A “Chain” of Affective Architecture: the case of the Church Missionary Society hospitals in a Muslim World

Sara Ebrahimi, UCD, Humanity Institute

A “Chain” of Affective Architecture: the case of the Church Missionary Society hospitals in a Muslim World

Despite the growing number of publications on the history of emotions and Christian missions[1], little work has explored how the missionaries used the built environment to create an affective connection with potential converts. Furthermore, former histories of British missionary architecture have mainly focused on ecclesiastical buildings.[2] The architecture of the mission hospitals has largely been overlooked. The only study that has examined the architecture of mission hospitals is Michelle Renshaw’s volume on the American hospitals in China between 1880 and 1902.[3]

The monograph I am currently working on weaves together studies of the colonial built environment with the history of emotions, Christian missions and medicine. It is a development of my IRC-funded doctoral research which I completed at University College Dublin under the supervision of Dr. Samantha Martin-McAuliffe. Focusing on the Church Missionary Society (CMS) hospitals, I contemplate the issue of gaining the trust of local communities. As the biggest British missionary society in terms of medical work abroad, the CMS built more than 70 hospitals in Asia and Africa between 1865 and 1939. The issue of gaining trust was frequently discussed in written accounts of the CMS’s medical work, as an essential first step for a given mission.[4] My monograph interrogates this issue, investigating how we may employ this aspect to analyse the architecture of the CMS hospitals.

As it is clear from the title, the focus of my monograph is on the so-called “Muslim world”. I particularly examine a chain of 12 hospitals that were built in an area stretching from southern Iran to Pakistan and Kashmir.

In this blogpost, I want to first touch upon the issue of gaining trust and my monograph’s approach. I then go into more details about the relationship between architecture and gaining trust.

Ploughing before Sowing

In the process of evangelization, gaining the trust of local population was regarded as a prerequisite for introducing Christian beliefs. As Dr. F. O Lasbery, a medical missionary of the Society in Egypt, put it in 1905, gaining trust was “the ploughing time before the sowing.”[5] Former histories of Christian missions have referred to the issue of gaining trust, but only breifly. Michael Jennings has stated in the context of missionary medicine in colonial Tanganyika that the “issue of building up trust within a community over a long period of time was critical to the success or otherwise of that mission.”[6] Karen Vallgårda has commented on the matter as well. Vallgårda does not talk about trust per se, she uses the word “persusion”. Writing in the context of Danish missionaries in South India, Vallgårda argues that due to their lack of resources, missionaries “had to rely on persuasion rather than force” to make any impact.[7] These studies make clear that gaining trust was in fact an issue. However, the meaning of gaining trust has been taken for granted. We also do not know how gaining trust (or persuasion) worked, in particular, how it influenced architecture or architectural decisions.

To discuss the issue of gaining trust, I engage with literature on the history of emotions. Firstly, I pay close attention to an understanding of gaining trust that is internal to the CMS sources. The letters and reports of the missionaries show that the term trust referred primarily to evoking the interest of the people.[8] The idea was that the larger the numbers of people a hospital attracted, the more the missionaries had the chance to gain trust. What is significant to my monograph is the ways by which the missionaries endeavored to increase the number of visitors. I should mention that hospital buildings possibly created different emotional feelings other than trust. However, my monograph does not discuss what the local communities felt about the missionaries when confronted with the buildings. It is difficult to predict how the emotional practise of the missionaries affected the local communities. As Claire McLisky has stated, this depended not only on the type of colonialism but also on the specific nature of colonial people’s own emotional culture.[9] Moreover, what medical reports of the missionaries reveal concerning the viewpoint of the patients is indeed very limited. The focus of my monograph is on missionaries themselves and how they viewed and employed architecture as a medium for attracting the greatest possible number of people.

In seeing architecture as medium for gaining trust, my monograph uses the Monique Scheer’s concept of emotional practice.[10] According to Scheer, emotional practices are the means – such as buildings – that aid the subject to achieve an emotional state. We either implement these means on our own, or sometimes simply be confronted with an emotional setting. In accordance with this approach, I view the architecture of missionary hospitals as a kind of emotional practice served to instil feelings of trust.

How did architecture and building trust work?

One of the reoccuring themes in scholarship on colonial built environment is the adoptation to local conditions. Scholars typically talk about the interface between indignous and imported ways of building and their views fall on a continuum between two poles: at one end, the accommodation to local conditions is appraised as an attempt to reinforce political power.[11] At the other, the incorporation of indigenous style is viewed as an indication of respect and sympathy.[12] My monograph introduces another argument which sits somewhere between these two debates. It appraises the adoptation to local conditions as a practice aimed at developing an emotional connection with communities. The CMS missionaries incorporated local architecture in a different way than their counterparts. They used local elements that were mostly related to the daily lives of the people. Moreover, instead of importing, the missionaries shelved the time-established principles of hospital design in Britain. The architecture of the Peshawar hospital in north-west India (now Pakistan) illustrates this approach quite well.

Built between 1904 and 1906, the Peshawar hospital is where the CMS invented a type of hospital architecture which became known as the “serai system”. Besides out-patient and in-patient blocks, the hospital had a building called the “James serai”. The James serai was designed in a similar manner to a caravanserai (an inn for travellers built along routes in the Middle East and Central Asia), consisted of a set of identical rooms designed around a central courtyard. It accommodated families who visited the hospital from some far off districts, brining a sick relative (I will refer to these group as travellers or traveller families hereinafter). Instead of just accepting the patient, the missionaries would place one of the rooms of the serai at the disposal of the “whole family”.

The James serai was not a form of “architectural diplomacy” where certain local groups made special provisions for themsleves through negotiation with colonial authorities. As a study by Preeti Chopra shows, in “native hospitals” in British Bombay, certain elite groups secured separate spaces for their own communities.[13] In Peshawar, the story was different; the James serai was a planned scheme. Located close to the boarder of Afghanistan, Peshawar was largly chosen as a medical mission station to reach travellers from Afghanistan. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this blogpost, the missionaries were not allowed to enter Afghanistan. By providing a separate facility, the missionaries hoped to encourage the Afghan travellers to visit or more so to stay in the hospital. That is, providing a separate facility for traveller patients was an emotional practice in and of itself. The architecture of the James serai is more telling.

The missionaries had first-hand knowledge of caravanserai architecture. Prior to the construction of the hospital, the work was carried out in three rented caravanserais for eight years. One of these caravanserai was set aside for traveller families. The missionaries simply repeated this arrangment in the new hospiral. The reason was straightforward: “it [this arrangement] disarms his suspicions, whilst at the same time it brings very many more indivituals under the influence of our teaching.”[1][14] This qoute clearly shows that the missionaries deliberatly designed a caravanserai. The number of the people was the prime concern, to an extend that the missionaries drew on a type of architecture that had been associated with travellers for centuries.

We should not forget that the James serai was designed when the movement and interaction of goods and people in the hospitals were increasingly controlled in Britain.[15] However, a 1908’s report of the hospital demonstrates that the missionaries were in fact concious about how the hospital architecture would be perceived by the patients. Because of this they were careful to not carry their ““foreign ideas” too far.”[16] The report stated that “in the Serai portion of our hospital especially, our rough trans-frontier patients, with their families, can come and live under conditions not remotely different from those at their homes.”[17] The James serai was designed to allow the traveller families to preserve their own way of living while in the hospital, because, there were fears that they would not come otherwise.

My analysis shares some similarities with Michelle Renshaw’s study of missionary hospitals in China. Renshaw argues that the missionaries in China (mainly American missionaries) were concerned with the affective capacities of the hospital buildings. She demonstrates that, “to use the building to make them [the patients] receptive of Western medicine and, ultimately, the Chritisan message,” the missionaries paid attention to Chinese sensibilities when sitting the hospital, incorporated Chinese design principles or/and used local and familiar materials.[18] However, she maintains that attention to good health and sanitary remained a concern – especially when it came to ward design – and does not show if concerns with feelings of the patients resulted in the invention of a specific type of hospital architecture.

The idea of serai block was transferred to other parts of the north-west India. For example, a building was added to Quetta hospital in 1909. In describing the building, it was stated that it was designed based on the “serai system”.[19] This clearly shows that the designing a hospital similar to a caravanserai became a system of hospital architecture.

The serai system has been overlooked in scholarship on British hospital architecture. One of the chapters of my monograph is dedicated to the analysis of the serai system. Besides drawing on the architecture of caravanserai, the CMS also looked at the architecture of Iranian courtyard houses and the Purdah architecture.


[1] Rebecca Swartz, Educating Emotions in Natal and Western Australia, 1854-65,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 18, no. 2 (2017); Tony Ballantyne, “Moving Texts and “Humane Sentiment”: Materiality, mobility and the emotions of imperial humanitarianism,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 17, no. 1 (2016).

[2] Emily Turner, “Claiming the Land, The Church Missionary Society and Architecture in the Arctic,” Studies in Church History 54 (2018): 296-313.

[3] Michelle Renshaw, The American Hospital in China, 1880-1920 (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

[4] For example, see “The Near East,” The Mission Hospital 42, no. 488 (September 1938): 213; “Egypt and Sudan Mission,” Mercy and Truth 17, no. 199 (July 1913): 206.

[5] “A Visit to the Old Cairo Hospital,” Mercy and Truth 9, no. 104 (August 1905): 249.

[6] Michael Jennings, “A Matter of Vital Importance: The Place of the Medical Mission in Material and Child Healthcare in Tanganyika, 1919-39,” in Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa, ed., David Hardiman (Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2006), 245.

[7] Karen Vallgårda, “Were Christian Missionaries Colonizers?” Interventions 18, no. 6 (2016): 874.

[8] The words “interest” and “affection” were widely used by the missionaries in their statements about trust. For interest, see M. Mackenzie, “Fuh-Ning Hospital,” Mercy and Truth 8, no. 87 (March 1904): 77; for affection, see “The Annual Meeting,” Preaching and Healing: The Report of the CMS Medical Mission Auxiliary for 1902-03 (1903): 12.

[9] Claire McLisky, Daniel Midena and Karen Vallgårda, “Introduction”, in Emotions and Christian Missions: Historical Perspectives, ed., Claire McLisky, Daniel Midena and Karen Vallgårda, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[10] Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understand Emotions,” History and Theory 51 (May 2012): 209.

[11] Thomas Metcalf, “Architecture and the Representation of Empire: India, 1860-1910,” Representations, no. 6 (1984): 54.

[12] Alex Bremner, “The Architecture of Universities’ Mission to Central Africa: Developing a Vernacular Tradition in the Anglican Field, 1861-1909,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68 (2009): 514-39.

[13] Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 133-48.

[14] Peshawar Medical Missions, 1904, CMS/M/FL 1/I 7, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

[15] Jeanne Kisacky, “Germs are in the details: Aseptic Design and General Constructors at the Lying-In Hospital of the City of New York, 1897-1901,” Construction History 28, no. 1 (2013): 83-7.

[16] A Frontier Hospital, 1908, p. 6, CMS/ ACC7 O10, CRL.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Renshaw, The American Hospital, 61.

[19] “Items: Home and Foreign,” Mercy and Truth 13, no. 146 (February 1909): 38.

Citer ce billet
Norig Neveu (2019, 22 avril). A “Chain” of Affective Architecture: the case of the Church Missionary Society hospitals in a Muslim World. MisSMO. Consulté le 16 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/rgpw

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