How to (not to) remember Thomas Jones

Welsh missionaries and British imperialism : THE EMPIRE OF CLOUDS IN NORTH-EAST INDIA by Australian historian, Andrew May is one of the few histories of the Khasi-Jaintia hills which escapes nationalist cant and hagiographical silences especially when it comes to the figure of Rev. Thomas Jones, the first Welsh Missionary who proselytised in the  Hills. Now that Rev. Thomas Jones (yes the same missionary who was thrown out of by the missionaries for his rebellions) is memorialised by a public holiday in Meghalaya on 22nd June, the day he arrived in Sohra/Cherrapunjee, it is high time we historicise his achievments and legacies. And who better to do that than, Andrew May who incidentally is the Great Great Grandson  of two Welsh missionaries in the Khasi Hills, Rev. Thomas Jones (the first) & Rev. Thomas Jones (the second, yes even he was expelled from the mission for his troublesome love for the natives)


Today is “Rev. Thomas Jones Day”, gazetted as a Special Holiday for all State Government Offices and all revenue and Magisterial Courts and Educational Institutions across the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Ri-Bhoi District. What might this 22 June holiday mean, individually or collectively, for Christian or non-Christian, in that shape-shifting ground between the past and the present?

Thomas Jones in the English Service of Presbyterian Church, Police Bazaar, Shillong

There are two statues of Thomas Jones that I like to visit. One, white and sanctified, bible in hand, in a churchyard in Shillong; another an ordinary man crumbling under the elements on a bend in the road at Sohra, saw in one hand, a book with ABKD in the other, a knup barely keeping away the ravages of rain and time. Both in their own ways symbolise the two faces of this lightening rod figure.

Thomas Jones statue at the entrance of Sohra/Cherrapunjee

The 22 June holiday commemorates Thomas Jones as a founder, a father, a first. The idea of historical “firsts” often drives a popular understanding of the past— and more pertinently, the political use of the past in the present—but is not always helpful in really getting to grips with complex and interconnected historical processes. There’s not necessarily a ground zero moment when it comes to cultural change. Hero worship, furthermore — though it comes with a feel-good factor— can be rather unhelpful. Historian Daves Rossell put it neatly some years ago now: “the original first becomes a marginally important fact in itself, but each of the firsts is important as part of a tradition of claiming primacy, and as part of individual efforts to distinguish themselves in a unique manner… Having a first is not like winning a race but rather like being part of a far more general exultation in innovation and novelty”.

There should by now be no dispute around the lineage of activity prior to Jones arriving, from Alexander Lish, Rowe and  Jacob Tomlin, Rae’s Guwahati mission school in the 1830s, back to Krishna Chandra Pal’s 1813 preaching tour and the ensuing period of scriptural translation, with its source in the originating work of William Carey. Lish was certainly active in the Khasi Hills from 1832 to 1837, aided by Joshua Rowe; Serampore Baptists like the Macks and the Marshmans were regular visitors; Jacob Tomlin was also there for a short time in 1837.

Krishna Chandra Pal of Serampore Baptist Mission who evangelised the firs Khasis U Duwan and U Anna in 1813

Thomas Jones himself was very clear about these debts, and wrote about them to John Roberts from Calcutta, 11 May 1841:

[su_quote]The Revd Mr Mack of Serampore (who has been at Cherrapoonjee, & has travelled over most of those parts) came to see me, and kindly promised to furnish me with all the manuscripts, Books, &c relating to the Cossias & their language, which they at Serampore have in their power to find for me; and (as you are aware) they are able to do more in this way than any body else in Calcutta[/su_quote] [footnote]National Library of Wales CMA 28720 Letter Book of General Secretary, Vol. 4 1840-3[/footnote]

First Khasi New Testament in print in Bengali Script – published by William Carey of Serampore Baptist Mission
First Page of the first Khasi translation of New Testament in Print

So Jones was well aware of the previous work—he acknowledged it, critiqued it, and built on it. It’s clear he didn’t always agree with its efficacy or accuracy, and in his criticisms there is likely to be both something of truth, and also at times a self-serving means to suring up his own methodology and approach. John Roberts (in Y Drysorfa Rhif CXLV Llyfr XIII Ionawr 1843), citing a letter from Jones, reveals more about Jones’s approach:

[su_quote]Perhaps it will be sufficient at present to mention that the letter of August 3rd is chiefly concerned with the reasons which compelled Mr Jones to use the Roman alphabet to teach the Khasians rather than the Bengali alphabet; and the reason he felt bound to give an account of these reasons was that he understood that some individuals had been very critical of him that he had not first learned the language of Bengal, and used the script of that language (according to them, everything in Khasia is written in this script only) instead of the Roman alphabet…After careful enquiry he found that there was only one man in the entire region who could write in the Bengali script, and he did not think that that person had even attempted to write the Khasian language using this script. “Another person (said Mr Jones) could write Bengali, of the type written up here, but he was taken ill, and it was discovered that his god had made him ill because he wrote Bengali, and consequently he stopped a long time ago, in order to avoid the wrath of his god. The Khasians generally avoid the Bengali script with a superstitious dread, and they fervently believe that if they try to write letters, they will immediately be struck down with blindness, or a deadly disease, In several places people have told me that so and so tried to write and that they were struck blind![/su_quote]

The other point that I would reiterate is that language translation and rendering in written form was always co-produced, which again was overtly acknowledged by Jones. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The heroic version of Thomas Jones the missionary as a cultural saviour belies these lineages of debt, the previous relationships and negotiations in which local peoples played an active role in shaping their cultural and spiritual outcomes, however silent the Khasi voices may be in the colonial archive.[/perfectpullquote]

Jones effectively built on the legacy of Serampore and the interactions of its missionaries with the Khasis: U Juncha and U Dewan Rai probably honed their English language skills at the foot of Alexander Lish. The idea of any missionary singlehandedly ‘reducing’ native languages from oral to literary form is simplistic, and misses the ways in which local agency balanced colonial power. The full translation of the letter in which Jones explains how he went about his early linguistic work is as follows (there are two versions of this letter—one printed in Y Drysorfa in 1841; and one a manuscript copy of the original—I indicate where they vary in brackets]:

[su_quote]I have hired two young lads, for six Rupees a month, to help me to learn the language. [I have hired two of Mr Lish’s old scholars for 6 Rupees each per month …] They understand a little English, and possess a degree of knowledge of the principles of the Christian religion; and are very eager to learn more. We have adopted a rather haphazard and vexatious method, primarily because they do not understand enough English, and know nothing about the grammar of the language, and their language is not written down; as a result, they do not have one rule to guide them when they are teaching me. We proceed thus; – I recite English words to them, and they say the corresponding words in the Kassian language; and after I have grasped how to pronounce them, I write them down in alphabetical order, [with the Roman characters] and everything I can glean from them concerning the grammatical construction of their language, I write it down in grammatical form. I also write English sentences with a literal translation above. But I have not yet described the haphazard [tedious] aspect of the work, because in the first place I have a lot of difficulty in getting them to understand the English word, and sometimes, after making all sorts of gestures, and trying every way I can devise, to make them understand, I have to give up and try another word. [ & sometimes after I have manoeuvred and put myself in all the gestures and attitudes possible for fifteen minutes or more, I am obliged to give it up, & propose another.] When they understand the English word, I try to get them one after the other to pronounce the Kassian word, which takes some time to understand; because there is either some foreign sound that I cannot readily grasp, although I try to listen with all my faculties, while they are pronouncing the word [while they are pronouncing it close to my head], – and after grasping it, it is not easy to know what symbol to use to denote it – or else they pronounce a syllable indistinctly, and I cannot get them to understand what I want them to do; and after some time has gone by without success, they have to sit down and consult together, and after all this I am sometimes left less satisfied than before. As a result they call in some of the bystanders (there are always plenty of these around) who are asked to pronounce the word, one after the other, and it may be pronounced in so many different ways, that I am left in the end to guess which one is correct. Only those who have been in the same situation can really understand how much time is spent going over a few words, and how tired one feels after such hard labour. Yet it is strange how good and educated men have been satisfied with some superficial knowledge in foreign languages. I am sorry to say that in my opinion, of that which has been written in this language, not one word in fifty is correct. I have perceived some inconsistencies in the writings which I have in my possession and I have set them to one side and taken up something else which I know will not be a vain task; and I am glad now that I have done so.[/su_quote]

So the fact that Lish included a specimen of Khasi vocabulary rendered (however incompetently) in Roman script in the 1838 Calcutta Christian Observer piece is a small kind of first in a bigger continuum of cultural change and interaction. My broader point is that if there is an argument that Thomes Jones was not the first to render Khasi into Roman script, he would be the first to agree. And while he was obviously never to know the work and the workers that came after him, I suspect he would be more interested in being remembered for what he did at the end of his time in the Hills rather than at the start—as defender of civil rights rather than the father of words on a page.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.45.53 pm

Lish language

Your Thomas Jones and my Thomas Jones exists in the gap between what the history books tell us, what stories are handed down from generation to generation, and the way we may have wished the story to be from our own perspective, whether that be a proponent or a critic of one belief system or another. Thomas Jones is in some respects whatever we want to make him to be—a pliable representation. We often ask, who is this Thomas Jones? But we might also ask, what is Thomas Jones? He is now a process as much as a person, he is a blank sheet upon which every generation projects their own desires and ideologies; he can be a building or a book, a statue or a national holiday; he can be a sinner and a saviour at one and the same time.  Thomas Jones is not a simple black and white figure: he taught the Khasis to improve their distillation methods, but he also preached on the dangers of excessive drinking.

There is no doubt that Jones was a product of his day — paternalistic, imperialistic, reflecting the characteristics of the Victorian period in which he lived. But we should not forget that he was also a champion of the underdog, and Thomas Jones of course was a stone in the shoe of the mission itself, particularly after he was expelled from its service and went solo. His defence of the Khasis in terms of labor exploitation and violence exercised by the British came at a personal cost to him—it’s not so easy to be so brave or wise in the face of your conscience and of what you believe is right.

So I’m sure that he does still rightly stand for personal commitment to belief — but also, and importantly, he represents learning and growing, adaptation and change, taking up a social cause if inequality is staring you in the face. The Thomas Jones at the end of his time in the Khasi Hills in the late 1840s was not the Thomas Jones who stepped off the ship at Calcutta in 1841.

What would those two statues say if they could speak? Don’t ossify story, culture, tradition; don’t actually set things in stone. If Thomas Jones were alive, what would he want his name to be associated with? Empowering the next generation to actively make their own meanings out of the symbols of the past and turn them into liberating ones. He would challenge those in the church constructed partly in his name, as well as those with other platforms of social and political power, to rise to the challenge of change, to root out the cancers of corruption and venality, and to value rights and equality.

Page from the death register of St. Andrew’s Church, Calcutta noting death of Rev. Thomas Jones

‘If I kept silent’, Jones wrote in his 1849 manifesto to the Government of India before he was hounded to his death by the British authorities, ‘I would be a partaker of the sins of their oppressors and totally unworthy of the name of a benefactor of the suffering Kassias as well as inconsistent with my professions as a Missionary of the Gospel’. He might be quietly pleased that 22nd June is marked out to honour him, but more interested I fancy in the truths that need to be told on the 23rd and thereafter.


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Andrew May Written by:

Andrew May is a social historian with broad interests across urban, colonial and imperial history. As an urban historian he has published widely on the social experience of the Australian city, its public spaces and communal rituals, its suburban qualities, and its cosmopolitan cultures. As Director of The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, he guided that project's development from the mid 1990s to its publication by Cambridge University Press in 2005. His interests in multimedia have seen him involved in the development of history in new media formats, including Melbourne Podtours, eGold, Pathways to the Past (a learning module on using images as historical evidence), and eMelbourne (the Encyclopedia of Melbourne in online format). As a historian of imperialism, he also has a particular interest in imperial networks of science, religion and governance. His latest book "Welsh missionaries and British imperialism: The empire of clouds in north-east India" was published by Manchester University Press in 2012. He has served on advisory committees of the National Trust, City of Melbourne, Public Record Office Victoria, Heritage Victoria, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Immigration Museum, Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, and the National Archives of Australia. He currently serves on the executive of the Australian Historical Association, and is a Board Member of Australian Historical Studies. In 2006 he was awarded the 'Individual Contribution to Profile' award in the City of Melbourne's 'Melbourne Awards'.

One Comment

  1. Surjit s thokchom
    June 24, 2018

    Very educative, well researched and timely article. Salute to Andrew May n the Riot.

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