Saturday, March 14, 2009

The New Christian Colony of the Santhals

In the pages of the 4 December 1881 edition of the New York Times, buried in the Churches and Ministers column, you will find a brief twelve line notice. This notice states that a colony of Christian Santhals had been established in the Goalpara district of Assam by the missionaries Skrefssud [sic] and Boerresen. This colony and the people of it have an interesting and colourful history, and the only reason that I know anything about it at all is because I came across this map in the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record.

To be honest, at first glance it does look like a fairly unremarkable piece of printing. 650 copies were made on the 12 November 1881. But like so much of what I see, the actual map itself is somewhat less important than what it conveys.
The appeal of this map to me was the door to Empire, colonisation and mission which it opened. I for one am horrified by this aspect of British and indeed European history. I feel a compulsion to pursue the stories of the people affected, like the Santhals, as a way to achieve awareness and also to ensure this part of history continues to be remembered.

The colony was located in northern Assam, a province of India which had been created by the British government in 1874. It would roughly correspond with Dhubri and Kokrajhar districts today. However, this was for once, not a British endeavour but rather the effort of two Scandinavian missionaries, H. P. Boerresen (1825-1901) from Denmark and Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) from Norway. Known colloquially as Santhalistan, the aim of the mission was to educate and of course to instruct the 'heathen' population in the ways of Christianity. By the 1950's Latourette's "History of the Expansion of Christianity" paints a picture somewhat mellowed by time. He describes benevolent men sensitive to the Santhal culture whose work was both patient and gentle. Possibly this is how the missionaries also imagined themselves. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that prior to the mission the Santhals possessed a vivid culture that was actually doing rather alright.
A telling quote from the introduction to "Light in the Darkness" by K. B. Birkeland (1900) possibly paints a more realistic picture:
"Educators will read with great eagerness a chapter on two schools operated at a mission in the heart of Santhalistan. Every Christian will be thankful for the flood of light thrown upon the actual life of the heathen of India."
There is a wealth of information regarding the Santhal culture and links to many of the books mentioned, all of which are available online. Some of the best sources for information which I have found have been We Santhals and the Internet Archive which has digitised versions of many of the books mentioned. I encourage you to learn more about the Santhals as I confess, this is a very brief look indeed.
If I may leave you with another quote though, this time from "Sketches from Santhalistan" by M. A. Pederson (2nd ed. 1913):
"This is a land where the people for ages and ages have been bound by the superstitions of idolatry, and have been taught to look with suspicion on everything foreign. Indeed they think they can get along very well without both the missionary and his preaching."

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