Maharaj Mataji – Hannah Dudley – A mission hero

The portrait of Hannah Dudley, founder of the Dudley school hangs in one of the school libaries. Picture: SUPPLIED

The old banyan (baka) tree on an old mission hill overlooking Fiji’s capital is a testament to the founding mother of Suva’s oldest educational institution.

Under the shade of the enormous landmark at Toorak, the early Wesleyan missionary and Mission Hero Hannah Dudley conducted classes in Hindi and Urdu for girls from indentured labourer homes. Dudley arrived in Fiji on August 24, 1897.

She began her mission which would last 13 years, in what was regarded as the Indian quarters of Suva.

From Toorak, her work reached out to Nausori as she taught the young and administered it to the sick. Her love for and dedication to this community stemmed perhaps from the fact that she was forced to quit India after six years of mission work there due to ill health.

Despite several attempts to return to the mission field on the sub-continent, Dudley was refused permission by the British Methodist Missionary Society.

Upon hearing that there was a need for missionaries in Fiji, she leapt at the opportunity. This missionary had few education qualifications, but what Dudley lacked in academic knowledge, she made up with kindness and self-sacrifice.

The Indian community in Suva held her in high regard and referred to her as Maharaj Mataji (Beloved Mother). Her work with the Indian community did not end with educaation and preaching the gospel. Dudley took in five children whom she reared as her own.

One was Robert Dudley who rose to become president of the New Zealand Methodist Conference in 1956. Back then, the Wesleyan mission was based on patriarchial leadership. Dudley defied the odds and challenges she faced with a prayerful life and commitment to the families she visited in the community.

Dudley recognised that most of these families still practised Hinduism and treated girls more as a liability because they would require dowry upon marriage. They fought among themselves because of sexual jealousy over the shortage of women; some women found themselves ostracised by their homes.

These girls she took into her care at her Eden Street cottage in Toorak and taught them to read and write their languages.

In her book – Hamari Maa – historian Morven Sidal cited correspondence between the Mission Board general secretary Reverend George Brown and the Australasian Methodist Church under which the Indian Synod in Fiji operated.

After a visit to Fiji, Reverend George Brown expressed concern at the freedom Dudley had to conduct the Indian mission in Suva.

He recommended that he may have wanted to exercise some control over her activities like her “orphanage”.

The Mission Board did not immediately approve the recommendation to take over the Dudley Orphanage.

However, later that year, the Mission Board endorsed it and finally approved an increase in Dudley’s salary to £75 per year. The Fiji Synod had been recommending an increase since 1897.

In her book, Mrs Sidal wrote that it was difficult to understand how the Mission Board could have justified keeping Dudley in such impoverished circumstances for so long. In 1901, with donations from Indians and Europeans in Suva, Dudley built a hostel for girls next to her cottage.

In 1912, Dudley wrote to the INDIA, a newspaper in India, beseeching the leaders in India not to be satisfied with a reform of the indentured labour system but to strive until it is utterly abolished.

In an impassioned letter, she wrote: “Living in a country where indentured labour is in vogue, one is continually oppressed in spirit by the fraud, injustice and inhumanity of which fellow creatures are the victims.”

“Yet some argue in favour of this worse than barbarous system, that the free Indians are better off financially than they would be in their own country. I would ask you, at what
cost to the Indian people? What have their women forfeited? What is the heritage of their children?

“And for what is all this suffering and wrong against humanity? To gain profits–pounds, shillings and pence for sugar companies and planters and others interested.

“I beseech of you not to be satisfied with any reform to the system of indentured labour. I beg of you not to cease to use your influence against this iniquitous system until it is utterly abolished.”

Commenting on her letter, the editor of INDIA, described Dudley as the pioneer Indian missionary in Fiji.

“She has done admirable and devoted service in undertaking care of Indian-orphan girls, whose mothers have been murdered and their fathers hanged as the result of sexual jealousy produced by the scarcity of women, which is one of the many blots upon the system of indentured labour,” the editor wrote.

Dudley’s fellow missionaries from the Rewa Delta adopted her home concept. The Dilkusha Girls Home, the country’s biggest orphanage, was later set up in Nausori.

Dudley House School was later demolished and replaced with the current school buildings in 1963.

Then Fiji Synod Chairman Reverend Setareki Tuilovoni commissioned it. Reverend Tuilovoni went on to become the first president of the Methodist Church in Fiji when the Indian Synod joined the Fijian divisions.

The school was renamed Dudley High School. Its hostel intake was extended to include indigenous girls and those from neighbouring Pacific island countries.

Its doors were opened to boys in 1964 when the Indian Synod merged with the Fijian divisions under the Methodist Church in Fiji (MCIF) banner.

When the roots of the old banyan (Baka) tree started to threaten the existence of the school buildings, a proposal to bring it down was vigorously opposed.

As former students prepare to celebrate their 125th anniversary, the banyan tree stands proudly as a symbol of a diverse, multiracial, multicultural educational institution.

Former Pacific Theological College Principal Reverend Dr Jovili Meo, in his review of ‘Hamari Maa’, said if Dudley were a man, she would today be classed together with the famous pioneers in mission, Rev William Cross and Rev David Cargill.

School board chairman and head of the MCIF’s Indian division, Reverend Abel Nand, said the work of Dudley set the platform for spreading quality education to the rest of the country.

The MCIF has 59 divisions and a membership of about 300,000, making it the largest Christian denomination in Fiji.

It has 16 secondary and 17 primary schools, making it one of the largest faith-based education providers in the country.

Reverend Nand said Dudley’s courage, determination and fight for equal opportunities for women and children who fell through the cracks of the social justice safety net of the State and the church was admirable and inspirational.

He said the school board and the school would join hands with the Dudley Ex-Scholars Association (DESA) and the school’s Parents, Teachers and Friends Association (PTFA) to host a one-week festival to mark the 125th anniversary in September.

“Her work and legacy inspired others to follow through and use her shining beacon – the fruits of the holy spirit – to teach young Indian girls in one of their most trying times in life,” he said.

“Her kindness and compassion paved how education should be given to children, with love and understanding.”

“Dudley may have been a woman, but she is an outstanding Mission Hero of ours and past times.”

The #MissionHeroes campaign run by the Institute for Mission and Research of the Pacific Theological College celebrates the courageous efforts of those brave, intrepid, loving souls like Hannah Dudley. They fight to improve the lives of others.

The campaign aims to promote values of advocacy for courage, love, justice, and kindness in communities across the Pacific Islands.

  • The author is a former senior journalist of this newspaper, now attached with the Methodist Church in Fiji as a communications consultant

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