Riding the Underbelly of British Imperialism

Welsh Evangelists


By Elnathan W Lyngkhoi

In the wake of the commemoration of Thomas Jones Day, the past week has witnessed a plethora of articles and messages acknowledging and glorifying the contributions of the Welsh evangelists to Khasi literature and the social life of the Hynniewtrep tribe, in general. It is established knowledge that the Welsh evangelists in the Khasi Hills cannot be simply pigeon-holed in the same category as the political agents of the British Raj. The acrimonious relationship between the Welsh and the British has been meticulously documented, right from the murder of Welsh royalty in Edwardian times, to the ban of the Welsh language in educational, judicial and legislative institutions, the violent protests against the Investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales and most recently, the political lobby of Plaid Cymru (A nationalist party in Wales) for Welsh independence, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Be that as it may, there is also no denying the fact, that though the Welsh, may have detested the British and even suffered due to British imperialism just as the Hynniewtrep tribe, yet, they too were condescending towards the Hynniewtrep people and considered the Khasi Hills, a mere heathen land, in need of civilizing and deliverance. It is also noteworthy that the Khasi Hills had already been subdued by the overbearing swoop of British imperialism, when Thomas Jones came to these hills. Now, the major reason, which afforded him undue advantage, to exert such an influence over this land, is ascribable to a rather ulterior strategy adopted by the Welsh evangelists; that they came riding on the underbelly of British imperialism.

The influence of Thomas Jones and the Welsh mission in the Khasi Hills is so immense, to the extent that, during the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of Thomas Jones, a much bigger crowd converged and participated, than when the Pope himself visited Shillong. This must have been a proud moment for any Welsh Calvinistic evangelist who so readily, regarded the Pope, the Brahma and the Mohamedan as their evil trinity. There is also a sweeping tendency to venerate Welshmen, not just evangelists. This was most explicit, when a Welsh poet, researcher and film-maker, by the name of Nigel Jenkins, visited Shillong in the 1990’s. Most peculiarly, he was asked to preach in one of the churches, despite Nigel Jenkins not being a Christian, let alone, a preaching evangelist. Surely enough he had to labour through his fumbling twenty minute speech of a sermon. The episode, albeit awkward and forgettable, proved the envious clout of the Welsh evangelists over the minds of the Khasis, who seem to harbour a presupposition that every Welshman is a virtuous Bible believing preacher.

It is imperative to understand, that it was with a Calvinistic evangelistic aim, that the Welsh Mission in the Khasi Hills was initiated. Consequently, almost everything not biblically sanctioned and inherently Khasi, was summarily dismissed as evil and belonging entirely, to a superstitious culture with a stupendous fear of the unknown. Churches were prohibited from using traditional musical instruments in their praise and worship service as they were deemed as an extension of a superstitious pagan culture. Church members were often reprimanded and ran the risk of inviting punitive actions from the mission and the Church, for merely witnessing or attending traditional festivals, dances, bullfights, wrestling and archery. More alarmingly, there were instances when one of the most sacred bonds in Khasi culture, that of clan based kinship, was almost on the verge of de-sacralization. It was fortunate enough that Khasi leaders like Capt. Dr. Homiwel Lyngdoh, vehemently protested against the solemnization of intra-clan marriage, by some Welsh evangelists, who knew little about the clan and kinship system of the Khasis. The ignorant dismissal and disdainful treatment of Khasi culture and beliefs by the Welsh evangelists could have disastrously affected such practices deemed taboo by the Khasi culture. It is even more shocking to learn through historical documents that some missionaries even objected to the tendency among women to work alongside men in the fields which supposedly rendered the women unwomanly. This was regarded by some of the missionaries as simply unacceptable and unbecoming of men and women alike. Such incidences prove that what the missionaries were preaching was more than the Gospel but also an insidious attempt at evaluating and transforming cultural practices arbitrarily, through the biased lens of their subjective cultural principles.

Much has been said about the emergence of the written literature, attributed to Thomas Jones, but it must also not be forgotten that for more than half a century, after the emergence of the written Khasi literature; the only thing Khasi about that written Khasi literature was the name and the language of the newly derived script in which that literature was written. Until the early part of the twentieth century the subject matter of the written literature was dominated by European ideals. It was only with the emergence of the likes of Sib Charan Roy, Jeebon Roy and Radhon Sing Berry, that the Khasi Cultural Awakening was kick-started in the literary field. It was this Khasi Cultural Awakening that enabled the written Khasi literature to be discerned as distinctly Khasi in subject matter and content. By and large, European culture, and in this case Welsh culture, is far too often regarded to be synonymous with the Christian faith. In the process, they have utterly disregarded the fact, that Christ did not preach a culture but a faith and more importantly, Christ himself, was an oriental person of the east and not European. Had Christ preached and propagated a culture, the Middle Eastern cultural aspects and ethos of Palestine and Israel would have, by all means, become ubiquitous to the whole of Christendom.

It is understandable should any of the readers find in this article, an attempt to vilify the man so revered by the majority of Hynniewtrep people as the Father of Khasi Literature. However, that simply could not be farther from the truth and it is in fact impossible to not acknowledge the immense contributions of the Welsh evangelists to Khasi literature and the over-all socio economic well-being of the Khasis. In the height of the missionary efforts in the Khasi Hills, in the early part of the 20th century, records and statistics showed that among the cultural groups in the North East, the highest literacy rate was among the Khasis, largely due to the numerous schools established by the Welsh. Healthcare services provided by the missionary doctors among the tribes in the North East also benefitted mostly the Hynniewtrep people. The healthcare infrastructure and services provided by the Welsh enabled vaccination to be mandatory in the Shillong area, even in the pre-independence era. And later on, it would attract nursing students and patients from all over India to seek education and treatment in Missionary institutions, in Shillong at an affordable rate.

Most importantly, it is the work of Welshmen like Thomas Jones which provided the Khasis, with a lingua franca that helped unite the Hynniewtrep people and a written literature through which they could document and express their culture and their lived experiences. Although the written literature was introduced mainly with an evangelistic motive, it was later indigenized by native authors to dislodge the colonial ideals presented in early written Khasi literature. We also cannot dismiss the contributions of Welshmen especially Thomas Jones who encouraged the people to insurrect against the British and they also fought legal battles on behalf of the Hynnniewtrep people, when they were cheated and swindled by British political agents during trade and commerce. The Welsh missionaries were instrumental in the ushering in, of at least, a semblance of industry in the Khasi Hills when they shared with the Khasis, the knowledge about the multifarious industrial utility of the abundant limestone and coal here. This was particularly useful in refining of iron ore. The knowledge shared by the Welsh missionaries with the Khasi tribals extended even to carpentry. The Khasis, for instance, learnt the usage of saws and a host of other carpentry tools and implements. The Welsh, ergo, significantly helped the Khasis to elevate their standard of living and also helped in creating numerous employment avenues for the Hynniewtrep tribe.

Lastly, it must also not be forgotten that the Welsh had a hand, in inspiring a strong sense of nationalism and unity as a people, evident from the innumerable nationalistic hymns composed, specifically for the Hynniewtrep people, which are still sung with pride and fervour to this day.

It is imperative that the Hynniewtrep people not overly idealize historical figures; they are men not Gods and naturally flawed and corruptible. Winston Churchill who is considered the saviour of Western democracy is also responsible for the deaths of millions of Bengalis during the Bengal Famine and Mahatma Gandhi who is hailed as the father of the Indian Republic, is now being scrutinized for his sexual malfeasance and his attitude towards race. But all things considered, it is their good deeds which we must celebrate and cherish and it is from their flaws that we must learn and improve, as a tribe and a nation.

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