Friday, 23 March 2018

The on-going PFS vs SXI debate

I seem to have opened up an old debate about which school was the older in Malaysia: the Penang Free School or the St Xavier's Institution. The official stance and indeed, it should be the only one, is that the Penang Free School is the older of the two, although the St Xavier's Institution may claim that its roots go further back to the weeks following the founding of Prince of Wales' Island. But this is what I happened to stumble on during my research and revealed subsequently, without fear or favour, in my book Let the Aisles Proclaim.

First, this is an extract from from page 11 of the book:
One of the earliest Europeans to follow Light over from Kedah was the French Catholic missionary, Monsignor Domino Arnaud-Antoine Garnault. In November 1781, Garnault and several other members of the Societe des Missions Etrangeres de Paris (MEP) had found themselves expelled from Siam. Garnault arrived at Port Queda near Alor Star, Kedah, in April 1782 and become the first resident priest of a small Catholic community there.(Note 7) After landing in the Prince of Wales’ Island, he asked Light for permission to build a church. Light was cautious of Garnault’s presence and politics, but tolerated the Frenchman enough to allow him to erect his church about 400 yards from Light’s base, the Fort Cornwallis. In August 1787, this first Catholic Church was completed and Garnault was made its bishop. As bishop, he provided for the denominational education of the children of his parish by establishing a small vernacular school for girls at China Street and a "small college" for boys at Pitt Street.(Note 8)
(7) Father P. Decroix (2005). History of the Church and churches in Malaysia and Singapore (1511-2000).
(8) G.S. Reutens (1972). A Short Survey of the History of the Past and Present Buildings of Hutchings School, Penang (1816-1972). Private papers. Reutens was a teacher at Penang Free School and later, appointed as Head Master of Hutchings School which now stands on the former grounds of the old Free School.

Next, I offer the extracts from pages 20 and 21 of the same book:
In the 1823 annual meeting of the Free School, it was mentioned that the boys continued to be examined at the end of the year by the School Committee with the examination starting from the lowest classes and proceeding to the highest class. Regarding the use of the Madras System of Education, the following observations were made:
We cannot but feel great satisfaction that they have been introduced into this Institution and so suited to the circumstances of the scholars that that the happiest effect have been apparent. There is perhaps no place in the whole world where boys of so many different nations and languages are assembled together, and here learning one common language, the English. This circumstance gives a peculiarly novel and curious effect which, is heightened by the great disparity of size and age of the Boys who are placed together in the same Class, the little striplings in several instances having made the progress which has entitled them to instruct and to bear rule over boys twice as big and old as themselves. 
It is however satisfactory to observe, that the value of good education has become much more generally appreciated, and that the religious prejudices which have hitherto kept many Parents from sending their Children to the School, are now fast wearing away. They have now had abundant evidence, that it is far from the design of the Institution to interfere with the religious sentiments of any person.(Note 11)
To accentuate this point further, the 1824 annual report on the Free School reported:
The apprehensions and prejudices of the late Roman Catholic Pastor was supposed to have a very extensive influence in preventing many of his Flock from following the dictates of their own wishes and judgements. The expence (sic) of several years has given an incontrovertible proof, that whatever may be the religious opinions of those who are willing to submit their Children to the Rules of the Institution, those opinions will never be violated. The Children of Protestants are indeed most carefully instructed in the Principals of Christianity … To others the Instruction is, with fidelity to original engagements, strictly confined to the elements of useful Education and the Principles of Morality.(Note 12)
Despite all these assurances, a simmering tension between the Protestants and Catholics burst into the open in July 1825 when Porter was accused by the Catholic priest, Mgr. Jean-Baptiste Boucho, of punishing some Catholic boys for not turning up for service at the Protestant church, an accusation which was later dismissed after an extensive investigation by the School Committee. The managers went on to rebuke Boucho for “the interference of the Roman Catholic Clergyman with regard to the Education of their Children.” The tension continued until the end of the year when the Government, perhaps in an attempt to diffuse the situation and maintain neutrality, decided to contribute 100 Dollars per month towards a new Catholic school in Church Street.( Note 13)  Boucho called his school the Catholic Free School and in defiance of the proffered olive branch, coerced all the Catholic children to leave the Prince of Wales’ Island Free School and join his new establishment. The Catholic Free School was the precursor of the present Saint Xavier’s Institution.(Note 14) This unfortunate incident was perhaps the first recorded cold war between the two rival educational institutions that spilled into the open.
(11) Prince of Wales Island Gazette, 14th January 1824
(12) Marcus Langdon (2015). Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India (1805-1830), Volume Two, p. 247. Publisher: George Town World Heritage Incorporated.
(13) ibid
(14) G.S. Reutens (1972). A Short Survey of the History of the Past and Present Buildings of Hutchings School, Penang (1816-1972). Private papers.

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