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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha >American Ambassadors in Eelam: Daniel Poor

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

American Ambassadors in Eelam: Daniel Poor

14 February 2001

'How the West was Won' (1962) was one of my favorite Holywood westerns, which featured so many legendary stars (Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Karl Malden, George Peppard, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds etc.). It told the story of Prescotts, a New England farming family heading towards the American West in the 1830s, and the yarn spanned three generations. Especially I liked the character portrayal of Linus Rawlings (a trapper) played by ever-adorable Jimmy Stewart, who marries Eve, one of the Prescott daughters and fathers Zeb Rawlings, the main protagonist of the yarn. Sometimes I wonder how a complimentary tale with the title, 'How the East was Won' [East referring to South Asia] covering the same time span can be made, describing the adventures of New England missionary families to colonial India and Ceylon.

If the American West was won by the pioneers with guns and gumption, the East was triumphed with Bible and books. The nucleus for such a story lies in the life history of Rev.Daniel Poor, one of the pioneer American ambassadors to Jaffna, who died 146 years ago in Manipay on 3 February. His adventurous life is worth remembering by the Tamils.

Daniel Poor was born on June 27, 1789, the youngest of the 12 children of Joseph and Mary (Abbott) Poor residing in Danvers, Massachusetts. After graduating from Dartmouth College with high honors in 1811, he entered the Andover Seminary where he came under the influence of Rev.Asa Burton and dedicated himself to foreign missions. Following graduation from Andover Seminary in 1814, at the age of 25, he was ordained as Presbyterian missionary on June 21, 1815. Poor married Susan Bulfinch of Salem, Massachusetts on Oct.9, 1815, and two weeks after their wedding, left for Ceylon on Oct.23, 1815. Poors were accompanied by two more missionary couples [James Richards and his wife, as well as Benjamin C.Meigs and his wife] and a young bachelor missionary Edward Warren. They arrived in Colombo on March 22, 1816 and moved to Jaffna peninsula thereafter. Poors and Warrens settled in Tellipalai. Meigs' and Richards settled in Vaddukoddai.

The entry in the Dictionary of American Biography provides a chronologically scrambled sequence of the professional life of Poors in Jaffna. I provide here a re-arranged chronological summary of the activities of Poor, based on this source.

"Poor, whose first station was at Tillipally [Tellipalai] began to preach at once through an interpreter, but his progress in Tamil was so rapid that he spoke the language freely in less than a year." His wife Susan died at Tellipalai on May 7, 1821, after giving birth to one son and two daughters. Of the other three missionary colleagues, bachelor Warren who was of delicate health, died in South Africa after leaving Colombo in April 1818. Richards, who accompanied Warren to Cape Town, remained there until Nov.25, 1818 and returned to Jaffna. He survived for three more years, and died on Aug.3, 1822.

Poor then married Ann Knight of Stroud, England, on Jan.21, 1823. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, Poor then "moved to Batticotta [Vaddukoddai] where he founded a boarding school for boys". This school "beame an important educational center for the entire region, and succeeded in sending out well-trained teachers and preachers to schools and churches. In 1835, he was transferred to Madurai, India, where he remained until 1841, when he returned to his original station at Tillipally [Tellipalai]. In 1848 he visited the United States where he created a profound impression by his able and eloquent advocacy of the cause of missions."

Poor returned to Jaffna again in 1850 and continued his work at Manipay until he fell a victim to the cholera epidemic which struck the peninsula disastrously in 1855. Meigs returned to USA only in 1858, after 42 years of stay in Jaffna and died in New York on May 12, 1862, at the age of 73.

The Dictionary of American Biography notes that, "Poor's chief literary work and an important source of his biography, is his journal, generous extracts from which were published in the Panoplist and in its successor the Missionary Herald, from 1817 to the time of his death. It is an unusually informing missionary document enlivened by vivid pictures of the manners, customs and beliefs of the [Tamil] people among whom he labored. In addition to this his published works consist of tracts and letters in English and Tamil. He was a man of eminent ability and learning and an outstanding figure in the history of Protestant missions. In stature he was short, broad-shouldered, and somewhat lacking in the physical graces, but he had a gentle spirit, a winning address and a striking personality."

Like the Prescotts in the movie 'How the West was Won', the adventurous life of Poors in Jaffna and Madurai, is worth a bio-picture treatment. The movie, 'How the East was Won' can be produced, and I have a premonition that Poor's story will be told in the future in celluloid. When? I predict that when the first or second generation of Eelam Tamils growing up in the USA and Canada become influential in Hollywood in two or three decades hence, my premonition may become a reality.

Sources of Information:

Goonetileke H.A.I. Images of Sri Lanka through American Eyes: Travellers in Ceylon in the 19th and 20th Centuries, International Communication Agency, Embassy of the USA, Colombo, 1976, pp.16-26.

Mission in Ceylon: Extracts from the Missionary Journal of Messers. Warren, Richards, Meigs, Poor and Bardwell, commenced at Colombo, March 26, 1816. The Panoplist and Missionary Magazine (Boston), 1817, vol.13, pp.380-384.

Malone D. (ed). Dictionary of American Biography, vol.8, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1963 reprint, pp.68-69.



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