Jaffna College, product of a liberal view of Christian evangelism

By: C. D. Chinnakone - Anniversary

The alumni association of Jaffna College – Colombo branch, was established in 1913. It celebrated its 90th anniversary 24 February this year at the Holiday Inn, Colombo. Bishop Dr. S. Jebanesan was the chief guest. Traditionally the U.S ambassador in Sri Lanka is the chief guest, though it was not possible for the incumbent to be present this time. About 250 guests attended the occasion. The alumni recently donated sports equipment to the college and have made arrangements to engage old boys to teach English at their alma mater on a rotational basis from September this year.

Glimpses of the Jaffna College’s history gives an indication on how it was able withstand the pressures put upon it, especially in recent years of conflict and carnage, and continue to provide invaluable service to a society dislocated by war.

It was initially in Jaffna that the pioneer American missionaries introduced English education to the people of this country. During the period 1823-1855 the educational institution called the Batticotta Seminary was established. Though the American missionaries came with fervour and zeal to spread Christianity, such fervour did not confine them strictly and fully to evangelism alone; they were keen to impart a liberal education based on the principle that ‘knowledge is power.’ None of the colonial rulers thought of single-mindedly educating the people, the American missionaries who came not as rulers but to serve as evangelists propagating Protestant Christianity, did so.

The pioneering missionary at the Batticotta Seminary was Rev. Dr. Daniel Poor. He was responsible for laying its foundation based on his conviction that education was the most effective vehicle to promote the mission. Therefore, he and his colleague missionaries did not confine themselves purely to evangelism and went on to give liberal education in English to the Tamil public, which enhanced stock of modern knowledge in Jaffna. The Jaffna man took to learning like duck to water. The American congregational missionaries became the pioneers of formal English education in the North, which is the homeland of the Tamils.

Batticotta Seminary was named Jaffna College in 1867 and the management was vested with a board of trustees. Rev. E. P. Hastings was appointed as the first principal of Jaffna College. He was a dedicated and skilful man who consolidated the affairs of the college. The number of students grew steadily and within a period of four years it stood at 350. The educated elite branched out to various fields. Commencing from 1884 the London Cambridge local faculty was established. The first alumni association was formed in 1878 and the following year students started the ‘College Miscellany.’ By this time more American missionaries had arrived and in 1884, Rev. M B Sanders and Rev. Hitchcock inaugurated the YMCA. This provided a foundation and training ground with regard to the development skills of organisation and social services. The college library was stacked with books, which attracted keen interest among students. The Jaffna College library at one time was considered the best school library in Asia.

The number of scholarships increased, providing opportunity for intelligent but needy students. The college thus grew in all aspects attracting visitors from the highest echelons of government and even visitors from England. Rev. Hastings resigned after 17 years of yeomen service in 1889. He had laid a solid foundation that served as the bedrock for the college and enabled all those who followed, to construct and shepherd the college into leading educational institution. Rev. Hastings was described as a prince among men and born to rule. He was folowed by a worthy successor in Rev. Dr. Howland MA, DD. He was a scholar of exceptional versatility. He took over in 1889 and continued till 1897, when he had to leave on account of the illness of his wife. The year 1897 saw the celebration of the quarter centennial of the college. By this time extra-curricular activities such as football, cricket and tennis had been introduced. Rev. Dr. Howland also took control of publishing the ‘Miscellany.’

Rev. Hitchock was elected to act as principal till Rev. R C Hastings arrived in 1899 and took over. His tenure of office lasted till 1904. Rev. John Bicknell BA, BD a graduate of Yale University who was attached to the college as a professor, was made acting principal. By this time other schools were functioning and were preparing students for a university education in India as well as the Cambridge examinations. The rule by the college to only have boarders became a constraining factor and had to be changed, to accommodate the changing trends and demands. Rev. Bicknell had to leave on account of the ill health of his wife in 1905. Several visitors who came to the college were pleased with the progress, and made considerable donations that swelled the trust fund making the financial situation stable.

Rev. G G Brown BA, BD assumed office as principal in 1905 and continued till 1915. During his period he had to contend with changes in the government education system, which brought in its wake compelling changes to Jaffna College. The feature of preparing students for a degree was suspended and the college had to be registered as a grant-in-aid school and ceased to be a private fee-levying school. The residential system was opened to day scholars as well. This led to changes in study hours commencing from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. Rev. Brown however adjusted to these demands and maintained the college’s standards of excellence.

He started the ‘Brotherhood’ for senior students and the ‘Lyceum’ for juniors. Rev. Brown also introduced the ‘Round Table’ to discuss teaching methods and skills with the staff. Dr. York MA, Ph. D from Yale University was one of the professors who took great interest in stimulating the methods of teaching. In 1913 the Colombo alumni association was inaugurated with Governor General Sir Henry McCallum and Sir Robert Chalmers present as distinguished guests.

In 1915 Rev. Brown resigned to devote himself to evangelical work after rendering valuable service during a trying period of change. Dr. Miller who was a professor was made acting principal till the arrival of Rev. John Bicknell in 1916. It was an opportune time for the new principal to settle down and build on the foundation laid by his predecessors. The college was now a secondary school. The London, Cambridge and matriculation exams could be held for students. The college introduced science subjects as well as vocational training skills. A lower school was provided as a source to provide students with good grounding in education.

Additional American professors came to boost the college teaching staff. In 1922, Allen I. Abraham, a brilliant teacher from Jaffna passed away after 31 years of service. He was a professor of Tamil and mathematics and reckoned as an astronomer and a colleague of J. V. Chelliah. Rev. Bicknell was a giant among men and a prolific builder who added buildings and introduced stimulating changes in teaching, administration as well as extra curricular activities. The Bicknell era was aptly termed the ‘Golden Era.’

The centenary celebrations of the American Mission was celebrated with Jaffna College participating. The jubilee year of the college was celebrated in 1922. The college had grown in stature and 50 years after the closure of Batticotta Seminary had produced distinguished men serving in various branches of the government and in the mercantile sector. The college produced distinguished members of society such as S. Balasingham who was nominated member of the Legislative Council and Sir Waitilingam Duraisamy who was independent Ceylon’s first speaker of parliament. The estimated number who had passed through Jaffna College’s portals at that time was 3000. Some of them had migrated to Malaysia and had made their mark there.

The vision of the pioneer American missionaries who built the college on firm foundation had paid ample dividends. The aim – to impart higher learning in English based on the principles of Christianity – had produced sons of the soil who had served the country reflecting the true light and giving fulfilment to the college motto, “Jesus Christ the Light of Life.”

(To be continued)

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