I write regarding Dr Devanand Bhagwan’s letter `The Canadian Mission established schools to lift lives stuck in the dark and miry clay’ (published Stabroek News March 6, 2023) which is a response to my letter captioned “Three outstanding Afro-Guyanese of Eastern Mahaicony” (Stabroek News, February 22, 2023). My intention, as the caption of my letter reflects, was to highlight and recognize the contributions of three outstanding Afro-Guyanese whose stories should be recorded. Certainly the letter was not intended to undervalue or denigrate the contribution of the Canadian Presbyterian Church, through its Canadian Mission arm, to the education of Indian children in Guyana during the colonial period.
Dr Bhagwan is a former student of mine from the mid 1960s when I taught Biology at the Annandale Government Secondary School. I understand his commitment to the Christian religion and his zeal in defending and spreading it. Regrettably, he has misconstrued my reference to India when he writes “Mr. Hergash (my respected former high school teacher) explained that his father was educated by the Presbyterian Canadian Mission (CM) School and surmised that, “The CM focused on the education of East Indian children, mainly Hindus and to a lesser Muslims, with the aim of gaining converts to Christianity”. He then continues “I beg to disagree with Harry on this point – especially regarding his reference to the situation in India”.
I thank Dr Bhagwan for considering me his “respected former high school teacher”. Since his letter is now in the public domain, much to my dislike I am compelled to set the record straight. Readers of my letter will note that I made no reference to “the situation” in India. My focus was on the Canadian Mission in Guyana. In my letter of 1,475 words to recognize three outstanding individuals, Dr Bhagwan finds fault with one sentence of 25 words (“The CM focused on the education of East Indian children, mainly Hindus and to a lesser Muslims, with the aim of gaining converts to Christianity”) and this sentence was taken out off context to provide him a segue to write about India. We need to be mindful though that Guyana is not India.
I have no interest at this time to discuss what has happened or is happening in India. Regarding Guyana, I fully acknowledge and appreciate the role of the CM, especially in relation to their contribution to Indian education. Indeed Indo-Guyanese must be grateful to the CM for the education they or their parents received in the CM schools. However, we must also be honest and open-minded in recognizing the truth. We should rely on facts and not allow religion or any other factor to cloud our judgement in making our assessment of history. Some may wonder, why bother to write on this matter. I believe that knowledge of the historical evolution of a people’s culture (of which religion is a significant component) is important to promote understanding and harmony in the multicultural, multiracial environment of Guyana.
In the case of Guyana and Trinidad, the historical records, as noted by eminent historians, support my position. It is not a case of me surmising. In 1880 Reverend John Morton who was heading the CM body in Trinidad came to Guyana at the invitation of the Scottish Presbyterian Church to review and offer advice on how the Church could bring the indentured Indians into their fold since for nearing fifty of Indian indentureship they were unable to gain more than a handful of converts. He then recommended to the Canadian Presbyterian Church that they establish a CM body in Guyana to which they agreed and commenced implementation. In an internet article of December 2020 captioned “Nova Scotia missionaries left a lasting legacy on the island of Trinidad”, Vernon Ramesar of CBC News writes “From the outset, Morton saw education as essential to his mission, according to Brinsley Samaroo, professor emeritus of history at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine”. Samaroo is then quoted “… Morton was more concerned about evangelization, he used education as a tool towards that”.
One of the foremost authorities on the role of the Canadian Mission in Guyana is the Canadian Reverend, Charles Alexander Dunn. He completed both his Master’s and PhD theses for Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, on the Canadian Mission in Guyana. Incidentally, his father was a CM Minister in Berbice during the 1930s and 1940s. According to Dr Dunn who I had the pleasure of speaking with for copies of his theses, in Morton’s recommendation to the Canadian Presbyterian Church for a mission in Guyana, he states, “The Canadian church should push on to do something for the 60,000 to 70,000 Heathens there”. Dunn also writes that through education, the missionaries and the Bible workers were able to evangelize the Hindu children, who had the potential of influencing their parents. In fact that was the primary aim of Reverend James Cropper who headed the CM in Guyana from 1896 to 1940 with intermittent work from time to time on behalf of the Government. Dr Dunn writes that at times Cropper disagreed with some of his Canadian Missionaries who were more committed to education than conversion.
Dr Bhagwan states that there was no pressure on children to convert. Well, the reason for no overt attempt is understandable. Coercion would have caused parents to cease sending their children to school, thereby defeating any chance to convert the children much less their parents. However, the Hindi primer authored by Reverend Morton for the teaching of Hindi in the CM schools in Trinidad shows evidence of covert action. I read the primer many years ago at the Presbyterian archive in Toronto and I can recall sentences written in the Devanagari script which admonishes against certain Hindu religious practices. This book was likely used in Guyana as well. What is more definitive however, is that up to 1960 in Guyana a Hindu or Muslim had to convert to Christianity in order to get a teaching position in all Christian-managed schools, including the CM schools.
In relation to CM involvement with hospitals in Guyana, the following extract from an article captioned “Christianizing of East Indians of Guyana” by Clifmond Shameerudeen, Journal of Mission Studies, Vol 16, 2020; is informative:
“In the 1900s, more missionaries were sent to work among the East Indians. Ross, a new missionary who arrived in 1900, recognized his dilemma when he stated, “Hinduism in the books is one thing; Hinduism in life is quite another” (The Presbyterian Witness, August 25, 1900). The sentiment of Ross seems to categorically summarize the challenges faced by foreign missionaries.
Ross continued where his predecessor left off. He recognized that the hospital was the best place to witness to East Indians. He wrote, “There the seed of the word very often finds good ground and bears an abun dant harvest for eternity” (The Presbyterian Witness, August 25, 1900).”
In 2013 during my visit to Albion estate where I was on the staff in 1970 and lived in the Senior staff compound, I visited the Cropper Government School nearby and had a similar experience to Dr Bhagwan – no one knew who Cropper was. I agree he should be recognized for all his years of yeoman service in positions from Head of the CM to Superintendent of the Settlements at Helena and Whim to Head of the Department of Education and again as Head of the CM, service spanning more than forty years. Incidentally, Reverend Cropper was a friend of my dad’s maternal grandfather and often stopped by at Huntley to chat whenever he visited Novar CM school. He did try but was unsuccessful to convert not only my dad but decades earlier, my dad’s mom whom he gave the ‘call name’ Lucy as she was very fair in complexion.
Dr Bhagwan is no longer my student so I cannot assign him homework. However, he and others who are interested may find the undermentioned sources very informative: Charles Alexander Dunn, Master’s thesis of 1971 titled The Canadian Mission in Guyana; Rudolph Grant, Master’s thesis of 1967 titled The Contribution of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the Education of East Indians in Guyana; Clifmond Shameerudeen, Christianizing of East Indians of Guyana, Journal of Mission Studies, Vol 16, 2020.