Imagine taking your family and travelling halfway around the world, to a place, which is strange and wholly different from everything you know. Now imagine that it is 1874 and that place is Madras in India. What do you bring from home, to remind you of your friends and family and of the place, you grew up? What do you buy to keep your wife entertained on the journey, and on the long days when you will be out, following your calling and she will have to pass the time in a new and foreign place? And what will you collect, as days become years, and this strange place stops being strange and becomes a home? When the people you meet, who look so different from you, become your friends, and you begin to be able to speak to them in their own tongue? When you have children, who are born in this place, and know no other life?
Some of these questions are answered through this wonderful collection of artefacts, which belonged to Herman Jensen and his wife Julie. Jensen travelled to Madras as a missionary in 1874 and stayed there until his death in 1909. Thus, this collection is not so much about life in Madras, India, in the late 1800s, but about missionary life. About people who chose to leave their extended family and homes behind, and devote their life to a calling. And while you can say much about the missionary practice, there is no denying the dedication which drove people like Herman Jensen.
Here, we have chosen a few select items to illustrate some aspects of the lives of Herman, Julie and their children.
Herman and Julie had a vast collection of brass Hindu figurines. Here we have two merry men, sitting in a horse drawn chariot.
Herman Jensen was a big man with an impressive beard. And because of this elaborately decorated cigar cutter, I imagine him puffing away in the shade of a tree, looking for all the world like a proper 19th century gentleman.
…and no gentleman ventures to new and faraway places without proper protection. This beautiful revolver was, speculated Herman’s great grandson, who donated the collection to Moesgaard, probably brought to India from Denmark.
It is hard to imagine a missionary’s wife lining her eyes with kohl, so we must assume that this beautiful kohl container was bought as a souvenir, or as a decorative trinket to adorn a shelf in the missionary home.
Julie, Herman’s wife, did not work as a missionary herself. So how did she spend her time? The collection included quite a number of beautiful seashells and conches, which she collected on long walks, and also a few beautifully painted calabashes and bamboos like this one. She was quite the artist, Julie. She died in 1892.
The collection also included a number of little boxes. They held tiny seashells, locks of hair, soil (“From the garden of Gethsemane”, according to a note), and then there was this. In it was a few shells, and a note on faded yellowing paper, written in a beautiful spindly writing. It said: “Little Miss. This stamp box once stood on a table in Marie… (illegible), where it rained in during the night, and it got wet, so that the mosaic dissolved in one corner; but you will still accept it from your Julie, will you not?”. Who “Little Miss” is, and whether Julie ever managed to give her the box, we will never know. But what a lovely little snippet of a life it represents.
Lastly, we must not forget Julie and Herman’s children. His daughter Nanna was the one who ended up caring for her parents’ grand collection of artefacts, placed in a massive wooden cabinet. Perhaps that is why it is her, I imagine playing with this beautiful doll. Perhaps she, dressed in the severe and constricting dresses of the late 1800s, imagined herself in a flowing sari like that of the doll, beautiful beaded jewellery adorning her ears, hair, neck, and nose.
Perhaps, in later blog posts, we will revisit the Jensen family. With the collection of objects, the great grandson also gave us copies of photographs and letters, which we have yet to study more closely. But of what we have seen so far, the story of the Jensen family, and of 19th century missionaries in general, is fascinating and worth exploring.