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 IX. Colombo: Work among the Cinnamon Peelers, 1865-1873

TO the north of Colombo, lying between the high road to Kandy and the seacoast, stretches a fertile and well-cultivated area containing a considerable amount of coconut estates and cinnamon gardens. A large number of Tamil coolies were employed on these estates, and Rowlands longed for the time and opportunity to visit and preach on these estates. The opportunity came in 1867 for, in that year, Rowlands received the benefit and help of a fellow-worker, in the person of the Rev. J. C. Mill, an Italian (despite the name) of remarkable antecedents, a convert from Romanism, and known as "Father Mola" of Jaffna. Mill arrived in 1867 and immediately, in collaboration with Rowlands, proceeded to initiate a new work known as "The Grandpass Station" of the C.M.S. From Colombo as a centre the two missionaries proceeded to evangelise the Tamil coolies on the estates in the triangular tract of country lying between Veyangoda on the Kandy high road and the important town of Negombo on the coast.

An isolated journal entry of January 8, 1869, illustrates a principle of conscientiousness, which Rowlands was wont to quote in similar circumstances: "If you set out to do a thing, and it is at all possible to do it, do it." "Left home a little before 6 a.m. Was too late for the Negombo coach, so went by rail to Veyangoda, being told that Veyangoda was eleven miles from Negombo. On reaching Veyangoda, found the distance was seventeen miles. Walked about two miles then got a bullock-bandy to carry me. Reached Negombo about 3.30. Met catechist and desired him to get the Christians together. After going to Resthouse, went to see Mr. Perara, Wesleyan minister, and obtained use of Wesleyan Chapel. At about 5.30 had a congregation of fourteen persons, and conducted a short service with them."

In 1869, Rowlands went on a tour through the Tinnevelly district in South India, with his friend, the Rev. William Clark, the father of "R. K." Clark, a well-known planter of later years, and who, in the previous year, had assumed the superintendency of the Tamil Coolie Mission. The purpose of the tour was to obtain agents for the rapidly growing work of the Tamil Coolie Mission and also for the new development of the work in the Negombo district.

Rowlands' apostolic labours and travels in this new region are best shown by taking a typical journey, as noted in the journal.

"August 23, 1870.--Left Colombo early this morning for a journey through the cinnamon and coconut estates in the Negombo district. The morning was pleasant, not too bright, and the road being good, travelling was easy. About the tenth mile from Colombo overtook the catechist, who had gone on before me, and who was then speaking to some road coolies. I stopped for a few minutes, pointing them to Jesus Christ as the only way to Heaven, arid then drove on with the catechist to Jaela.

"On arriving at Mr. D.'s bungalow we heard that he was in the field, so went in search of him, and found him in a part of the estate not far off. I told him the object of my visit, when he said that he would gladly give us an opportunity of addressing his coolies. I spent an hour with him at the bungalow and, at about eleven o'clock, he ordered the coolies to be called together. There were only about thirty-five Tamils on the estate, the cinnamon peeling being done entirely by Sinhalese. They listened very attentively, and made some remarks afterwards which showed that what had been said had made some impression.

"After breakfast Mr. D. accompanied me to the boundary of the next estate, and I went to call on the Superintendent. His workpeople were all Sinhalese, so there was no opportunity for me to preach. With Mr. P. I stayed until about 3.30 and then Walked over to the next estate. The proprietor kindly called those within reach from their work a little earlier than usual, and assembled them in front of the bungalow. Of those who were present most listened with interest; there was only one striking exception--the Kangani--who made cavilling remarks at intervals, during the whole time we were speaking, e.g., 'Your Swamy (God) will not give us pay unless we work for it, so we shall be no better off than we are now.' 'The other day did not our Swamy tie up and beat your Swamy? '(in allusion to some scene that had been acted in their temple some days before). 'Will your Swamy give us two bags of rupees for nothing?'

"I dined with Mr. and Mrs. S. and afterwards drove back to Mr. D.'s bungalow where I had arranged to stay the night. Had family prayers in English with them, and afterwards in Tamil with the catechist, my horsekeeper, and Mr. D.'s cook.

"August 24.--Up about 5.15. Started from Ekele about 6.30. Drove to the nineteenth mile on the road to Negombo, and then turned off to Mr. R.'s estate. Found the catechist there waiting for me. While he went up to the bungalow to inquire for Mr. R., I had some conversation with an old watchman who was standing at the foot of the hill. Hearing that Mr. R. was out in the estate, we walked some distance to one of the peeling houses where we were told he might be found. On our way we stayed a few minutes in a retired spot to thank God for having brought us so far, and to seek His blessing upon what we had done and were going to do, not forgetting to pray especially for the poor old watchman, to whom we had just been speaking. Mr. R. received us cordially and said he would be very glad for us to preach to the Tamil coolies. We went on to the next estate and saw the manager, Mr. L. who promised to get his coolies from two estates together in one place at five o'clock the next day.

"After breakfasting with him I started to go into Negombo. While my horse was being put in, we spoke to some eight often people at the lines there, who all, though heathens, showed a disposition to listen such as is seldom seen.

"Before noon reached Negombo Resthouse. Went to call on the Government Agent, who had kindly sent me a note, asking me to come and stay at his house. From four to five o'clock the catechist and I were occupied in making a rough map of the country through which we had to travel. Preached in the streets for more than an hour to an attentive audience.

"August 25.--Did not go out anywhere before breakfast as I had writing to do. At eleven o'clock started from Negombo for Mr. R.'s estate. Found him on the look out for our arrival. He walked with us down to the peeling house where the people were to meet, and we found a large number assembled, about fifty Tamils or more, and about forty Sinhalese, some of whom could understand Tamil. I took tiffin and left for Mr. L.'s estate about 3.30. Not finding him at home, I stayed a little while and then went on to the other estate where we were to preach. It was 5.30 before the coolies from both estates had assembled. We spoke to them for about an hour.

"August 26.--Up about 4.30. After taking a cup of coffee with Mr. L., started with him about 5.30 to walk to Demankanda in the hope of catching the coolies before they went to work.

"At two o'clock we started for Keenakelle, an estate fourteen miles beyond Negombo, on the road to Chilaw. Drove to the Gin Oya, staying in two or three places to inquire for Tamil people.;, .,

"Saturday, August 27.--Having heard the evening before of an estate named Horokelle, about five miles farther on, in which there were said to be from 150 to 200 Tamil people, we decided to go there. Mr. S. kindly lent us a bullock that our own might not be overtired, and we started from Keenakelle about 7 a.m. On the way we saw a great crowd of Sinhalese gathered under a tree and evidently in a state of great excitement. We went up to the spot, and found they were installing a new devil-priest. Mothers were there with two or three children, whom they took up to the priest with some offering, upon receiving which he gave them a few ears of the coconut flower, over which he had first inaudibly pronounced mantrams.

"We went out into the estate and gathered an audience. The place where we stood was just in front of a wretched little 'swamy house,' and no further proof of the degradation of the people was needed than it afforded. Opposite the door, leaning against the cadjans, was an oval-shaped framework made of a few sticks tied together (apparently intended to represent the Swamy), and upon it hung the faded remains of some sort of garland."

Hardships were not infrequent. At one estate we are told of a visit to a bungalow where, in the absence of the master, "the servants, who were not a few, were so afraid that they should not prepare anything good enough for me to eat, that they altogether declined to prepare anything, notwithstanding the repeated assurance that a plate of rice and the simplest curry would abundantly suffice."

Here is another instance. "We preached for about an hour. ... As we had nothing all day but a cup of coffee at 5.30 a.m., we felt very faint while speaking, and had some difficulty in getting on."

In this way the days are spent in strenuous endeavour, the young missionary being everywhere entertained with the traditional hospitality of the planters. Each evening, after pleasant converse with his hosts, the little well-worn Bible would be produced, and, after a short reading, he would invariably lead the prayers of the household with the holy familiarity of one accustomed to the family altar. Nor were the servants omitted should there chance to be any to join in the Tamil prayers.

The journal ends here. "September 1.--Started from Ekele for Colombo, and by 7.15 was at Borella Road after a pleasant drive. During our absence we had been permitted to proclaim the gospel to about five hundred heathen, very few of whom knew anything of it before."

The first term of service had drawn to a close, and furlough time was due. Ten years had passed since Rowlands left the homeland--ten years of strenuous exertion in an oppressive climate, and both he and his wife had reached the limit of their endurance. There were no long holidays in those days, and but little change. Rowlands describes himself in his notes of. reminiscence as "a bag of bones." Mrs. Rowlands so showed the effects of overwork and climate that she was with difficvdty recognised by her own father and mother. In August 1871, Rowlands, with his wife and four small children, reached England, leaving the foundations of the Christian Church firmly established among the Tamil people of Colombo and its neighbourhood.

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