Colonialism, Reverend William Pettigrew (1869-1943), and the Coming of Christianity and Western Education to Manipur

Pamkhuila Shaiza


Colonialism allowed Christianity to spread extensively in regions and countries, where primal (traditional) religions were dominant. Christianity and primal religions have many similarities when it comes to activities like believing in spiritual healing or casting evil spirits out of the body, although following the doctrines of Jesus Christ remain inherently embedded among the Christians. Excepting few people, the Christian converts in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries’ were drawn from the poor, the illiterate, and those who lived in remote areas, like the Tangkhul-Naga tribe (Tangkhuls) in the rural North-Eastern part of India. The Tangkhuls living in Manipur in fact converted to Christianity “in masses” under the influence of colonialism and imperialistic doctrines. For the colonial Christian Missionaries, their Mission comes as personal responsibility before God. As one of such Missionary, Reverend William Pettigrew used education and western medicine, along with Christianity to guarantee the internal colonization of the Tangkhul-Naga tribe in India. The spread of Christianity and Western Education was mainly possible because of the grants given to the Missionaries by the colonial administrators. These spread of religion and education has far-reaching social, political and cultural effects. Although the hilly regions of Manipur do not exactly build the British colonial economy, expansion through religion and education helped the British to secure Labour Corps during the First World War. Some literate Nagas were employed as interpreters who were paid by the British Indian government or the Mission schools. William Pettigrew himself took 2000 Labour Corps from Manipur to France (1917-1919), thereby making the British Indian Government to confer him with title of ‘Captain’, and a War Medal. By providing the labour corps, the colonized can be seen as being obliged to work and deliver for the colonialist, thereby indirectly helping in building the politics and economy of the British colonialists in the early 20th century.


Reverend William Pettigrew was an Educationist and Scottish-British Christian Missionary, who came to India in 1890, eventually spreading Western Education and converting the nature-worshipping Tangkhuls living in Manipur to Christianity. Pettigrew was born on 5th January, 1869 at Edinburg, Scotland. His mother died at the childbirth of his younger brother, prompting his father to remarry, adding two more brothers and one sister to the family. By this time, his father was working in an Irish Marine Ship as captain, and the family was living in Glasgow. Pettigrew was brought up in a deeply religious Anglican family, and he attended Bible Camp every week. During one of this visit, Pettigrew heard about the first American Missionary Adoniram Judson working as a Christian Missionary in Burma (now Myanmmar). Inspired by this story, Pettigrew was convinced that he will become a Christian Missionary and spread Christianity in India. Keeping these goals, Pettigrew underwent training at the Ardington Aborigines Training School, after completing his High School. Upon completion of the training, he was certified in 28th November, 1890, to visit India as a Christian Missionary.


Under the Ardington Missionary, William Pettigrew set out with three other Missionaries and one Doctor to India. When he arrived at Calcutta (now Kolkata), hospitality was provided to him by Reverend and Mrs Dalmasna. While waiting for God’s direction, and working together with the Dalmasnas’ among the Bengalis, he had a better understanding of Christian religious denominations, and he converted from his Anglican Protested denomination to Baptist Protestant denomination. Pettigrew was baptized in the Baptist Faith by Reverend Wright Hayna, who was working as English Baptist Missionary at Dacca. Of his conversion, “The Assam Mission of the American Baptist Mission Union, 1985”, reports that “He hold the Baptist view of the sole and supreme authority of the Scripture in all matters of faith and practice, and on all the cardinal doctrines is at one with us; and, although on account of lack of training he is not fully versed in all that he holds views contrary to our distinctive doctrines.”


When Pettigrew was working with the English Baptist Missionary in Dacca, he heard about the Manipur Massacre of 1891, making him to pray fervently to go and work in Manipur. He tried several times to go to Manipur with J. Craighead, but these attempts were thwarted by Manipur Political Agent of that time. Since Pettigrew was inspired to visit Manipur, he went with Craighead to Silchar in 1892, and learned Manipuri (language). Finally, with the fortunate permission, Pettigrew arrived in Manipur on 6th February, 1894. In order to propagate God’s words, he first opened Primary School on 7th May, 1894 in Chingama and enrolled 50 students. Till this time (1890-1894), Pettigrew was working with Ardington Aborigines, but from 1894, he started to work with the American Baptisy Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS). Upon arrival in the plain region (Imphal) of Manipur, Pettigrew was not allowed to preach Christianity, prompting him to spend two years learning and writing Meitei Primers, Grammar, Basic Arithmetic, and English-Bengali-Manipur Dictionary. Thereafter, he set up a Lower Primary School at Singjamei Colony, which is now known as Pettigrew Junior Higher Secondary School. Two Lower Primary Schools were subsequently established at Thangmeiband and Terakeithel colonies of Imphal. During this time, Johnstone Upper Primary School was the only school, imparting Western Education in Manipur. Recognizing his efforts in promoting Western education, William Pettigrew was later made the School Inspector of Manipur. Together, with a Manipuri Pandit Inspector, Pettigrew continued to set up many schools in the plain area. When Pettigrew was working as school Inspector, Major Maxwell was working as the Political Agent of Manipur under British India. Spreading the word of God and preaching Christianity was therefore made to be taken up in the hilly regions of Manipur. An official approval was given to Pettigrew by the Maxwell to go to the hilly regions of Manipur. To quote Pettigrew, the order came in such manner:


“Confined and restricted to one section of the country, the North-East area among the Tangkhul Nagas, Headquarters of the past and still practiced in the outlying and frontier villages, the writer and his wife at their own risk according to Governemnt order from 1896 to 1918 made the largest and most important village of the tribe Ukhrul, their headquarters”.


Since Pettigrew knew Manipuri, he was able to easily communicate with Raihao, the then Chief of Hungphun (Central Headquarter of Ukhrul District). With the Chief’s help, Pettigrew was able to visit Shirui, Langdang, and Khangkhui in search of a good centre, but he was unable to procure a good place. Following the advice of an elder, Pettigrew went to Shirui Peak to get a view of Ukhrul. From this peak, he saw Hungphun as the central region of Ukhrul, and lying flat amidst the surrounding hilly villages, thereby making him to take a decision to set up a Christian Missionary centre there. After Pettigrew selected Hungphun as the Mission Centre, he communicated with his High School Sweetheart, Alice Goreham to come to India, and they got married on 13th November, 1896, at Calcutta. Their arduous journey towards propagating Christianity among the Tangkhuls started by spending their honeymoon in a thatched-mud house. Their first house was at Lungtung Awungtang (Hunphun King’s Colony); later shifting to Manglakahap Awontang colony, and building a stone house thereafter. The inaccessibility of the hilly terrain, the ignorance of Western Education, and the independent, yet warring atmosphere of the Tangkhuls Chiefs and villages in the Hilly regions of Manipur has been reported by William Pettigrew in his “Twenty-Five Years: 1897-1922” as:


“Independent, democratic, each Tangkhul Naga village with its Chief and elders open to bribery and corruption, gaining a reputation of being the biggest liars…and added to these the immense difficulties of mere approach to their lives owing to the diversity of dialects almost every village having its own; no written language, not a soul in the whole tribe man and woman who know anything of even the rudiments of an education, any old piece of paper was grasped at and looked upon as a curiosity. Absolute ignorance of the outside world, the majority of them not having left their mountain fortresses to visit any other tribe or even the people of the valley. Those among the older men who visited the valley were in constant contact with bigotry of an intense type, idol worship and all its entails, veneer of a pharisaical type and with its abysmal ignorance and pride of race and superstitious, these are the things by which Tangkhuls were influenced and while surrounded them with an almost impenetrable and unassailable wall.”


When Pettigrew told the Hungphun Chief Raihao that he wanted to impart western education to the Tangkhuls, the Chief answered, “Long ago, there was a Tangkhul Script which was written in the animal hides, and while the ancestors were travelling with the hides, it was eaten by a dog. Given these circumstances, we may not exactly excel in learning, even if you teach us”. Taken from this context, the Chief either meant the carelessness of the Tangkhuls in dealing with practicality, and hence their inability to learn anything beneficial, or that it simply imply from superstitious stand that the dog has taken (eaten) away the intelligence of the tribe. To this Pettigrew replied, “I have found the lost hides, so you must get educated now”. Pettigrew’s insightful retort made the King to finally give permission to educate the Tangkhuls living in Ukhrul. Although permission was granted by the king, the King’s Council (Hangva) were unable to procure people who were interested in learning. Pettigrew therefore left for Imphal to take the help of Major Maxwell, who was the State Superintendent of Imperial British India at that time. According to Thisan Luikham, while passing by Ukhrul Headquarter (Hungphun), on his way to Somra, Maxwell threatened the Tangkhuls that “upon my return, whoever is not enrolled for education will either be whipped or sent to prison”. It was under such order that the Tangkhuls finally started to cooperate with Pettigrew’s endeavour to bring western education among the community.


Pettigrew’s friendship with a capable leader, Raihao made him to realize his dreams of getting students, when Raihao along with 19 others (20 in totality) enrolled as Pettigrew’s students. They started their classes on 19th February, 1897, in a thatched-mud house. Complementarity of learning existed between the Hungphun Chief Raihao and William Pettigrew, since the latter learned Tangkhul dialect from the Chief. On the side of Pettigrew, learning Tangkhul dialect was followed by writing Tangkhul Primers, Arithmetic, Catechism, etc., in Roman script. There was a steady educational growth from 1896 onward, and through cooperation and steadfast studies, Pettigrew himself became the school Head Master. The State Government by 1897 also started to award the students with stipend cum scholarship of 3 Indian Rupees, in order to encourage them towards education.


Pettigrew’s efforts towards converting the Tangkhuls to Christianity started in 1901, when twelve people converted to Christianity and received Baptism under Protestant Christian Baptist’s beliefs. Thereafter, Christianity took steady, but rapid growth in the hill district, as well as in the plain region (the convert of a Meitei to Christianity by Pettigrew has been reported in his letters). By 1926-27, Pettigrew involved himself in translating the New Testament into Tangkhul dialect, thereby making the people to have easier accessibility to the Bible. Along with William Pettigrew, Alice Goreham is also noted to have contributed towards bringing western medicine to Manipur in general, and the hilly areas in particular. Pettigrews’ letters and reports shows them treating leper and tuberculosis patients during that time. The Pettigrews returned to England in 1933, and Alice Pettigrew reportedly died in 1934. For his contribution towards spreading Western education and his service in the rural areas, the Imperial British Indian Government awarded William Pettigrew with the honor of Kaiser-I-Hind. While working at Ukhrul, Pettigrew was also a member of the Honorary British Foreign Bible Society; the Asiatic Linguistic Society; and the Manipur State Educational Standing Committee. He also worked for a long time as Manipur School Inspector. Pettigrew passed away at Plymouth in 1943, and was survived by his four children.


The continuing spread of Christianity brought about by William Pettigrew shows the influence of neo-colonialism among the Tangkhul-Nagas, and from destructive point of view, Christianity can be stated to have led to the destruction of the Tangkhul-Naga primal religion. In fact, the alliance between the Christian Missionaries and colonialism, and continuing vitality of Christianity among the Tangkhul-Naga continue to cause cultural and primal-religious alienation. Having stated that, there is no doubt that Christianity and western education advancing rapidly under the influence of colonialism brought subsequent change and development among the people. Western education system that got structurally established during the time of colonialism is able to produce prominent individuals in professional and personal front against modern contemporaneity rat-race competitions. The ability to raise literary rate from 0 to 79.85% as per 2011 census in Manipur can no doubt be accounted towards Pettigrew’s efforts, and also towards colonialism.


Pamkhuila Shaiza is a
Research Analyst at Project Guru