FOCUS: Hannah Dudley (1864-1931) –A Tribute To ‘Hamari Maa’

On Saturday May 8, 2015 the cold Auckland morning bore a gloomy note. The sky was overcast and it drizzled persistently. Members of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church (all
17 May 2015 09:25
FOCUS: Hannah Dudley (1864-1931)  –A Tribute To ‘Hamari Maa’
Members of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church, Otahuhu at the gravesite of Hannah Dudley.

On Saturday May 8, 2015 the cold Auckland morning bore a gloomy note.

The sky was overcast and it drizzled persistently. Members of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church (all from Fiji) had designated this day to pay their homage to Hannah Dudley, a Methodist missionary, who came to be known as ‘Hamari Maa’ (our mother) or ‘mataji’ (mother) to the Girmitiyas.

She died on May 3, 1931 and rests in the spectacular Hillsborough cemetery, overlooking the Manukau Harbour, in Auckland.

One is loath to go to a cemetery on such a day but was it a depiction of what Girmit was for the Girmitiyas?

Different analogies can be drawn from it but when I peeked out from my window, the overpowering gloominess, to me, depicted that horrific period of our history. But then, it changed dramatically and by the appointed time of 11.30am visitation, the Auckland sun peeked hesitantly through the thinning clouds.

The gloominess of Girmit was gone but its shadows could not be obliterated. Through the thin clouds, our Girmit history will shimmer to eternity and the place of Hannah Dudley would retain its radiance.

Hannah Dudley joined the missionary service in Fiji in 1897 when the atrocities against the Girmitiyas were at its zenith.

She emerged, out of nowhere, as the guardian angel for them. Having worked in India from 1890-1895, she knew the Hindi language and she intimately knew the hearts of the poor peasants of rural India who comprised a majority of Girmitiyas.

She was distraught at seeing their pain, suffering and exploitation of their lives.

One evening when she saw the Girmitiya women returning from work, her heart sank. They looked distressed, dejected and disoriented and their faces were a picture of tormented minds and tortured bodies.

On May 27, 1912 Hannah wrote a letter of appeal to the Indian leaders and urged them, in strongest of terms, to seek abolition of the indenture system.

It was an angry and a moving letter with a clear message that could not be ignored.

It added fuel to the fire of resistance against the indenture system that drew Gandhi, upon his return from Natal, South Africa, to lead the charge against it.

In a debauched environment, the very essence of humanity was lost, as the compass of morals and ethics became alien to people who were deeply anointed with the culture, customs and traditions of their ancient civilisation.

Paucity of women (100 men to 30 women) took its toll, because there were ugly incidents of sexual jealousy, violence and murder.

Hannah’s compassionate heart eventually led to the adoption of eight children who became orphans when their mothers were murdered and their fathers hanged for the murder or in some cases parents could not provide care for them.

Initially, the Methodist Church was unhappy with her approach because it wasn’t an activity that fitted into the mission work in Fiji.

So Hannah opted to adopt the children in her own name. But later, the Methodist Church extended its work and Hannah’s modest cottage came to be viewed as an orphanage.

However, they could not rein in Hannah as she adopted a singular resolve to pursue what she perceived to be her divine mission.

At one time she ran a large household that was supported by her aging mother and her sister Lily, who arrived from Australia in 1900 to support her cause.

Indeed, the resources were scarce but she made ends meet through ingenious means.

It wasn’t only care of her adopted children; she also provided education and support to those that had served their Girmit. She implored the parents to educate themselves and their children but with limited success.

They were circumspect of their children converting to Christianity but Hannah was not discouraged and she worked and immersed herself in the community and won their hearts and trust.  With her advocacy, she gained access into a community that was perennially hostile towards Christianity.

The Girmitiyas saw Christianity as a vile and vicious religion as its practitioners ritually used whips and violence against them in the plantations.

They also despised them for eating cow meat and cows were sacred to Hindus.

Interestingly, because of such belief and propaganda against her, she became a vegetarian, which endeared her to her sceptical subjects.

However, in 1904, conflict arose and she finally decided to go to India with her large brood of adopted children.

On 26 July, 1905 she boarded the SS Virwa bound for Calcutta.

The departure was not without sorrow as a large crowd gathered at the Suva wharf to bid farewell to their beloved Mataji.

In India, tragedy struck. Two of her daughters died and Fiji beckoned, as the rest of her children could not adjust to Indian conditions.

The caste system also affected them. They had crossed the Kalapani (black seas) and had, according to caste rules, lost their caste and could not freely communicate with others as in Fiji. Consequently, Hannah’s desire to marry some of her daughters in India received a grievous setback and they returned to Fiji in 1908.

The return of Mataaji into the fold gave a new impetus to the Indian division and Hannah began her work with same gusto.

The girls had become proficient in sewing and knitting and were able to share a lot of her workload at home.

In addition to this, Hannah also joined Reverend John Burton and Manilal Maganlal Doctor, an Indian barrister, in agitating against the indenture system.

Rev Burton’s book ‘Fiji of Today’, released in 1910 was the seminal work against the indenture system and Hannah’s letter helped tremendously in the agitation movement.

However, by 1913 Hannah’s health took its toll and she was asked by her doctor to return to Australia to recuperate.

She heeded the advice and returned to Australia with all her children in tow.

Piyari, her eldest daughter, married her fiancé, Ram Jan Mewa in Australia but had to m ove to New Zealand, as under the White Australia Policy, they could not obtain their citizenship. Hannah Dudley followed them to New Zealand too, as Australia would not allow her coloured children to obtain Australian citizenship and settled in Auckland.

She lived in New Zealand but her heart was still in Fiji with the Indian community who she came to sympathise with and adore.

She emotionally claimed, “I do not think it possible that I will ever love a people as much as I did the Indians of Fiji.”

In July, 1924 she asked Methodist Mission if there was any work in the Indian Mission that she could undertake but later changed her mind, claiming that it was ridiculous of her to consider re-entering mission at her age.

In 1929, the Methodist Church in Fiji renamed the Indian Girls Boarding School to “The Dudley Boarding School” in her honour, but the end wasn’t far.

On May 3, 1931, in the early hours, Hannah Dudley left this world with serene dignity, leaving behind a legacy that time cannot obliterate.

The Dilkusha orphanage and Dudley High School have become iconic institutions that would constantly remind the posterity of a woman who made the difference.

Her tombstone at the Hillsborough Cemetery reads,

“In Loving Memory of Hannah Dudley

Founder of the Indian Mission in Fiji

Who passed to Higher Service

On 3 May 1931 aged 68 years.

My Faith Looks up to Thee”

Senior Pastor Andrew Pratap of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church, Otahuhu, Auckland said, “Hannah Dudley’s grave at Hillsborough Cemetery is now a shrine for expression of Indo-Fijian gratitude and we have undertaken upon ourselves to maintain it and pay our respects every Saturday, preceding Mother’s Day on Sunday in May every year.

She was an acknowledged mother, “Hamari Maa” of our community and it is our moral obligation to honour her.

Interestingly, not far from her is another grave of Nandan Sen Deoki, possibly a Girmitiya, who died on December 23, 1945.

Our Church group also cleaned and tidied his grave as a mark of respect for someone who belonged to that era.”

Interestingly, his tombstone, apart from what is written in English is also inscribed with Hindi couplets in devnagri script –

“Dharamroop tab kahat sunayee

Chaliye prabhu darshan ko bhayee”

(The scriptures have spoken; it is time to meet the Lord”)

This may be the only grave among thousands of others that has Hindi inscription on it.

He was born in India, lived in Fiji and died in New Zealand. The Girmitiya seed from Fiji now has worldwide presence with its own distinct language and culture.



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