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