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 XIX. Farewell to Ceylon, 1918

AMONG the many formal expressions of regret at the final departure of the Rev. W. E. Rowlands from Ceylon, there is one which deserves special mention. The Planters' Association of Ceylon is an elected and representative body, which deals with the many and varied interests of the planting community in the island. It was first formed in the year 1854, the year which witnessed the birth of the Tamil Coolie Mission. At a General Meeting of the Association, shortly after the announcement of the impending retirement of the veteran missionary, the chairman, Mr. J. Graeme Sinclair, proposed the following resolution, which was unanimously carried: "This Association desires to express the deep sense of the Planters of Ceylon of their appreciation of the long and valuable services rendered to the community in general, and to planters and their coolies in particular, by the Rev. W. E. Rowlands, Secretary of the Tamil Coolie Mission, and that District Associations be circulated with a view to collecting a Fund wherewith to perpetuate his memory; and that Messrs. C. Gibbon, Keith Rollo, G. H. Hughes, E. M. Wyatt, the Rural Member of Council, the Chairman, and the Secretary be appointed a Sub-Committee to consider what form the presentation should take."

After consultation with Mr. Rowlands, it was decided that the presentation should take the form of a silver salver, with the following inscription: "Presented to the Rev. W. E. Rowlands, Hon. Secretary, Tamil Coolie Mission, on the occasion of his retirement, by members of the Planters' Association of Ceylon, in affectionate and grateful remembrance of his long and unwearied ministry among the planters and their Tamil employees,--J. Graeme Sinclair (Chairman, Planters' Association of Ceylon Incorporated), Kandy, Ceylon, 1918."

The balance of the fund collected was, by the express wish of Mr. Rowlands, allocated to the Catechists' Pension Fund, which had already been inaugurated by the money collected by the Tamil Christians. In addition, a portrait of the venerable missionary was given a unique and honoured place among the leaders of the planting enterprise, in the Planters' Hall in Kandy.

"Padre" Rowlands having meanwhile left the island, the formal presentation was made in July of the following year, at a special meeting of the Ceylon Association in London, which was attended by many retired planters and other Ceylon friends, among whom was the Most Rev. Reginald Stephen Copleston, Metropolitan of India and Ceylon. The President of the Association, Sir Stanley Bois, in well-chosen words, made the presentation, expressing his satisfaction that, while devoting themselves as an Association to the furtherance of mercantile and planting interests in Ceylon, as they did, it was not to the exclusion of all else, as their presence there that day to honour a missionary proved.

The Rev. W. E. Rowlands, in reply, spoke of the great kindness which he had experienced from the planters of Ceylon--kindness which he could never forget. They could understand (he went on to say) that as he looked back upon those years, he saw wonderful changes in the island. He had travelled over the planting districts, from Matale in the north to Morowakka Korale in the south, and from Madulsima in the east to Kurunegala in the west; and he believed he knew every road, and almost every bridlepath, on the estates almost as well as anybody knew them; and during that time he had learned to know the value of the friendships he had formed among the planters. There were some present that morning whom he was very glad to reckon among his very oldest friends. Many others, of course, had passed away; indeed, as he looked around, he found so many blanks among his old friends, that he began to feel he was left alone among the seniors whom he knew in the early days. Happily, there were many still working in Ceylon. He had baptized them as babies, married them in after-life, and baptized their children, and so from generation to generation had gone in and out among them, having had links with their families which were granted to few men. When he started in Ceylon, it was the great day of coffee, and everything seemed most prosperous; but, alas I a crisis came, and many of his friends, if they did not lose everything they had, passed through times of great trial. But Ceylon was an example of what capital and industry and perseverance could accomplish in the way of entirely transforming the face of Nature, for, when he left Ceylon, for a long absence through illness, the planters were only just beginning to plant tea in between the rows of coffee, with the intention, as he knew very well, of uprooting the tea later on, and going back to coffee. That, as they knew, never came to pass, and when he returned to Ceylon after the long absence to which he referred, it was to see the whole face of the country transformed, for all the hills and valleys, where coffee had so flourished before, were planted with tea, which was doing as well in its way as coffee ever did; and that said nothing of the thousands of acres which were also planted with rubber in the lower parts of the country. In his long years of service in Ceylon, he had not only been welcomed to the planters' bungalows, and had formed many warm friendships among them, but he had also had the honour and pleasure of working among their labourers, the Tamil coolies, the tea-makers, the clerks, and the other employees with whose names in general they were familiar, and he had had the joy of seeing hundreds of them turn away from idols to serve the Living and True God.

He thanked the donors for the gift, which he would prize among his treasures as long as he lived, and it would be passed down to his children as an heirloom, a source of gratification to them whenever they read the inscription upon it. He thanked them also for the gift of money whereby provision was made for the old catechists, men who had worked for thirty-five years up and down the steep hills of Ceylon, many of them past service, but for whom no provision had been made in their old age.

The Most Rev. R. S. Copleston said that he was glad to meet his old friend Mr. Rowlands again. Mr. Rowlands was a strong and active man when he knew him first--courageous and outspoken; and it was delightful to find that to-day he was, in many respects, as young as ever. Mr. Rowlands would not mind if he said how much they had enjoyed their rides in Ceylon together. Many rides they had taken, extending over many days, through the beautiful estates of the island. How pleasant were their recollections of those early starts, and of the hospitality and cheerfulness that met them all along the way! He did not know whether the journeys would now be by motor, with a tarred road up to each bungalow; but it was delightful in those days, when the host said, "How many coolies do you want? "and in five minutes all would be made ready. They would hardly ever pass a bungalow without a warm welcome, and he had the most pleasant recollections of such men as Graeme Elphinstone, and many others, who had gone to a better land even than Ceylon, with all its glories and its beauties. . . . When he, as the Bishop, was requested to get a padre for a district, some men said: "We want a man who will be one of ourselves, who will join in our sports, and enter into all our ways." Others said: "I like a padre to be a padre." It was not easy to combine the two qualities. But they were combined to perfection in Mr. Rowlands.

Mr. C. E. Welldon, a leading planter, said that he and other planters were not very good hands at listening to a long sermon; but there was one long sermon that they had loved to follow, and that was the life of the Rev. W. E. Rowlands. He had been preaching that sermon for over eighty years, and they hoped it might go on for a good many years to come.

Thus did the planters of Ceylon, in a unique way, give their final tribute of affection to "Padre" Rowlands of Ceylon.

In August 1918, when the veteran missionary was in his eighty-first year, with a sorrowful heart he bade farewell to the scene of his long labours, and started on his homeward journey.

The war being still on, and travelling difficult and dangerous, he decided for that and other reasons to return via the United States. A month was spent in Japan en route, visiting his daughter-in-law at Fukuoka, his son, the Rev. F. W. Rowlands, having left for the Front only a few weeks before, in charge of a Chinese labour corps. It was a great disappointment to have missed seeing his son.

Mr. Paget Wilkes, a missionary of the Japan Evangelistic Band, after meeting "Padre" Rowlands at his son's house, wrote thus in the Japan Quarterly: "To-day I met the Rev. W. E. Rowlands, an ex-C.M.S. missionary on his way from Ceylon, over eighty years of age. A more charming, courtly, gracious old gentleman, with such amazing vitality of mind and body, I have rarely met. His whole face and deportment glow with the beauty of his Master, whom he has so devoutly served these many years."

During the voyage across the Pacific "Padre" Rowlands was frequently in request for services on board, and many were the thanks expressed by one and another for help received. Over and over again was wonder expressed at the vigour of one so aged, one passenger going so far as to say: "Really, Mr. Rowlands, I think you are one of the wonders of the twentieth century!" As it happened, Mr. Rowlands, with his daughter, Miss Rowlands, arrived in San Francisco on his eighty-first birthday. Influenza was raging in the city, and from the time they arrived until they left they had to wear masks as a safeguard against infection. The "Padre" with his daughter travelled slowly to Battle Creek, Michigan, which was to be his home for several months, and during the course of his travels no place of worship was to be found open on account of the influenza epidemic which was raging in the States. The Armistice was celebrated at Colorado Springs, where they were the observed of all observers, as they appeared to be the only people bearing the British colours.

A letter written to a friend at home from the Sanatorium, Battle Creek, Michigan, on January 8, 1919, bears witness to the fact that much of the veteran's heart was still in his beloved Ceylon. He writes: "You will have heard from my daughter something about our coming here. It has been a real sorrow to me to quit the field of so many years' happy missionary work, but it seemed clear that the time had come for my doing so, though--through God's mercy--my bodily strength was not exhausted.

"To be living a quiet life now, without any fixed duties, seems very strange after the 'active service' I always had in Ceylon, but I pray that God will show me from day to day what little He has for me to do, even here; and I have had some proofs already that He will do so. I feel, too, that I may yet carry on my work amongst our native Christian friends in Ceylon by means of letters, and that I can strengthen my brethren's hands by prayer."

After some four months at Battle Creek, where the "Padre" and his daughter received much kindness, and made lasting friendships, they visited other places of interest in the United States, and finally left New York for England in May 1919.

After a short stay in London, during which the Ceylon planters' presentation was made as described above, "Padre" Rowlands finally bought a house in Tunbridge Wells, which he called "Lindula," where he lived in retirement until his "Home-call," eight years later.

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