Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros99 PrintempsColloque SFEVE ToursImperial Perceptions Between Sout...From Travel to Text: Reverends Wo...

Colloque SFEVE Tours
Imperial Perceptions Between Southern Africa and Central Asia

From Travel to Text: Reverends Wolff and Lansdell’s Missions to Bokhara

Du voyage au texte : les missions des révérends Wolff et Lansdell à Bokhara
Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill


Près d’un demi-siècle sépare les missions à Bokhara, centre du savoir et de la culture islamiques en Asie centrale, effectuées par les deux voyageurs et prédicateurs intrépides Joseph Wolff (1795-1862) et Henry Lansdell (1841-1919). Il s’agit d’un écart générationnel et géopolitique important tant dans le développement de l’ère victorienne que dans l’évolution des voyages et des récits de voyage. Lorsque Joseph Wolff a vu Bokhara en 1843, l’Asie centrale était à l’apogée de la rivalité anglo-russe, un endroit extrêmement dangereux et violent où ses deux compatriotes, les envoyés britanniques Charles Stoddard et Arthur Conolly, ont perdu la vie. Lors de ses voyages ultérieurs, en 1882 et 1888, Lansdell a découvert Bokhara déjà soumise à la « mission civilisatrice » russe. Mon article examinera les stratégies utilisées par Wolff et Lansdell pour écrire leurs voyages dans les régions frontalières d’Asie centrale sous les contraintes de sécurité impériale du moment. Leur incapacité à s’autocensurer se traduit par des messages dissimulés à certaines sections du lectorat victorien capables de lire entre les lignes, révélant ainsi les non-dits et les secrets.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Andrew Porter. ‘An Overview 1700–1914’. Norman Etherington, ed. Mission and Empire. Oxford: OUP, 20 (...)

1Nearly half a century separates the missions to Bokhara, centre of Islamic knowledge and culture in Central Asia, made by the two intrepid travellers and preachers Joseph Wolff (1795–1862) and Henry Lansdell (1841–1919): an important generational and geopolitical gap both in the development of the Victorian era and in the evolution of travel and travel writing. Privately organised and financed, British missionary societies formally disavowed political ties at home and abroad and frontier meddling could also be downright poisonous to long-term endeavour. Such, at least was the official position of most missionary bodies, especially before the 1890s. (Greenlee & Johnson 6–30). There was, of course, plenty of room for interpretation on this point: the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), founded in 1701, stood in sharp contrast with the imperial rhetoric of some mid-Victorians like the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), formed in 1792, or the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS), organized in 1814 which shortly sent thereafter its first missionaries to India. For their part, the LMS (the London Missionary Society, 1795) charted a meandering course through the difficult currents at midstream. By the turn of the century the CMS (the Church Missionary Society, 1799) began urging periodic consultations so that missionaries and public officials could simplify their relations and perhaps even cooperate on essential projects.1

2When Joseph Wolff saw Bokhara in 1843, Central Asia was at the peak of Anglo-Russian rivalry, an extremely dangerous and violent place where his two compatriots, British envoys Charles Stoddard and Arthur Conolly, lost their lives. Lansdell’s subsequent travels there in 1882 and 1888 discovered Bokhara subdued and pacified under Russian ‘civilising mission’.

  • 2 J. Wolff’s volumes are Missionary Journal and Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, written by himself; (...)

3Ordained ministers, Wolff (the London Society for Promoting Christianity among Jews and the SPG) and Lansdell (the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the LMS) commanded a privileged status in Victorian society as Christian missionaries and capable self-publicists, which they used to draw attention to the unknown parts on the restless colonial borders. Not surprisingly, gripped by a mounting sense of urgency of the moment, they chose to speak out when political actions overlapped major religious or moral issues and used their position as itinerant preachers for a closer cooperation with the imperial state in the form of informal information-gathering about the regions they crossed. The reports of their activities enjoyed wide circulation, either as books or in periodicals published by missionary societies or in the popular press. Both of them were clearly capable of using their writings for self-promotion, if the number of volumes they published can be taken as an indication.2

4My paper will examine the rhetorical strategies Wolff and Lansdell employed in writing their journeys to Central Asian sensitive border regions under the imperial security constraints of the moment. This is rather a microhistory marked by the macro-history of empires where the role and experience of individuals from a missionary background were involved on the fringes of British foreign policy and diplomacy (Fisher & Best 179). Their failure of self-censorship in fact erupts in concealed messages to certain sections of Victorian readership able to read between the lines, revealing the undisclosed and unsaid.

  • 3 Alexander Morrison. ‘Twin Imperial Disasters. The invasions of Khiva and Afghanistan in the Russian (...)

5In putting Bokhara as a geographical and geopolitical centre of an imperial history, I am also inserting distance as a fundamental structural device. Space is a useful metaphor: the missionaries’ travel narratives are, at one level, an overview of the mental topography of imperialism. In spite of its remoteness from the British possessions, by 1840, Bokhara was well known to British intelligence officers as a strategic point for a potential march route for the Russian army to invade the north of India. Lord Aukland’s occupation of Afghanistan and General Perovsky’s attempt to invade Khiva became central episodes in the grand narrative of imperial competition and conquest generally known as the ‘Great Game’ which invokes gentlemanly adventure in a vast theatre of espionage and reconnaissance.3

6Even if the link between the Great Game narratives and travel writing by amateur scholars, linguists, political officers and spies is well known within the context of Victorian imperial adventure, travel writing and missionary experience is still considered as ‘a relatively neglected area of study’ (May 4). For critics of empire in literary studies, Edward Said’s foundational work Orientalism (1978)—certainly with interest well beyond the religious—makes use of the Christian mission as a touchstone reference for larger political forces with which they were embroiled. Indeed, from its beginning in the late seventeenth century to global struggles over the place of religion in the modern world, the British missionary enterprise has been caught between the empire of Christ and the empire of Britain. Virtually all historians who work on the history of the missions do so in the shadow of two competing master narratives: one is the story of the spread of world Christianity whereas the other is the unmasking of the missionary enterprise as a form of cultural imperialism. My paper seeks to reassess the role of the missionary as more than just a ‘faceless imperial agent’ (Etherington 38) striding with the Bible in the under-studied Eastern regions of Central Asia. This totalizing image of the missionary is somewhat outmoded and belies the complexities of lived experiences on the restless imperial frontier. Moreover, my microhistory questions the presumed inevitability of the association between mission and cultural imperialism and challenges other essentialising labels—British, spy, imperialist, evangelist, scientist, merchant, administrator which simplify the complex interactions of missionaries and indigenous peoples and cultures.

Missions and Travel Narratives

7British Protestant missionaries were prolific writers. Diaries, reports, letters, memoirs, histories, ethnographies, novels, children’s books, translations, grammars, and many more kinds of texts spilled from their pen, written at a makeshift desk in some remote mission station or taking undercover notes in the wilderness. These texts complicate traditional linear histories of imperial conquest and invasion, blurring the identities as either colonised or colonising. The link between a missionary, an explorer and a travel writer has been well established (Cox 21). As Anna Johnston argued in Missionary Writing and Empire (2003):

. . . missionary texts constitute a distinct genre of travel writing and missionary discourse at the same time, a mutual imbrication of genres and gender that has unmistakable, though ambivalent, relationships with imperial discourses as a whole. (Johnston 124)

8In Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa (1842), Robert Moffat stressed his exploration and itineration far more than his prosaic work building up relatively small mission stations (Moffat), and he had predecessors among the LMS missionaries in South Africa like John Campbell (1766–1840) who had paved the way for both Robert Moffat and David Livingstone with his Travels in South Africa (1815), reprinted several times, then republished in two volumes with extraordinary maps and colour prints in 1822 (Campbell). Campbell was essentially a traveller, perhaps the first of the missionary administrators routinely sent out from the metropolis in the nineteenth century to see how things were going in the field. John Philip’s Researches in South Africa Illustrating the Civil, Moral, and Religious Condition of the Native Tribes: Including Journals of the Author’s Travels in the Interior (1828) was written not only to champion the rights of indigenous peoples of South Africa faced with settler invasions, but also as a travel narrative.

9For Wolff and Lansdell, colonial experience within the Great Game frame also provided a plethora of complex information, experiences and various discursive narratives which could not always be aligned with imperial philosophies and evangelical projects. This doublediscursive framework—simultaneously endorsing and challenging imperial institutions and ideas—continually troubled their effort to produce seamless representations of the places and people they encountered. Lacking mnemonic sources such as photographs or maps for most of their journeys, they were forced to reconstruct the period partly from memory, the privations tingeing the early chapters of their books. Money was always a pressing issue and they had a growing readership to satisfy, eager for stories of exotic adventures and exploration. Here we see different trends: the sensationalizing adventure travel tradition and the more sober, science-oriented or intelligence-gathering tradition, at work.

10As Peter Hulme put it in Travel Writing, Form and Empire (2009):

  • 4 Peter Hulme. ‘Deep Maps: Travelling on the Spot’. Julia Kuehn and Paul Smethurst, eds. Travel Writi (...)

Like most non-fiction, travel writing has had comparatively little attention paid to its formal and rhetorical characteristics. Now that the study of travel writing is becoming a more established part of the academic landscape, it is probably time to begin to map some of its strategies from a more global perspective. Formal analysis has its uses and its limitations. However, there has been so little formal analysis of travel writing that some broad brush strokes should be possible.4

11My contention is that in Joseph Wolff’s case the travelogue takes the shape and nature of a quest: a journey which had started under the best auspices ended up in a failure and bitter disappointment, as the writer did not fulfil the promised salvation of the two British officers nor did he trace the vestiges of the Lost Tribes of Israel. But, eventually he liberated slaves and described the situation of Jews in Central Asia on the eve of the Russian expansion. For Henry Lansdell, who started his journey as a query for the way the Russian Empire was transforming the former Muslim state into a colony and the potential possibility of Russia encroaching on India’s fragile northern boundaries, the place proved to be a safe space both for commerce and missionary activity.

12Several common points punctuate their travels:

  1. To cross and re-cross while reconnoitring the routes to Bokhara, via Persia, Transcaspian deserts and oases under the risks of being abducted by the belligerent Turcoman tribes, informing about the indigenous societies, political and economic situation in the khanates on the eve or in the aftermath of the Russian conquest.

  2. To assess the conditions of Jews in Bokhara in pursuit for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and the mysterious Kingdom of Prester John in the continuity of European Romantic nationalism and the search for identity.

  3. To target Islam in Central Asia by rational observation and to explore the missionary possibilities in these mainly Muslim regions in the wake of the burgeoning anti-slavery and humanitarian movement.

  4. To assess British and Russian civilising missions in Central Asia and to check perspectives of British trade in these areas.

  5. To gather ethnographic information as well as to execute flora and fauna surveys of the regions crossed.

13All these points operate different discursive practices and different embedded narratives where the clearly defined narrations blur into something non-defined, alluded, hidden. As Wolff and Lansdell advance into the forbidden dangerous territory, their texts figuratively become transgressions in the territory of the unknown or the unsaid, resulting in triple trespasses: into the territory of unknown, the territory of incompetence (geopolitical sphere) and the territory of literary genre (as a travelogue) instead of an official mission diary or report. These framed or Chinese box structures could be presented as follows:

Geopolitical emergencies of the moment aside, the chosen differentiation and gradation of the missionaries’ information-gathering and narrative structures militate against a uniform mission approach, shifting the boundaries between a simple ethnographic survey to a roving humanitarian mission, a reconnoitring adventure to moral suasion galore—a paradox that simultaneously sponsors ambiguity and division but renders their narratives extremely readable.

Joseph Wolff’s Missions to Bokhara in 1832 and 1843: Between Desultory and Pragmatic

Were even the bones of Stoddard and Conolly produced to me, I determined to proceed to Bokhara, and to investigate how they died. (Wolff 1845, 157)

14For Joseph Wolff (1795–1862), an eccentric Anglican minister of Jewish descent, who crossed and re-crossed Central Asia between 1830–1844, Bokhara was a known place he already visited heading for Kabul. Speaking freely several Oriental languages, notably Arabic and Persian, his travelling wanderlust in search of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel started in 1821. In 17 years he went to many outlying parts of Asia: Kurdistan, Persia, Afghanistan and India and was the first modern Christian missionary to preach for the Jews in Jerusalem. In Afghanistan he was nearly burned alive, in Khorasan he was flogged and sold into slavery (Wolff 1824). As a part of revival of missionary zeal in pre-millennial expectations, he was convinced that the Apocalypse was near, signalling the end of the world and Christ’s return to deliver the Last Judgement (Porter). Wolff’s Missionary Journal and Memoir (1824) somehow anticipated Robert Moffat’s Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa (1842) and traced the same destiny: poor and poorly educated young men who had migrated to England and become attracted to missions through lectures at the interdenominational chapels.

15Wolff’s second journey to Bokhara (1843-45) with the intention of discovering the fates of two British officers, Colonel Charles Stoddard and Captain Arthur Conolly was the greatest exploit of his life. Wolff offered publicly to travel to Bokhara in a letter dated 2 July 1843, which appeared first in the Morning Herald and after circulated in other papers as well. Proceeding to Teheran, he started for Bokhara by approximately the previous route through the Caspian and the Desert of Merv via the Oxus River. In the interval, however, he had acquired the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Dublin University and set off to display considerable academic splendour, ‘dressed in full canonicals’ (Wolff 1845, 60) all the way from Merv to Bokhara. The rest of the luggage was very curious. It consisted of two dozen Hebrew Bibles and Testaments from the London Society for Promoting Christianity to distribute to the Jews whom he might meet on the way, three dozen silver watches, two or three dozen maps in the Arabic characters, published by the Church Missionary Society, and three dozen copies of Robinson Crusoe, translated into Arabic, which his past experience had shown him to cause a great sensation among Muslim readers (Wolff 1845, 71). Everywhere he went his religious activity must have been confined to private or semi-private conversations in which he later styled himself ‘Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ for Palestine, Persia, Bukhara and Balkh’ (Wolff 1845, 105) or subsequently ‘Joseph Wolff, the derveesh [sic] of the Christians in England, believer in Jesus’ (Wolff 1845, 151). In spite of his efforts and ingenuity, Wolff’s mission was a failure in its main objective: he did not rescue the British officers as he had hoped, both had been killed some months before his arrival and he himself had considerable difficulty in getting away, for the Emir of Bokhara on the throne had a great fear of espionage. The letters Wolff sent to Britain were not merely the raw material of his future published narrative—Wolff had a flair for the dramatic, including sensational stories and predictions about the mission’s future as well as reports of his progress and the rumours he gathered. On approaching Bokhara he shares his premonitions:

Notwithstanding all . . .  encouraging sensations, I could not but feel that I was about to place myself wholly unprotected in the hands of a despotic monarch, of more than ordinary cruelty even for an Eastern dynasty; one who had probably put to death many of my countrymen, as well protected as myself. I committed myself, therefore, as all should do in perilous circumstances, to the keeping of God’s good providence, which had so powerfully sustained me previously, and which I trusted would yet preserve me for better things. (Wolff 1845, 225)

16He stated that he feared he might not return from Bokhara and urged his readers to use his death as motivation for completely eradicating slavery in Bokhara. The emotional appeal of this self-sacrifice was augmented by the paragraph that followed, which urged his wife’s family to take pity on his widow and son if he were killed in Bokhara. Wolff’s use of dramatic language and his frequent sense of foreboding that the mission might spiral out of his control emphasized the narrative’s essentially non-academic (though still unquestionably orientalist) nature, capitalizing on what Alessandro Olsaretti, while analysing the writings of early Victorian travellers to the Levant, terms the ‘vulgar curiosity’ of the nineteenth-century Britain about the East (Olsaretti 247f). Despite the relevance of some of Wolff’s content to the field of ethnology, his narrative is more a specimen of picturesque language used to create a sense of distance between subject and object than a work of Said’s intellectual orientalism of the early 19th century.

Residence among these lawless tribes convinces me more than ever that there cannot be worse despotism of a mob. There is nothing in my eyes more detestable and calamitous than the attempts of a foolish and unpolished mob, governed by maddening influences, to sway and power. Virtue is repeatedly punished by them—vice scarcely at all. Savage life, with me, has no charms. I have always found the savage more malicious, deceitful, and cruel, than beings in civilized life, whatever fine things may be said of the virtues of the desert. What is the savage in the abstract? The fearful declension from a purer type, not, as is erroneously supposed, the early element of man. (Wolff 1845, 290)

17Wolff’s Narrative of a Mission expresses many of the same fears his letters voiced, though with the addition of more stories that emphasize the cultural distance between Britain and Bokhara and the risk Wolff undertook in travelling there. Kept in semi-captivity by the Emir of Bokhara for nearly five months under seemingly endless strain and stress, hope and disappointment, his travelogue betrays the political undertones of his mission by collecting some military intelligence by scouts, basic geography and questioning the locals:

Now here I cannot avoid making another remark, for the matter is too important to be hastily passed over. Before I left England I wrote a confidential letter to Mr. Addington, of the Foreign Office, telling him that I should do all in my power to prevent any political discussion on account of my mission, in order that my mission might assume its true form, and not become a question of Whig or Tory. (Wolff 1845, 146)

18He would return in the subsequent editions of his Narrative to contrast the interests that Russia was showing in Central Asia with the somewhat casual attitude of Britain.

I will not speak of the question agitated so much in England—will the Russians be able to march towards India? . . .  Nothing can resist in these countries a well-disciplined artillery and cavalry; and the body of the army may march to Khokand, to Cashgar and Cashmere, and thence down to Lahore and India. Not one shot would be fired, for the people of Cashmere would receive them with open arms, and at Lahore the British army would meet them, and then the strongest would have it. (Wolff 1845, 169)

19His open criticism of British foreign policy erupts by the end of his book when he makes a point on the circumstances of the murder of Stoddard and Conolly and why his mission failed:

I am of the wise man’s opinion of old: That form of Government is best, ‘where an injury done to the meanest subject is an insult to the whole community’. He [Solon of Athens] spoke of insult; I speak of murder. What country, I ask, has such facility to vindicate her honour, to preserve the life of every one of her meanest subjects, as England. To say nothing of her officers, her distinguished officers, I might add more, her—but I forbear to use that—that gives the climax to our shame. I speak not of the past; I inculpate no one; I leave that to others; but I do demand, Can matters rest thus? (Wolff 1845, 322–23)

20Even if Wolff’s final analysis of his mission to Bokhara is consumed with discussion of British prestige in the region, his narration at moments shows broader convergence between foreign-policy-making and an adventurous experience of the eccentric clergyman. While the interplay of foreign policy and Christian missionary activity was undeniable, Wolff’s Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara is ambivalent because of the inherent tensions within the narrative itself: a mission report, a survey of the region and its peoples and a mixture of repetitions, irrelevancies and rambling thoughts which would run into seven editions. It is true that Wolff seems largely unable to assess accurately the motivations of the Central Asians with whom he interacted and his characterizations of individuals are therefore best treated with some scepticism. However, his book highlights the tensions within the travel writing of the moment: desultory and pragmatic at the same time, a self-contained microcosm in which officers, missionaries, guides and native governors roamed across a vast stretch of Central Asia in order to ascertain any kind of knowledge that might satisfy armchair strategists and adventurers at home.

Henry Lansdell’s Missions to Bokhara in 1882 and 1888: Between Self-Censorship and Neutrality

I have a dim recollection, as a child, of hearing Dr. Wolff lecture on his travels—I suppose soon after his return—and a better remembrance as a boy of hearing him preach. How little I then dreamed that I should be the next of the Queen’s subjects to enter the city of Bokhara! (Lansdell 1885, I, 78)

21This is how Henry Lansdell, another intrepid missionary and traveller, started the introduction to his two-volume book Russian Central Asia, 40 years after Wolff’s visit. By that time Bokhara had been absorbed into the Russian Empire after a skilful military campaign by General Kaufman from the new Russian base in Tashkent (cf. Morrison). The Emir, whose father met Wolff in the 1840s, was allowed to remain on the throne and his domains were officially a ‘protectorate’, but there was no doubt that the Russians were now in charge.

22Many tragic events shook the British Empire during these years. General Charles Gordon received orders to go to Sudan, where the British public hoped he would be able to salvage British interests in what was rapidly becoming a desperate situation. Like Stoddart and Conolly, Gordon felt that his duty to his country required that he remain where he was. Another British officer, George Hayward, was hacked to death in the Karakoram passes between Bokhara and Kashgar (cf. Hannigan).

23Henry Lansdell (1841–1919) was a clergyman, a missionary, honorary Doctor of Divinity, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an inveterate philanthropist. He travelled extensively, combining travels and missionary work, first in Europe and gradually making long and arduous journeys in Russia, Siberia and Central Asia. His object was to distribute tracts and Bibles provided by London missionary societies in many languages wherever he went: among the local populations, in prisons and in hospitals. In comparison to Joseph Wolff, who was pre-millennial and predicted that Christ would return in the year of 1847, Lansdell was post-millennialist. The post-millennialists believed that the conversion of the world would usher in a golden age of peace and plenty, so closely resembling secular doctrines of progress spinning from the European Enlightenment (Porter 60). His travelogue starts with a paradox:

The main object of my journey was to spy out the land for missionary purposes. If, however, the lover of missionary information should think that I did little or no work of a missionary kind myself, I would remind him that as a preacher I was dumb; as a distributer of literature I had not the proper translation; whilst a pioneer I conceived it my chief task to observe what openings existed, or could be made, for qualified evangelists to follow. (Lansdell 1885, I, ix)

24With his major objective to visit Russian and Asian asylums and prisons and to distribute religious tracts, he was the embodiment of ‘Muscular Christianity’, a concept which linked Christian virtue with secular notions of moral and physical prowess. As Thomas Hughes, a prominent Anglican missionary and politician, would announce by the turn of the century, the ‘least of the muscular Christians’ would combine the ‘muscularity’ of Christian ideals with an imperial ‘subduing of the earth and protection of the weak’ (quoted in Richards 6), like the towering figure of the most famous of all missionary heroes, David Livingstone. Livingstone’s celebrity had already transcended the missionary world by the time he published in 1857 his first book on Africa, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, an account of his journey across the continent from the west coast via the Zambesi River to the east coast (cf. Livingstone), surpassing the impact of Moffat’s Missionary Labours and Scenes as well as the work of other colonial explorers.

25Lansdell’s expertise on the Muslim world of Central Asia was conceived from a collection of sketches written and drawn during the 1880s journeys, interspersed with the chapters on the historical, political, religious and cultural information of the regions visited, obviously updated after the Reverend’s return. The author’s detailed itineraries as well as an impressive appendix of the collected specimen, accompanied by a thorough bibliography on Central Asia, show a rigorous empirical approach combined with a desire of a more balanced depiction of the territories and peoples encountered. Contrary to Wolff, his journeys start in St Petersburg and he crosses the Russian empire southwards thus reconnoitring the Russian rule in the newly acquired protectorates of Bokhara and Khiva. His luggage is much more substantial:

. . .  5,000 Scriptures, 10,000 Russian tracks, . . . , and an illustrated broadsheet called ‘The Prodigal Son’. . . .  The Scriptures consisted of Bibles, Old Testaments, New Testaments, the four Gospels (bound together and singly), and the Book of Psalms. They were printed in Russian, Slavonic, Hebrew, Chinese, Mongolian, Kirghese, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Polish, German, and French . . . (Lansdell 1885, I, 27)

26Even if his writings reflect millennial enthusiasm and eschatological speculation, Lansdell is more pessimistic as to the evangelisation of Central Asian Muslims. Attempts to convert them seemed increasingly unproductive, confirming the long-established Western view of Muslim bigotry and intolerance, not to mention the physical dangers of proselytization.

  • 5 Known as the ‘Panjdeh Incident’ when Russian forces seized in March 1885 some Afghan territory sout (...)

27On the eve of the Panjdeh Incident,5 when instead of 2,000 miles separating the two Empires there were barely 200 miles left, Lansdell still confirmed the positive role of the Russian conquest on the barbarian tribes in Western Turkestan:

After seeing Bokhara and Khiva under Asiatic rulers, and Tashkend and Samarkand under Europeans, I should be false to my convictions if I withheld my opinion that the natives have been gainers by Russian Conquest. Hence, now that Merv is annexed, if there are any who would rather see it revert to its old condition of Lawlessness, slavery, and blood, I confess I am not one of the number; but what may be the bearing of this upon political questions, I leave to others more competent to decide. (Lansdell 1885, II, 490)

28While observing Russian troops close to Merv, the territory of unruly Turkmen tribes who still practised slave trade and sacked Bokharan caravans, he remarks:

Meanwhile the Russians are beyond Merv, and a question of interest is—What next? Will Russia conquer India? . . .  When looking at the question from the Upper Oxus, and the possibility of an invasion of Afghanistan from Samarkand, the undertaking presented itself to my mind as attended with colossal difficulties, suggested in part by my own little experience in crossing the desert. But if the approach be from the Caspian, these difficulties vanish now that the Russians are masters of Merv, and the country between it and Herat carefully surveyed. (Lansdell 1885, II, 489)

29As the Anglo-Russian tensions grew by the end of the century, Lansdell’s travel narrative becomes more factual, devoid of an innocent, immediate view of textuality. At the same time, the Reverend is highly conscious of the ways in which to address complex issues at the imperial sites where they were written. This, altogether with his penchant for theatricality and orientalism (his frontispiece photograph in Kokand armour offered by the Emir of Bokhara), made his subsequent editions of the travel books extremely popular, satisfying the public’s expectations for exoticism.


Thus ended my journey of 12,000 miles during which I was absent from England 179 days, and slept in my clothes half the nights. I was somewhat exhausted by the desert journey, but not so much as I have been by writing this book, which has far exceeded the limits I anticipated.
(Lansdell 1885, II, 595)

30Ultimately, the journeys from travel to Bokhara to travel text raise a much larger question: how are we to address a travel literature so bound up with both candour and reticence? This and similar questions, troubling enough in Wolff’s day, would become even more intractable in the high imperial age to follow. Indeed late-Victorian missionaries like Lansdell would find no clear-cut strategies of their own. One solution is to be attentive to the relationship between power, discretion, voicelessness and silence, not just of subject peoples and events, but of all subjects in an imperial context. The Reverends’ move into Central Asia rendered them as physically remote as possible from the population centres of Europe and Empire, but embedded them deeply within the government of India’s regional security apparatus and involved them in the deployment of new knowledge practices designed to regulate the space of Asia. Wolff and Lansdell seem willing to describe their evasions and assumed personas but are evasive about their day-to-day information-collecting activities or the wider geopolitical context that required their presence there. Professional writers as well as proselytizing missionaries, much of their output was in the form of travel narratives or newspaper reports, perhaps symptomatic of both the pressures of self-censorship and the alienation experienced in a remote imperial border. Both Wolff and Lansdell contractually were bound to maintain the confidences associated with their position and missions but they denied being professional spies. Across a colonial continuum (which is also a divide), their missionary interests and personas repeatedly complicated tidy categorisations of colonial culture by their various investments and interventions into both indigenous and colonial spheres, and their desire to be part of both communities. Altogether, the theoretical boundary separating the spiritual, the humanitarian, and the political grows increasingly nebulous. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is impossible to speak of missionary political attitudes in the singular. Because of this ambivalence and mutual imbrication, missionary history and missionary writing offer fruitful sites for a re-examination of a number of postcolonial paradigms.

Haut de page


Campbell, John. Travels in South Africa Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society, Being a Narrative of a Second Journey in the Interior of that Country. London: London Missionary Society, 1822.

Cox, Jeffrey. The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700. London: Routledge, 2008.

Etherington, Norman, ed. Mission and Empire. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Fisher, John, and Anthony Best, eds. On the Fringes of Diplomacy: Influences on British Foreign Policy, 1800–1945. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011.

Greenlee, James G., and Charles M. Johnson. Good Citizens: British Missionaries & Imperial States 1870 to 1918. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1999.

Hannigan, Tim. Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game. Stroud: The History Press, 2011.

Johnston, Anna. Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800–1860. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Kuehn, Julia, and Paul Smethurst, eds. Travel Writing, Form, and Empire: The Poetics and Politics of Mobility. NY: Routledge, 2009.

Lansdell, Henry. Through Siberia. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882.

Lansdell, Henry. Russian Central Asia. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1885.

Lansdell, Henry. Through Central Asia. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1887.

Lansdell, Henry. Chinese Central Asia: A Ride to Little Tibet. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, and Company, 1893.

Livingstone, David. Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa, and a Journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the West Coast; Thence Across the Continent, Down the River Zambesi, to the Eastern Ocean. London: John Murray, 1857.

May, Andrew J. Welsh Missionaries and British Imperialism: The Empire of Clouds in North-West India. Manchester: MUP, 2012.

Moffat, Robert. Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa. London: John Snow, 1842.

Morrison, Alexander. The Russian Conquest of Central Asia. Cambridge: CUP, 2020.

Olsaretti, Alessandro. ‘Urban Culture, Curiosity, and the Aesthetics of Distance: The Representation of Picturesque Carnivals in Early Victorian Travelogues to the Levant’. Social History 32 (2007): 247f.

Philip, John. Researches in South Africa; Illustrating the Civil, Moral, and Religious Condition of the Native Tribes, including journals of the author’s travels in the interior, together with detailed accounts of the progress of the Christian missions, exhibiting the influence of Christianity in promoting civilization. London: James Duncan, 1828.

Porter, Andrew. Religion Versus Empire: British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester: MUP, 2004.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Wolff, Joseph. Missionary Journal and Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, written by himself; revised and edited by John Bayford. London: James Duncan, 1824.

Wolff, Joseph. Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843–1845, to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly. London: J.W. Parker, 1845.

Wolff, Joseph. Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL. D: Vicar of Ile Brewers, near Taunton; and Late Missionary to the Jews and Muhammadans in Persia, Bokhara, Cashmeer, etc. London: Saunders, Otley and Co., 1861.

Haut de page


1 Andrew Porter. ‘An Overview 1700–1914’. Norman Etherington, ed. Mission and Empire. Oxford: OUP, 2005. 40-63.

2 J. Wolff’s volumes are Missionary Journal and Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, written by himself; revised and edited by John Bayford. London: James Duncan, 1824; Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843–1845, to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly. London: J.W. Parker, 1845; Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL. D: Vicar of Ile Brewers, near Taunton; and Late Missionary to the Jews and Muhammadans in Persia, Bokhara, Cashmeer, etc. London: Saunders, Otley and Co., 1861. H. Lansdell published Through Siberia. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882; Russian Central Asia. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1885; Through Central Asia. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1887; Chinese Central Asia: A Ride to Little Tibet. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, and Company, 1893.

3 Alexander Morrison. ‘Twin Imperial Disasters. The invasions of Khiva and Afghanistan in the Russian and British official mind, 1839–1842’. Modern Asian Studies 48.1 (2014) 253‒300. doi:10.1017/S0026749X13000036

4 Peter Hulme. ‘Deep Maps: Travelling on the Spot’. Julia Kuehn and Paul Smethurst, eds. Travel Writing, Form, and Empire: The Poetics and Politics of Mobility. NY: Routledge, 2009. 132‒47.

5 Known as the ‘Panjdeh Incident’ when Russian forces seized in March 1885 some Afghan territory south of the Oxus River at Panjdeh (now Serhetabat, Turkmenistan), an oasis just north of Herat considered then part of Afghanistan and a gateway to India. The Panjdeh Incident and its aftermath were probably the closest that Britain and Russia came to war in relation to their respective Indian and Central Asian empires. A direct conflict did not eventuate, however, coupled with some meaningful diplomacy and in 1887 the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission was able to demarcate the frontier of northern Afghanistan with Russian Turkestan. See Morrison, The Russian Conquest of Central Asia, 409–475.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill, « From Travel to Text: Reverends Wolff and Lansdell’s Missions to Bokhara »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 99 Printemps | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 11 juin 2024. URL :

Haut de page


Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill

Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill is a member of research centres CAS (Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes), LLA (Lettres, Langages et Arts) at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès and EUR’ORBIEM at Sorbonne University, France. Her research interests include the history, literature and cultural studies of the English-speaking world, Slavonic Studies as well as travel writing and art history. Her publications include an edited volume entitled ‘Anglophone Travel and Exploration Writing: Meetings Between the Human and Nonhuman/ Les Rencontres de l’humain et du non-humain dans la littérature de voyage et d’exploration anglophone’, Caliban, French Journal of English Studies, 59, (Toulouse: PUM, 2018) and a monography on British travel writing in Central Asia (Genève: Olizane, 2019).
Irina Kantarbaeva-Bill est membre des centres de recherche CAS (Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes), LLA (Lettres, Langages et Arts) à l’Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès et de l’EUR’ORBIEM à l’Université de la Sorbonne, France. Elle s’intéresse aux études culturelles des mondes anglophone et slave ainsi qu’aux récits de voyages. Ses publications comprennent la direction du numéro 59 de Caliban, French Journal of English Studies (Toulouse : PUM, 2018), et une monographie sur la littérature de voyage britannique en Asie centrale (Genève : Olizane, 2019).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search