There was excitement at the fine brick residence on Forest Office Lane in Chundikuli. Shadrach Samuel was expected in town as the guest of his relatives, the Newtons of Old Park View.
Mrs Charles Newton (nee Anne Rose Perinpanaygam), his mother’s first cousin, was also Aunt Rebecca’s sister-in-law. Anne Rose was famed for her culinary expertise and Charles — her husband — was a hospitable man who needed no excuse to turn an occasion into a party.
Their two daughters — Grace Nesaratnam and Mercy Sugirtharatnam — were young women now. Petite Grace, a studious bookworm, was married to Mutuvelu Fred Aiyadore in 1924. Fred Aiyadore was attached to the Civil Service of the British Government, in the employ of Ceylon Railways.
Old Park View was part of the substantial dowry Anne Rose had received from her father, the wealthy landowner, Joshua Perinpanayagam. The property was signed over to Grace as her dowry when she married.
Mercy, four years younger than her sister, was a student at Chundikuli Girls’ College, steps away from her home, Old Park View. She, like her sister, had acquired the skills required of a genteel lady of her time. She played the piano, was a proficient dressmaker and had learned the finer points of cookery from her mother. She was also a gifted artist.
The infant Shadrach once held in his arms, was now sixteen. She was tall, slim with a distinctive beauty spot above her upper lip. She scaled the fruit trees in the orchard surrounding her home and roamed the grounds of Old Park View barefoot, engaging with gusto in the boisterous pastimes of Victor and Arthur, her young brothers. She still found time for her dolls. Life was lovely and uncomplicated. There was no hurry to grow up.
There was something about the marriage-market game that brought sparkle to the humdrum of day-to-day duties. Rose Newton’s spirits rose as she oversaw the dusting and sweeping of the home and issued orders to yard and kitchen staff.
Her husband and she were to accompany the young man, Shadrach on his visit to the home of the prospective bride. Rose had picked a suitable saree for the occasion.
The rice boiling on the wood stove was from her paddy fields, delivered yesterday by bullock cart and piled up in gunny (burlap) bags on the kitchen floor. There was fresh Seer fish which she would spice and cook to practised perfection. Oorukai prepared with limes from the kitchen garden, dried on the back porch and pickled last week, would be the tangy accompaniment to the afternoon meal, along with several side-dishes of curried vegetables simmering in clay chatty pots. Water was drawn from the well in the yard outside — northern water that was famously known to tinge Jaffna cuisine with a distinct flavour which would make the two-hundred-mile train journey from the south well worthwhile.
A feast of special things awaited the guest.
Shadrach didn’t seem inclined to rise from his seat at the Newtons’ table. Though gravy-stains spattered the white tablecloth and lunch was long consumed, he chatted about inconsequentialities while his gaze strayed through the open window to linger on the slender form of a boisterous girl, a pretty tomboy blooming into womanhood. Her braided hair askew, Mercy clambered up a tree in pursuit of a mischievous brother whose bare legs dangled from the branch above her.
The buggy waited outside, the driver at the ready.
The wall clock chimed the hour.
Charles Newton glanced at his wife and cleared his throat. “We have to leave in a little while. They’ll be waiting.”
“I changed my mind. I’m not going,” Shadrach announced flatly. He eyed his host and declared, “I want to marry Mercy!”
Husband and wife succumbed to seconds of stunned silence.
“Mercy?” Charles rasped. “She’s sixteen. Still at school!”
Shrewd Rose gathered her wits to take stock of the situation. Young Samuel was an up-and-coming entrepreneur, they said. He hadn’t made a fortune, of course — not yet — but his prospects were good, she’d heard.
The busy northern grapevine was rarely wrong.
There was discussion around the table in the course of which the surprised pair agreed that a union between their younger daughter and Shadrach Samuel was something to be desired. Despite the fact that she was a teenager and he sixteen years older.
Rose stepped onto the front porch and called to her daughter. “Mercy, come inside. We have to talk to you!”
One can’t help but feel bad for that young woman who would have been attired in her best and put on display, coached on the etiquette of serving tea to the visitors and speaking only when spoken to. Some unfortunate individual would have had the unenviable task of informing her parents that the eligible bachelor from the city of Colombo would not be visiting their home as arranged.
For the first time in her life, Mercy had a saree draped around her frame. A formal engagement ceremony took place the next day, with an exchange of gold rings and an Anglican minister officiating. A guest at the occasion later reported that she looked tall and grown up in her unaccustomed attire.
Childhood was now officially behind her.
The Newtons made it perfectly clear that their younger daughter would not be given a dowry, their unusual reasoning being that the bridegroom-to-be was a businessman and should well be able to make his way in the world unassisted. This was an unprecedented decision at a time when it was expected that a father would bestow property and jewellery on his daughter. Still on the precarious cusp of acquiring financial stability, he had fallen so much in love that it never occurred to Shadrach to protest or argue the matter.
Why the wealthy Newtons decided to act in this manner is a mystery.
Shadrach returned to Colombo with a band of gold on his finger, excited to share his news with his youngest siblings– Anna and Solomon — who were living in his home at the time.
He was caught off guard by the twins’ unexpected reaction.
To be continued …
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click here for part 4 – the newtons of old park view
The orphans spent their childhood shuttling between foster-homes and boarding school. It would be years before some of the six siblings set eyes on each other again.
Early one morning in 1905 Shadrach Samuel, aged twelve, stepped off the platform at the Fort Railway station in Colombo and into the open arms of his mother’s youngest sister, Rebecca (Danvers) Perinpanayagam.
Aunt Rebecca’s husband, Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam, was an accountant in the employ of Bousted Brothers, the agents for Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company. Their residence in Messenger Street, Kotahena became home for the next several years and Shadrach was the unofficial eldest child of the newly weds. He called his aunt Amma (Mum) and thrived in her care. His siblings later followed suit and accorded her the same honour when they addressed her as they would their mother.
The family grew when the babies came. Cousin Stephen Edgar Rasasingham arrived when Shadrach was fifteen then baby Donald Edwin Balasingham who died before his first birthday, and finally George Walter Kulasingham.
Aunt and Uncle also adopted a little girl they christened Anna Mae Gnanmonie, who didn’t survive her teens.
As he grew into manhood the twelfth birthday letter from his grandmother remained Shadrach’s most treasured possession. He found quiet moments to feast his eyes on the elaborate handwritten curlicues of the Tamil script. The notepaper was fragile from frequent handling, the stamped, addressed envelope frayed and falling apart. He could recite the words off by heart —
May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan) …
The passage of time ushered Granny Harriet Danvers into eternity, but the prophetic power of her written words lingered to become a compelling, guiding force in her young grandson’s life.
The years in Aunt Rebecca’s home were happy ones, but the memory of his paternal uncle’s betrayal was an unrelenting, plaguing presence . As soon as he reached the age of legal majority, Shadrach filed action against his father’s brother, the man who robbed his widowed mother of her home and property in Vavuniya. He laid claim to the house and the surrounding property, but was – perhaps unwisely – uninterested in taking on the burden of farming the extensive acreage of paddy fields extending beyond.
The court ruled in his favour. Shadrach had the land divided equally, earmarking a sixth for himself and his five siblings. These parcels of property would later be passed on to the oldest son of each Samuel brother or sister.
In 1918 bereavement came to the home in Messenger Street with the death of Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam. Aunt Rebecca was prematurely widowed after fourteen years of marriage. Shadrach slipped into the role of surrogate father-figure to his two young cousins.
His fascination with scrap-metal (which he salvaged and sold for pocket money during the boyhood years of World War I) and the years in the service of his employer, made him an authority in the hardware business. He rose from the ranks at the British firm of Hoar and Company — from apprentice errand boy and general dogsbody — to the position of Store Manager.
Shadrach learned to speak Sinhalese, the language of the south, with the flawless accent of the native. With wisdom unprecedented for a man of Tamil heritage, he taught himself to read and write the language as well. The latter was an unusual move which would stand in his favour in a nation that would experience ethnic unrest and bitter division in the troubled post-colonial decades to come.
As Shadrach approached his thirties, his unerring business acumen guided him to purchase a home on Messenger Street in close proximity to his beloved Amma. Shortly thereafter, when Hoar & Company wound up their business, he took a massive leap of faith to invest in the firm’s unsold stock — steel and miscellaneous hardware — which was delivered to his address and piled up in the yard around the house.
And so commenced the era of the entrepreneur and the birth of a business that was first named Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Shadrach operated a shop out of a shed at his residence and hired Cousin Stephen Edgar Perinpanayagam, a teen-aged student at St Benedict’s College, to walk over from school and mind the store. On weekdays, clad in school uniform, Stephen Edgar held the reins during his lunch interval while Shadrach took a break to eat and attend to other matters.
There were advantages to living in the vicinity of the Colombo harbour. When commercial vessels sailed into port, Shadrach scoured the ships’ cargo for bargain merchandise for his store shelves. He also kept a sharp eye out for unique items he would acquire as gifts for his family. An elderly niece remembers the German clock which, for decades, took pride of place in the home his sister, Anna Chinnathangam.
When Shadrach purchased his house on Messenger Street, his brothers and sisters had an official family home in Colombo. One by one, they found their way to the capital city and took up temporary residence at the bachelor abode. Anna Chinnathangam, now a young schoolmistress who lived in a boarding house in Jaffna during term-time, looked forward to the school holidays and the train-ride south. This thrice-yearly exposure to city life influenced her style and sense of fashion in a way that made her stand out amongst her provincial contemporaries up north.
The business began to grow and Shadrach got his older brother, S.V. Chelliah on board as manager of Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Graduates of the American Missions schools of northern Ceylon were highly sought after in Colombo and in the British colonies of Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Young Tamil men in search of employment flocked to Colombo or sailed off to Far Eastern ports to enlist in the service of the colonial government. One such ambitious hopeful was David Sinniah Kanagaratnam, who journeyed south from Jaffna to the capital city. He obtained an introduction to Shadrach Samuel, who, in the northern circles, was making a name for himself as an up-and-coming businessman.
Shadrach, in the absence of a father, had assumed the responsibility of procuring husbands for his three sisters. When the tall, good-looking young Kanagaratnam presented himself, Shadrach hired him to fill a position in the bourgeoning business. The offer, however, was conditional.
“If you became a Christian,” Shadrach suggested, “and married my sister …”
David Sinniah raised no objection. The bride in question was pleasant, petite and pretty. He agreed to give up the Hindu faith to marry his future employer’s older sister. The couple exchanged their vows in church under the auspices of an Anglican minister, and Sarah Chinnamma Samuel, the oldest child of Samuel Vethanayagam Subramaniam and Mary Chellamma Danvers, became Mrs. David Kanagaratnam.
The steam engine rattled northward along the coastal tracks leaving plumes of smoke in its wake. The passenger grew drowsy as he peered out at the dark forms of swaying coconut palms and flying pin-pricks of light dotting the shadowed landscape. He was stocky and slightly short of average height, with a thick shock of jet-black hair and dark line of neatly trimmed moustache grazing his upper lip.
Shadrach Samuel was riding the rails all the way up to the northern tip of Ceylon. He’d been summoned home by the relatives who’d located a suitable candidate on the local marriage market. It was time, they said, to marry and settle down. Thirty-two years old, a self-made man of modest means, Shadrach had no reason to object. After a flurry of letters and telegrams he packed a suitcase and boarded the overnight train to Jaffna.
He was going to stay at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Newton of Old Park View, Chundikuli.
This is Deanna BigCanoe. She is a member of Ojibwe First Nation (also known as Chippewa) and lives on the First Nation reserve on Georgina Island, Lake Simcoe in Southern Ontario.
There’s something in her eyes that compelled me to learn her story.
So I did.
“Welcome to the island,” she said when I stepped off the boat. “I’ll take you to the Community Centre first. You can get all the pictures you want.”
Dozens of black-and-white-photographs plastered the walls of the Centre’s auditorium, the ever present past, each picture a poignant piece of hidden history.
Deanna pointed out notable figures from her ancestry and I perched on chairs to catch the best camera-angles on my phone.
Here’s Ann, daughter of Chief Joseph Snake …
In the 1800’s settlers began encroaching on First Nations soil. For fear of losing their land the Chippewas of Southern Ontario gave up hunting to become farmers on Snake Island on Lake Simcoe. They were successful in their new way of life until the colonial government ordered Chief Joseph Snake and his band to leave Snake Island and move to a reserve in the Coldwater area.
Back at ground zero, the Chippewas built a road, a mill, churches and homes. Their farms began to thrive.
In 1836, First Nations leaders were tricked into a deal they believed would grant them title to more than 10,000 acres of land. The agreement which was signed without any legal representation on behalf of the Chippewas, turned their land over to the Crown. In exchange for three million acres of fertile land in Upper Canada (now Ontario) they received twenty-three thousand islands scattered across Lake Simcoe.
In 1838 Chief Snake moved his band back to Snake Island. The once bountiful farmland was in a dismal state of neglect. His people were afraid that when the area became productive again, their land would once more be snatched away from them.
By the mid eighteen seventies most of the Band members left Snake Island and moved to Georgina Island were they could farm on a larger scale.
The water level at the time was only ankle deep from the landing to the Sand Islands which are connected to Georgina Island and was shallow enough to walk cattle across the water to the mainland.
The faded photos speak for themselves, a vivid testament to life as it grew to be —
“Sunday was church day, back in the day. Almost everyone went to church on Sundays,” Deanna commented as she unlocked the red-painted church door with a key borrowed from the community centre next door.
The supply of fresh water was piped out from the lake. Fish was the main diet of the islanders. The men fished to provide food for their families and earn an income. Blocks of ice were cut out of the lake in the winter, insulated with saw dust and stored in sheds to provide refrigeration during the warm months.
“People made baskets for a living in my parents’ generation,” Deanna said. “They took the baskets down to Sutton and Newmarket and sold them there. They used White Ash and Black Ash.”
Schooling was provided on the reserve by missionaries, although a number of children were shipped off to residential schools.”
“In the last one hundred years,” Deanna told me, “the Canadian government stole native children from their parents and placed them in residential schools. Kids as young as three. Many of them died in these institutions, from sickness, abuse, suicide. Their parents were never informed and the children were buried in graves outside the premises. Those who survived lost their language. They had forgotten their culture. When they finally came home they couldn’t communicate with their families.”
When the Trent-Severn Waterway was completed in the 20’s and 30’s, the water table of the lake rose by several feet and drowned the wild rice (the main staple of the Chippewas) which grew around Georgina Island. Boats became the only mode of transport to and from the mainland, while walking across became an option only in the winter when the lake froze over.
The islanders were now completely cut off from the mainland.
Electricity and a phone line (which was a party line serving the entire island) were only implemented in the late 50’s. Indoor plumbing came in the late 60’s.
The photographs are haunting, compelling pieces of a past that demands acknowledgement …
Although conscription was not mandatory for First Nations peoples, World Wars I and II, saw a record number of patriotic Georgina Island men enlist in the armed forces.
This is Chief Charles Big Canoe (1834 – 1930), Deanna’s great grandfather, grandson of Chief Joseph Snake —
Here’s Albert BigCanoe, great grandpa Charles’ brother —
This is Chief Lorenzo Big Canoe, Deanna’s grandfather, who was a teacher at the island schoolhouse. He multi-tasked as elected chief and manager of the post office which he operated out of his home …
… and here’s Andrew BigCanoe (Uncle Andy) who served as Chief for a time —
This is Aunt Wanda —
… and Deanna’s dad, Bud Big Canoe —
“Mom and Dad were legally married. Mom was Algonquin. My dad made boilers for nuclear plants,” Deanna remembered. “He earned an hourly wage that was a huge fortune in the sixties. Dad was away from home from Sunday night to Friday night. He came home drunk and stayed drunk all weekend. Sometimes my mom and he would beat each other up. Mom was mean and abusive. She never knew how to be a mother, you know. Her mom, my grandmother Stella, was raised in a residential school and didn’t know anything about a normal family life. Guess Mom didn’t have an example to follow or anyone to learn from. ”
Until the late 50’s, it was illegal for the Indians to bring booze onto the island, or go to a bar. If you were a First Nations person and wanted a alcohol, you had to sell your birthright – hand over your ‘native’ card. In return you were given a card stating that you were ‘unregistered’. Then the drinking ban was lifted in the early sixties and the abuse of little girls began.”
Deanna paused for a moment and I perceived the depth of pain in her eyes. She said, “And they did nothing about it.”
I asked why.
“Because some of the men were relatives or your father’s friend. Everyone on the island went to church before alcohol was permitted on the island,” she said. “The booze changed everything. The jamborees didn’t feel safe. Many places didn’t feel safe anymore.”
First Nations land may not be sold to non-natives, so the land-rich, cash-poor residents parcel their properties out on 50-year lease to city-dwellers looking for a lake-side summer getaway. Their luxury cottages loom over the modest dwellings of the owners. The contrast is glaring.
All shopping, apart from the basics available at the General Store, has to be done on the mainland which is a ten-minute boat ride away. This boat must be shared with cottagers and holidaymakers. The last boat leaves the mainland at 9.30 pm after which time the residents are completely cut off from the mainland until morning.
“So what do the kids have for entertainment?” I wondered.
“They play in the bush,” she said.
Use at your own risk …
… out in the bush
… on Georgina Island
Her parents moved to the mainland when she was five years old. Deanna quit school in Grade 9. Her first daughter was born when she should have been in Grade 10.
“I was a single mom raising six kids on my own. I had four under four for awhile. I paid the rent and bought the food and that’s that. We survived on welfare and food banks. There wasn’t money to go out for dinner — maybe once or twice a year — but I took my kids to church on Sundays. We never felt accepted in the church, though. I felt rejected. Most native people feel that way. That’s why we are often reserved.”
“Why? Because of the weight of history?”
She nodded. “Yes. And because all the men in my life were abusers, I taught my three boys to never hit a woman. “
Deanna moved her family back to the island twenty two years ago.
“What are the benefits you receive as a native person living on the reserve?”
“40% off eyeglasses, 80% off dental, almost 90% off prescriptions and items delivered to the island are tax exempt.”
“How do you qualify for welfare?”
“Some reserves pay monthly welfare. There’s treaty money from a claim which was settled five to six years ago . Each member got a $ 1,000 cash disbursement. Kids, when they turn 21, get their portion with back pay and interest. Everyone continues to get $1000 year for life. There’s $90 million of settlement money for the band, now in reserve in the bank. There’s also another settlement in the works. To do with the raising of the water level on the island. About 20 years ago it became politically incorrect to refer to us as Indians.”
I scribbled notes and posed questions while she remembered and shared.
“My sister, Becky, lives in a straw bale house.” There was pride in Deanna’s voice. “She’s an artist and a writer.”
“Becky wants to teach women how to build sustainable housing.”
“For what reason?”
“Because there’s a lack of men.”
The desolate reality …
The relationship between the islanders and the mainland police is uneasy. The absence of strong male role models is glaring and has taken its toll. The high school dropout rate is high.
Mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse run rampant, unleashing an endless chain of tragedy on tragedy.
Within the period of months Deanna experienced the heartbreak of losing two sons to drug overdose. Isaac was 26 years old and Nathan, 34, was the father of a young daughter.
Deanna has busy days helping with the care of some of her eight grandchildren. She has dreams of implementing initiatives for First Nations young people. To bring them from up north to the island and provide vocational training and tools to succeed in life.
The Georgina Island band is now led by its first elected woman chief. Progress, perhaps.
I asked Deanna, “What message do you want me to convey through this story?”
She didn’t hesitate. “We are still here,” she said. “Still struggling. Still forgotten.”
Generations of wrongdoing. Born from of the pain of the past, it oozes into this present moment’s tragedy and lurks in her eyes.
I caught the 1.30 boat back to the mainland where I’d parked my car.
I had much to process and think about. I lay wide-eyed under the weight of Deanna’s story.
It took me awhile to fall asleep that night.
An education fund has been set up for Nahlia, young daughter of the late Nathan Big Canoe. Click here to donate.