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Olcott, the Picketts and Buddhist women’s education

Colonel Henry Steele Olcott Marie Musaeus Higgins

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 livewire.

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 Gunawardana.

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.’

British colonialists

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, Maradana.

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.

Educational matters

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 Knighthood.

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).

Theosophical Society

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 civil engineer.

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 Theosophical Society.

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 result aforementioned.

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'.

Major schools

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 demise.

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.

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