Untold lives blog

08 September 2015

Reading, writing, arithmetic – and leapfrog

On International Literacy Day we bring you the story of missionary Joseph Mullens teaching soldiers and sailors to read and write during the voyage of the clipper Malabar to Calcutta in 1860.


Books on a tablePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Image taken from Dexter and Garlick, Object Lessons in Geography for Standards I. II. & III (London,1899) BL flickr 


Joseph Mullens was a Congregationalist minister who served with the London Missionary Society in India. In 1845 he married Hannah Catherine Lacroix the daughter of a Swiss missionary. Hannah was fluent in Bengali and undertook educational work with local women.  They went in 1858 to England on furlough, returning to India in 1860.

The Mullens family set sail in the recently launched Malabar in September 1860: Joseph; Hannah; children Alice, Lucy, Kenneth, and baby Kate; Hannah’s sister Laura Overbeck Lacroix; and ayah Areka, ‘a jewell of a servant’  Many family members came to see them off at Gravesend including their ‘darling boy’ eight-year-old Eliot who was to be educated at a school in London. 

Joseph kept a fascinating journal of the voyage, detailing his fellow travellers and describing a typical day on board ship for both crew and passengers.  There were anxious moments when little Kenneth fell off a ladder onto his head and when bad weather struck the ship.  The family were kept busy throughout with religious and educational activities; Joseph commented at the start of the journey: ‘I find that my hands can easily be filled with useful employment’.  Joseph held religious services for passengers and for the troops being transported to India.  Bengali and Hindustani lessons were arranged. Laura Lacroix led separate classes for the young ladies on board in English and French dictation. 

Mullens sought permission to offer classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, and Bible instruction for the soldiers.  To his delight, sailors were also allowed the opportunity to learn.  On Saturday 15 September the soldiers’ class met for the first time: ‘22 were present.  Stirred up by good example, 14 of the crew have asked for lessons in reading & writing, & have the full sanction of the Capt. and chief officer to avail themselves as much as possible of all the instruction we can give’.  However Mullens was later to be disappointed in the numbers attending the classes, with a number of men having to be absent each day because of their onboard duties.

Although young Alice commented: ‘Don’t you think we have all gone knowledge mad?’, there were opportunities for less cerebral pastimes.  There were lively celebrations for ‘Crossing the Line’, and Mullens witnessed soldiers entertaining themselves with sessions of leapfrog followed by ‘a most funny game, pulling each other’s ears’.

The Malabar reached Calcutta in December 1860 after a rapid voyage of 96 days.  Sadly Hannah and Kate both died in 1861.  From 1865 Joseph travelled the world publicising and raising funds for the London Missionary Society: India, China, the United States, Canada, Madagascar, and finally central Africa where he fell ill and died in July 1879.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
MSS Eur A214 – journal of Joseph Mullens of voyage to Calcutta September- December 1860. [The author was identified as the Reverend Dawson when the journal was purchased by the British Library in 1992 because of an inscription inside the volume – the catalogue will now be corrected.]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Mullens, Joseph (1820-1879), missionary by Katherine Prior

Find the writings of Joseph and Hannah Mullens in Explore the British Library



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