The first missionary to visit Mizoram.
A young Welsh missionary (1) called William Williams (2), then working in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, was staying with a kindred spirit called Pengwern Jones at Sylhet. Williams was invited by his friend to visit some new prisoners who had just been brought to the large Sylhet gaol. They were several Mizo chiefs who had been recently captured. It is possible that it was this encounter that triggered the deep interest the 32 year-old missionary took in the Mizos. He resolved to pay a visit to what he knew as Lushai.
In a letter dated 7th February 1891, from Shella in the Khasi Hills he wrote to the Mission Secretary in Liverpool:
“I am sending you a letter which I received from Major Maxwell, the Deputy Commissioner at Silchar. It was sent in answer to a letter of mine, enquiring about Lushai, the distance, and the way etc. and in which I said that I have been possessed for several months with a very strong desire to go and work amongst the Lushais as a missionary. The Gospel is the only power in the world that will bring peace amongst them. If it is not God’s will that I shall go may He take away the desire and put it in someone else’s heart.”
At this period Mizoram was still in a very turbulent state and non-military visitors were not allowed entry. Williams used the period of waiting for permission to invite companions who were prepared to go with him on this perilous journey. The first was Benjamin Aitkin, a Scotsman and sub-editor on the Calcutta newspaper ‘The Englishman’. He was an elder of the Free Church of Scotland in Calcutta. There was also an Assamese called Kasinath, from Guwahati, who worked at the Shella chalk quarry, and had been converted by a Khasi church elder at Shella. He was using his holiday to join Williams in his venture. A Christian Manipuri also accompanied them.
We know of the journey from a letter Williams later wrote, which was then published in the Welsh Presbyterian weekly ‘Goleuad’.
At last the way was clear and they set off. On the three day river journey to Silchar the four of them preached in Hindi and Bengali in villages along the banks of the Surma River. On Sunday 1st March 1891 they stayed with Lieutenant Maxwell at Silchar, and on Monday they set off on the three day journey to Jhalnacherra, stopping at tea estates en route, including the one where Mary Winchester was kidnapped. They travelled by boat from Jhalnacherra to Changsil, which was only two days journey from Aizawl. They found the thick jungle on both banks fascinating and oppressive. Aitken wrote:
“The Lushais are up on the hill-tops. Down in the lower ranges solitude reigns. All day long, but chiefly in the cool of the morning, the woods ring with the call of countless birds, which neither naturalist or feather-hunter has yet disturbed. Meanwhile, the prospect is made up of scene after scene of enchantment.”
On Wednesday 11th March they reached Guturmukh and the following Saturday saw two Mizo stockades where there had been heavy fighting in the recent uprising. They also saw their first Mizo houses, probably ‘jhum’ huts set in jungle clearings. On 15th March they met their first Mizos, mostly lads between ten and fifteen years old. The boys exchanged yams and bananas for salt and tobacco. Mizos had little concept of money. Half and two anna pieces were ideal for making bullets.
William Williams and his party gave Scripture pictures to the children, and sang several songs to them. “They listened with their mouths open. We failed completely to get them to sing, but after we had gone down to the boat we heard them going through one of the tunes”.
Their boat reached Changsil early the following morning where there were two stockades about 160 metres above the river. They were met by Captain Williamson from North Wales and Mr. McCabe the Political Officer, known by Mizos as ‘Lalmantua’ (the man who catches chiefs). From them they heard details of the great uprising of 9th September 1890, when 6,000 Mizos attacked government forts. The attack was only rebuffed with the greatest difficulty.
The party proceeded to Sairang where they were provided with horses and continued to Aizawl. On the way they observed evidence of the earlier fighting. They passed the place where Captain Browne’s secretary and several coolies were attacked. Their bodies were bound to a tree and hacked to pieces with a ‘dao’ (axe).
Williams arrives in Aizawl.
Williams entered Fort Aizawl on Friday 20th March 1891. Several villages could be seen from the fort and their size surprised him for there were up to a thousand houses in some villages. Far bigger than a normal Khasi village. Williams writes:
“There are hundreds of coolies from Assam, — Khasi, Jaintia, Naga, Mikir, Kuki and Lushai working here. They are building houses or working on the roads. During our stay there I spent a lot of time among the Mizos. They are living in little separate huts. They have not yet begun to build houses in Aizawl, such as they build in the villages. I had collected Bible pictures to give them and they seemed to like these greatly. They said they were going to take them home to give to their children. We made an attempt to tell them about God. They all said that God was good. They call God ‘Khuaveng’ and he makes his home high above. ‘Khua’ means village and ‘veng’ is guard. Their language is most musical and its intonation remarkably beautiful. It falls with tender melody on the ear. I believe that it will be like Welsh, a good pulpit language.”
It is clear that Williams was attracted to the Mizos and they took a liking to him.
“They told me that if I should come to live in their country they would all come to me to learn. They told me the same at Changsil”.
The party left Aizawl on 17th April 1891.
Chawnga, then a ten-year old boy living in Mualvum, remembers being able to see the ‘Vais’, (foreigners) coming up the Tlawng by riverboat, invariably carrying a little white flag of peace. He didn’t know what the white cloth was for. He and his friends would go down to the boats to sell guavas and other fruit to the visitors. Once he saw a ‘sahib’, who was said not to belong to the government going down the river. This could have been William Williams on his way back to the Plains in April 1891.
Chawnga is a link with Aizawl’s long-distant past. He became a Primary School teacher and was one of the few living in Aizwal before Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ and Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ arrived in 1894.
Williams closed his letter by saying:
“Lushai and Manipur are precious in the sight of the government, chiefly because they have been bought with the blood of the servants of the government. The souls of the Lushais and the Manipuris are precious in the sight of every Christian because Jesus our king has laid down his life so as to open a way of salvation for them from their sins. He has poured out his blood for their sakes.” (Translation from the Welsh.)
It is sad to record that William Williams died of typhoid within a year, on 21st April 1892. He was buried at Shillong.
(1). The missionary society William Williams was working for was confusingly called at the time the Calvinist Methodist Mission. They had been active in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, and the Plains of Sylhet, since 1841. The Calvinist Methodist Church had seceded from the Church of England in 1811. They set themselves up as a separate body in 1823. Though the Mission headquarters were in Liverpool in William William’s day, Calvinist Methodists were primarily Welsh and now form the Presbyterian Church of Wales. Today the Welsh Presbyterian headquarters are in Cardiff. The Presbyterian Church of India was founded in 1841 and its headquarters are in Shillong, Meghalaya.
(2). William Williams was born on 11th February 1859 at Nanternis, New Quay, Dyfed, on the shores of Cardigan Bay. He was at first a sailor and was later ordained at Trecastle, South Wales, in 1887. He was posted to the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and arrived on 28th September 1887. He visited Mizoram from March to April 1891, the first missionary to do so. Williams aroused interest in Wales and gained the assent of the Assembly to adopt Mizoram as a mission field in 1892. He died suddenly of typhoid at Mawphlang on 22nd April 1892 and is buried at Shillong.