Saturday Magazine
Carnegie and the missionary notion of idolatry in Sri Lanka

By V. Basnayake
Good-hearted American missionaries who came to Ceylon in the 19th century saw Sri Lankans as heathens who need to be liberated from bondage to idols. Andrew Carnegie visited Ceylon in 1879 and reacted against the hymn line that "The heathen in his blindness, bows down to wood and stone". So did the American authoress Frances Keys, in a sudden flash of illumination during a visit in 1926. Their reaction was based on a realization that Christians too have their images, such as the cross and that both the Christian and the heathen worship their particular idols only as symbols of the same common Unknown Beyond.

The first American Protestant missionary to Ceylon was Samuel Newell. He worked in Jaffna from 7 September to 22 October 1813.

He noted in his diary:

"Except for a few thousands, who are principally Roman Catholics, the present generation are all idolaters...The prince of darkness reigns in full power over these 120 thousand souls. Here is work for 120 missionaries...There is perhaps no portion of the heathen world, which possesses so many advantages for spreading the Gospel, as this."

Mrs. Harriet Winslow (1796-1832), wife of Rev. Miron Winslow, arrived in Galle in 1819 and stayed with an Irish Wesleyan missionary, Rev. Mr. McKenny, and his wife. She found them to be "agreeable and appear zealous for the cause of God among the heathens. In some respects the prospect of bringing these poor idolaters to a knowledge of the truth is encouraging, in others it is dark."

On 9 December 1819 she visited a Buddhist temple. "The moment I entered the building a sort of horror seized me, so that I approached with trembling the hideous figure called Boodhu. Despite all the descriptions of these temples which I had read and heard in America, I had no proper idea of one."

Mr. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the American industrial millionaire and philanthropist, visited Ceylon in 1879 in the course of a world tour. In America he was familiar with the missionary hymn by Bishop Heber, "From Greenland’s icy mountains" which makes reference to Ceylon. As the ship approached Ceylon at Galle he found himself humming the hymn to himself, and even felt the air to be aromatic. (Did the ship’s crew spray scent?)

Mr. Carnegie wrote:

"I asked our Ceylonese guide today whether he had ever heard of our most popular missionary hymn. ‘Here is the verse’, I said, ‘about your beautiful isle.’

‘What though the spicy breezes

Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle

Though every prospect pleases,

And only man is vile!

In vain with lavish kindness

The gifts of God are strewn;

The heathen, in his blindness,

Bows down to wood and stone.’

"‘What do you think of that description?’ I asked. He said he thought -’the writer was a fool’, and asked if anyone in my country believed that there was a man, woman, or child in Ceylon who did not know better than to bow down to any power but God. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I once believed it myself, and millions believe it today, and good boys and girls with us save their pennies to send missionaries to tell these heathen who worship idols how very wrong and foolish it is to do so, and how angry the true God is to have anything worshipped but himself. He said ours must be a very curious country, and he should like to visit it and see such queer people. I gave him my address and promised, if he would come to see me, to take him to a great missionary meeting where he would see the best and most religious people, all greatly concerned about the idolators of Ceylon.

"The truth is there is scarcely in all the world a human being so low in the scale as not to know that the object he sees is only the symbol of the invisible power. What the cross is to the Christian the idol is to the other, and it is nothing more. The worship of both is to the Unknown beyond. I did my best to soothe the wounded spirit of our guide by explaining the necessities of poetic license. Still he would have it that Bishop Heber had wronged his beloved Ceylon and did not know what he was writing about."

To the reader today, it may sound strange that there really was a travel guide with so quick and bold a reaction to his paymaster, the tourist! Were those times so spacious that an employee could talk back freely and imaginatively to his employer? Mr. Carnegie had a message to give to his reader: the Christian cross is as much an idol as the heathen’s stone, and both are symbols of "the Invisible Power, the Unknown Beyond". The Christian and the heathen are on common ground, and so it is absurd for the Christian to mock the heathen. One may be forgiven for being so naughty as to ask whether Carnegie, with "poetic licence", invented the unnamed tourist guide as a tool to get his message across more effectively.

A similarly tolerant view of idolatry is given by the American writer, Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885-1970), who visited Ceylon with two of her three sons in 1926.

"It came to me, as I sat at evening service at Kandy in the Church of England - which corresponds to our Episcopal church at home. The Curate was a Singhalese, his face shone dark above his vestments as he conducted the services; there were many others of his race in the choir, and others still, both men and women, in the congregation... Then suddenly, through the doors open to admit the soft air, came the sound of the beating of the tom-tom: and, involuntarily glancing in the direction whence the sound was heard, I saw on my right a temple illuminated for the festival of the New Year, and pilgrims ascending its steps - the same pilgrims who had made way that I might enter their sanctuary, and whose worship, at the same time and so close to the same place where I was worshipping, disturbed neither curate nor bishop nor preacher. And in a flash as blinding as those temple lights, I realized that while to my grandmother, who first taught me about Ceylon, those ‘heathen bowing down to wood and stone’ would have seemed ‘vile’, I knew that they were the followers of a great and ancient faith, different from my own, worshipping in their holy place...They are seeking salvation no less surely than I am. ‘There are more roads than one to heaven, perhaps more heavens than one.’"

As for the spicy breezes, an American polymath, W. S. W. Ruschenberger, who visited Ceylon in 1835, observed that "the very name (cinnamon gardens) makes one think of Ceylon’s ‘spicy breezes ‘...but it is all of a pious imposition palmed upon us by an idle race of people, called poets. ‘Spicy breezes!’... Why travellers have lent their aid and sanction to poets in upholding and spreading the idea of Ceylon’s or any other land’s ‘spicy breezes’, I am at a loss to imagine."

The quotations given above are taken from H A I Goonetileke’s "Images of Sri Lanka through American eyes" (1976, 1998).