Monday, December 6, 2010

Guilt and Shame

These three words do not, in the present context, summarize my life but my feelings today, when I think of having started this blog chiefly in response to my friend Jon's curiosity about my family, without reading a publication, already in my possession, called "Race Antagonism in Christian Missions" of which my grandfather claimed authorship, though a few pages were written by my grandmother.  I was unaware of the existence of this pamphlet till three or four months ago, when there arrived in Colombo a new Canadian High Commissioner with an energetic wife who discovered that there had been a fellow graduate of the University of Toronto who had led a life of notable philanthropic activity in the island called, in her lifetime, Ceylon.  Ingrid Knutson felt that her ignorance about Mary Irwin Rutnam was a fault to be remedied as soon as possible, and invoked the aid not only of myself and my two cousins still resident in Colombo but of the eminent social historian Dr Kumari Jayawardena, who in 1993 had published, with Canadian funding and under the auspices of the Social Scientists' Association of Sri Lanka, a short biography of  "Dr Mary Rutnam--a Canadian pioneer for Women's Rights in Sri Lanka".  The interest Dr Jayawardena felt in my grandmother (with whom she herself had been personally acquainted in her youth) had led her, a few years later, to pounce on this little pamphlet, and cause it to be republished in 2000, again via the S.S.A.S.L.

My grandfather's name appears as that of the author, but in fact the last eleven of the fifty-two pages were written by my grandmother.  The original publication was a round in a battle that was raging in some sections of the press (especially the evangelical Christian section of it) about my grandparents' marriage, and may be said to represent my grandfather's "case" against the relevant ecclesiastical institutions.  It seems to me that neither of my grandparents' statements would quite satisfy a probing cross-examination, intent on finding inconsistencies or at least lacunae, but then why should they?  Even in 1899 marriage was not a crime.  It is quite clear however that for many of these Christian missionaries marriage between a Ceylonese and a Canadian was a hideous moral offence.

My own guilt is certainly of lesser magnitude, but if I had read through these fifty-two pages earlier I would have avoided, for instance, the error of saying that my grandparents married in 1897.  It was, I learned today, on the 16th July 1896, that two New York clergymen, one Congregationalist and one Episcopalian, performed a 15-minute ceremony which was later to provide Mary's employer with an excuse to dismiss her.  My grandfather, without going into detail, makes it clear that the ceremony was not followed by consummation, and indeed both the parties to the transaction refer to it variously as their 'engagement' and their 'marriage' in subsequent pages.  "We looked forward," my grandfather writes, "to a repetition of the ceremony in Ceylon five years later when, and when only, Dr Irwin would change her name and we would become man and wife".

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