17 April, 2024


Book Review: Jaffna College’s Rev. Sydney Bunker, In Service Of God & Man

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

This is an amazing book written with honesty and love for Ceylon from an American who led a notable educational effort, heading Jaffna College as President, acting as Bishop’s Commissary, and establishing full collegiate classes. His letters were compiled by his daughter Grace or Gracie. The original letters were mainly to Sydney Bunker’s friends and persons who had developed an interest in Jaffna College over the years. 

Both my parents studied at Jaffna College in Bunker’s time in the late 1930s or early 1940s doing their “London-Inter” and I have heard fond memories of Bunker. I had the pleasure of meeting Grace Bunker, the compiler, briefly when she was teaching at Uduvil Girls’ College where my Aunt Saras Somasundaram was Principal. Uduvil is the first girls’ boarding school in Asia, founded in 1824. Sri Lankan historians would have made much of it if it had been in the South. As it is, most Sinhalese know nothing of it.  

Grace’s efforts to bring out a book at affordable cost to make her father known more widely are laudable. Who else can produce a 389-page book on good paper for $9.50? I think her decision not to go to a formal publisher was a good one, although it resulted in some production errors like Bishop Kulandran’ name coming out as Kulendran.

The book has something for multifarious classes and interests. I will separate them.

1. For Bunker’s correspondents and their heirs: Although written for them, many of us will not know the personages but that does not matter because of the details that we Sri Lankans fail to record as Bunker did. To those who do not know the family, what is important is the details in the letters, their stylistic content worthy of emulation and the love that exudes from them.

For myself I recognize many of the names and am happy to learn more about them: the name Bunker itself, the Bavincks, Lockwoods who were assigned the same house that my ancestor Native Professor of Mathematics, Edward Appukutti Kingsbury, had lived in (and later my uncle George Somasundaram as Director of the Technical Institute asked for and got assigned to him), Bookwalter, et al. Many of these are people my parents spoke of, they having studied briefly at Jaffna College in Bunker’s time in the London-Inter section prior to the full collegiate section established by Syd Bunker in 1947 – as successor to Batticotta Seminary, veritably the first university imparting western education here. Sadly, it is also one more fact suppressed by Sinhalese heritage histories.

2. Political Opinions: Bunker’s political views, being from an outsider who loved us, are most useful. With sympathies for the oppressed, Bunker says the revival of Buddhism is clearly associated with narrow Sinhalese nationalism. On Gandhi’s murder in 1947:  “The greatness of the man is seen in the difficulty one has in thinking about India without him.” Of the Suez war, he says most were on the side of Egypt.

He is scathing on the political leaders saying 7 years after the war money came easily and was as easily spent. He sees the General Strike of 1952 as by the Communists, characterized by arson, sabotage and hooliganism. He lets off Dudley Senanayake a little too easily – that the young Prime Minister resigned for health reasons (probably his official reason) whereas he resigned because he could not manage the strike.  

However, he has praise for Sir John Kotelawala, returning Sir John’s compliment: “Americans are the best people in the world.” Of Sir John: “While he is hardly a scholar and not a polished speaker, he is an open-hearted battler for what he believes in … Where religious and communal and personal interests are so dominant, he is our major hope for tolerance and democracy.” 

After the Satyagraha in 1961 he says the government has acted so as to convince the Tamils increasingly that the only way the Tamils can retain their self-respect is to become a separate state. He adds his judgement that economically and other ways it is not feasible.

On the Sino-Indian trouble he finds Ceylonese divided. On the one hand there is the shared Buddhism with the Sinhalese who still fear India’s teeming millions. And on the other he says “we musn’t offend India. She is only thirty miles away.”

The General Letters of Sydney Kittredge Bunker in Jaffna Ceylon 1937-1966. 
Publisher: Grace Bunker, Middletown, DE, 2022. Pages 389. ISBN 9798694192545. Price $9.50 from Amazon.com.

Bunker characterizes the population growth of 200,000 a year on a population of 8 million in 1951 as a disaster. He bemoans the huge wealth he saw in America in 1952 and that Americans are more materialistic than people elsewhere and too easily see it as [divine] reward for their virtue. He declares the N. American Continent as having been ruthlessly exploited. He is explicit that he would have voted with the Democrats if in the US.

3. Our Schooling and English Instruction: Bunker says those who went to school here did so either for exam preparation or to play football and cricket. We sat exams and waited 3 months for results from London. That was pretty fast considering that scripts were sent by boat, giving a month for grading. Those who failed sat repeatedly every six months like the repeat OL we had. Students went for a clerk’s position as soon as they passed.

Bunker says early in his time that it is pedagogically wrong not to learn in one’s own tongue. But as early as 1955 he says, “The days of English below the collegiate level are practically over.” As he resigned with effect from Dec.1966, he says he finds his job “ever less practicable in view of the change of medium of instruction from English to Tamil.”  He despairs that direct communication with new students entering college was almost impossible because English teaching in the schools is now so ineffective as to make spoken English almost unknown to this generation. Towards the end, however, he still advocates Tamil education combined with special classes at the university in English, exactly what we do now. But by then, as we find, it is too late for our students to learn English. 

4. Church Union: An avowed ecumenicist, Bunker made common cause with Dr. D.T. Niles on union, looking to India where Anglicans merged with his Congregationalists, Niles’ Methodists and so on. Bunker was full of hope in 1940 because Indian Anglicans were going into the CSI. Bunker’s vision of a unified Christian Church was that of all the followers of One Lord coming to one table together despite their differing beliefs because of their love for the One they professed to follow and to serve. He hoped that rather than disunity and infighting, the Christians would espouse a common message of love with Christ’s life as the ultimate example of God’s grace for all humanity.

Bunker was however distressed with Anglo-Catholics in Ceylon who did not buy into the union scheme. He did not understand why, biblically, Holy Communion without discerning the body and blood of Christ  like the Congregationalists and Methodists, is to “eat and drink damnation.” 

5. Missionary Life: The missionaries for sure left a lot behind in coming to serve, facing stomach problems, malaria and whatnot. As Bunker says, “The first men and women of the mission were in the vanguard of one of the most memorable religious movements that not only Christianity has seen, but that any religion has produced.  The missionaries left home never expecting to see it again, moved by a purely spiritual compulsion…” The gravestones in our cemeteries of wives and children testify to their commitment. 

Their life among us, however, was not deprived in every way – huge bungalows with 3 servants, generous leave. The US Embassy provided a launch to board their ship when going on leave – but such care  was recently denied to Americans in Jaffna who asked for Covid shots when our government was serving only Colombo. 

However, no one begrudges the Bunkers these privileges. Bunker came highly qualified in 1937. There was no Ceylonese available at the time with the same or superior qualifications – BA (Oberlin), BTh (Union) where he received highest honours (including a two-year scholarship to study abroad). He chose Oxford where he earned his B.Litt. (Oxon), which is why it is a common error to say that he was a Rhodes Scholar. He at the time he was appointed to Jaffna had his chair in theology in Alabama. He was already socially conscious teaching at a college for Blacks. Bunker had been born and reared in South Africa, where his parents were missionaries. His friends, and theirs, were Blacks including Chief Albert Lathuli, the first Black African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1960). 

A man with many friends, among Bunker’s strengths were his ability to raise funds for numerous buildings for Jaffna College. He ends many letters saying, “remember us in your prayers and giving.” He also brought with him his vision for Jaffna College as a collegiate institution. C.B. Bavinck in tribute said, “He built; and his buildings, his ideas, became concrete standing around us today.”

Syd and Ruth Bunker were assigned by the mission, when they came first to Jaffna College, that they were to find their replacements among the nationals they would meet in their work, and then to assure that those persons received the opportunities for training and advancement successfully to lead the schools, colleges, and the Church. 

They did in K.A. Selliah (Principal), J.H. Ariaratnam (Registrar) and Dr. Luther Jeyasingham (President).

6. Padding Qualifications: Bunker never embellished his credentials as many do. He never earned a doctorate and never used the title “Doctor.” He started on one at Yale but his scholarship funds did not come through because of the intervening war. Subsequently he entered the Th.D program at Union Theological Seminary (of Columbia). In 1944 he wrote he would take another year to finish but he had passed only the qualifying preliminary exam in 1945. He never had the time to finish, given  his expanding duties in Jaffna, and serveing three times as Commissary (Acting for the Bishop). 

Bunker himself never claimed a doctorate. But this claim is made by The Sunday Times upon his death while The Sunday Mirror claims an education at Yale for him. Jaffna College Global Alumni also falsely (and shamelessly) claims a doctorate for him as well as to some of the subsequent principals. Former US Ambassador Joseph C. Satterthwaite confers the title Dr. on Bunker in his appreciation. Such claims of fictitious doctor titles using honourary doctorates now goes up to the highest levels of the church and mission schools of different denominations. Bunker would surely turn in his grave. 

Bunker was, however, awarded honourary doctorates from Earlham and Oberlin. An honourary doctorate requires no thesis. As such to claim Dr. as a title is considered unethical since it is to pretend to have earned a doctorate by thesis. Some of Bunker’s successor-principals carry the title doctor without earning one (except through a fee). 

7. Jaffna College: In 1938 Bunker writes of “our recent examination results in which we led the island in the number of students who passed the matriculation examination.”. That is, he inherited a high powered school. 

Bunker is clear that what was built in 1872 was a new school on the site of Batticotta Seminary. Like St. John’s and Central, JC too is untruthful in claiming the 1823 date. Bunker gives the information that few alumni contributed (contrary to claims) towards JC’s building funds and much of the funds was raised in the US. This continues to be a problem for JC today. Because of the great interest and greater proportion of dollars available from the US, JC alumni have over the course of time lost motivation to contribute personal funds. 

Some Trustee information of interest to ongoing cases is given.

8. Jaffna Christians and Impediment to Conversion: Bunker says the Church’s Ministers are not up to the educational mark of his staff. He declares anti-Christian feelings as rising with nationalism, even in the State Council.

Bunker had a low opinion of Pentecostalists and Seventh Day Adventists, and is thankful that their number in Ceylon is not as big as in India. He bemoans the large influx of sectarian missionaries who came to India with a narrow educational background and little sympathy for the cultural heritage of India. 

He regrets the comparative secularization, the impersonal and worldly character of  American institutions, claiming success in numbers, property, buildings and equipment and amenities of life. At the same time, he confesses that  the early missionaries’ obsession with their sinful natures and with death was morbid and it issued in an intensity of religious life, both temporal and corporate, associated with Pentecostals but not with churches now.  Unless some of the intensity of their faith, of their belief and practice in prayer, is revived, however, Bunker states that we will never make significant headway against secularistic materialism which binds the minds of men of our time as firmly as Hinduism then bound the minds of Jaffna men. 

Bunker was reading the journals of early missionaries who founded the mission. He admired their intensity of faith, their belief and their dedication to the practice of prayer. He felt a need to return to those values if any significant headway was to be made against materialism, but he felt that a return to the fanaticism of those days would be too high a price to pay.

9. Christian Education: Up to 1939 all mission school children went through Christian education and Bible classes unless the parents objected. But after an act in State Council, a note from the parents was required agreeing to the classes. Parents, despite feeling the loss of religious values, were under nationalist pressure not to give such a note. 

10. Schools take-over and Jaffna University: As the President of Jaffna College (both the school and undergraduate section), Bunker had special insights. 

The SLFP wanted to takeover more schools but the UNP did not. Indeed, Bunker says there was a fanatical group wanting all schools to be taken-over. After the take-over of most schools in Dec. 1960, JC and Uduvil could charge no fees but ask for donations

As the government pressed on with its language policy, discrimination against Tamils and Christians was steadily getting worse.  The 35,000 coming out of school vying for the 5000 university places, made a strong case for JC to create its undergraduate section, and be recognized by the government and related in some useful way to the official program of the university. A 1963 White Paper committed not to take-over the remaining private schools for three years at least. However, these contradictory claims on taking over JC prevented Bunker from pouring money into much needed buildings, especially hostels for women.

By 1964 Bunker reports that the government was planning to take over all remaining private schools immediately and that the whole of JC would be taken over to “make it the northern branch of University.” Dr. D.T. Niles made his own enquiries and was told that only 2 Hindu schools would be taken over and JC would be allowed  to “wither on the vine.” But the government fell in 1965 and gave JC a respite till 1974.

11. Odd facts: There are many things in the book that we Sri Lankans do not care to note but should. Examples are that a US $ was Rs. 5 in 1938. The best white suit was Rs. 12 and an Arrow shirt Rs. 7 at the time. Like during the civil war (and now) petrol was rationed during WWII and letters had to be kept short because of scarcity of paper. Meat he says  was prohibitively costly in Jaffna except for chicken.  Like today, feeding on local vegetable was dirt cheap. But strangely, he says cow’s milk was scarce. 

During WWII, there were 40,000 Jaffna Tamils in Malaya. In 1951 eleven-hundred monkeys were shipped to the US for medical research and only half survived the journey. 

12. Bunker’s Faith: Bunker’s annual Christmas letters exude his deep Christian faith, for example: “Nothing can cloud the Sun of Righteousness in our heart when He is born in us. It’s for this that God has given us Christmas.” Again, “The assurance of Christmas is not that we shall be relieved of all suffering but rather that God bears suffering with and for us and asks that we too should bear one another’s burdens.” 

In conclusion, an excellent book, indeed that is a window to a Christian mind and brings to life our own heritage.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof. Hoole, All things done in the service of God and man is fruitful and superior to anything done in the service of man alone, with no thought of God. This universe did not come out of nothing. We are accountable.

  • 2

    “Bunker states that we will never make significant headway against secularistic materialism which binds the minds of men of our time as firmly as Hinduism then bound the minds of Jaffna men.”

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