THE AMERICAN MISSIONARIES AND JAFFNA TAMILS
Posted on June 20th, 2016

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The ‘American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ originated in 1810 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Several different churches such as the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed Church participated in it. The Board   was in touch with the British missionary societies too.  By the 1830s is had developed into a huge organization with many branches and a worldwide network. It was   meticulously organized and   fairly satisfactorily underwritten. Its objective was to spread Christianity worldwide by creating local churches that would be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating, no longer needing missionaries.  Between 1813 and 1903  the Board  sent missions to  Angola, Borneo, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Greece,  Hawaii, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Micronesia ,Persia,  Philippines, South Africa, West Africa,  Spain, Sri Lanka ,Sumatra, Syria , Thailand, Turkey   and  also to  the  American Indians  in the USA.

The very first mission sent by the American Board was to Bombay in 1813. The second was to Jaffna in 1816, on the recommendation of the Bombay missionaries. Jaffna was selected due to its proximity to the Coromandel Coast (south east coast) of South India.   Native preachers and teachers from India and Ceylon were to be trained in Jaffna   and sent to start missions in India. Accordingly, a mission was established in Madurai (1834) by Daniel Poor, one of the American missionaries in Jaffna with the help of three Jaffna Tamil Christians. One was Francis Ashbury. A second mission was set up in Madras (1836).

The American Board dominated the missionary scene in Jaffna. It worked in 17 of the 32 Jaffna parishes, while the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was in ten parishes and Wesleyan mission in three parishes. Rev. J. Knight, the first CMS representative in Jaffna started his work in 1818 at Nallur. He found it difficult at the start, since he was treated as a low caste or outcaste. By 1834 American Board had missions in Batticaloa, Manipay, Uduvil, Pandatharippu, Tellipallai and Chavakachcheri with two ‘native’ stations at Varani and Udupiddy and  British Governor Horton said that London had given permission for more American missionaries to come .  In 1838 there were 7 stations and 6 outstations with about 500 converts.  The Tellipallai church was successfully burned down in August 1834, after a failed attempt in July.

The American mission also provided a health service in Manipay and some medical training but its greatest success was in secondary education. The American Mission was the earliest and most enterprising pioneer of western education in Ceylon. In 1816 itself they started two native free schools. Within five years, the   five principal stations, Tellipallai, Uduvil, Manipay, Vaddukoddai and Pandatharippu had large boarding schools.  In 1822 there were     42 schools with 1800 pupils. In 1824 there were 90 primary schools. Pupils learnt Christianity, English, Tamil grammar and geography.     Tuition was free. Donors in the USA   sent the money needed for the pupils and the pupils took on the names of the donors. Sinnatamby Saravanamuttu became E. Cornelius, Saravanamuttu Murugasu became Gerard H Hallock, Valauthar Sidemparapillai became David Riggs, Antho Simon became Ira Gould and Kathiraser Periatamby became Joshua Danforth.

The Jaffna schools excelled over all others set up abroad said the Board at its Annual General Meeting in Boston in 1834.  (AR 1834) The pupils were so promising that the mission had established Batticotta seminary, Vaddukoddai for the boys (1823) and Uduvil for girls (1834). Batticotta seminary   predated Christian College, Kotte (1827) and Royal College (1836). It brought together the best pupils from the boarding schools at Manipay, Tellipallai, Uduvil, and Vaddukoddai. They were mainly Vellala caste. They were taught in English and Tamil. Two thirds of the time in English, one third in Tamil. Period of study was six years.  Subjects were Christianity, English language and literature, Tamil language and literature, Sanskrit,   mathematics, native arithmetic, European and Hindu    astronomy, geography, history and chemistry.

A total of 12 American missionaries taught at Batticotta with the assistance of native teachers, who at any given time did not exceed five. The American missionaries had university degrees   and some    taught in American universities before or after their period   of service in Jaffna. Pupils’ expenses were looked after by American patrons in the USA who made yearly donations of not less than twenty dollars.   The pupils took on the names of these donors.

Martyn (1923) observed that Batticotta seminary had a laboratory with modern equipment and a museum which displayed the geology of Ceylon. In addition to the ordinary branches of learning, the school taught ‘all the higher departments of mathematical and physical science’.  Tennent said In 1848    ‘The pupils when tested showed great knowledge and Batticotta is entitled to rank with many an European University’  Batticotta was set up to train preachers and teachers and the full training, collegiate and professional, took ten years. The Board wished to set up a degree awarding theological institute but the British government refused permission. Batticotta produced good Christians and excellent Tamil scholars, such as C.M. Thamotharampillai. Several Batticotta pupils were effective abroad, in Madras and elsewhere.  Batticotta closed in 1855.

Batticotta Seminary marked the start of modern education in Jaffna.  Uduvil Girls School was free up to 1852. It was the first girls boarding school in Asia.  Drieberg College, Chavakachcheri was established in 1875.  They also set up teacher training colleges, such as Kopay Christian teachers college. Other Christian missions also set up schools in Jaffna region. This led to the creation of a highly educated and professionally qualified community of Tamil Christians. The CMS set up St John’s College, Jaffna (1823) and Chundikuli girls school (1841). Methodist Mission started Hartley College, Point Pedro (1838) and Vembadi girls high school. (1837).

Catholic Church had St Patrick’s College, Jaffna. (1850). St Patrick’s had surveying, leveling, architecture, mechanical drawing and typewriting classes in 1901, fully equipped science labs in 1911, powerhouse and workshop in 1913 and  new chemistry laboratory in 1914. Holy Family Convent Jaffna (1845) was run by French nuns from 1862.  St Xavier’s girl’s college, Mannar (1870) by Good Shepherd nuns.  Rambaikulam Girls maha vidyalam, Vavuniya was established in 1890 for Catholic children. K.M. de Silva observed that the missionary societies were much stronger in Jaffna and its environs in the 19th century than elsewhere in the island   and their network of schools was run far more efficiently.

Jaffna College started in 1872as successor to Batticotta at the urging of Batticotta alumni. The upper class Tamils wanted to sit the Indian University exams.  Jaffna College taught Tamil, Latin, English, Indian history and the history of Rome and Greece    Jaffna College was affiliated to Calcutta University   in 1891 and to Madras University in 1907. In 1921 London University Intermediate classes were started. From its very inception, Jaffna College had no corporal punishment.  Over 20% of the teachers were from South India, mostly Kerala and they taught the sciences.   Jaffna College had pupils from Malaysia, Singapore and even two from Uganda. The College had several Sinhalese students from the south and an occasional Muslim student. In the 1920s when the Gandhian movement was ascendant in India and Jaffna Youth congress had been founded Jaffna College pupils    started to wear ‘national dress’. (Silan Kadirgamar, 2013)

The American Mission used the Fabricius translation of the Bible and provided a Bible based on this in simple Tamil. A nascent Tamil Christian literature consisting of lyrics, hymns and books, composed by the Jaffna Tamil Christians started to emerge. Tamil scholar Arnold Sathasivampillai, a student of Batticotta, composed over    500 Christian devotional songs. The missionaries spoke fluent Tamil. This was essential otherwise they could not communicate with the Jaffna people. They   prepared books on Christian theology explained in Tamil.

The Christian missions in Jaffna were able to create a body of staunch Christians. Roberts (2011) stated that judging by the undergraduates at Peradeniya University, (probably   1950s) Tamil Christians in Sri Lanka were more strongly religious than the Sinhala Christians.  A few embodied a depth of religious faith that was quite exceptional, he said. Missionaries had encouraged the Christians to marry    each other. It was observed that ‘If you look deep enough you would find that all Tamil Christians are related’. (Gunasekera ‘Chosen ground’ p 79).

The American mission    was able to create a Tamil Christian community which felt distinct and separate. Converts took on American names. Cyrus Kingsbury (b. 1808) was originally Gurunather Vayiravi. When he converted to Christianity he took on the name of an American missionary who was working with American Indians in the USA. The link with South India was maintained. When the Church of South India, a united church of Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestants, started in 1947, Jaffna became a diocese of the Church of South India.

The Christian missionaries faced the usual problem of converts reverting to their earlier religion. When Jaffna Christians went to Madras for further study, they found that in Madras Christians were considered low caste. This induced them to abandon Christianity.   The American Mission therefore tried to prevent its students going for advanced studies to Madras as they were then reconverted to Saivism there.

Unlike in Sinhala areas, where, in the initial period, changes of religion were accepted, with resignation (grandmother Buddhist, grandson Christian), in the Jaffna Tamil community this has led to clashes both ways.  C.A. Thamotharampillai’s father, Cyrus Kingsbury was a first- generation Christian.  Thamotharampillai   therefore started off as Christian. He then went to Madras, converted to Saivism and became virulently anti-Christian. His son Francis reverted to Christianity and became virulently anti Hindu. He even refused to officiate at a Hindu funeral.  Neelan Thiruchelvam, Devanesan Nesiah and S.R.N. Hoole are descendants of Cyrus Kingsbury, (Hoole 1997) so the mix of Christian and Hindu has continued, but probably without the acrimony of the earlier generation.  Published in Island 2016.

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