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From Williamstown to Vaddukkodai - The history of the Rockwood family

Aug 26, 2011 3:16:48 PM - www.ft.lk

The history of the Rockwood family

By Sydney Knight   
William Sukumar Rockwood has authored this well-researched book on his family. Inside, one sees the photograph of a pastel portrait of Col. David Narasiah drawn by his wife Kalabooshana Sarasvati Rockwood in 1976 and Sukumar has quite rightly dedicated this book as a memorial to his father.

As one moves from one page to another, one sees the photograph of the National Flag of Sri Lanka and the National Flower of Sri Lanka, now a somewhat controversial topic; after which comes the foreword by Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, a well respected Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. Saravanamuttu in his characteristic style has done a very good job.

The author, the son of the person to whom the book has been dedicated – a person well known in journalism circles – has done the preface, in which he has placed his book in a certain context and ethos.
Before one turns to the contents, one sees the picture of the Tamil flag. Between the preface and the first chapter is a map of Sri Lanka. Rockwood in chapter one gives a brief history of the early Tamil Kingdom and the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
It takes the reader to the early days of the island and from there moves to the arrival of the foreign European rulers; the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Thereafter, chapter two narrates the story of the American Missions, the creation of the Jaffna College and Vaddukkodai and links the story with the work of the Rev. D. Daniel Poor through Williamstown to William’s College.
All this is seen in the context of the American Congregational Movement, better known as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In chapter three, Rockwood has a piece on the Wesleyan Mission. Chapter three details the story of the Rockwoods, beginning with Elisha alias Sinnathamby.
One has to read chapter three carefully to understand the story of the early beginnings of Sinnathamby turned Rockwood. Chapter four is about the story of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood. Here again, one should read that chapter carefully to understand his life.
Chapter five is the story of the nine children of Gabriel Rockwood. This chapter also has to be read, marked and inwardly digested to unearth the stories of the Rockwoods. Chapter six is titled ‘How I stumbled on Rockwood Ward,’ which is a personal saga of discovery.
Chapter seven titled ‘Some interesting articles’ will quench the thirst for knowledge of at least some people. Chapter eight details the family tree which is very vital. Chapter nine lists out the line of ‘Williams’ and the following chapter is the list of photographs.
Chapter 11 is titled ‘The people who made the impossible dream possible’. This chapter, as the title conveys, is the story of a dream being realised. Chapter 12 has a significant bibliography and the last page displays the emblem of the Free Masons.
This book was published by the author with the first edition released on 21 August 2011 and has been printed by Ajana Offset Printers. Copies could be obtained from the author.
With history being one of my favourite subjects, I need to make the following observations – the title of the book conveys the story of the American and Foreign missions, the congregational body that came to our island home during the time of the British who for some strange reason, sent this mission to Jaffna to work.
In this I see that the British were reluctant to have the Americans in the south and here I see the beginnings of war in Sri Lanka. Why have I made the final point? The American and Foreign Missions in a small geographical area of the Jaffna Peninsula provided education at Jaffna College and at Uduvil from where boys and girls with the passport to life, which is education, moved to the south and were given because of their education, some of the best jobs in the south.
At this point, I need to draw from my friend Thiru Arumugam’s book on the history of the American mission and medical work in Manipay and Inuvil. Arumugam’s book makes it clear that the American mission had to resort to teaching medical sciences in Tamil to keep the graduates to work in Jaffna. The Jaffna products and their presence in the south became a major problem when Ceylon attained dominion status in 1948.
During the 1948-1956 era, with the UNP and the Senanayakes in power, this was not perhaps relevant, but with Bandaranaike’s victory in 1956, the political move was made to deprive the people of Jaffna from having the economic power that they had and during the post-1956 era. The people of Jaffna became aware that they had to either fall in line with the Sinhala-only culture or leave the country, which some of them did.
What S.W.R.D Bandaranaike began in 1956, his wife as Prime Minister in a sense continued to resolve the youth unrest in 1971;  sadly the United Left Front Government that she lead with the stalwarts of the old Left made it difficult for students to enter university on merit only.
Her Government brought in a policy known as rationalism and standardisation, which affected plenty of students – significantly the northerners – which meant we in Sri Lanka with the 1972 Constitution in place without addressing the issues of the south youth, created a northern youth unrest since we created the educated and frustrated youth of the north who moved from non violence to violence. The rest is our history.
Rockwood’s book is also an eye opener to the state of the Christian congregation that the American and Foreign Missions began, known as the Congregationalists. Over time, this group of Christians became the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, the first Episcopal and non Episcopal union in the Christian Church.
Sadly this Church in Jaffna today is divided for we have the reality of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India with its Bishop and the American Mission with their leadership. This is indeed a sad story for the Church is so divided in a broken Sri Lanka.
The book also tells us a very significant story – the story found in chapter three, the story of the missionaries giving the name to Hindu converts and hence the presence in Jaffna of Wordsworths, Shakespeares, Knights, etc. This is also true in the south where the Buddhist converts took Christian names from the Missionaries.
Therefore Rockwood’s book is one that should be read by those interested in history, which is important for us to understand the past, so that learning from the past, we could avoid making the same mistakes today and in the future.

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