Wiliam Carey (1761-1834)

by Nana Osei-Opare

Carey, William (1761-1834), was a missionary, botanist, and linguist who played an important role in shaping European understandings of India.  Born to Edmund Carey and Elizabeth Willis in a stone cottage at Pury End, Paulerspury, England, to a lower working class family, few could have predicted the contours of William Carey’s life.  While Edmund Carey was a journey weaver and a parish clerk, little is known about his mother.  William Carey grew up with his four siblings: Ann, Mary, Thomas, and Elizabeth Carey and his “widowed grandmother, Ann Carey,”  who helped raise them.  Furthermore, William Carey’s uncle, Peter Carey, who had fought in Canada against the French, although not residing with the nuclear family, also lived in Paulerspury.  Peter, childless, took a special fondness for William.  It was through Peter that a William acquired a love for the botanicals.

In 1779, William Carey was his relative’s, T. Old’s, shoe-making apprentice.  On June 10, 1781, Carey married his first wife, T. Old’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Plackett.  Soon afterwards, T. Old died, and Carey established an independent shoe-making business. Unfortunately for Carey, business was difficult.  During this period, he and his baby daughter, Anne, became sick, with the latter dying.  This was not the last time grief hugged Carey.  He would outlive two wives and a few children.

In 1785, Carey left Hackleton for Moulton. Here, Carey continued to study Dutch, Italian, and French, while teaching primary school children.  Dorothy bore three sons, Felix, William, and Peter, during the five year stint at Moulton.  During this period, however, financial difficulties never left the family.  Some speculate that this pushed Carey to return to the church during those years.  Nonetheless, Carey now considered proselytism as an opportunity and mission.  Although Carey initially wanted to spread the gospel in Tahiti and West Africa, a meeting with John Thomas, a physician, who had been to India twice, made him reconsider and go to India.  On June 13, 1793, at the age of thirty-two, Carey, with the Baptist Missionary Society’s blessing, followed Thomas to India. It was the last time he saw England.

During this period, the British East India Company, worried that preachers would disrupt their administration and affairs, limited preachers’ entrance to and movements within India. Because Carey did not wish to seek Company permission to enter India, he traveled on a Danish ship named, Kron Princessa Maria, to India.  During the voyage, while learning Bengali from Thomas, Carey simultaneously assisted Thomas translate the Book of Genesis into Bengali.  This would be the first of a series of translations Carey would undertake during his life.

In India, Carey was a conduit between English and Indian languages and cultures.  He translated the Bible into approximately thirty to forty Indian languages.  Such was Carey’s fascination and admiration for Indian languages that he created a stunning three volume Bengali dictionary.  In a period where some, like James Mill, viewed Indian languages with contempt, Carey sought to capture and portray the Bengali language’s meanings and essences.  The first volume of Carey’s Bengali dictionary was solely dedicated to negative word forms.  Indeed, some have referred to Carey’s language capabilities as greater than that of Sir William Jones’.  In July 1823, the East India Company, recognizing Carey’s talents, appointed him as the official Bengali language translator.  Carey was charged with translating company laws and decrees into Bengali.

In a few instances, William Carey also facilitated and oversaw British industrialization in India.  In 1794, Carey supervised an indigo factory at Mudnabatti, Dinadjpur, India, where he earned two-hundred rupees per month and received a commission on all indigo sold from it. In this capacity, Carey oversaw ninety Indian employees and became acquainted with Indian cultural and working norms.

Carey sought to bring Indians into western cultural and religious norms.  He pushed against infanticide, the burning and burying of lepers, and fought viciously against Sati, the burning of widowed women.  In some cases, it is alleged that he re-married Indian Christian widowed women.  Furthermore, Carey founded a College in Serampore, which the Danish king partially funded, to educate the Indian population.  He also helped establish other schools to push Indian girls to receive schooling.  Carey and his associate, William Ward, believed that an Indian Christian woman should be able to educate her child within the Christian tradition.  According to them, Christianity and female ignorance could not coexist.

Carey also played a significant role in studying India’s natural sciences.  It is believed that he introduced the English daisy and Linnaean system of gardening to India.  Furthermore, Carey ‘discovered’ the Careya herbacea and is known to have written one of the first books, Flora Indica, on India’s natural history.  These accolades, however, underpin the colonial logic and enterprise of laying claim to discovery and naming.

Upon Carey’s death, the Agricultural Society, the Baptist Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Asiatic Society of Calcutta obituarists paid glowing tributes to his work and life.  The British and Foreign Bible Society obituarist remarked that Carey “was qualified in an extraordinary degree by a singular facility in acquiring languages” and that he had “been instrumental in giving to the tribes of Asia the sacred Scriptures.”  In addition, the obituarist for the Asiatic Society of Calcutta remarked upon Carey’s canny ability to learn Indian languages and “for his eminent services in opening the stores of Indian literature to the knowledge of Europe.”  Carey had become a cultural, legal, and religious conduit between the English and Indian societies.

Ultimately, Carey represents the duality of the colonial experience.  On the one hand, his seemingly benign entrance into India underscored both the colonial and imperial mission to improve the Indian peoples, by providing education and Christianity, bringing industrialization to their lands, destabilizing prior customs and re-formulating new ones. Yet, his ability to relate the Bengali to the English language, and help alleviate the distress of marginalized groups, including women, underscores his significance to both the English and Indian societies.




Works Cited


Davis, Walter Price. William Carey: Father of Modern Missions (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1963).


Dewanji, Malay. William Carey and the Indian Renaissance (New Delhi, India: Published for William Carey Study and Research Centre & Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society by ISPCK, 1996).


Drewery, Mary. William Carey: Shoemaker and Missionary (London, England: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978).


Mangalwadi, Ruth and Vishal. William Carey: A Tribute by a Indian Woman (New Delhi, India: Nivedit Good Books, 1993).


Marshman, John Clark.  Life and times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward: Embracing the History of the Serampore Mission. Vol 2. (London, England: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1859).


Oussoren, Aalbertinus Hermen. William Carey: Especially His Missionary Principles. (Leiden : A. W. Sijthoff, 1945).