ON the north-west frontier of India, between the River Indus and the Afghan mountain-ranges, lies a territory three hundred miles long by fifty broad, which is known as the Derajat or "Encampments." It is nearly conterminous with what is now called the North-west Frontier Province, this province having been separated from the Punjab a few years ago. Into it debouch all the mountain passes between the Khyber to the north and the Bolan to the south. By these passes there continually come over into the plains of India the trading caravans of the Afghan mountain tribes, bringing goods of all kinds from Central Asia. One city beyond the Indus, Peshawar, had already been occupied by the C.M.S., under the auspices of Sir Herbert Edwardes, the brilliant soldier and the hero of Ruskin's A Knight's Faith, who was Commissioner at the time. But the Derajat had never yet heard the Gospel.
And now, in 1861, came the summons to the Derajat. From whom? From the Commissioner of the district himself, Colonel Reynell Taylor. Just as Henry and John Lawrence had welcomed missionaries to the Punjab, as Herbert Edwardes had encouraged them to come to Peshawar, as Robert Montgomery had invited them to Lucknow, so now the ruler of the Derajat called upon them to enter his district. Reynell Taylor wrote to Edwardes, who was then in England; and Sir Robert Montgomery, who was now Lieut.-Governor of the Punjab, also wrote, warmly supporting the appeal. The latter said: "We have held the frontier for twelve years against all comers, and now, thank God, we are at peace with all the tribes. Now is the time to hold out the hand of friendship and to offer, through the missionaries, the bread of life. ... I rejoice to see Missions spreading." If the British Empire had always been extended and administered in this spirit, what an untold blessing it would have been to the world!
These two letters Edwardes brought to the C.M.S. Committee on the very day when, there being a deficit in the finances, many applications for grants were being refused. But both Taylor and Montgomery offered large contributions towards the cost of the projected Mission; and the Society could not refuse to undertake it. But where were the men? Two young recruits were at once set apart for the enterprise; but it was indeed a fresh token of the guiding of God's providence when French agreed to lead the party. At their leave-taking with the Committee he referred to a motto on one of the tombs in Exeter Cathedral--"This man put his hand to the plough, and never looked back."
The Derajat proved, as might be expected, a difficult and trying field of missionary labour. It was a wild country inhabited by a wild people, all Mohammedans of a specially bigoted type. French sought to avoid the few Englishmen, officers and civilians, at the two or three chief towns, most of whom, unlike their chief, were far from welcoming a missionary, and to live among the natives; and, to conciliate Afghan prejudice, he, against his own taste, grew a beard, as he found that "they measured a man as much by his beard as by his brains." Sir R. Montgomery wrote to him and Robert Bruce (afterwards the distinguished missionary in Persia, who joined him): "It is uphill work at first, but you have all Central Asia before you, if your voices can reach the people there. Be very discreet in all you do ... and may God bless your labours." But they were not allowed by the local authorities to travel about without a guard, and "a man with a sword" was, against French's protest, told off to watch over him. "I suppose," wrote French, "that, if danger arose, he would take to his heels and leave me to fight my own battle." He found the people, so far from being ready to hear the Gospel, doubting whether the English ever prayed or had any religion. This is always a puzzle to Mohammedans. Even at Peshawar, where there was a regular church, they said, "Why ask us to give up our creed? We are more religious than the English. They only worship God once a week, and then they do not kneel down to worship Him!" But French was surprised at the ability shown by the mullahs when it came to real discussion, though shocked at their "fiendish malice" in reading passages from the New Testament, and "mocking and blaspheming." This, however, only fanned his zeal. He gave his whole heart to the work, and diligently set himself to acquire Pushtu, the Afghan language.
But this was not to be. Just at Christmas (1862) he was found by a military doctor insensible in the jungle from congestion of the brain, and was "snatched," he was told, "from the jaws of death," with no hope for him but in leaving by the first steamer for England. "With severe remedies," he wrote, "my reason returned (I suppose the sun and fatigue had injured it). Afterwards I had a bad attack of dysentery, but rallied from this, though I am at the ne plus ultra of debility and depression." He reached England on Feb. 7, 1863.
But what of the Derajat Mission? Bruce and others carried on the work zealously, and there were a few notable converts. But the Mission was long quite undermanned. In later years Medical Missions have been established at different points, and have gained great influence over the people, particularly the wild tribesmen of the Afghan hills. One hospital, at a place called Tank, worked by an Indian doctor, was the only building spared when murderous raiders attacked the town and put many of the townspeople to the sword. Quite recently the splendid work of Dr. Pennell at Bannu has become widely known through his book, Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier, for which Lord Roberts wrote a preface. Pennell's hospital has been pronounced by a British officer to be worth two regiments to the Government; and his death by blood-poisoning has been universally and deeply mourned.