Innocent imperial missionary educators


S. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan (Berlin)

Reading recently an article on Dr Hayman (1902-1983) leads me to share this ‘take’ on a great and good man. Dr Hayman founded St Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa, in 1942 and was in charge till he returned to England in 1962. I was a pupil there from 1950 to 1953, and I look back a great "distance": in other words, I readily accept that what I "see" may be incorrect.

I have much admiration for, and gratitude to, Dr Hayman. I recall that among us he was known with respect, and not without affection, as "Bullo". Being boys, pupils, my friends and I were not able to take a full measure of the man – that was left to later years and to age. There couldn’t have been many with a Doctorate (if I’m not mistaken, in Physics) from Oxford at that time, and Dr Hayman could have built himself a successful (lucrative) career in England or in the West. The statement, "He’s doing well" almost always means that the person is earning a lot of money or has reached a high position, but Dr Hayman’s driving-force was not to gain but to give: "doing well" had a meaning to him that was neither materialistic nor social.

However, he was almost inescapably a product of his times. Which of us can be totally free of our Zeitgeist? Indeed, often we are unaware of the ‘spectacles’ we wear, and through which we see the world. For example, we were taught British history – and that too, as I recall it, in considerable detail. Ceylon history didn’t appear, nor that of neighbouring India. Further, the British history taught, apart from military victories, was about achievements: inventions and progress in the economic and technological spheres. The cost the British peasantry and working-class paid for these changes was not included: social consciousness and an indignation born of compassion were not inculcated. I am sure Dr Hayman was unaware of these exclusions and omissions, and what that implied. (Fielding, principal of a government college in the 1924 novel, A Passage to India, openly dissociated himself, and stood against the prevailing tide.)

More relevant to us "Ceylonese" of those times was the absence of any mention, much less discussion, of ‘Imperialism’, even though there was by then a line of protest against it, including within Britain: to mention just one of several names, George Orwell. ‘New Imperialism’ is defined as the period of territorial expansion by European powers, the United States, and Japan during the late 19th and early 20th centuries but Ceylon’s imperial subjection goes back much further, to the Portuguese. (Now it’s menaced by ‘Neo Imperialism’ but that’s another subject.)

I have grounds to believe that Dr Hayman and Father Foster were taken aback and disappointed at the intense and violently excluding ‘nationalism’ that found expression immediately after independence in 1948: fortunately, Dr Hayman died a few weeks before the ghastly pogrom of July 1983. But I hope they had the wisdom to see it as the product of centuries of British imperialism in which they were, in total innocence, complicit. Imperialism means military conquest and domination, leading to economic exploitation and to social and cultural contempt. But what is imperialism? Imperialism can be described as the occupation through military force of another territory; subjecting its people, and exploiting resources, including land. I cite from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, pages 39-40:

Of the many consequences of centuries of Western Christian rule I will mention two. Imperialism submerged, rather than merged, the island’s different ethnic groups. Foreign intervention and control for almost 500 years arrested what I would describe as the indigenous historical development of Sri Lanka. Left alone, the different ethnic groups would have fought but, over the centuries, reached an accommodation. (Of course, no country is left free of external influence and interference, but five hundred years of continuous foreign domination is a considerable chunk of time.) Secondly, imperialism meant forcible occupation, oppression and exploitation. Whatever empires may have achieved and contributed, their basis was (and is) the ability to wield far worse violence than the violence defenders could (or can) deploy.

Imperialism, particularly British imperialism, was based on, and expressed, utter contempt: contempt for the natives, their colour and person; history and all aspects of their culture, including religion and language. The Buddhist monks who had enjoyed patronage and prestige at the royal court were marginalised. All public business - government, administration and commerce - was conducted in English, and those not proficient in English (the vast majority) were disadvantaged and made to feel inferior. These are some of the factors that created a reservoir of resentment, seething, potentially virulent but inarticulate because of imperial control. Nehru in the speech made at India’s independence said that "the soul of a nation, long suppressed, [now] finds utterance": in Sri Lanka, it seems the Sinhalese soul at independence was sorely bruised, angry and bitter, confused and impatient. Reaction found vent not on the British – distant, powerful, grudgingly admired – but on the Tamil.

I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return. (Extract from ‘September 1, 1939‘ by W. H. Auden." END OF QUOTE)

Unwittingly – I would say, almost inescapably - Dr Hayman was a part of British imperialism but, I emphasise: if it was so, it was in total goodness and innocence; with the best of intentions. In a Francophone novel, The Poor Christ of Bomba, a white missionary in Africa decides to go back to France: he’ll return and resume his work when the continent is independent. But now, as a white priest and educationalist working in a black country under imperial white rule, his role was ambiguous. Dr Hayman is but one example of several men and women who came over to ‘Ceylon’ from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Buddhism teaches that nobility is not based on ‘race’, class or family but on character, conduct and contribution: these individuals exemplified nobility of a very high order. The sacrifice they made; the challenges they met; the hardship they endured all compel admiration. The gratitude with which they are remembered is fully deserved. However, functioning under British imperialism, they couldn’t remain completely separate. With independence, nursing-nuns were lost to hospitals; schools nationalised; the English language replaced and curricula altered. Even things of value were thrown out in order to usher in the new: when History becomes a raging torrent, the waters do not make exceptions; do not differentiate between the guilty and the innocent; the good and the bad; the constructive and the injurious. Perhaps in retirement, seeing events world-over unfolding; reading new interpretations, Dr Hayman saw what it was humanly not easy to have seen earlier. We, human beings, cannot be separated totally from our times: from prevailing beliefs, values and attitudes. Perhaps, to use words from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: "A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn."

The above will probably hurt and anger some, and I write with reluctance, but confident Dr Hayman himself would approve a free and frank sharing of thought. It’s for others to modify or to completely demolish my ‘reading’.

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