top of page
  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner


Dorothy Plackett Carey was twenty-five and William almost twenty when they married. She resisted going to India—in hindsight with good reason—but went nonetheless. Once there, with seven small children and recurrent bouts of illness, she suffered immensely and eventually went insane.

Dorothy Carey unknowingly made a real sacrifice for the Gospel. Her illness was seen as a blot and an embarrassment on Carey’s career. Even today mental illness is not something you talk about—even though it is still common in missions.

Biographers have dismissed Dorothy—William Carey’s first wife of twenty-six years—in a few sentences. George Smith in his biography The Life of William Carey writes:

She never learned to share his aspirations or to understand his ideals. Not only did she remain to the last a peasant woman, with a reproachful tongue, but the early hardships of Calcutta and a fever and dysentery clouded the last twelve years of her life with madness.

Almost from the first day of his early married life he had never known the delight of daily converse with a wife able to enter into his scholarly pursuits, and ever to stimulate him in his heavenly quest.

Another writer called Dorothy Carey a “dull commonplace woman” who was “deplorably unsuited to be William’s wife.”

Charlotte Yonge said of her that “she was a dull, ignorant woman, with no feeling for her husband’s high aims or superior powers.” These are cruel words. James Beck writes in his book Dorothy Carey:

Meanwhile many of these same authors have subjected William to a similar but opposite disservice: overpraise. Sometimes we cannot tell which does us more harm: harsh criticism or bloated praise.

An example of such “overpraise” is this sweeping statement by John Marshman:

The extreme consideration and tenderness which invariably marked his conduct towards her, place the meekness and magnanimity of his character in the strongest light. No word of complaint escaped him.

But Carey did complain. In his journal he writes, at the beginning of Dorothy’s emotional retreat from reality, “I don’t love to be always complaining. Yet I always complain.” So to suggest that Dorothy’s problems never bothered Carey, that he never uttered a word of complaint, or that he never lost patience with her is to place him in an untenable position. He was as human as she. We can, as Beck says, honor and remember him well without having to make ourselves believe he was perfect in all that he ever said or did.

It is true that, instead of signing the register at her wedding, Dorothy put a sign—because she did not know how to read or write. This was not due to lack of intelligence; there simply was no village school where she grew up. She did later learn to read and write.

They were married for twelve years before William heard the call of God to be a missionary. They had already had six of their seven children when Carey set his heart on his mission—a very risky venture at that time. Dorothy had been adamant about not going with him. No amount of arguments or reasoning seemed to change her mind. Possibly intuition told her that “it would be a sentence of banishment for her and the children,” without being able to articulate her reason. Carey’s own father had thought him “mad” to go. Some of the factors she must have considered were that she was six months pregnant, already had three little sons, had probably just recovered from her nausea, and the thought of still more nausea—five months of seasickness—would have been enough for her not even to consider the journey. She had heard enough from Carey himself about the tough living conditions and the ravages of tropical disease. It would be hard to imagine, with William so absorbed and interested in sea voyages, that she would not have heard of the scurvy and the many deaths at sea. She probably hated the thought of having to be separated from her closely-knit family, the familiar food and climate. She probably also knew that going to India as a missionary was illegal.

I agree with Beck that, “Dorothy’s decision to stay was a sane and sensible choice rather than an insane and sinful one.”

After waiting for six weeks in the south of England and then being asked to leave the ship and told to wait for the Danish ship, Carey, eight-year-old Felix, and Dr. John Thomas showed up one day for breakfast with Dorothy, in a last-ditch effort to get her to change her mind. She remained adamant. Dr. Thomas says he used fear to put pressure on her, saying that if she did not come with them she might never see her husband again. That, it seems, did it, and Dorothy relented, agreeing to accompany them to India, so long as her sister Kitty could go with her.

One can imagine how she felt, having just a few hours in which to pack, sort out her house, and say good-bye to her family, knowing that she might never see them again if she were to succumb, as was likely, to sickness. Meanwhile, the men had to tell the appropriate committee at the Baptist Missionary Society about the change in plans, and make the arrangements for the money needed for their tickets.

The Careys and their companions landed in Calcutta after a voyage of five months, in November 1793. It was cooler than normal. There was no one to welcome them or offer them hospitality; they were entering illegally. They were on their own.

Carey at once was preoccupied with putting into practice the Bengali he had learnt on the ship from Dr. Thomas and from preaching to the Bengalis. This was, after all, his passion and his life’s goal.

Meanwhile Dorothy, with three boys and a baby, did not know the language and had to look after the children in this strange land with strange food and people who were always staring at her. It seems that Carey did not have much time for the family. Dorothy, with her sister, was largely left alone to care for and feed the family. Kitty was a great support, as were the Thomas family, but they were something of a mixed blessing; financial mistakes resulted in their being hounded by creditors.

Limited funds meant the families were housed poorly, in three separate dwellings in different parts of Calcutta. This in itself was unsettling. After five months, they were offered free land to develop in a tiger-haunted, malaria-infested jungle in south Bengal. It would have meant living in a hut—but an Englishman in a government house came to their rescue. The extreme heat and humidity along with many snakes kept Dorothy in constant fear for her children. She struggled with chronic and debilitating dysentery. Her one support, Kitty, then decided to marry Charles Short, the man who had offered them his house. Dorothy now felt truly alone.

But their conditions were to change for the better. William was offered a manager’s job in an indigo factory, with a good salary and a secure house with servants. Very important too was the support of the Udnys—a godly family. But by this time Dorothy must have had enough, and in 1795 she took a turn for the worse. The last straw seems to have been the death of their five-year-old son, Peter. Carey, who was himself very sick, could not find a grave-digger, pallbearer, or casket maker for their son. Isolated from other Christians or Europeans, Carey had to turn to the local Muslims to help him bury Peter—which was taboo for them. The domestic staff refused to touch even the poles of the coffin; to do so would have meant excommunication. This was a very traumatic time for Carey, and it seems for the first time he resorted to an uncustomary outburst of anger at those who threatened to ostracize the only people to whom he could turn for help.

With difficulty, he got four Muslims to dig the grave—with inevitable results. The local community excommunicated the four, who then came and complained to Carey. Carey was now faced with a dilemma: Should he stand with these men who had stood with him in his time of need? If he failed to do so, he could expect no help in future. Gentle persuasion was not going to deliver reconciliation. Instead, Carey angrily sent two men to bring the Muslim leader to his house, by force if necessary, and kept him under virtual house arrest while a judge was fetched to settle the matter. The leader was made to eat with the excommunicants—or go hungry. Local traditions had pushed Carey to the limits of his own nature.

For Dorothy, grief at losing her child tipped her over the edge of sanity. She started losing touch with reality. She began to have delusions of Carey’s infidelity and would follow him around to catch him red-handed. She would follow him to the factory and publicly accuse him in foul language, shouting obscenities and causing great embarrassment. She saw Carey as her enemy and sought to get rid of him, even taking a kitchen knife to him. She had to be confined to her room for her own safety and his for twelve years, until her death in 1807.

This was enough reason for Carey’s biographers to dismiss her. Yet it had been Dorothy’s sacrifice that had enabled Carey to do all that he did:

• had she refused to come to India, Carey would have been forced to return to England;

• had she come from an educated upper-class background, she might have completely refused the poor lifestyle they had to accept during the early years, when mission support was not there;

• had she insisted on studying and ministering, they could not have looked after their children in the early years;

• as a result of her mental illness, mission societies began to treat wives as being equally important as their husbands: They were interviewed; their vision, abilities, and mental health were examined, their needs and concerns provided for.

• Beck says that Dorothy became the hard anvil on which was hammered some of the success of Carey’s remarkable career.

Vishal Mangalwadi, Ruth Mangalwadi, and Ralph D. Winter, The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999).

24 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page