Marie Musaeus Higgins - a pioneer in Women’s Education

The 10th of July 2009 marks the 83rd death Anniversary of Marie Musaeus Higgins the Founder Principal of Musaeus College, Colombo; today a premier educational institution for girls in Sri Lanka. It is most befitting that we who are associated with Musaeus College pay a glowing tribute to this pioneering brave lady also called ‘Sudu Amma’ by her students and associates.

Born in Wismar, a village close to the town of Macklenberg in Germany on May 19th 1855, her father was Theodore Musaeus, a High Court Judge. Having received an all round education, she was well versed in German, French,, English and Greek Languages and excelled in Art and Music. After graduating from her University, Marie joined her brother who was already in Washington, USA. While teaching she qualified further and joined the Postal Department as a Translator.

It was here that she met Anton Higgins, her life’s partner, an Engineer by profession, and married him. He was an ardent Theosophist, and though he died a few years later, Theosophy had a great influence on her life. She became a devoted member of the Theosophical Society which had been founded in 1875 by Col. Henry Steele Olcott, an American lawyer and Agriculturist, and Madam Helena Petrovena Blavatsky, a Russian Spiritualist.

The world was going through many changes, such as the Industrial Revolution, with great political, social, and religious activities, and controversy on its trail. Radicals and Liberals in Europe and USA were questioning the rise of a new social order and religious groups. The Theosophists were one such group. Their Motto was "There is no religion higher than the Truth". They valued the religions and cultures of the Orient and was in sympathy with the national aspirations of the colonies. The Theosophical Movement was a great source of inspiration for Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins to come to Sri Lanka in the cause of education for Buddhist girls, at a time when she was grieving her young husband’s demise.

In the meantime pioneers in the Buddhist revival movement like Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero, and Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, who had won several victories over the Christian missionaries in public debate like ‘Panadurawadaya’, became members of the Theosophical Movement. It was this that led Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky to Ceylon on May 17th 1880, to play a pioneering role in the Buddhist Renaissance and Education Movement, resulting in the opening of a number of English Schools, such as Ananda College, Dharmaraja College and Mahinda College.

Many schools for boys were being established, while there were none for girls, although they could be the target group in any social change. It was at this juncture that Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins ventured to leave the shores of America to strive in the cause of Education in Ceylon.

In her little booklet "The Roots of Musaeus" written by her in April 1905 she specks thus - a "Fourteen years ago when I was living in Washington DC, US America, where I had held a position under government for seven years, the great desire to devote myself to the cause of humanity in the especial line of education came to me. Then it was that I saw in a magazine an appeal from the island of Ceylon from a number of Sinhalese Buddhist mothers who had awakened to the great need of education for the girls of Ceylon, imploring some competent unprejudiced woman to come to them and undertake the education of their daughters. The appeal further stated that no one seemed to care for those who loved their own religion and to disregard its precepts.

My heart went out to them at once and I felt that this work of education and civilization was my mission for life. Through the study of Buddhism I knew that it would not be against my conscience, not to disturb them in their religion and so I answered at once to the appeal and wrote to the writer of it, an educated Sinhalese gentleman, that I would come to Ceylon and undertake to be a mother to the daughters of Lanka" - unquote.

She arrived in Ceylon on the 10th of November 1889 on the ship "Prussian’ and was received with much ceremony - garlands and welcome song by the newly formed Buddhist Womens’ Educational Society the ‘Nari Shikshadana Sangamaya’ under the patronage of Colonel Olcott and other Theosophists like William and Peter de Abrew.

She first took up the post of Principal, Sangamitta Girls School, Tichborne Place, Maradana but not for long. She desired to form a school of her own with her vision ahead and it was at this juncture that Mr. Peter de Abrew and his father Mr. William de Abrew stepped in. In 1891 her own school Musaeus Girls’ Boarding School was founded on an 1/2 acre block of land at Rosmead Place, Cinnamon Gardens, donated by Mr. William de Abrew, and Peter de Abrew, who stood by Mrs. Higgins as Manager right along and was a great pioneer himself in the field of Buddhist Girls’ Education.

An American gentleman Dr. W. A. English arrived with his daughter and her, friend Miss. Alison and stayed by Mrs. Higgins for several years.

"Roots of Musaeus", "I had a house built of "mud and wattle" and ‘cadjan’ and moved into my "mud palace" in February 1891 with my little group of eighteen girls and my American friends, and here it was that the Musaeus School was founded"- unquote.

Mrs. Higgins states that she had visitors of high rank who were amused with her, "mud palace" for instance their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Macklenburg Scheweren who compared it to a barn.

Undaunted by obstacles that she encountered, with help of friends in other countries, and donations she built an one storey building of kabook before the older one crumbled.

Mr. Wilton Hack, another Theosophist from UK on visiting Mrs. Higgins and her school, appreciated the good work and donated sufficient funds, which enabled her to get good buildings and the school was approved as a Grant in Aid school in 1893.

An important land mark in the school’s history was the establishment of the Musaeus Trust in 1896, and the appointment of Five Trustees to whom Mr. De Abrew formally gifted the property. Thus a firm foundation was laid for the continuance and rapid development of the school.

Mrs. Higgins named the school after her father ‘Musaeus’. The school then catered to all communities and had Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims and Burghers. The staff was of a similar composition.

Quoting the Twentieth century Impressions of Ceylon edited by Arnold Wright published by British Publishing Co (1907) testifies to the rapid progress for the school. "This Buddhist boarding school for girls situated in Cinnamon Gardens was founded by Marie Musaeus Higgins in February 1891. The school now consists of one and two storeyed buildings with seventy to eighty boarding pupils and also day pupils. It is the only one of its kind in the island of Ceylon. English, Sinhalese and Anglo Vernacular are taught. Also Art, Music, Needlework and Home Science including Cooking. In the upper forms pupils were prepared for either Cambridge Local Examinations (Junior and Senior) or the Sinhalese or English Training School for Teachers".

In 1897 for the first time students were sent for the Cambridge Junior and Senior Examinations and results were encouraging. The results of the ESLC and Royal Academy of Music Examinations were good.

In 1903 for the first time Miss. Lucy de Abrew won the Jeejeebhoy Scholarship for Medicine and entered Medical College. Thus there was provision at Musaeus even to enter the field of Medicine. Students were sent to Government, Teacher Training Colleges to be trained as Teachers.

The vision of Marie Musaeus Higgins was to impart an all round education needed for a woman of Sri Lanka to be a good wife and mother, not forgetting the moral values and ethics of a good Buddhist. The fame of Musaeus spread far and wide and Buddhist parents from far off districts like Anuradhapura, Bandarawela, Matara were keen to educate their daughters at Musaeus, to receive the much wanted English education in a milieu of Buddhist, Sinhala culture. Mrs. Higgins insisted that her students wear saree on occasions, and even the dress was changed accordingly.

In March 1903 she opened a Veracular day school for the very poor in another part of the city and sent the poorest of them there. Two of the resident teachers were sent from 9. 00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. to instruct fifty children boys and girls in Sinhala.

She realized the need to train good teachers, and Musaeus Training College was established in 1903, which further facilitated the spread of her progressive ideas throughout the length and breadth of the island. This was the first Training College for women teachers and its trainees were some of the best enlightened teachers produced by any training institute in the country. In addition a Practising School and a school for the lesser fortunate and orphans was also established where the trainees practiced their teaching.

The Nursery school was started in 1922 with Mrs. Annie Preston as the head. Thus it was not only a super grade English School that she built up but a whole educational complex, in accordance to the historical and cultural values of the nation.

The Shrine Room at the entrance to Musaeus College at Rosmead Place was built in 1906 to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the work of Marie Musaeus Higgins in the cause of female education among the Buddhists of Ceylon, a monument itself to her vision and dedication to the daughters of Sri Lanka, in a strange place among strange people of different race religion and culture alien to her. At the entrance above the door are the words ""Enter with a Pure Heart".

Mrs. Higgins had one goal in her mind, to cultivate in her students a love for their motherland, culture, religion, customs and history. This remarkable lady studied the History of the island and learnt and practiced Buddhism herself, by observing sil with the students and meditating. She wrote a series of books like, Stories from History of Ceylon and Jatakamala and Poya Days, which are used even now in schools.

The motto she selected for the College was "Follow the Light". Her pioneering spirit spread far and some schools were started in rural areas too, one being at Nawalapitiya in Gondennawa now taken over by the state. She had a holiday resort too at Nawalapitiya and Diyatalawa, where she relaxed during the vacation. Education to Mrs. Higgins meant not only accumulation of knowledge or information but also discipline and character building. This is in accordance with the modern concept of education which views the all round development of an individual as its major goal. Her educational policies elucidate slowly a blending of the best in the East, with the best in the West.

The vision of Mrs. Higgins as an educationist has much to contribute to present do education day she has evinced how academic excellence could be achieved without hindrance to the value content of education. Modern education policies need rethinking on these lines.

Mrs. Higgins endeared herself to her students so much, that she was soon called "Our Sudu Amma".

Having launched her course on a firm foundation, Musaeus College today stands tall as a monument to the co-founders Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins and Peter de Abrew. The "Mud Palace" today boosts of storeyed buildings well equipped and complete with Libraries, Science Laboratories, Computer Labs, and all activities. Very soon an Auditorium and Swimming Pool will be added. Musaeus College, one could say is the leading Buddhist Girls College in the island with over 6000 students and at the helm of all activities academic and extra curricular. She has grown in stature under the able guidance of the Past Principals and teachers, Managers and Trustees.

Mrs. Higgins was 35 years old when she took over this colossal task of building up Musaeus. She dedicated 35 years of her life to the positive growth of Musaeus College and passed away in 1926, 10th July. This year marks the 83rd Death Anniversary. May her glorious name and Musaeus shine for many more centuries in the firmament of Education in Sri Lanka.

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