By Andi Schubert
We find an indignant letter and record of communication between a certain P.A. and the then Archbishop of York, the Rev. William Thompson, in the 26th December 1874 issue of The Spectator.[i] In response to a sermon preached by the Archbishop, the letter protests the “undiscerning contempt or (worse still) the supercilious condescension with which Christians are wont to talk of the old religions of the East.” P.A. only identifies themselves as an undergraduate from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who was studying in Cambridge. But their response is a whirlwind tour of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam intended to highlight the hollowness of the claims made by Christianity to holding a moral high ground over other religions in the World. In a mix of English, French, and Latin, P.A.’s letter pulls no punches in critiquing this belief. The letter itself is a testament to the numerous ways in which “a dissident and frequently outright anticolonial inheritance in Britain” was formulated by critics of coloniality within the Metropole.[ii]
Bishop William Thompson, The Archbishop of York (1862-1890).
But who was P.A.? And what became of him? Years later, it emerged that P.A. was Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Christ’s College at the time.[iii] In what is likely one of his first major public salvos against the ideological projects of colonialism, we find some of the early characteristics of what would make Arunachalam such an important figure in Ceylon’s early anticolonial movements –a strong, locally-embedded moral compass, a capacity for insightful public interventions that drew from a variety of ‘Eastern’ and ‘non-Eastern’ philosophical traditions, an unusually trenchant aptitude for annoying people in authority, and an insightful critique of the beliefs that sustained British colonialism.[iv] Arunachalam’s privileged caste and class background should be considered but should not cloud the important role that these early critics of British colonialism played in shaping the trajectories of colonial rule in spaces like Ceylon and Britain.
P. Arunachalam in 1875 (Elliott & Fry, 55, Baker Street, Portman Square, London)
[i] See the full article and correspondence here – http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/26th-december-1874/15/my-louni-was-one-of-the-many-undergraduates-who-we
[ii] Gopal, P. (2019). Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, London & New York: Verso.
[iii] Rutnam, J. T. (1988). Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Scholar and Statesman: A Brief Account of His Life and Career. Colombo: Rutnam, pp.2-3.
[iv] Listen to Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham’s talk at Christ’s College, Cambridge on Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam titled “A Christ’s-Educated Liberal in Colonial Ceylon – Sketches of the Life of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam” delivered in 2018 here – https://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/event/christs-educated-liberal-colonial-ceylon-sketches-life-sir-ponnambalam-arunachalam
Image 1: Source: Unknown author, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 2 (also cover image): Source: Edward Carpenter and Ponnambalam Arunachalam (Hindu Samaj Heritage I & II).