In June 1894 a seven-page obituary of English religious liberal, feminist and writer Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-1894) appeared in the Bengali-language Journal for the Enlightenment of Women [Bamabodhini Patrika]. It eulogised her as ‘India’s dearest friend and well-wisher’.
Sophia is little known today. Thanks to the efforts of feminist historians we now know quite a lot about prominent women activists from the past, including of course Mary Wollstonecraft, who is so closely associated with this Meeting House. However, we know much less about other fascinating women who worked mainly ‘behind the scenes’, including Sophia, who also lived in this area of London.
While there is soon to be a memorial to Mary on Newington Green, there is not even a plaque on the houses where Sophia lived in this area.
Yet her homes in Highbury Park and Finsbury Park were crucial hubs of a pioneering inter-faith network which connected liberal Christians like Sophia with members of the Brahmo Samaj. This was an influential religious and social reform movement among Hindus in India which, in the teeth of fierce opposition, promoted worship of one supreme being, opposed superstition and idol-worship, challenged hierarchies of caste and campaigned to improve the education of women.
Sophia acted as the official record-keeper for the Brahmo Samaj, promoted its activities to the British public, offered hospitality to Indians visiting Britain, and researched and wrote the standard biography of the movement’s famous founder, Rammohun Roy, still revered by many as the ‘Father of Modern India’. She devoted much of her life to cultivating and sustaining close friendships with the Indian men and women who belonged to this movement, seeking an equal exchange of ideas across the hierarchies of ‘race’ and divides of religion which the British Raj had entrenched in India.
Sophia learned Bengali so that she could communicate directly with Brahmo women, and, rather than setting herself up as the white saviour of Indian women, as some British feminists did during the time of Empire, she instead expressed solidarity with their own initiatives.
This is evident in the letter she wrote in Bengali to the secretary of the first Brahmo women’s organisation to express her ‘appreciation and deep sympathy for all of you who are devoting their time and energy to women’s advancement in Bengal’ and her ‘earnest wish’ that they succeeded. As her Indian friends recorded on her death: ‘In spite of being a Christian herself, she took up the cause and the movement of the Brahmo-Samaj as her own, and helped spread its ideas through her work.’ Sophia had a cosmopolitan outlook on the world, rather than a narrowly nationalist one. She was a single woman whose physical disabilities, health problems and limited financial resources prevented her from ever making the long journey from Britain to India. Despite this, she began to see India, not England, as her true home. As her Indian friends recalled: “Just as the British living in India waited for that one letter from Britain, she waited for her Indian friends to write to her. Often those close to her would ask whether she had an update from her home, i.e. India.”
Sophia’s international contacts were interwoven with national and local webs of friends which included members of the Sharpe family, influential members of the congregation of this Meeting House. The Sharpes were also supporters of the Brahmo Samaj, and It would be fascinating to do more research into how such inter-faith links were cultivated by Newington Green Unitarians.
If you find Sophia’s life story inspiring, maybe we could start a campaign to get a plaque put up on one of the houses she lived in locally. “Sophia Dobson Collet: Cosmopolitan, feminist and English promoter of the Brahmo Samaj”?