British Missionaries – Great Women


That quotation from Charles Reade (1814-84) was the introduction selected by Professor Neloufer De Mel to her presentation at the Bishop’s College auditorium on Wednesday 22 February. She was making the seventh Sisters of St Margaret Oration, organized by the Past Pupils’ Association of Bishop’s College in celebration of Founder’s Day. Professor De Mel, a most distinguished past pupil of the college and Professor in English at the University of Colombo, spoke on "A Different Habit: gender and the work of the Sisters of St Margaret."

Introducing the speaker, mention was made of her many achievements and her tenures as Research Fellow in Yale, New York University, Rutgers University, the Five College Women’s Research Center in the U.S., and Linkoping University, Sweden. To me personally, a fact of more significance is that Neloufer is the daughter of Mr W T Jayasinghe, distinguished and dignified member of the Ceylon Civil Service and Brenda Jayasinghe, much loved Vice Principal of Bishop’s College - 1960s to 80s.

At the very beginning of her talk she mentioned that "responding to these political changes of nationalization and indigenization, it was not long after that the sisters withdrew in 1955 from the principalship of the school." Though a fee-levying private school, Bishop’s had to conform to government education system regulations. Neloufer mentioned with nostalgic admiration and affection Sister Ursula, Sister Gabriel and others who managed the school but later retired to running St Margaret’s Convent, for underprivileged girls close to Boyd Place and a ‘twinning’ of the Convent with Bishop’s.

I am more familiar with the missionary services in Kandy by Methodist and Anglican churches of Britain. Girl’s High School, Kandy, was started by Methodist missionaries in 1879. The idea of "The want of a ‘superior’ school in connection with the Wesleyan Mission" was mooted by Rev. Samuel Langdon and the school – a day and boarding school – was set up in Katukelle under the management of Mrs Langdon.

Trinity College was started by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) acceding to a request made by the residents of Kandy in the 1850s to begin a secondary school in their city. I take malicious delight in quoting that Hillwood College, Kandy, was instituted to provide English educated wives for Trinity boys! This is reinforced by a section of Neloufer’s address.

"Frances Chapman, who together with her husband, was instrumental in founding Bishop’s College in 1857, stated that if a Ceylonese woman received a Christian education she would be ‘treated as the companion of her husband, instead of the degraded slave the heathen wife and mother invariably is, the victims of superstition …’’ Now that will be pounced upon by rabid anti-colonialists and virulent critics of missionaries. But that was this one British woman’s idea. Why do we need to get bothered over such comments? We need to consider what good and benefit the missionaries like the nuns of St Margaret conferred on the women of Sri Lanka.

Miss Allen was the last of the Irish principals in Girls’ High School (KHS) and what a character she was, riding bolt upright in her rickshaw, hood down, with her long golden hair plaited and coiled around her ears. Strict but ever so humane. She and other missionary principals visited homes and were generous with scholarships. Every third girl of a family attending KHS with her elder sisters in school was free of fees. If the family faced financial difficulty with the father dying, the third girl continued the scholarship even if she was the only one left in school. There were absolutely no attempts at conversion to the Christian faith at KHS; other religions were respected. Neoufer too mentions this fact: the Sisters of St Margaret organized field trips to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa "which went to show they accepted the right of local students to know their Buddhist and indigenous heritage," different from the strictly colonial attitude of earlier missionaries.

Neloufer’s oration centered on habit and habitus. She elucidated the terms thus:

"Habit is a 13th century word that developed during the middle–English period. Derived from the Latin world ‘habitus’ it belongs to the same family of words as inhabit and habitation etc and refers to temperament, uniformity, continuity, tradition, dress, vocation. ‘Habitus’ took on its modern meaning when it was popularized as a concept by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977). Bourdieu defined ‘the habitus’ as a ‘system of dispositions’ including skills, ways of behavior, sensibility, feelings and taste which are ingrained in us through familial relations, schooling and other forms of socialization. ``We inhabit and carry this habitus with us deeply in our minds and imagination. We also carry it through our bodies reflected in our deportment, dress, gesture etc. … the British missionary nuns and the native teachers they trained disciplined schoolgirls like us into being clean, neat, erect, modest, obedient and disciplined, this was a habitus – a way of being – that became a long lasting legacy practiced throughout our lives."

And I add, we are all the better for it, for the discipline instilled in us, for the principles set forth for us to follow, basically for the decency of behaviour, thought and deed that we imbibed in our missionary schools, initiated and reinforced in our homes. This is not to say that other schools did not develop personalities of their girls in the correct way - for example Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo and Mahamaya College in Kandy, but those of us who came under the benign influence of British missionaries - in my case, and the Sisters of St Margaret in Neloufer’s case - know there is a difference. Gratitude is most definitely due to the missionaries who would probably have suffered privations in a hot foreign land, but, it must be added, with naturally polite and considerate people.

Neloufer went on to say that habitus, even habits change and need to change as social, political and environmental conditions undergo change. She traces changes in the work of missionaries thus: "Traveling to the colonies from the early 19th century they were pioneers in girls’ education, and starting women’s self-help groups, orphanages and convents. They had the ability, importantly because of their habit, to enter the homes of married or secluded women to train them in English as well as home hygiene, book keeping and other skills. These nuns were the heirs to the radical change in attitudes to women taking place in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from which emerged a ‘new woman’ who had broken through existing barriers to women’s education, legal, property and civil and political rights… It was these radical changes taking place in gender politics that paved the way for …. encouraging young women to go to university…"

Speaking of Bishop’s she says: "These pioneering deeds and ideas on educational methods, history and women’s entry into public service provided the school with a foundation in liberal democratic modern values." Here Neloufer cited her mother, Brenda, as an example, who graduated under the tutelage of the nuns of St Margaret of Bishop’s College and took on a job at the Ministry of Immigration in the early 1950s.

Mention needs to be made here of a non-missionary local Christian educationist, Mrs Soma Kumari Seneviratne Samarasinha, who graduating from Cambridge in the 1920s and becoming the first Ceylonese Principal of Hillwood College, Kandy, encouraged, even persuaded parents who were very conservative and mostly Buddhist to send their daughters for university studies.

Mentioning past pupils of Bishop’s, Neloufer cites many who "have stood up to challenges": Sunila Abeysekera and Nimalka Fernando entering the political field advocating human rights; Yasmine Gooneratne, Yvonne Gunawardene, Sandra Fernando and herself writing when it was safer to be silent. "Epitomizing this trend is Manorani Saravanamuttu who after the tragic death of her son, Richard de Zoysa, stepped up to become a public figure, addressing and inspiring thousands of Sinhala speaking women of the Mothers’ Front..."

Needless to say Prof Neloufer de Mel’s oration was excellent, not only in content but in her asides which brought on smiles, and in her manner of speaking. The Sisters of St Mararet who were present at the event would surely have been proud of this past pupil of the school their predecessors started. They would have felt gratified that their work is acknowledged with appreciation.

The British and other missionaries who brought English education to this Island, brow-beaten colony though it was of the British Raj, need to be appreciated and gratitude shown from time to time. What they did to lead girls on the path to good womanhood, thus influencing their children and others they came in contact with, must be acknowledged, notwithstanding the now growing zeal of patriotism and frenzied nationalism. We who benefited from them will never forget them nor cease being thankful.

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