Olcott, the Picketts and Buddhist women’s education
The genesis of Buddhist women's education in modern Sri Lanka goes
back to March 24, 1889, when a group of women gathered at the Colombo
headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society. The BTS had been
formed nine years before at the behest of Madame Helena Petrovna and
Colonel Henry Steele Olcott.
It was unprecedented in the colony for women to gather in this
manner, like men, to discuss matters of import - which in this case was
the furtherance of education for Sinhalese women. The initiative seems
to have been taken by Ms O. L. G. A. Weerakoon, who by all accounts was
A week later, on March 30, an expanded group met again at the same
location, and formed the Women's Education Society of Ceylon (Nari-shiksa-dhana
Samagama), to promote the education of Buddhist women. The following
were elected to the council:
President: OLGA Weerakoon; Vice-Presidents: Madelina Perera Dharma
Gunawardana, A. de Livera, Dona Madelena; Secretary: E. Wijeysinghe;
Assistant Secretary: Margaret E. de Silva; Treasurer: Isabella Dharma
The WES was the very first women's organization in Sri Lanka - the
Ceylon Women's Union was only begun 15 years later. According to the
Lucifer magazine, it offered ‘one broad platform where all women,
irrespective of caste, may stand up and proclaim their sisterhood.’
Repressed under the Victorian moral system of the conquering power,
women were considered chattel and very little else. The Theosophists
went to town, berating the British colonialists for imposing backward
ideas about the status of women on the populace.
At the time, only 2.6 percent of Buddhist women were literate, and
missionary schools were feared by Buddhist parents. Accordingly, the WES
planned to establish a Girls’ English High School at Tichborne Place,
This became Sangamitta Girls’ School, named in honour of the arhant
bhikkuni, daughter of the Emperor Asoka, who formed the women's Buddhist
monastic order in this island. The modern, liberating spirit in which
the school was conceived is apparent from this extract from the
‘Lucifer’, journal of the British Theosophists:
‘Seldom has a fairer field been open to the educator, or a better
chance of starting with that tabula rasa of which European theoretical
writers on education so often prate, but which is seldom found
unbesmeared by religious or social prejudice; too often is the natural
mental growth thwarted by ignorant parental notions of fineladyism, and
a healthy physique distorted by Paris fashions or les convenances. Happy
the teacher who can start clear of all this encumbering rubbish!’
Hitherto, no woman in the colony had addressed the public from a
platform. Hence, when the WES President OLGA Weerakoon addressed the
gathering at the opening of the new school on October 18, 1890, it
created a sensation. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Member of the Legislative
Council, speaking afterwards, commented that it was worthwhile
travelling hundreds of miles to hear such a speech.
The management of the school was carried out by Weerakoon, who dwelt
in a cottage on the premises with her husband Sadiris de Silva and her
younger children. Her two elder daughters, Margaret (later teacher at
the Blavatsky Girls’ School, Wellawatte) and Matilda, lived in the main
Tichborne Hall, together with Caroline de Abrew, assistant teacher at
the school. Francina Hamy, the ayah and Lewis, the gardener, appear to
have been the only other employees.
The institution cost nearly 25 Sterling Pounds per month to run, and
had just four boarders, who each paid 15 shillings a month. The balance
had to be made up of contributions from members and donations from
Theosophists overseas. The school had an average attendance of 70-80.
The WES wished to have a European Principal for this first Buddhist
girls’ high school. Writing to ‘The Path’, the US organ of the
Theosophists, Peter de Abrew laid out the requirements: she ‘should not
only be versed in educational matters, but should likewise have some
knowledge of Buddhism and other Oriental philosophies; above all, she
should be a Theosophist.’
In 1891, Olcott visited Melbourne and asked the Theosophists for a
volunteer Principal for a new Buddhist girls’ school in Colombo. Kate
Pickett, 23 years old, volunteered for the task.
About 900 years ago, Germans began settling on the Eastern Baltic
coast, in what are now Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, establishing their
ascendancy over the local people. The feudal aristocracy which emerged
in its north were known as the Estlaendische Ritterschaft, the Estonian
It was from this Baltic chivalry, in the town of Reval (now Tallinn)
that the Von Tunzelmann family emerged from the mists of history in the
17th Century. They are subsequently found on the island of Oesel (now
Saaremaa), in its main town of Arensburg (now Kuressaari).
In the mid-1830s a scion of this clan, Georg Woldemar von Tunzelmann
left the Baltic. His family moved to England and his children
subsequently settled in New Zealand. The eldest, Elise married Gilbert
Picket, an English immigrant, in Wellington. She later crossed the
Tasman Sea to Australia, with her son James Edward (Jim) Pickett, a
Elise Picket became an ardent follower of theosophy, the religious
philosophy modernised by Blavatsky and Olcott. She became President of
the Melbourne Theosophical Society, which she co-founded in September
1890. Her son, Jim Pickett, was also a founder member.
Her youngest child, Louisa Kate Florence Pickett, known as ‘Katie’,
was born on June 20, 1867 in Fernhill, Wakatipu, New Zealand. She
accompanied her mother and brother to Melbourne and also joined the
George Leitch, the Anglo-New Zealand actor and playwright, obtained
her services as a typist in Melbourne, and left this description of her
in the New Zealand Times:
‘... a self-contained little girl-woman, dressed in dark blue and
wearing spectacles with double glasses. She was eager to undertake the
copying of dramatic work, with a view to some interesting associations,
and to obtaining constant employment... Her first effort in this (to
her) new kind of work was entirely satisfactory... always well done and
punctually delivered, and she would give me suggestions at times
exhibiting a shrewdness and critical faculty which was frequently of
great assistance to me.’
Olcott, visiting Sydney and Melbourne in search of funds for the new
school (he collected 12 Sterling Pounds, a princely sum those days), put
the need for a European Principal to the Theosophists there, with the
Unfortunately a mix-up ensued. The services as Principal of Marie
Musaeus Higgins, a German-born Theosophist from Boston had been obtained
through ‘The Path'.
Olcott - who had not had knowledge of her recruitment - later
straightened the matter out with Musaeus, explaining that she would be
General Directress of the work of the WES, advising it and
superintending its schools, as well as being the Principal of one of two
major schools, either Colombo or Kandy - the other Principal being Kate
Pickett; Musaeus was also to be the senior of the two.
Having obtained her mother's permission, Olcott put Kate Pickett on
the steamer Salier, bound for Colombo, himself following a couple of
days later on the Massilia. Arriving in Colombo on June 10, 1891, she
was taken, together with Olcott to the Buddhist Theosophical Society HQ
at 61 Maliban Street, Pettah.
Thence she was conducted to Tichborne Hall, which was filled with
members of the WES and BTS waiting to welcome her to the country and the
school. Two days later she received the five precepts from Ven Hikkaduwe
Sri Sumangala Thera before an enormous crowd.
She subsequently proved herself to be a most conscientious as well as
much beloved teacher. Alas, Kate Pickett could not show her true promise
as, two weeks later, four days after her 24th birthday, she fell into a
well and was drowned.
At the subsequent inquest, the Coroner attempted to coerce the jury
into returning a verdict of suicide, despite the signs being that it was
an accidental death, possibly due somnambulism on the victim's part; he
appended a rider to the verdict of ‘found drowned’, that he was
personally convinced that Pickett had taken her own life.
Love and gratitude
According to one of the jurors, Louis W. Mendis, the Coroner seemed
to believe that Olcott had made certain promises to Pickett which he did
not subsequently keep; and that she felt ashamed at having publicly
adopted Buddhism - having observed how ‘superior’ the Europeans were to
the Sinhalese, with whom she had identified herself - committed suicide.
Apart from revealing the rank racism of the Coroner, what this does
indicate is the apprehension felt by the colonial authorities at the
activities of the BTS and the WES.
George Leitch agreed with the deceased's brother, Jim Pickett when he
‘attributed the sad calamity to an accident’, adding that ‘this is the
only conclusion that all who knew Miss Pickett could arrive at.’
Pickett's funeral at the Alfred Model Farm (now part of the Borella
Kanatte) was attended by some 6,000 mourners, led by members of the WES
and BTS. She had an expensive coffin of zinc lined with white satin with
silver coloured furniture and a glass window at one end, signifying the
love and gratitude of the Buddhists of Colombo.
Ven Gnanissara Thera, Ven Sumangala Thera's deputy, administered the
pansakula (last rites). This was followed by orations by Dr. Bowles
Daly, General Manager of schools and by Anagarika Dharmapala, who read
out a letter of appeal to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka which Pickett had
written for publication in the 'Sarasavi Sandares' shortly before her
Pickett was the first lay woman to be cremated in modern Sri Lanka, a
further mark of the esteem in which she was held. Her funeral pyre was
fired by OLGA Weerakoon, Mallika Hewavitarne and William de Abrew.
Luckily, the death of Pickett - although a great blow - did not
derail the new school. Louisa Roberts, assistant teacher, filled the
breach until Musaeus arrived on November 15. The next year, a fund was
set up to acquire a house and land for the school. Two years later, on
December 15, 1893, due to differences with members of WES, Musaeus
resigned from her position. With the co-operation of William and Peter
de Abrew, on land given by them in Rosmead Place, she started the
boarding school which still bears her name. Annie Besant had laid the
foundation stone for the school building on November 15, 1893 and
classes commenced in a wattle and daub building the following February.
From May 1894, Sangamitta Girls' School, which had hitherto been a
boarding school, was operated as a school for day scholars. After
Musaeus resigned, Elise Pickett (Kate's mother) was appointed Principal.
She in turn resigned in 1897, leaving on the Lloyd's steamer Friederich
der Gross, bound for Adelaide. She died in Prahran, Victoria in 1906.