American Ceylon Mission

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A group of ACM missionaries in Jaffna (circa 1890) ACM 1890.gif
A group of ACM missionaries in Jaffna (circa 1890)

The American Ceylon Mission (ACM) to Jaffna, Sri Lanka started with the arrival in 1813 of missionaries sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The British colonial office in India and Ceylon restricted the Americans to the relatively small Jaffna Peninsula for geopolitical reasons for almost 40 years. The critical period of the impact of the missionaries was from the 1820s to early 20th century. During this time, they engaged in original translations from Englis

Jaffna City in Sri Lanka

Jaffna is the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is the administrative headquarters of the Jaffna District located on a peninsula of the same name. With a population of 88,138 in 2012, Jaffna is Sri Lanka's 12th most populous city. Jaffna is approximately six miles from Kandarodai which served as an emporium in the Jaffna peninsula from classical antiquity. Jaffna's suburb Nallur served as the capital of the four-century-long medieval Jaffna Kingdom.

Sri Lanka Island country in South Asia

Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal and to the southeast of the Arabian Sea. The island is geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. The legislative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of the commercial capital and largest city, Colombo.

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was among the first American Christian missionary organizations. It was created in 1810 by recent graduates of Williams College. In the 19th century it was the largest and most important of American missionary organizations and consisted of participants from Reformed traditions such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and German Reformed churches.


h to Tamil, printing, and publishing, establishing primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions and providing health care for residents of the Jaffna Peninsula. These activities resulted in many social changes amongst Sri Lankan Tamils that survive even today. They also led to the attainment of a lopsided literacy level among residents in the relatively small peninsula that is cited by scholars as one of the primary factors contributing to the recently ended civil war. Many notable educational and health institutions within the Jaffna Peninsula owe their origins to the missionary activists from America. Missionaries also courted controversy by publishing negative information about local religious practices and rituals.

English language West Germanic language

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.

Tamil language language

Tamil is a Dravidian language predominantly spoken by the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka, and by the Tamil diaspora, Sri Lankan Moors, Douglas, and Chindians. Tamil is an official language of three countries: India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. It is also the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. Tamil is spoken by significant minorities in the four other South Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India.

Sri Lankan Tamils Ethnic group

Sri Lankan Tamils, also known as Ceylon Tamils or Eelam Tamils in Tamil, are members of the Tamil ethnic group native to the South Asian island state of Sri Lanka. According to the anthropological and archaeological evidence, Sri Lankan Tamils have a very long history in Sri Lanka and have lived on the island since at least around the 2nd century BCE. Most modern Sri Lankan Tamils claim descent from residents of Jaffna Kingdom, a former kingdom in the north of the island and Vannimai chieftaincies from the east. They constitute a majority in the Northern Province, live in significant numbers in the Eastern Province and are in the minority throughout the rest of the country. 70% of Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka live in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

Background information

Location of Sri Lanka, a small island nation, in the Indian Ocean LocationSriLanka.png
Location of Sri Lanka, a small island nation, in the Indian Ocean

The minority Sri Lankan Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula ruled by the Jaffna Kingdom, which is hardly 15 by 40 mi (24 by 64 km), came under the direct jurisdiction of colonial power from Europe after the 1591 demise of Puviraja Pandaram, a local king, at the hands of the Portuguese. He had led a rebellion against Portuguese influence and was defeated. After establishing their rule through kings who were nominally Catholic, the Portuguese encouraged and coerced conversion of the locals to the Catholic faith. After the defeat and death of the last king Cankili II in 1619, most prominent Hindu temples were razed to the ground and restrictions on observance of native religious rituals were instituted. [1] [2] [3]

In sociology, a minority group refers to a category of people who experience relative disadvantage as compared to members of a dominant social group. Minority group membership is typically based on differences in observable characteristics or practices, such as: ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity. Utilizing the framework of intersectionality, it is important to recognize that an individual may simultaneously hold membership in multiple minority groups. Likewise, individuals may also be part of a minority group in regard to some characteristics, but part of a dominant group in regard to others.

Jaffna Kingdom former country

The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as Kingdom of Aryachakravarti, of modern northern Sri Lanka was a historic monarchy that came into existence around the town of Jaffna on the Jaffna peninsula traditionally thought to be established after the invasion of Magha, who is credited with the founding of the Jaffna kingdom and is said to have been from Kalinga, in India. Established as a powerful force in the north, north east and west of the island, it eventually became a tribute paying feudatory of the Pandyan Empire in modern South India in 1258, gaining independence in 1323, when the last Pandyan ruler of Madurai was defeated and expelled in 1323 by Malik Kafur, the army general of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate. For a brief period, in the early to mid-14th century, it was an ascendant power in the island of Sri Lanka when all regional kingdoms accepted subordination. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kotte Kingdom, around 1450 when it was invaded by Prince Sapumal under the Kotte Kingdom's directive.

Colonialism Creation, and maintenance of colonies by people from another territory

Colonialism is the policy of a nation seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of economic dominance. The colonising country seeks to benefit from the colonised country or land mass. In the process, colonisers imposed their religion, economics, and medicinal practices on the natives. Colonialism is largely regarded as a relationship of domination of an indigenous majority by a minority of foreign invaders where the latter rule in pursuit of its interests.

The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch East India Company in 1658. During the Duct colonial period the popular Nallur Kandaswamy temple was rebuilt during the 1750s. This was also a period of revival of local literary activity. Local laws such as Thesavalamai were codified during this period, and the history of the previous Jaffna Kingdom under the name of Yalpana Vaipava Malai was put to print. The Dutch were replaced by the British in 1796. Although the British did not officially espouse any policy regarding religious conversions, they encouraged missionary activities in the Maritime Provinces except in the interior erstwhile Kandyan kingdom, where they had agreed to maintain the local Buddhist religion as part of the 1815 takeover of the kingdom. [4]

Dutch East India Company 17th-century Dutch trading company

The Dutch East India Company, officially the United East India Company was an early megacorporation founded by a government-directed amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading companies (voorcompagnieën) in the early 17th century. It was established on March 20, 1602, as a chartered company to trade with Mughal India during the period of proto-industrialization, from which 50% of textiles and 80% of silks were imported, chiefly from its most developed region known as Bengal Subah. In addition, the company traded with Indianised Southeast Asian countries when the Dutch government granted it a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade. It has been often labelled a trading company or sometimes a shipping company. However, VOC was in fact a proto-conglomerate company, diversifying into multiple commercial and industrial activities such as international trade, shipbuilding, and both production and trade of East Indian spices, Formosan sugarcane, and South African wine. The Company was a transcontinental employer and an early pioneer of outward foreign direct investment. The Company's investment projects helped raise the commercial and industrial potential of many underdeveloped or undeveloped regions of the world in the early modern period. In the early 1600s, by widely issuing bonds and shares of stock to the general public, VOC became the world's first formally listed public company. In other words, it was the first corporation to be listed on an official stock exchange. It was influential in the rise of corporate-led globalisation in the early modern period.

Nallur Kandaswamy temple

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is a significant Hindu temple, located in Nallur, Northern Province, Sri Lanka. The presiding deity is Lord Murugan or Katharagama Deviyo in the form of the holy 'Vel' in the Sanctum, the primary shrine, and in other forms, namely, Shanmugar, Muthukumaraswami, Valli Kaanthar with consorts Valli and Deivayanai, and Thendayuthapani, sans consorts in secondary shrines in the temple.

Thesavalamai is the traditional law of the Sri Lankan Tamil inhabitants Jaffna peninsula, codified by the Dutch during their colonial rule in 1707. The Thesawalamai is a collection of the Customs of the Malabar Inhabitants of the Province of Jaffna and given full force by the Regulation of 1806. For Thesawalamai to apply to a person it must be established that he is a Tamil inhabitant of the Northern Province. The Law in its present form applies to most Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. The law is personal in nature thus it applicable mostly for property, inheritance, and marriage.

For geopolitical reasons, the British saw fit to restrict the American missionaries to the Jaffna Peninsula. There were many denominations present such as the Methodist, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians whereas the British missionaries of the Methodist, Baptist and Anglican sects were present in the rest of the island. Even when this restriction was removed, the initial divisions between North Ceylon and South Ceylon missions were maintained.(see Wesleyan Methodist Mission, North Ceylon) By the early 19th century there were nine mission stations within the small peninsula. [5]

Episcopal Church (United States) Anglican denomination in the United States

The Episcopal Church (TEC) is a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion based in the United States with dioceses elsewhere. It is a mainline Christian denomination divided into nine provinces. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American bishop to serve in that position.

Wesleyan Methodist Mission, North Ceylon was formed as part of the Wesleyan Methodist Mission of Ceylon, the oldest Weslyan Mission to be established in East in 1814. The North Ceylon Mission was established to specifically cater to the Tamil speaking Sri Lankans in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa where Methodist Missionaries established number of schools and churches. It also catered to the indigenous Vedda people.

The American involvement

Rev. Samuel Newell (died March 30, 1841), founder of the ACM in Jaffna Rev. Samule Newel.gif
Rev. Samuel Newell (died March 30, 1841), founder of the ACM in Jaffna

The seeds for the American involvement in Jaffna were laid by The Rev. Samuel Newell in 1813. He and his wife Harriet Newell were sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission in India in 1813. As it was just after the Anglo-American war of 1812, the suspicious British authorities in Calcutta asked them to leave. The Newells were then asked to go to Mauritius but Samuel Newell lost his only child and wife in Mauritius. From there he left for British-held Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. He landed in Galle and ended up in Jaffna city. Although he spent most of his career in India, particularly Bombay he was instrumental in starting up the American missionary involvement in Jaffna. [6] He was followed by other missionary families such as Rev. Edward Warren, who arrived in July 1816. He took special interest in educating the people of the area in both English and their native Tamil language. He started the first American missionary school in Tellipalai in 1816. By 1848, 105 Tamil schools and sixteen English schools were founded. Mission centers were soon opened in nine locations. [7]

Samuel Newell

Samuel Newell (1784–1821) was an American missionary and one of the pioneers of American foreign missions. He served with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in India and Ceylon, where he founded the first American Ceylon Mission station.

Harriet Newell American missionary, memoirist

Harriet Newell was an American Christian missionary and memoirist.

War of 1812 32-month military conflict between the United States and the British Empire

The War of 1812 was a conflict fought between the United States and the United Kingdom, with their respective allies, from June 1812 to February 1815. Historians in Britain often see it as a minor theatre of the Napoleonic Wars; historians in the United States and Canada see it as a war in its own right.

Other New Englanders also took important steps to provide educational opportunities for women. Harriet Winslow, a great-great-grandmother of the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, founded the Uduvil Girls' School in 1824, the first Girls’ boarding school in Asia. [8] Eliza Agnew from Pennsylvania was a teacher there for 42 years. Missionaries also made efforts to provide collegiate level education by founding the Batticota Seminary at Vaddukoddai in 1823 with Rev. Dr. Daniel Poor as its first principal.

The American Mission started the first printing press in Jaffna in 1820 and, in 1841, the island's second oldest newspaper. [8] Morning Star – and the first Tamil-language newspaper, Utayatarakai. In 1862, Rev. Miron Winslow published a Comprehensive Tamil-English Dictionary. [9]

ACM also provided medical missionaries starting in 1820. The first medical center was managed by Dr. John Scudder. He founded what is considered to be the first Western Medical Mission in Asia at Panditeripo in Jaffna District. [10] He served there for nineteen years in the dual capacity of clergyman and physician. His most important service was the establishment of a large hospital, of which he was physician in chief. He was especially successful in the treatment of cholera and yellow fever. He also founded several native schools and churches. [10] He and his wife Harriet had 6 surviving sons and 2 daughters who all became medical missionaries and worked in South India. [11] Dr. Scudder was followed by Dr. Nathan Ward in 1836, who was replaced in 1846 by Dr. Samuel Fisk Green, who began a thirty-year medical practice and training program. By the 1850s, he had translated more than 1,000 pages of medical texts into Tamil. [12] He founded in Manipai what later became Green Memorial Hospital. This fledgling hospital was also used to train more than 60 locals in western medicine as fully fledged doctors. Of the first batch of 10 students only two by the name of Evarts and Ira Gould passed successfully. It was Sri Lanka’s first medical school as well as the only school until the present day to teach medicine in a local language. [8] [12] [13]

The Batticotta experience

The relatively small (15 x 40 miles) Jaffna Peninsula in pink with adjoining islands, as compared to rest of Sri Lanka Jaffna district.svg
The relatively small (15 × 40 miles) Jaffna Peninsula in pink with adjoining islands, as compared to rest of Sri Lanka

Batticotta Seminary was founded as a seminary for the best students from all other seminaries across the peninsula. It was intended to provide a tertiary level education equivalent a College in New England. The pioneering missionary at the Batticotta Seminary was Rev. Dr. Daniel Poor. Under him the American congregational missionaries became the pioneers of formal English and Tamil education in northern Sri Lanka. Although the initial aim was to convert Hindus to Christianity, it came to impart Biblical, English and European sciences on par with New England community colleges. [14]

The seminary undertook to research and published pioneering books in the Tamil language in local literature, logic, algebra, astronomy and general science. One of the prominent alumni was C. W. Thamotharampillai, who was also the first graduate (1857) of the University of Madras in India.

Sir Emerson Tennent judged the Batticotta Seminary equal in rank with many a European university. The late Rev. Dr. Sabapathy Kulendran, the first bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI) observed that the "seminary brought about a tremendous upsurge the like of which has never been seen in the country before or after." Eventually, due to financial reasons, the seminary began to collect an entrance fee; thus, only wealthy families were able to send their children for education. The primary purpose of these families was to assure that their children received a European standard education without converting to Christianity. [15] Thus, a missionary by the name of Rufus Anderson decided that the seminary should be shut down and it was closed in 1855. [16] This led to a seventeen-year struggle by local Christians to reopen the seminary. [6] [16] It eventually opened as Jaffna College. Although American involvement continues to the current day in missionary activities, the critical age of transformation ended with the turn of the 20th century.

Social impact

Although the missionaries came primarily to convert the locals, in the process they bequeathed all the modern intellectual necessities for a nation. According to N. Sabaratnam a prominent editor of Eelanadu newspaper,

At the dawn of the 19th century the American Missionaries came to Jaffna to preach Christian Gospel, but in actual fact they propagated the ideals of a new nation, pulsating with life

With the amalgamation of North Ceylon Missions into the Church of South India (CSI), most properties and existing educational institutions are managed by the CSI. [17]

Their intrusion into Jaffna also had other unintended consequences. The concentration of efficient Protestant mission schools in Jaffna produced a revival movement among local Hindus led by Arumuga Navalar, who responded by building many more schools within the Jaffna peninsula. Local Catholics too started their own schools as a countermeasure. The state also had its share of primary and secondary schools. Thus saturated with educational opportunities, many Tamils became literate. This was used by the British colonial government to hire Tamils as government servants in British-held Ceylon, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

By the time Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, about 60% of government jobs were held by Tamils, who formed hardly 15% of the population. The popularly elected leaders of the country saw it as an outcome of a strategy by the British to control the majority Sinhalese that needed to be redressed. These measures deteriorated the already frail political relationship between the communities and many experts believe it as one of the main causes of the Sri Lankan Civil War. [18] [19]


The primary responsibility of the missionaries was to convert as many people as possible. They used education and medical missionary work to assist them. But they also published ridiculing and insulting material on native religion and practices. The popular deity Lord Murugan was specifically targeted. This started the backlash against Christian missionaries. Many early converts like C. W. Thamotharampillai and Carol Visvanathapillai came back to Hinduism. This also resulted in formation of many Hindu Schools and more political awareness for native Tamils. Today around 10% are Christians with Catholics forming 90% of the Christians in Sri Lanka. [20]

See also


  1. Abeysinghe, Jaffna under the Portuguese, p.9,10,34
  2. Gunasingam,Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism ,p.68
  3. Abeysinghe, T. Jaffna Under the Portuguese, pp. 58–63.
  4. de Silva, Religion and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka, p.114
  5. de Silva, Religion and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka, p.115
  6. 1 2 Hoole, Ratnajeevan (2002-03-21). "The first modern Asian University". Archived from the original on 16 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
  7. Hudson, Religious Controversy in British India: Dialogues in South Asian Languages, p.#29
  8. 1 2 3 "Historical context of US-Sri Lankan relationship". Embassy of Sri Lanka in USA. Archived from the original on 2008-01-19. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
  9. Miron, Winslow (1862). A comprehensive Tamil and English dictionary of high and low Tamil. Madras: P.R. Hunt.
  10. 1 2 Waterbury, Jared Bell (1870) Memoir of the Rev. John Scudder, M.D.: Thirty-six Years Missionary in India, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, New York, retrieved 7/19/2007 full text
  11. A Manual of the Reformed Church in America (formerly Ref. Prot. Dutch Church). 1628–1902 By Edward Tanjore Corwin full text
  12. 1 2 Ambihaipahar, Scientific Tamil Pioneer, p.25, p.29, p.62
  13. Vijayakumar, James (2007). "Green Memorial Hospital, Manipay". Global Ministries. Archived from the original on 2007-12-29. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
  14. ABCFM Report on the Deputation to India, p.77
  15. Chinnakone, C.D (2005). "Jaffna College, product of a liberal view of Christian evangelism" . Retrieved 2007-10-31.
  16. 1 2 Karunairajan, Victor (2007). "Grace Bunker Letter". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2011-10-01. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
  17. Ambihaipahar, Scientific Tamil Pioneer, p.09
  18. Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1991). "Sri Lankan Tamils" . Retrieved 2007-10-30.[ dead link ]
  19. Ambihaipahar, Scientific Tamil Pioneer, p.29
  20. de Silva, Religion and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka, p.117

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