Today marks the 183rd anniversary of the coming of Methodism to Sri Lanka.
The scene commences at Portsmouth harbour in England where several passengers are waiting to undergo the rigours of an approximately 7,000 mile Sea Journey to various parts of the East. Most of them are Englishmen waiting to take up jobs as Governors, Magistrates and other Colonial posts in India, Burma and Ceylon with high salaries.
But among these passengers in strange contrast is a group of men and women also waiting to embark to Ceylon. They however have no assurances of high salaries, housing and other perks.
The leader of this group was Dr. Thomas Coke, Doctor of Civil Laws, a Bachelor of Arts of Oxford and a member of the Judiciary who moved in high circles in England. He at the Liverpool Methodist Conference had pleaded that he be allowed to go to then Ceylon to serve the people there. With tears pouring down his cheeks, thumping the conference table, he said "please allow us to go Ceylon for I am prepared to be even naked once I am set in Ceylon and I am prepared to be there without a single friend." Finally he said that he was quite prepared to spend his savings of 8,000 pounds on this mission. The Conference stunned into silence granted this old man, described as no longer raven haired and in his sixties, his wish.
In this group was a 25 year old lady, wife of Revd. Ault. While our local fishermen were out all night fishing off the coast of Weligama, they saw some White faces in a boat trying to come ashore on or about the 28th of June 1814. On arrival they were taken to the then Magistrates bungalow at Weligama where the Magistrate was none other than the forebear of our late leader Pieter Keuneman, also a Keuneman. They had left "Bush Hotel" at Portsmouth on December23rd 1813, the team consisting of Dr. Thomas Coke Revs. William Ault, Clough, HowardLynch, Ersaine, Squance and the wife of Revd. Ault. Dr. Coke had high connections with the Lord Chancellor of England Lord Eldon, Lord Liverpool and Lord Addington who, were all his personal friends. But the journey was so tragic that before the ships could reach Ceylon Dr. Coke was found dead while kneeling in his cabin.
The second blow was when some time later once again before the ship could reach Ceylon Mrs. Ault died on board and she too had to be buried at sea in her 25th year.
The team had prepared themselves learning Portuguese and Dutch and had brought a printing press with them.
On arrival in Ceylon, lots were cast as to which areas of the Island these missionaries were to be posted.
Revd. William Ault was to go to Batticaloa and one of the oldest schools in Sri Lanka is Methodist Central College, Batticaloa which he initially founded the same year in 1814 with five pioneer students.
In a letter to his mother Revd. Ault writes "With regard to accomodation I am not very pleasantly situated. I scarcely ever see bread. I have been housekeeper nearly two months and the meat had only been two peacocks which had been shot. One was sent to me as a gift and for the other I had to pay. There has scarcely been any rain for two years, The cattle have died and almost a famine is apprehended on this side unless we get rain. I dwell presently in a hut with mud walls thatched with leaves, and I pay a rent of Rs. 10 per month, I have seldom a good nights rest as the mosquitoes sting and sting very badly. He adds how he gets up very early and learns the language of the place.
But within eight months of his arrival, on the 1st of April 1815 , lonely and bereaved with only a Tamil servant standing by him, Ault breathed his last but not before he asked his servant to read a portion from the Bible. When he died on 1st April 1815 his coffin was carried to the grave by the soldiers of the British garrison and Ault was buried in a tomb in this church and bore a stone inscription.
The inscription commemorated the landing of the first Methodist missionaries at Weligama, but it remains uncared for today. One member of this group Revd. Harward established the Wesley Press in Colombo and printed a Sinhala Dictionary and a Pali Grammer. Asias Oldest Methodist Church was founded by one in this team, the Revd. Clough and is situated at Pettah.
The Mission founded several schools - Wesley College Colombo, Methodist College Colombo, Batticaloa Methodist Central College, Jaffna Methodist Central College, Southlands Galle, Richmond College Galle, Kingswood College Kandy and Newstead Negombo. At a time when we are beginning to awake to the need of Vocational and Technical Education, this mission were pioneers in inaugurating Industrial Schools as at Wellawatte, and even in far away Bintenne in the 1880s. In the early nineteenth century records show Industrial Schools were functioning in Kallar in the East where students underwent a course of training in Brass foundry, Carpentry and Blacksmiths work and it is stated that more orders were received than the school could cope with.
She is beaten, she is harassed, she is burdened. Shes starved and burnt if she doesnt bring in adequate dowry and shes also forced to indulge in sati - jump onto her husbands pyre.
This seems to be the story of a majority of Indian women, be they from among the malnourished tribals, the slum- dwellers the middle class or the very opulent class.
It is indeed a tragic story and we see it everywhere. Pretty Saku, the 18- year old who comes to sweep and mop our floor is seven months pregnant. She comes daily. There are no holidays or leave for her - because if she takes a day off, the housewives of the other homes she works in will cut her salary.
She works in about 15 households everyday. She goes down on all fours, even now though shes pregnant, and sweeps the floor ( there are no brooms here only something like an elapatha but with some soft reeds tied to it) and mops it.
When we tell her that she can take a day off, she cant comprehend whats wrong with us. She toils all day long and each household pays her 250 rupees. What does her husband do? Nothing. He lolls at home while this young girl wastes her youth labouring to keep the home fires burning. For her, this is part of life - her mother, her grandmother, her sister and her sisters-in-law have all done the same.
She sees no injustice in it. And the baby to be born to her if its a girl, will follow suit, as education is a distant dream for her.
Forty-year-old Rita is a saleswoman. She comes to our door once a month selling knickknacks. Her ankles are swelled because she has to climb four or five floors to sell her wares. She has to feed her four children because her husband is dead.
She travels from her home, which is far away from the city at dawn and goes back only late at night. As her commission is just a pittance she has to buy her flour, rice and dhal daily, make the dinner soon after she goes home and leave the leftovers for her children to eat the next afternoon.
But theres always a genuine smile on her face when she rings our doorbell. Her children are growing and the two boys need more food, so please buy some air-freshener or a sandwich toaster, she pleads.
This is her lot. But she will strive very hard, more to educate her children, so that they will not be caught in a similar poverty trap , she says. Her ankles are testimony to her labour.
The other day I saw a little naked boy of about three tied to a lamppost by the roadside in the heart of Bandra town where we live. Passers-by didnt even cast a second glance at him. The road was being repaired and tarred before the monsoon. I was with an Indian friend, so we stopped and asked the tot where his mother was. Just then a woman labourer walked upto us. She had a cup of plain tea for the boy. There was a strange bundle round her waist and we saw that it was a tiny infant, may be three months old, strung near her waist with the saree fall tied like a sling.
As she sat to let her screaming infant suckle her emaciated breast, we spent a few minutes chatting to her. She and her husband were both labourers - they were like nomads setting up camp or in this case just a lean-to with a sheet of paper as the roof, whenever there was work. They had come to Bandra to earn a few rupees from the road construction work. They carried with them all their worldly possessions - a bundle of rags and a few tin pots to make rotis.
These are few of the women caught in the poverty trap.. Then there are others who are toiling as bonded labourers or prostitutes.
There is also the perennial problem of bride-burning and other forms of harassment of women. The most recent case was of a 20-year-old married girl from a respectable middle-class family who allegedly committed "suicide" by swallowing poison and then hanging herself. The girls family has complained that they suspect foul play and investigations are on.
The irony was that the two families had known each other for a long time. But once the couple married , the girl had not been allowed to visit her parents home alone. She had always been accompanied by her husband who had ensured that she would not have even a minutes privacy with her own family. She had also been asking for more money and more tolas of gold from her father.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the girl is dead and most probably the sorrowful widower will soon be married again, with the blessing of his mother.
In India where the extended family system is still very rampant, ill - treatment, assault and even murder by the in -laws are quite common.
Whenever I talk to women who are giving their sweet tears and also their blood for their families, I think of the verse in Shakespeares Hamlet
"Like the painting of a sorrowA face without a heart...
This is the face of the Indian woman:
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