Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Educational template for modern society

Published:Sunday | March 15, 2020 | 12:21 AM
Glenville Ashby
Beyond Legacy of the Missionaries and East Indians
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The advent of Presbyterian missionaries marked a sociological turning point in the annals of Caribbean history. Never short on detail and data is Jerome Teelucksingh’s work, a boon for the student of East Indian Diasporic Studies.

Teelucksingh’s philosophical thrust overshadows the weight of academia. Imaginatively, he dons the lens of an existentialist in understanding the mind and collective unconscious of a people. Here, history breathes.

The thriving of the East Indian to succeed against enormous obstacles is immortalised in Caribbean lore. The role of the Presbyterian Church must be heralded, according to the author. It has been in the past, no doubt, but in Beyond the Legacy, the pivotal role of the ecclesiastic body in redefining education and the East Indian is celebrated in near hagiographic terms.

The Presbyterian missionaries battled a calcified colonial structure that housed thousands of traumatised indentured servants who battled diseases, prejudice from other marginalised groups, and an abusive planter class. Missionaries deftly navigated this choppy political dynamic, bringing to the dispossessed an evangelical balm and an educational culture that shaped the scholastic standing of the region.

Relevantly, Teelucksingh examines the interplay between feminist thought and presbyterianism, a refreshing overview that sheds light on the progressive, radical, and ­contrarian views of the Church in a conservative environment.

Strength of the author

Clearly, the strength of the author rests in his ability to hold the attention of the reader amid the potential sterility of historical data.

He reminds us that the legacy of the Presbyterian Church in the Caribbean is still unfolding and that the vision, innovation, and adaptability of the early missionaries transformed the social milieu in ways initially unimaginable. Further, despite internal and external challenges, the Church remains an integral part of the educational and cultural ethos of the Caribbean, ever offering a road map towards academic excellence.

He argues, though, that its ongoing effectiveness and relevance are possible if the present crop of administrators employs the foresight and vigilance of its 19th century pioneers.

At the outset, Teelucksingh recounts the hardships endured by the East Indian. He writes, “The inhumane conditions on the ships, intermingling of castes on estates and lack of separation in estate hospitals were the early phases of undermining the caste system. In the Caribbean, it was inevitable that there would be inter-caste ­marriage and the shattering of long-held customs as prejudice against marrying widows.”

He later elaborates, “Undoubtedly, the limitations and erosion of the caste system in Trinidad and the shabby treatment of women in India would have been influential pull factors that made many decide to forego the return passage to India and settle in their new, adopted homeland.”

The imminence of returning home, religious and language barriers, and plantation culture posed a Herculean challenge for educators.

Sociologically, the arrival of the East Indian opened a Pandora’s Box. “The negative effects of immigration was the mutual distrust and tension between Africans and East Indians … The East Indian was to most Trinidadians an intruder. He were an interloper, a competitor for the crumbs that fell off the planters’ table, he was physically and culturally different.”

Persevered

But with the help of early missionaries, the East Indian persevered.

“By 1868, there were ­approximately 20,000 East Indians in the colony of Trinidad without an educational future,” pens Teelucksingh, a dire circumstance that caught the attention of Rev Dr John Morton, who sympathetically understood the plight of East Indians and their lack of interest in colonial education at the ward schools.

“In 1869,” writes Teelucksingh, “he appealed to Governor Gordon for financial support for schools for the Indian immigrants leading to the Education Ordinance of 1870. This meant that the local administration financially supported two types of elementary schools: denominational and government.”

Fortuitously, “the Presbyterian Church in Canada was fully aware of the need to educate their missionaries in Indian thought … before appointment to the British West Indian colonies. Of this transformative plantation dynamic,” Teelucksingh pens, “The peaceful existence of the mission meant non-interference, a non-aligned approach to either the planter or indentured class.

“Thus, the missionaries tolerated the unjust system and ignored complaints. The planters would have also seen the influence of the mission as having a socialisation effect that would reduce the incidence of protests or workers’ indiscipline.”

We learn that “education was an enormous benefit to many of the East Indian girls who were traditionally married at an early age”, and that “the women missionaries from Canada aided the Presbyterian mission’s educational effort through their admirable work among teenage girls in the fields of leadership and fellowship”.

Teelucksingh recounts, “East Indians were appointed as headmasters, head teachers, and teachers at primary and secondary levels. Still, discontent brew over the absence of field missionaries who oversaw the applications for teaching positions, leaves of absence, increments, and disciplinary matters.”

This discontent must be viewed against the social and political climate of the 1920s, a climate that clamoured for self-determination and empowerment.

Controversy

Presbyterian presence has not been without controversy. Recently, there were allegations of discriminatory practices against Afro-Trinidadian students at one Presbyterian school.

Teelucksingh assails this ­imputation, referring to the school’s detractors as a “one-man group which craves attention”.

The Presbyterian School Teachers’ Association (also) mounted a vigorous defence, denying that racism “was part of the agenda in its 72 schools”.

Teelucksingh adds, “It is obvious that the racially divisive practitioners with political ambitions were not aware of the legacy of the Presbyterian schools in treating all races and religions equally.”

Overall, the success of Presbyterian education is incontrovertible.

“Among Presbyterian schools and to a large extent other denominational schools, there is a noticeable absence of violence or under-reporting of unsavory incidents,” writes Teelucksingh. “The frequent outbreaks of gang fights, incidents of drug abuse, clashes among students, and attacks against teachers are usually associated with junior secondary and senior comprehensive and composite schools.”

But maintaining excellence is not without its challenges.

“Success lies in leadership and motivation of teachers,” argues Teelucksingh, while emphasising the importance of extra-curricular activities. He makes mention of the school’s resounding success in 2007 when “the Exchange Presbyterian School won the 6th annual World Diabetes Day Quiz … from a field of 17 schools, [while] emerging third was Milton Presbyterian School.”

Teelucksingh concludes that “the Presbyterian mission sheltered vulnerable minds and acted as a buffer against the harsh social conditions and that the Canadian missionaries had originally intended to spread the ‘Good News’ of Christianity, but their mission took a different path, resulting in resounding success through its school system.”

 

Publisher: Koninklijke Brill NV, The Netherlands

(C) 2020 by Koninklijke Brill

ISBN 978-90-04-41647-5

Available at Amazon

Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby