past and the archive, but relies upon and idealizes the authority of the historian – which is itself troubling… As historians, we position ourselves as unspoken observers of the past – we shape narratives without always acknowledging our shaping. We position ourselves above history at the same time as we create it (p. 6).
I say early on that we cannot ever know the complete truth about this case, but ‘even if we cannot know the truth, we can give the young ladies involved their turn to be heard – their turn to be believed’ (p. 139). This is the challenge as well as the opportunity: what happens when we give our credulity to the unbelieved? I for one am interested to see where this takes us as historians of the past, and indeed as observers of the present.
NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?
Manktelow: At the moment I find myself in a quandary. I believe that the history of child sexual abuse is important, and that the age of empire was a formative moment in how we conceptualise many of the understandings of gender, belief and indeed self-importance that underpin the way examinations of various forms of sexual violence operate in the present. The idea that the imperial British held themselves as ‘child savers’ worked to obscure the realities of colonial oppressions that relied upon child abuse in various forms. This is something I want to explore in more detail because I think there is more at work here than anything as simple as ‘hypocrisy’. BUT, who wants to be an authority on child sexual abuse? Something we don’t talk about enough is the emotional impact of our research on ourselves. How do we proceed when historical research comes up against self-care, particularly in institutional contexts that have very little space for the pastoral care of researchers? Having said that, we can’t just ignore histories because they are painful and difficult. I don’t have any answers to this quandary yet. Answers on a postcard please…?
Emily J. Manktelow is Senior Lecturer in Imperial and Global History at Royal Holloway, University of London having spent time at Kings College, London and the Universities of Exeter, York and Kent. She has published on the history of Christian colonial missions, the history of the family within that context, and the history of colonial deviance and marginality. Her most recent monograph Gender, Power and Sexual Abuse in the Pacific: Rev Simpson’s “Improper Liberties” was published by Bloomsbury in July 2018. She tweets from @EManktelow
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