A 27 page pamphlet of nearly 10,000 words was written by my great grandfather William Henderson Stevenson and “published” in 1887. He wrote: “having had the privilege of labouring among this interesting people [The Santals in India] for over nine years, we have been asked to tell something of their habits and customs…”
Stevenson’s booklet is titled (or was Number 21 in a series titled) Woman’s Work in Heathen Lands, and I have scanned my copy, then used (free) optical character recognition to create a text-searchable version, some extracts from which appear here. The whole text will appear online soon.
Stevenson was a Christian missionary in the presbyterian Free Church of Scotland in what was then called Bengal, specifically at Pachamba in the region of Giridih in North East India. (From independence until 2000 Giridih was in Bihar but is now in the state of Jarkhand, “land of forest”.)
There had been an uprising in 1855, because the Santals “had been groaning under the oppression of Hindu money lenders, and the Government had put forth no effort to understand the peculiar needs of this hill tribe; they therefore rose, and, in their extremity, murdered a number of their oppressors. Perhaps this is why the doubly-oppressed Santals became a group of particular interest to Scottish (and Danish) missionaries.
In describing the Santal people, their indigenous religion and some of their customs, his booklet focused on gender roles in work, family and marriage. It described missionary work, and how it could help to convert women in the communities they worked among. Conversion was partly religious, and partly social. The lives, behaviour and personalities of women were molded towards the ideal of the missionaries. Women could also be useful in easing access of missionaries to local communities, and thus could enhance rates of conversion.
Stevenson used stories of individuals as inspiration and to help in fund-raising at home. Indeed I think this work was written explicitly in connection with a fund-raising trip (and furlough) with his family back to Scotland. (The family were to suffer the following year, when he died of fever, and they had to return to Scotland.)
As just mentioned, Stevenson described the role and nature of religion in the lives of Santali people, as well as the work of his mission, its school and hospital. His booklet has a particular focus on women and girls, and the provision of education for them, I think because the particular form of education offered would prepare them for effective participation in western(ised) institutions. This was one means by which the missionaries could alter traditional social roles and cultural practices towards ones more compatible with the Christian religion and 19th century European value systems.
I’m not well-enough informed to point out the most important parts of this document for modern Santal people, or historians of Santals, India, Raj, local religions, missionaries, or whatever… nor can I spot even glaring errors or misinterpretations. So what comes next is a personal selection, largely un-commented. It is neither representative nor optimal. I’ve decided to focus on Stevenson’s comments on women – I find them accessible, though maybe they are too accessible for a modern reader like me who lacks sufficient knowledge of the historical context.
But I can’t resist picking out these peachy comments to whet your appetite!
The Santal wife has the utmost freedom, if she but yields proper respect and obedience to her mother-in-law and her husband.
The Santal man is lazy, working only when it is absolutely necessary; but the woman has to make up what is lacking in her husband. Not only has she to do her full share of out-door work, but when she returns to the house she has the rice to clean and cook for the family. All the cooking is done by the woman, except when anything specially good has to be prepared.
I’ll deal elsewhere with Stevenson’s ancestry, what his contemporaries said about him, his untimely death, and the Stevenson Memorial Church. I’ll also cover my great grandmother (his wife), and her ancestors. Also, the couple’s daughter (my grandmother), as well as their two medical sons and their descendants… with a brief “hurrah” for one very famous relative of theirs. See the Storyshelf for a growing index, under “Stevenson”, story number 9.
Finally, there’s a missing voice in this booklet, in what is an account of a missionary couple’s work: the voice of my great-grandmother Mary McKellar Black (aka Stevenson). I have no doubt she would have played a huge role in the work the couple chose to undertake, as well as by committing to being a mother in India, but she is almost silent on the written page, and it is necessary to read between the lines. They say only “My wife also greatly enjoyed teaching the girls sewing and knitting, as well as in taking general charge of them.” And “The missionaries’ wives for some time conducted a mothers’ meeting, principally for these Christian village women, and it was productive, we believe, of very much good. It is most important, we think, that the Christian women should thus meet together for fellowship and prayer; and as their numbers increase, the need for such efforts will become more pressing.“
When, some three thousand years ago, the Aryans or Sanskrit-speaking people entered India, they found it already inhabited by numerous tribes, who at some more remote period had migrated thither. These ruder and more uncivilized non-Ayran tribes were not able to hold their own against the newcomers, and so they either were made the slaves of their conquerors, becoming through time, as we now find them, the lowest castes in the all-absorbing Hindu system; else they were driven back into the more inaccessible forest and hilly regions, where, comparatively uninfluenced by the higher civilization of their neighbours, they are still to be found in their primitive ignorance and simplicity, with languages and religion quite different from the Hindus.
The Santali language
There are over 140 different languages and dialects spoken by these various tribes, and by a comparison of these languages, they are usually divided into three groups, viz. the Dravidian, the Kolarian, and the Thibeto-Burman. The Santals form the most numerous tribe of the Kolarian group…
This tribe inhabits an irregular hilly district of Bengal, lying from 140 to 250 miles to the north-west of Calcutta, and stretching southwards from the Ganges for about 350 miles. The country is in some parts very picturesque, the hills not rising to any great height above the general elevation of the country, the most of them being, moreover, wooded to the top. The highest hill in the Santal country is Pareshnath – a sacred hill of the Jains, the modern representatives of the Buddhists in India, who come in large numbers every year to visit the twenty-three shrines on its summit. This hill rises 4,479 feet above the sea, which is rather higher than Ben Nevis.
The Santals do not form the majority of the inhabitants in this region; along with them there are many Hinduized and semi-Hinduized descendants of other aboriginal tribes, as well as large numbers of Hindus and Mohammedans. But the Santals are such an homogeneous people, so distinct from those around them, not only in habits and customs, but in language and religion as well, that efforts to bring them to Christ must be specially adapted to their needs.
The Position of Woman in heathen lands always strikes one as being in marked contrast to what we are accustomed to at home. What we see among the Santals is no exception to this rule. The Santal woman, it is true, is not confined, like some of her Hindu sisters, to the Zenana. The Santal girl is not married when but an infant, like her Hindu sisters, to a man of whom she can know nothing. The Santal widow is not, like the millions of Hindu widows, compelled to live in widowhood all her days, working as a general drudge, and cutting her days short by enforced fastings, and the like. In these respects the Santal woman is in a better position than some of her neighbours.
The life of a Santal girl is on the whole happy and free. Her birth may not be looked upon with the same joy as her brother’s, for he lives always at home, and brings in a wife to add to the wealth of the family; but neither is it mourned over as among the Hindus, for as soon as she is able she will do her share of the work of the family, and when of age to be married, her parents will get a price for her.
As soon as the girl is able to walk by herself, she is sent out along with others to herd the goats and sheep, and she thus early begins to take her share of the work of the household. And even at the most tender age she is allowed to mix with the women of the village and to listen to all their conversation, which is often of the vilest description, and not the least restrained in the presence even of boys and girls.
On this very account we found it impossible to allow Santal women to mix with the girls of the school.
The village girl however, grows up in the midst of all this, and her mind from her very earliest years becomes polluted with ideas of which she should know nothing. She, also, soon begins to take her part in the amusements of the village. She joins her elder sisters and companions in the dance in the street, to the music of the one-stringed fiddle, and the bamboo flutes played by the young men; she joins with them in the songs which they sing to peculiar, quaint kinds of tunes; almost every night, indeed, these village maidens are singing or dancing. There is in every village one man whose duty it is to take charge of the young people in their amusements, and as a result, it may be said, that considering their circumstances, they behave very well.
Santals formerly did not marry young, but the example of the Hindus has not been without its effect; and marriages, of girls of ten or eleven are now not uncommon, although the usual age is fifteen or sixteen, and frequently even more than that. A great sensation is caused in a village when it becomes known that a man has come to see a girl with the view of arranging a marriage. The initiative in all the ordinary marriages is taken by the parents of the boy. Having seen a girl who would, they think, make a suitable wife to their son, they at once appoint an intermediary, who visits the girl’s parents and opens the matter to them. They will then visit the boy, and if satisfied will at once deal with the intermediary, as to the amount of money they are to receive for the girl. This is not, generally speaking, a large sum, though to a Santal it is always of importance.
The boy, with his friends, subsequently visits the girl, and as a sign of their betrothal, gives her a cloth, usually about five yards long. The giving of the money then follows, and on this occasion the day for the marriage is fixed, the number of days intervening being marked by tying knots on a. string, one knot for each day before the marriage, and the lapse of time is then observed by unloosing a knot each day.
In all the arrangements of the ordinary marriage the girl and boy have little or nothing to say in the matter; but there are certain ways by which a boy and girl, if they have formed a strong attachment for each other, can force the hands of their parents.
When the opposition is mostly or altogether on the part of the girl’s relations, the boy may meet her, with the previous consent of his own villagers, at the place where the village girls go for water, and there marking her forehead with red paint – the symbol of marriage – she goes home his engaged bride, and after that, according to the Santal custom, the marriage takes place regularly.
If the opposition be mostly on the side of the boy’s parents, the girl may force her entrance into the boy’s mother’s house, and if she can endure a night’s tormenting, their opposition goes for nothing, and the regular marriage takes place soon thereafter. Or the boy may lead the girl by the hand into his mother’s house as his bride, after which no objection will be shown.
These are not considered in any way to be disreputable marriages, but are quite according to Santal custom., From this it will be seen that the Santal girl is much more free with regard to her marriage than is at all common in Eastern countries, Of course, in the great majority of cases, neither the girls nor the boys take any part in the marriage arrangements, although the privileges referred to as allowed by Santal custom are readily taken advantage of whenever the special circumstances occur.
“Freedom” and work
The Santal wife has the utmost freedom, if she but yields proper respect and obedience to her mother-in-law and her husband. She walks about the village street, chatting and gossiping with her neighbours; she works in the fields, transplanting the rice, reaping the harvest, and carrying the grain on her head to the threshing-floor; she attends the neighbouring market, to and from which she carries on her head what her husband has to sell or what he has bought, while he himself walks before carrying the baby who sits on his haunch as on a saddle; and she visits her friends far and near during the hot season when work in the fields is at a stand still.
The Santal woman is always busy, working early and late. It may be said with truth, that the Santal man is lazy, working only when it is absolutely necessary; but the woman has to make up what is lacking in her husband. Not only has she to do her full share of out-door work, but when she returns to the house she has the rice to clean and cook for the family. All the cooking is done by the woman, except when anything specially good has to be prepared. If the husband has brought home a hare or part of a deer as his share of the village hunt in the jungle, the preparing of such a rare dish would be too great an honour for the wife. The husband himself sets to work and makes it into a nice curry. She gets a share, however, after her husband has finished, the wife always eating after the husband.
The Santal woman is usually very well clad, having on between five and six yards of calico. This is wrapped round the waist like a skirt, thrown over the one shoulder, brought under the opposite armpit, and fastened at the side. She wears some very ponderous brass ornaments – anklets, armlets, necklets, and toe rings – frequently weighing more than 16 lbs.
Interaction with western men
The Santal woman is very free and open in her manner, compared with the low caste Hindu and Mohammadam women whom one meets in India. She does not cover her face and turn her back as they do when spoken to. Although somewhat distant and reserved when spoken to in another language, she is at home as soon as you speak to her in Santali. She will then enter into conversation with you with the greatest freedom, and without any offensive boldness she will look you in the face while she talks.
Preaching the Gospel to Village Women, as distinct from the usual mixed audiences, has not hitherto been much attempted. … In our itinerating preaching tours we have frequently had a meeting like the following. We have entered the village about mid-day and found the most of the men away at a hunt in the jungle. A few lads were in the village, two or three old frail men, and the women.
In such a meeting one woman usually takes the lead in giving responses and asking questions. … “We do worship God”, tells us that she is thinking of the sun, which is saluted morning and evening in worship. “What sacrifices must we offer to God?”, reveals her ideas regarding worship. “Our forefathers were wise and good, and we just do as they did”. “How is God to be worshipped, and served?” “Why did you not come before to tell us this?” These are some of the questions and remarks heard during the preaching.
Those meetings, where the majority of the hearers are women, are most interesting, and some of them are very encouraging, shewing, as they do, with what intelligence these ignorant women are able to understand and follow the addresses that are given.
The great difficulty, however, in ordinary village preaching, is to get the Santal women to feel that religion has any concern for them. In their own religion their fathers, husbands, or village elders, attend to all that is necessary. They offer all the sacrifices, and the women have nothing whatever to do with the matter. Religion, they think, is outside their domain. And therefore it is no uncommon thing for a woman who has listened for a considerable time to what has been said, to reply that she will tell her husband when he returns what we have been saying; and this she thinks is the utmost that can be expected of her.
The sense of individual responsibility is not great even among the men, they honestly believing that all such matters should be settled by the community as a whole. They do not seem to have the slightest idea that what we speak of is meant for them as individuals.
I presume the general lack of response by adults to preaching is why a school was regarded as so important: to indoctrinate children from a young age.
The centre of our work among the Santal females is the Pachamba Girls’ Boarding School. This school was commenced early in the history of our mission – the year 1873, there being six girls on the roll at the close of that year. These were orphans and helpless girls that we were permitted to train for Jesus. Their number was considerably increased the two following years, as there was then a famine in the district. At the close of 1875, there were twenty-three girls in the school. During the past few years the attendance has been from thirty to forty, thirty-seven being the number at present on the roll. The Christian work among these simple, open-minded Santal girls is most interesting and encouraging.
Education, more broadly
My last quote from the booklet comes from near the end, after many passages that tell the stories of individual girls and women (named below). In it Stevenson connects the missionary school into the more general need for basic education.
But though we are thankful for what has already been accomplished, we are as yet but touching the fringe of the great mass of heathenism in the district where we labour. The work has hitherto been carried on almost exclusively among the Santals. But there are hundreds of thousands of others, who not less than the Santals are perishing for the lack of the living bread, which has been committed to this church to distribute amongst them. The district in which this work is carried on extends over a large area – about one hundred miles by seventy, with a population of almost 800,000 chiefly engaged in agriculture.
This, from an educational point of view, is the most backward district in the whole of Bengal. From the last Census Report it may be seen that in the Hazaribagh district (in which the Pachamba Station is situated) out of every 10,000 of the population of all castes and classes, 9,622 cannot read or write and are not being taught. Only 1.21 percent of the villagers are at school. Or to state it in another form out of every 100 boys who should be at school there are only 6.7 whose names are on any school roll. Even compared with other districts of India, this is truly a sad picture.
People and places named in the booklet
- Mr Boerresen, Danish missionary
- Mr Skrefsrud, Danish missionary
- Rev. Dr. Templeton, Scottish missionary
- Mr Campbell, Scottish missionary at Toondee
- Dr Dyer, Scottish missionary at Chukye
- Mary Campbell, orphaned Santal girl, later married in Toondee
- Babu Ram, her little brother and later an evangelist
- Bhago, orphaned girl and later wife of senior evangelist at Tondee
- Himia, a Hindi widow, later married to Bhorat, with whom she had two children
- Bhorat, a Hindi convert, one of the inspectors of the Christian village schools, living at Pachamba
- Dhibi, a Santal girl
- Tondee a village with a mission and a fledgling school.
- Kinduah, a village with a school
- Baromasia, a village with a school
- Chamerkho, a village five miles from Pachamba