A Brief History of Indian Christians in Penang
Rev. Marshall Thomson Sundradas
The influence of Christianity in West Malaysia began at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in Malacca in 1511. As the Portuguese were mainly Roman Catholics many Roman Catholic missionaries were brought into Malacca.
In 1641, however, the Dutch captured Malacca from the hands of the Portuguese. It was the Dutch who brought Protestant missionaries into Malacca.
In 1781 more Roman Catholic Missionaries arrived from France and this time they came into Kedah.
Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company received the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786.
The first church that was built on the island was the 'Cathedral of the Assumption' built by the Roman Catholic Missionaries in 1807.
In 1807 the College General of the East Asia Seminary was established in Penang to train Asian Priests for work in South East Asia.
Early Indian Christians in Penang
Penang was a base for all early Indian Christians who came into Malaya. This migration began with the establishment of the British Settlements in Penang in 1786. The Indians who came into Penang worked as domestic servants and agricultural labourers. The need for labourers increased when Singapore was founded in 1819. Along with Indians of other religious backgrounds came the Christians. The majority of Indian Christians who came into Malaysia were teachers and estate conductors in the early 1900.
In 1800 the Roman Catholics started to minister among the Indians. The Anglican Church however only started to minister among Indians in 1871. Other denominations like the Methodists and Lutherans began their work with the Indians after 1890.
a) Roman Catholics
Only the Roman Catholics, ministered among Indians for nearly 80 years before the Anglicans started their ministry in 1871. The probable reason for this was that very few Protestants came to Malaya as indentured labourers in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church was the only church that had services in Tamil.
In Tamil Nadu India, during the seventeenth century large numbers of untouchables caste Indians became Roman Catholics. And many of these Indian Christians from the Roman Catholic Church came to Malaya as indentured labourers.
The Roman Catholics also established educational and vocational institutions for Indians. This included the first Tamil convent school in Penang which has now been closed and the first bible college in Penang.
Although Captain Francis Light landed in Penang in 1786, as mentioned earlier Tamil work only began in 1871 in the Anglican Church. The Anglican Priests who came to Malaya were under the East India Company in India.
An Anglican priest, the Chaplin Julian Moreton employed a cathechist Mr. Royappan Balavendrum from Tamil Nadu to work among the Indians in Penang in 1871. Mr. Balavendrum linked up the Church with education by opening a boy's school in 1873. Later in 1877 Rev. Royappan Balavendrum was ordained as a Priest in India after undergoing theological training and was commissioned to serve at the Tamil Church in Penang.
In 1886 a wooden Chapel and a parsonage was build at the back of St. George's Church at Farquhar Street, for the Tamil Christians to worship in. It was known as the St. George's Tamil Church and presently it is known as 'Church of the Good Shepherd' and has moved to a shop lot in Batu Lancang.
The wooden Chapel served three purposes. Firstly, it was used as a worship place on Sundays. Secondly, it was used as a school on weekdays and thirdly, it was used to give shelter for Indian transit passengers. These passengers rested at the chapel whilst waiting for jobs in the oil palm estates, in Kedah and Perak. The majority of these Indian transit passengers were from Madras and the Tirunelveli district.
The wooden building used as a chapel was also bombed by the Japanese together with St. George's Church in 1941. The wooden building was completely destroyed and the roof of the St. George's church was also damaged. However, the St. George's Tamil Church building was rebuild with bricks in 1955. After this time the first floor was used as a residence for the priest. The ground floor of the building was only used as a place of worship on Sundays and as a school on weekdays. The school however was closed after 1960 as there were no Tamil priests to oversee the running of the school.
The first Tamil Anglican Church was built in Nibong Tebal in 1911, called the 'Holy Trinity Church'.
In 1894 a Tamil Methodist Society was organized with a membership of 23, which increased to 52 within 12 months. The Tamil Methodist Church has a church building at Jalan Kebun Nyior build in 1935. However, the Tamil Methodist Church Penang is remembered as the oldest Tamil Methodist Church in Malaysia (106 years old).
The Tamil Lutherans have also been on the island of Penang for nearly 100 years. In the early days the members of the Lutheran Church in India arrived in Malaya to seek employment. Although they did not have a church building at the time, they used homes of the members to meet regularly. Later they used a chapel on Anson Road, and in 1971 they built a church in Island Glades, Penang known as the 'Victory Lutheran Church'.
The four denominational churches mentioned in this paper were the first to start work among the Indian Christians in Penang. Presently there are more churches working with Indian Christians.
In writing this paper I have discovered the rich history of the Tamil Christians. I believe I have only touched the surface. The island of Penang has served as a footing for all the Tamil churches in Peninsular Malaysia. It was from Penang that many Tamil Christians went on to other destinations where they built up churches. Today the great grandchildren of those who had traveled through Penang have these memories to keep for their own children.
1.Daniel, J Rabindra. Indian Christians in Peninsular Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Tamil Annual Conference, Methodist Church, Malaysia, 1992.
2.Thomas, Chris D. Diaspora Indians: Church Growth Among Indians in West Malaysia. Penang: Malaysian Indian Evangelism Council, Malaysia, 1978.
3.Samuel, Paul G.T. Centenary Souvenir Magazine: A Hundred Years of the Tamil Mission Diocese of West Malaysia (1871-1971). Kuala Lumpur: Board of Tamil and Allied Work, Diocese of West Malaysia, 1971.
4.Souvenir Magazine, St. George's 175th Anniversary: 1819-1994. Penang: St. George's Church, 1994.