A German Missionary among the Adivasi of East India
This biography of a German missionary in British India prior to the World Wars may well join the ranks of exotic tales of Christian missionaries or the British Raj. It is more than a missionary story. It is also a story of the Adivasi (India’s indigenous people) and their search for liberation and autonomy, well before India’s Independence. The narrative is inspired by an Old Testament prophetic call to write a Book of Remembrance to restore collective memory (Malachi 3:16).
My great-great grandfather, FERDINAND HAHN, was forgotten among his German-American descendants. Launching on a journey to understand our family's immigrant story to the United States from Germany led to a unique discovery. In 1868 Ferdinand migrated to India instead of America, like millions of other Germans. All his children were born in India, as British subjects. Of the ten living adults, half of them eventually settled in the United States. After a century of migration, war, and other hardship, this book brings to rememberance the first generation that connected our family to India.
By the end of his life in India, Ferdinand was given the Kaiser-I-Hind gold metal, the highest civilian honor issued by the Viceroy of India. But what is more significant is that he is still remembered for the legacy he left to the Adivasi people of Chota Nagpur in eastern India. Here he is remembered for his efforts to preserve a tribal language and his endearing work among the marginalized and oppressed. He played a significant role in establishing one of the strongest and oldest Adivasi Christian communities that now has 800,000 members. As they strive to piece together their history, I was encouraged to write his story. In remembering him, their story will be told.
Missionary stories are usually told from a purely Christian perspective. I believe modern Christians can learn much from this 19th century missionary. However, in writing this I was influenced by academia to explore the social impact of missionaries and what shapes identity. Rather than a Christian apologetic or academic analysis, my style of writing takes more of a literary story-telling tone. I offer a personal interpretation of Ferdinand’s inner life, family dynamics and cross-cultural relationships. To add to the authenticity, I fold in translated excerpts from the wealth of primary documents written by Ferdinand or his contemporaries.
Because I am interested in how German, Indian, British and American cultures shaped me, I explore what elements shaped Ferdinand. The story covers the scope of Ferdinand’s life, starting with his early desire to escape the confines of his parochial village. He would never escape the impact Germany would have on his life: from his early fascination with seventeenth and eighteenth centuries German missionaries and scholars of Orientalism, to the unified Germany of 1871 and its ongoing changes in religion, government, and culture. The mission agency in Berlin, employed him, granted him opportunities that would normally not have been available to a shoemaker. His family and fellow missionaries kept him anchored to his German culture. However, unlike those who lauded their nationalism over others, he had a remarkable deep and sincere appreciation for the Adivasi. Understanding that language, region, experience and history shaped his identity, he was able to appreciate others.
Early in my writing, a friend asked me write about what Ferdinand learned from the Adivasi, not only what he did for them. In learning their languages, Ferdinand adapted new ways of communicating, which can be seen in how he changed to preaching in a more interactive story-telling style, incorpirating congregational question and answer. The primary literature for my research praised the remarkable contributions of the missionaries. However, I could read in Ferdinand’s writings a recognition of the symbiotic relationship between missionary and Adivasi. Missionaries may have brought the message of Christ to the Adivasi, but the Adivasi were the primary actors in establishing Christianity in Chota Nagpur. In nany ways their culture was more compatible to Christianity and their faithful zeal mire sincere than that of many Europeans.
Western Christians had often been divisive, while the strength and unity of community among the Adivasi was something to be admired. If we were to sum up Ferdinand’s life work it was to build community. He worked closely with Adivasi leaders in running churches, schools, hospitals, and other social services. All to strengthen the community, believing fourishing communities could withstand all winds of change. And the world was ever-changing. He was also instrumental in establishing three self-sustaining communities for India's most marginalized, those suffering Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). To improve the conditions of all the clnditions of the most vulnerable had to be raised up.
The prevailing concern for every Adivasi was the systematic oppression that they endured. It is a struggle that persists even today. Since the 17th century outsiders flowed into the jungle region, taking away the ancestral lands of these original dwellers (Adivasi means original dweller). They were subjected to a foreign culture and a new economic order of landowners, labor contractors and tax collectors. Whenever the Adivasi rebelled, they were repressed, and conditions only became worse. When the British arrived in the 1800s they only reinforced the standing social order and had little understanding of the Adivasi plight. So, when the German mission brought them education it had a liberating force, equipping them to learn how to navigate in a world that extended far beyond their jungle region. With a commitment to both spiritual and temporal liberation, Ferdinand believed strongly in the European judicial and government system to protect the rights of all subjects. While he never saw eye-to-eye with the Jesuit missionary in the region, they were both instrumental in establishing the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 that has been the landmark legislation to protect the Adivasi for a century. In the past few years this legislation is being undermined and the human rights struggle of the Adivasi continues, making this account of the context of the legislation even more relevant.
It is also relevant to understand the role Ferdinand played in creating an autonomous Christian Adivasi community. By the time of his death in 1910, a new generation of German missionaries were coming to India to work and with them new colonialist and nationalist sentiments. Assuming Germans would be in India for a long time, the emphasis on making the Adivasi self-reliant began to be watered down. The German missionaries doubted that these poor people could ever stand on their own, they were convinced that they would always need European support. It almost seems providential that the senior missionaries were systematically removed, through illness or death, until the final blow came with the outbreak of World War I. Suddenly all German residents of British India were declared “enemies of the state,” interned in concentration camps, and returned to Germany. With the expulsion of their missionaries the Adivasi did stand on their own. In 1919 they were the first native church in pre-independent India to be granted autonomy from European administration. My hope is that this Book of Remembrance will add to commemoration of the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chotanagpur and Assam as it celebrates their centennial next year.
Throughout the narrative I have braided in family stories that may begin to explain why this ancestor, who left such a rich legacy, was forgotten by his own descendants. As he devoted his life to the Adivasi, within the context of his family, his internal struggles and flaws were more apparent. His wife, Doris, was an unsung partner in ministry. Their thirteen children, all born in India, were sent to Germany for education at the age of seven. Such separation produces untold consequences. Among them, the oral stories that are passed down from generation to generation get suppressed.
The Adivasi rely on oral traditions to keep their culture alive. Ferdinand wrote down many stories that he learned, primarily for outsiders to understand. Now the Adivasi are starting to write down their own stories to preserve and celebrate their culture. So also have I found an unmeasurable treasure in recording the lost story, of my great-great grandfather, Ferdinand Hahn.