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Outlines of education: From Dutch Ceylon to British Ceylon


5 November 2019 12:04 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}




  • From 1857 to 1862, the number of govt schools rose from 99 to 5,518, that of free schools from 315 to 12,087, and that of aided schools (State funded missionary enclaves) from 15 to 1,424;


The third of four articles, outlines from an upcoming book

The Dutch clergyman was seen as a state official, with the result that Dutch schools, in spite of their emphasis on religious instruction and training, became secular enclaves: in 1760 at the Dutch Seminary, for instance, preparing youths for the Ministry was discouraged. Attempts to impose Protestantism on locals gradually failed: Jacob Haafner, a German in the pay of the Dutch Company residing in Galle, wrote in 1780 that inhabitants knew little of Christianity “save to make the sign of the Cross and to mutter a prayer.” Paul E. Pieris, writing on the state of Christianity under the Portuguese, made roughly the same observation: knowledge of Christianity “consisted of little more than the capacity to say a few prayers, and to make the sign of the Cross.” The emphasis on committing to memory had clearly drained both Catholic and Protestant churches of a faithful flock.  

On the other hand, Roman Catholics prospered over Protestants in the Dutch era: the former expended their efforts through “volunteer enthusiasm”, their preachers could converse in Sinhala and Tamil (while only a few Dutch predikants, tasked with converting and educating the population, could), and the administration, being a commercial concern, was not willing to spend huge sums of money for the sake of missionaries. In fact unlike the Catholic Church, which as Abeyasinghe notes managed to drain the coffers of the Portuguese administration, the Protestant Church was more often than not “lorded over” by Dutch officials : an ironic reversal of fortune that only added to the woes of the Protestants.  
The Catholics resorted to whatever means to maintain their flock. Records have been made of priests going as far as exorcising locusts and beetles “that damaged coconut trees in Puttalam and Kalpitiya.” Such practices were rampant elsewhere too, when priests sought to legitimise their faith by resorting to pagan customs like speaking in tongues and miracle healing. In the early 17th century, for instance, we hear of one Father de Nobile, who in Madurai presented “Christianity in terms of Brahmanic Hinduism”, and in later years we hear of Jesuits in China “who tried to combat Buddhism by adapting Christianity to Confucianism.”  

In the meantime, while the Dutch oversaw education in their territories, the education of locals in the rest of the country continued to be overseen by Buddhist monks and, in the early period of Dutch occupation, from the time of Rajasinghe II to that of the Nayakkars, Catholic priests (especially the Oratorians, led by Joseph Vaz and Jacome Gonsalves).  
The relationship between the kanda uda pas rata and the Dutch administration was at best ambivalent and at worst strenuous: whenever the cinnamon peelers (the chalias) went on strike, for example, they would seek refuge in the king’s territories, while for their part the Dutch, scheming to annex those territories, went as far as to offer the use of their vessels for religious missions, including one that proved to be pivotal for the establishment of the Siyam Nikaya under Welivita Saranankara Thera. It was through Saranankara, moreover, that the local education system described in the first essay in this series managed to reach its peak, and that because of the Buddhist revival. It would meet its worst nadir, conversely, at the tail end of the Kandyan kingdom in the British era, the era we must now turn to.  

In his essay “The Bugbear of Literacy”,Ananda Coomaraswamy makes a distinction between literacy and culture. In countries where industrialisation had not been allowed to take place (thanks to colonial economic policies that destroyed local industry), “to impose our literacy... upon a cultured but illiterate people is to destroy their culture in the name of our own.” Colonial era filtration theory, enforced and taken to its logical conclusion along the lines of Macaulay’s Minute of 1835 and the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, ended up creating a rift between the literate few and the illiterate many: a British official in India, at the height of colonial expansion, gravely lamented the way “English education has destroyed their [the Indians’] love of their own literature... and worst of all, their repose in their own traditional and national religion.” All this, however, is known.  

I have previously, in this column, written on the history of colonial era education until 1836. To sum up, Frederick North the first Governor was sufficiently impressed with the way the Dutch had maintained parish schools to attempt at reviving them and rehiring parish teachers. When expenditures rose well beyond £5,000, the central administration promptly cut funding by more than half. The added woes of insurrection in the Kandy and the threat of rebellion deterred North and his successor, Robert Brownrigg, from concentrating on education. However, the arrival of missionary bodies, starting with the Baptists in 1812, was followed by the setting up of private schools which, while not patronised by the State, were allowed to grow by it; by 1833, 15 Baptist, 90 Wesleyan, 78 American Mission, and 53 Missionary Society schools had been set up. These denominations controlled more than 46% of schools, in a context where a mere 6% was held by the Roman Catholics and 39% by private schools, the latter having “an average of 13 students” and “an attendance of five or six children.”  
In November 1827, three years after the first girls’ boarding school in Asia was established in Uduvil, Jaffna, Governor Edward Barnes laid the foundation stone for a Christian Institution in Cotta. Its purpose, very obviously, was to train locals for missionary work. The school was officially opened a year later with 15 students. Among the subjects taught were Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, and Hebrew, with the Bible. In 1831, Reverend Joseph Marsh arrived from Madras, proceeding to head that institution until 1834.Rev.Marsh left the Cotta Institution in January 1835 and was made Chaplain of St Paul’s Church in Colombo; taking from his experiences at Cotta, he opened a school of his own in Pettah, bordering on Hill Street. The first batch comprised almost entirely of children from Burgher families resident in the area, including Richard Morgan and J. Martensz.  

The government, in the aftermath of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, felt the need to establish public schools, since education had been in the hands of missionaries and private individuals. Less than a year after its founding, then, Marsh’s school was turned into a public school (the Colombo Academy), and Marsh was employed as its first principal on an annual salary of around £200 (the equivalent of £22,200 or more than Rs. 5million today). Before its establishment, education was split between three layers: the State, comprising the Academy, three preparatory schools, and 97 parish schools (the latter of which shut down in 1832); the missionary, headed by the Baptists, Wesleyans, Americans, and Anglicans; and the private, “controlled mainly by individual entrepreneurs”, whose schools, “despite their large number [640 in 1830, as against 97 parish establishments], attracted small enrollments.” In addition to these were two other types: Roman Catholic schools, which also attracted small enrollments, and indigenous schools, which were largely ignored.  

The fortunes of government and private schools largely depended on State policy. From 1857 to 1862, the number of government schools rose from 99 to 5,518, that of free schools from 315 to 12,087, and that of aided schools (State funded missionary enclaves) from 15 to 1,424; by contrast the number of private schools grew from 873 to 5,508. The recommendations of the Morgan Commission, tabled in the same year the British working class won the right to primary schooling (1870), swung the pendulum back to vernacular education, prioritising elementary education in Sinhala and Tamil and freedom of religion and belief for students of other faiths in Christian missionary schools. In reality and very often, however, the latter was a cosmetic: missionary bodies frequently made use of distance clauses to prevent and pre-empt the establishment of government and, later, Buddhist schools.  

The main determining factor, typical for a colonial administration, continued to be economic: at times of depression, fees were raised and vernacular schools closed, and at times of boom the reverse was true; thus in 1840, fees at the Colombo Academy were reduced to around six shillings in response to a spurt in the plantation sector; eight years later, at the height of an economic downturn and a rebellion, they were raised to £1; following the coffee crash of the 1870s they were raised even more. The effect was dramatic – attendance nearly halved – but this was the Colombo Academy. The less privileged schools suffered a worse fate: in 1880, following the coffee crash, the education vote for the island was frozen at Rs. 500,000, and five years later, expenditure dropped from Rs. 14 million to Rs. 12 million. 

Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of Sinhala and Tamil schools led to the monopolisation of English education by missionary bodies, which is why so many high end missionary schools came to be built after, not before, the Morgan Committee reforms: Wesley College in 1874, Bishops College in 1875, Richmond College in 1877, and St. Patrick’s College in 1881. The Church and State, however, were not their sole patrons; philanthropy played its part too, as with Prince of Wales College. Paradoxically, moreover, it was the opening up of Sinhala and Tamil education that led to the establishment of many private and semi-private schools; they were entrenched by the grant-in-aid system: the latter being discontinued in 1961, in spite of opposition from the Church, by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government.  

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