Anti-Colonialism in Christian Churches: A Case Study of Political Discourse in the South Indian Methodist Church in Colonial Malaya, 1890s-1930s

Article excerpt

While the history of resistance in the labour and rural communities are well studied (Rerceremam 2003, pp. 177-85), there is little to no research done on the resistance of their more well-to-do counterparts. This article thus will focus on the anti-colonial resistance of the middle-class, white-collar and English-speaking religious community. Indeed, different shades of political resistance existed among this community despite fears of governmental retribution. Dravidian Nationalism, Eastern Nationalism and even the Methodist Church discourses importantly contributed to the formation of oppositional space and growth of intellectual freedom. This article hopes to debunk the prevalent perception of the middle-class Indian groups as unthinkingly pro-British such that others often derogatorily referred to them as "Black Europeans" (Stenson 1970, p. 29; Stenson 1980, p. 64; Sundaram and Todd 1994, p. 67; Dass 1991, p. 30).

The period of study will generally span the establishment of the Methodist Church in the 1890s till the decade preceding World War II. In recent years, publications dealing with Christian denominations, such as Ernest Lau's From Mission to Church (2008) and Eugene Wijeysinghe's Going Forth--The Catholic Church in Singapore (2006), have primarily dealt with historical accounts of missional, organizational and ecclesiastical developments and do not directly address the socio-political issues. Earlier publications like Rabindra Daniel's Indian Christians in Peninsular Malaysia (1991) or Hunt, Lee, and Roxburgh's Christianity in Malaysia (1992) are largely contemporary studies with little emphasis on political developments. In short, there has hardly been any research examining reactions of the Indian Christian Church communities toward the British Colonial Government in Malaya and the Straits Settlements.

A problem in researching on this topic is the lack of available sources in the colonial records repositories and so almost all materials for research are from individual Church-based archives or interviews. This article thus is based on primary source data, in particular the Methodist Church's publication, The Malaysia Message. (2) The Malaysia Message was a news editorial covering all matters relating to the local Methodist Church. It also, however, covered non-Church related issues.

The publication began in 1891 (Lau 2008, p. 120) and continued until 1953 when it was then renamed Methodist Message (ibid., p. 204). While the publication's readership and circulation was limited, probably confined to the local Methodist community, contributors to The Malaysia Message also published in other more widely circulated secular papers such as The Indian. The editorial was initially dominated by the founding American clergy, but was later taken over by Asian parishioners and clergy by the early twentieth century. As parishioners from both Indian and Chinese backgrounds were represented in its editorial board, it is difficult to separate the contributions from each party as both played a significant role in the relevance and longevity of the publication. However, each community had significant issues which differentiated it from the other and it is the role of this article to delve in and explore the significant Indian specific facets as discussed in The Malaysian Message.

Precursor to Migration to Malaya: Economic Hardship in South India

British control of the Indian subcontinent was complete by the middle of the nineteenth century. This meant that Indian interests came under the control of the British Colonial Government and India effectively became an economic vassal state of Britain. Part of this process saw the conversion of the Indian economy from that of an exporter of manufactured goods to a supplier of raw materials and an importer of British-made goods. Native Indian enterprises, which threatened British business interests, were restrained and handicapped by restrictive legislation (Sandhu 1969, p. …