Heritage Histories: What they are and How they Operate through Jaffna Central College and St. John’s College Histories
Heritage histories define who we are and how we think of ourselves. They are about us. They define us and our group attributes – caste, nobility, exclusivity – to strengthen and bind a community. Often they are therefore untidy and incorrect. Doubts are soul wrenching and resisted.
Thus when questions about the caste of an ancestor come up many of us are troubled and react strongly. Those speaking of an ancestor who had multiple wives are hushed by the family. When a priest is bad, members of the Church do not like it mentioned because it diminishes the Church.
The Sinhalese believe that Gautama Buddha planned Sri Lanka as their home to preserve his true religion. Therefore Sri Lanka also being the Tamils’ home challenges the Sinhalese-Buddhist sense of being and, in some, engenders a violent reaction.
Likewise we Tamils have written misinformed histories about how well our kudi-makkal (low caste serfs) were looked after when Thesavalamai has ample evidence of the Vellala’s rights over low-caste women – and this very thought is seen as anti-Tamil.
Tamil Saivites who believe that Tamil and Saivism are inextricably intertwined are troubled by suggestions that Tamils were once mainly Buddhist and Jain before Saivism took root after the seventh century AD as the Thevaram Period began. Many Saivites whose ancestors converted at the time think Tamil Saivites who converted to Christianity in European colonial times are traitors.
Such as who are angry that some Saivites converted to Christianity for state-privileges during European colonial rule are unable to digest that similar state privileges were at play during the Chola empire when most Tamils converted to Saivism in Ceylon and South India.
To digress a little, I actually believe that those Tamils who refused to convert became the Sinhalese and these include many ardent South Indian Jain and Buddhist believers who took shelter in Ceylon where Buddhists were comfortable as those refusing to convert in South India were being executed during the Thevaram period – even today a Madurai temple festival celebrates the impalement of 8000 Jains who refused to convert to the new state religion on the orders of Saint Sambandar and this is recorded by Nambi Andar Nambi (Aludaiya Pillaiyar Tiru-ula-malai, Stanzas 59 and 74). This incident dates to the beginning of Chola power at the close of the millennium before last. Nilkanta Shastri, who was not given to making heritage histories, states in his book (A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, Oxford, 1958) that many Hindu temples today were once Buddhist and Jain. This reading of history explains why Sinhalese literature makes its appearance only in the ninth century. I am acutely aware that this is a dangerous thing to say today as Buddhists take over Hindu temples but history has to be faced and come to grips with. We can react by either drawing out our knives or, hopefully, stopping all fighting and discrimination saying we are the same people. At present we Tamils having no power, this must come from the Sinhalese or there would be no hope for Sri Lanka and for ourselves as Sri Lankans.
Reactions to Corrections
In Arumuka Navalar histories professors at great American institutions like Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Davidson and Smith have stepped in patronizingly to show admiration for the East but in reality have intervened on the side of the oppressive Vellala to help him tighten his stranglehold on the rest, and to cement the Vellala-imposed Navalar position as everyone’s hero. Thus when Arumuka Navalar’s alleged achievements were recently corrected to establish a more accurate historical record, there were strong responses in the comments section proving the strong prejudices among Saivites against Christians. A debate on recent history was cast as a religious debate to enforce silence.
Anti-Christian diatribes hinted that if Christian antecedents are investigated our low-caste connections would come out. The well-meaning suggested that Percival’s greatness could have been brought out without undermining Navalar – this would be difficult, however, when his most important achievements have been usurped for Navalar, and since Percival has been called a colonialist. Navalar biographer Yohi Suddhanandabharathy, for example, has a comical account where Percival the European was scared to go before missionaries of the Bible society in Madras to defend the translation but Navalar told Percival not to worry, goes with Percival, and performs a magnificent job with Percival as bystander. How is this corrected without saying that the Navalar stories are bluff and nonsense?
Dividing the Tamil people said some of the articles on Navalar – just like President Rajapaksa accused those complaining in Geneva of disturbing communal harmony and derailing reconciliation as he himself is hammering Tamils. Irrelevant as to who translated the Bible said others – as if the debate over whether Tamils contributed to the ancient kingdoms, civilization and irrigation works of ancient Ceylon is irrelevant.
An angry relative wrote to me that he did not like the article, saying it “is sure to have very bad impact on Hindu-Christian relations and, on the welfare of the Tamil Christian community in Sri Lanka.” As Prof. K. Sivathamby wrote, Christians live in fear – living oppressed and as the oppressed, to translate him. This is obvious from the web diatribes and the fears the articles have engendered.
Importance of History
What is the remedy then to all these inaccuracies in the history of Percival and Navalar? To agree and keep quiet for peace? If so, when the Sinhalese government claims the Buddhist ruins of Kantharodai as theirs, when they write school textbooks that the Sinhalese came as settlers from India but that Tamils trespassed as invaders, should Tamils agree for the sake of peace and goodwill and write nice nothings? Neville Chamberlain tried appeasement with Hitler until it was too late to challenge him.
History helps us understand the past and learn for the future. It should never be commandeered to service our egos. Nothing justifies altering the record. Worse, defending the cooked up record simply brings out the worst in us as seen in the communalist comments on the web.
Heritage History through School Rivalry
To understand heritage histories let me take up school rivalry between St. John’s College (SJC) and Jaffna Central College (JCC) – less controversial, but with the same issues. Many of us have come to be defined by our schools. In this rivalry to define ourselves as better, we try to find ways to make our own schools seem the better. Thus the older the school, it is felt, the better it is. This subject can be more safely discussed; and I hope this more neutral parallel will serve to illustrate the nature of heritage histories without the usual abuse and hate.
History of St. John’s and Jaffna Central
JCC was opened in 1834 by Peter Percival. It was a new school. For he wrote in a letter datelined “Jaffna January 7th, 1835” (Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine,1835):
“In October, my intention to open [my emphasis] an English school in Jaffna … was extensively circulated in Jaffna and its vicinity … I was able soon to estimate the probable interest it might excite among the natives. During the month of October upwards of  boys were entered upon my book. … On the 4th of November the boys assembled [my emphasis], to the number of .”
That same letter lists other Methodist schools in town and one in Chundikuli too – possibly where SJC now is because there is now no Methodist institution there under an inter-Church compact. He adds that Mrs. Percival and one Miss. Ashton had a superior school at the Mission House yielding “a small monthly sum” which was used to repair the buildings he had acquired for the new school. E.J. Robinson in his 1867 book confirms JCC was founded in 1834. The school till 1934 understood this clearly when they celebrated their centenary and published the book 1834-1934: Centenary memorial edition, Jaffna, 1934.
Rival SJC is the younger school, having been founded by the Church Missionary Society, the CMS, the Protestant (Low Church) wing of the Anglican Church. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel or SPG, is the rival Catholic (High Church) wing of Anglicanism. With the appointment of the first Bishop of Colombo, James Chapman, in 1845, the SPG began its first school, St. Thomas’, in 1851 and the CMS, not to be outdone, the same year founded SJC. This is clear from the CMS’s official history, J.W. Baldwin, One hundred years in Ceylon; or, The centenary volume of the Church Missionary Society in Ceylon, 1818-1918 (London: CMS, 1922):
“An important high class boys’ school was begun at Chundicully in 1851, which is now known as St. John’s College.” [my emphases]
The false claim for age was begun by SJC tracing itself back to the CMS’ Rev. Joseph Knight founding a boarding seminary in Nallur (or Nellore as then spelt) in 1823. But there is really no proper continuity because the Nellore school was closed as a result of a severe cholera epidemic in 1833. Both missionaries running the school, Knight and William Adley, were abroad. As noted, the CMS is clear that St. John’s did not start in 1823. Further, Father Baldwin writes: “In 1841 the [Nellore] seminary was removed to Chundicully and in 1851 as a boarding establishment it was abolished. From its foundation to its close upwards of two hundred lads passed through the regular course, and seventy became converts to Christianity” [emphases mine].
Thus, the first SJC Principal Pargiter’s accomplishments are denied and Joseph Knight elevated to a high status as founding principal he never craved for or even claimed.
The older JCC, not wishing to be outsmarted, around 1990, commissioned three prominent men to investigate the founding. They gave their report using the fact that the first Methodist missionaries arriving in Jaffna in August 1814 purchased the former Lutheran Church and an old Dutch orphan house from the government. These became a Methodist chapel and school. The school was not on today’s JCC site but close by. The commissioners ignored the Percival papers and the centenary celebrations and concluded that the school was founded on 1 Aug. 1814, “the date on which a property was purchased for establishing a school and chapel.” They took no chances with SJC coming up with an earlier date in not allowing time for the school to be built on the purchased property! The 1814 school being misclaimed as JCC was probably one of the many other Methodist schools in Percival’s letter. Percival was downgraded from founder to reorganizer of his school.
Lessons in Upsetting Heritage Histories
In writing this I am sure I would earn the wrath of fellow Johnians and be called disloyal. Some will say trouble-maker. The weight of the majority will be used to deny, ignore, abuse and ostracize. Is that not how it is with ethnic and Navalar histories?
The historical record is sacred, never to be violated. Sadly we Sri Lankans have trouble with that.
Note: This is an expanded version of an article written for print using the more liberal word count on the web.