Project Canterbury

Padre Rowlands of Ceylon

By R. P. Butterfield, M.A., B.D.

London and Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., no date.

Chapter IV. Colombo: Work in the Coffee Stores, 1861-1862

ALTHOUGH Colombo was not occupied by the C.M.S. until 1850, it was the original intention of the C.M.S. Committee that one of the first four missionaries should be stationed there. The missionaries, however, thought it more desirable to occupy villages near large towns than the towns themselves. Thus Cotta was chosen as a sphere of work rather than Colombo. Representations were, however, made by some of the Colombo chaplains, and by the Governor, Sir Colin Campbell, in 1843, as a result of which the C.M.S. began its work in the city, with a permanent resident secretary of the Mission. This secretary was the Rev. G. Pettitt, to whom was due the establishment of mission work in Colombo by the C.M.S. Pettitt had arrived in Colombo from Tinnevelly, and at once proceeded to organise both Sinhalese and Tamil work. Galle Face Church did not then exist. The land for the site of the church was purchased in 1853, and is described as being "on the Esplanade of the Fort called the Galle Face, near to the bridge which passes from it into Slave Island, and on the edge of the lake." In this new church, Pettitt ministered to English and Tamil congregations until 1855, when he left for England. He was succeeded by the Rev. H. Whitley, who at once set about the acquisition of land and funds for the building of the Galle Face Mission House. Mr. and Mrs. Whitley took possession of the new house in October 1860, but only a week or two after, Mr. Whitley received fatal injuries through the falling of a wall in the church premises. A tablet in the church records the fact that "Mr. Whitley ministered to congregations worshipping in three different languages."

Such were the ckcumstances which led to Rowlands' location and work in Colombo. C.M.S. work in the island was still small by comparison with later development. Pargiter and MacArthur were working in Jaffna. Oakley and Higgens in Kandy, and Fenn and Coles in Cotta, with Clowes, a new missionary, who was learning Sinhalese. Baddegama was under the Rev. J. Parsons; the Rev. Septimus Hobbs was in charge of the recently-formed Tamil Coolie Mission, while the Rev. J. Ireland Jones was at the head of the Kandy Collegiate School, now Trinity College.

The Tamil work in Colombo, to which Rowlands now applied himself, was on a very small scale. There was a small congregation connected with the Galle Face Church, and a smaller one in Maradana. There was one school held in an old Dutch building on Galle Face, rented from the military authorities.

There was no women's work of any sort. That was still a thing of the future.

Rowlands, in addition to helping with the English work, and the all-important study of Tamil, gave himself with consecrated energy to seek out, with the help of the Tamil catechists, the Tamil labourers working in the extensive coffee stores of Colombo. They were mostly to be found in and around Slave Island.

There rises before us a mental picture of the young missionary--a picture of one slightly built, yet well-knit, full of vitality and energy, a fresh-coloured, youthful face, blue eyes that could fill with ineffable tenderness, or flash with indignation at wrong or injustice, and, withal, a ready smile radiating from the happy personality within. One who knew him in those far away days writes thus: "When I returned to Ceylon in October 1862, to my parents, Mr. Rowlands was already in Colombo. People told me that he looked a rosy boy, when he arrived in the island, and it was absurd to see him preaching in Galle Face Church to elderly people, such as the Colonial Secretary, the Government Agent, the Colonel of the Ceylon Rifles, and others." So youthful was the appearance of the young missionary that an old lady of the congregation, partly in jest, partly in earnest, protested at the C.M.S. sending "such a boy to preach to an old lady like me!"

The climate of Colombo, together with prolonged exertions in the unsavoury lanes of Slave Island and elsewhere, has its own way of dealing with youthful looks and fresh colour. Severe neuralgia, the direct result of the climate, soon had its effect, and the sympathetic comment was made, "He will soon die." William Rowlands, however, was not to die for many a long day, and went about the tasks committed to him with the energy that soon came to be associated with him.

To a new missionary beginning his career, the first and all-important duty is the acquisition of the language of the people among whom he has been appointed to minister. Unless he is able to speak it with easy facility, his efforts will be only partially effective. He will be conscious, as it were, of Limping with a stick, when he should be running. And no task appears so formidable as that of acquiring an Eastern language. The sounds of consonants and vowels seem so different from those to which he has been accustomed, that he is often inclined to give up in despair.

The first duty of a learner is to provide himself with a pundit, with whom he sits for several hours a day, and the necessary information has to be dragged out of him. For the pundit is usually proud of his knowledge of the classical language, and despises the colloquial. This, naturally, has its place in the equipment of a missionary, but he soon finds out that a knowledge of the classical tongue is of little use when confronted with a man in the street, whose conversation reeled off with little concern for grammatical construction might be a different language altogether. The missionary who would gain easy faculty in the vernacular must go forth and accustom ear and tongue to that most difficult part of his language study, the colloquial, as spoken by the common people.

Rowlands' journal, written in those far away days of December 1861, shows that he had well appreciated the need of learning by ear as well as by eye. Day by day, after many hours' study with his pundit, his two Tamil catechists came to read with him, and to report on their work. Opportunities were used of visiting the Tamil Boys' School in Galle Face and the Girls' School in Slave Island. Rowlands loved children, and an entry in his journal of December 1861 shows that he was thoroughly in his element.

"At 3.30 p.m. went to Tamil Girls' School, Slave Island. Heard the elder girls read part of John iv., and questioned them on same. Some of them answered very well indeed. Heard one or two of the little boys read, but perceived that their pronunciation of Tamil was very corrupt, and by no means likely to benefit a learner. After treating both boys and girls to cakes and plantains, and promising the best boy and girl a small book each, they were dismissed for the holidays." The learner was already beginning to appreciate the niceties of Tamil pronunciation!

From time to time in the journal signs of progress are duly noted. Two months after arrival, Rowlands makes the entry: "I had the pleasure of taking some part in the service, just as much as was necessary."

Further practice was obtained by going out with the catechists into the streets and lanes of Colombo. An entry in the little journal in December 1861 refers to such work:

"At 7 p.m. went out with the catechists to visit some of the Tamil Christians. . . . My spirit was stirred within me as I saw the miserable and thoroughly degraded state of most of those among whom we passed. Oh, for the Spirit of God to descend upon them! "

Another entry, referring to work of this nature, reveals the fervour of the ardent evangelist, who loses no opportunity:

"Soon after 5 p.m. went out with A. and G. (the two Tamil catechists) to Slave Island, where we spoke to several heathens in the streets. . . . When we were driven to take shelter from the rain, I had an opportunity for some conversation with a Portuguese young man, who was sheltering in the same shed. In answer to my question, he said that he had given his heart to Jesus. . . ."

The Tamil people were, and always have been, very receptive, and Rowlands was greatly encouraged by the response given to the efforts of himself and his fellow-workers. Far different, however, was the attitude of the Moslem traders. "Cut my throat," said one to him, "if you like, but do not tell me Jesus Christ is God."

Rowlands, in addition to taking part in the English services held in Christ Church, faithfully attended also the Tamil services held in the same church. His conscientiousness, by means of which he never failed to keep an engagement throughout the long course of his missionary career, and was rarely late for one, could tolerate no slackness, as the following journal entry shows:

"Attended Tamil 8 a.m. service, at which Savarimuttu (catechist) both read and preached. Was grieved to see how very few of the congregation were in time, and, still more, how very late some were. God helping me, I will make strenuous efforts to remedy this. Especially do I feel it my duty to reprove those who may rightly be expected to set a better example. . . ."

With all William Rowlands' great gifts of concentration of purpose and capacity for organisation, there dwelt within him a wonderful spirit of humility and dependence upon God, which deepened as the years went on. He writes in his journal about this time: "From conversation I had with dear Fenn to-day I have been made to feel more than ever how insufficient I am for the management of catechists, but I must, therefore, only the more earnestly pray for the wisdom which is from above.

"January 6, 1862.--With Fenn, met the Tamil catechists in the vestry at 7.30 a.m. Fenn first offered prayer in English, and very striking and touching were many of his petitions. I felt that they put my cold heart to shame.

"4 p.m.--The two catechists, Savarimuttu and Gnanamuttu, came to my study about their journals. I sought to say a few words which might, by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, quicken their love and strengthen their faith in God. I had felt very forcibly myself how impossible it is for any of us to go on from day to day, striving to promote the kingdom of God, unless the one motive that impels us is love to Christ--His 'constraining' love, and this I endeavoured to impress much upon my dear fellow-workers, and besought them to pray daily for more of it, and also to renounce all trust in self, and to go forth daily only 'in the strength of the Lord God.'"

A Sunday in January 1862 is described as "a day long to be remembered by me as my first opportunity of witnessing the baptism of any converts from heathenism. Deeply would I thank God for permitting me to see such a glad sight to-day, and oh, may He grant that it may only be the precursor of very many more!

"The two accepted candidates were baptized by Mr. Hobbs at the beginning of morning service, some of the Tamils standing as witnesses. It was a very touching scene, one which I do not think I shall ever forget. My heart was much drawn out in prayer for them, that God would give them grace to be faithful soldiers and servants of Jesus Christ. Mr. Hobbs preached on Mark x. 46, catechising as he went on--a very good plan as it seems, and one which I trust, by God's help, some day to adopt myself."

Meanwhile, the duties connected with the English congregation were diligently carried on. A memorable entry on Sunday, December 15, runs: "Preached my first sermon in Christ Church, Galle Face, at Morning Prayer, on the words, * Whosoever will,' etc., Rev. xxii. 17, and was enabled to feel free and comfortable."

To so many of us does there follow the experience which Rowlands records a fortnight later. "Preached in evening on 2 Cor. iv. 18. Had thought with much pleasure on the subject, but was signally humbled by the miserable style of my sermon. Oh, for more real and abiding humility, more likeness to Christ in this and in every respect!"

Christ Church was largely attended in those days by the officers and men of the garrison. Among them Rowlands made many friends. A journal entry runs briefly: "Baptized a little boy of one of the sepoys. Several sepoys were present."

Another brings a whiff of the homeland. "Had a visit yesterday from Fred. Jones, private of 50th Regiment, whom I used to teach in St. Clement's Sunday School."

Meanwhile, news had arrived from Kandy of the breakdown of the Rev. Septimus Hobbs, and, in consequence, ten months after his arrival in the island, in October 1862, Rowlands was asked to go to Kandy to take charge of the Tamil Coolie Mission.

Project Canterbury