Honouring an illustrious past

By Dhananjani Silva

It was a special day at Musaeus College, Colombo, another proud milestone in its long history. On May 19, 2006 the college officially opened the school archives – the Marie Musaeus and Peter De Abrew Memorial Archives in commemoration of its 115th anniversary, and the 151st birth anniversary of Marie Musaeus Higgins.

Marie Musaeus Higgins

This repository of institutional documents and reports, which is the brainchild of the Principal Mrs. N. K. Pilapitiya, provides much insight into the history of the school, merging the past and the present, and more importantly, implanting a sense of history in the minds of students, past pupils and teachers alike.

Each and every report and portrait in the archives, depicting the evolution of the great school that is Musaeus, has its story to tell. They highlight the sacrifices made by the school’s founders Marie Musaeus Higgins and Peter De Abrew, better known as ‘Mother Musaeus’ and ‘Father Musaeus’.

Musaeus College was the result of the Theosophical Society of Ceylon, and theosophists like Colonel Henry Olcott and Peter De Abrew taking the initiative to start a Buddhist girls’ school. The admirable service rendered by these great Theosophists is highlighted in the archives with in-depth accounts on them along with their portraits.

German-born Marie Musaeus Higgins, after whom Musaeus College, established in 1891 is named, was the school’s Founder Principal. She is remembered with gratitude by students and teachers of the school even today for her 33 years of dedicated service to the school.

Peter De Abrew

As documented in the archives, Mrs. Higgins wrote of her arrival thus: “There was an advertisement in The Path, the magazine of the Buddhist Theosophical Society, indicating that consequent to the death of Miss Picket, there was a need to find a learned lady, who is keen to work for the advancement of Buddhist girls in Ceylon. I saw the letter signed by Col. H. S. Olcott and Mr. Peter De Abrew. As this was what I wanted, I confirmed to them that I was willing to come. I arrived in Ceylon on November 15, 1889 and met Col. Olcott.” In the archives are skilful drawings done by the school arts teacher Thamara Hewapathage, depicting Mrs. Higgins’ arrival in the ‘Pressian Ship’.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, one of the teachers in charge in the archives, Mrs. Tilaka Subasinghe, who has been serving on the staff of Musaeus for 33 years, and who is also an old girl of the school said that the opening of the school archives was one of the special moments in her life. Speaking of her experiences, she said that when collecting data for the archives, she had always wanted to get the most unusual information. Since there was a need to extract the important details from a large volume of information, sometimes there was a great deal of editing to be done, she said.

“A significant feature I found was that May 19 and November 15 had been important days in the history of the school, as many important events had taken place on those two days. Doing the research I had my share of enjoyment; I started living in the history of the school – the incidents that occurred, the conversations that Marie Musaeus had with the students, etc. started to flash upon my mind,” she went on.

The table that was used by Marie Musaeus Higgins

“Another interesting piece of information I came across was that Mrs. Higgins was called ‘Mother’ by the small children and ‘Granny’ by the older students. Mrs. Higgins had called them ‘My teaspoons’ in return,” she added.
Of particular significance in the archives are the original notice published in the newspapers regarding admission to the school, the newspaper report of the school’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, the evolution of the school uniform, first school song, first band costume, old magazines published on anniversary celebrations, and detailed accounts of past and present chairmen, managing directors, board members, principals, vice principals and head mistresses. Information and old photographs of the shrine room built in 1906 on completion of 15 years of Musaeus College, and the stone inscription built in appreciation of Mrs. Higgins are also preserved for posterity.

There is also the last will of Marie Musaeus Higgins, the table and gravy bowl which she used and her autograph book with signatures of great Theosophists collected by her, while she was an active member of the Theosophical Society, attending the conferences held in its headquarters. The archives also provide access to her books. Having studied both history as well as Buddhism, she compiled ten books between 1910 – 1926, such as Stories From History Of Ceylon I, Stories From History Of Ceylon II, Jathakamala, Leela’s Dream, Guththilaya, Three Brothers, King Kashyapa, Ramayanaya, Viharamaha Devi and Pandukabaya.

the mud hut in which the school was started

According to records in the Musaeus archives, Marie Musaeus Higgins passed away on July 10, 1926 at 4.25 p.m., while listening to the Satipattana Suthraya. Much information is provided about her death with photographs of her funeral, and the funeral hearse and the death notice displayed.
The archives also have information and photographs of Annie Besant, one of the school’s trustees, who became the President of Theosophical Society after Col. Olcott. There is an eyewitness’s account of her arrival in Ceylon, with a description of how she was welcomed.

Some of the documents in the archives are originals while others are extracts. According to Ms. Subasinghe, the data and photographs were collected from several sources. “Much information was gathered from the small archives, which we had in a classroom prior to this. We also got much information and photographs from the magazines from former Manager Chandima de Silva’s house, from the old girls and from Mr. Somasiri Kasturiarachchi, who happened to collect data on the school’s history as a hobby. We gathered lots of information about Marie Musaeus from the book Vanapasamala, written by one of her students, Katerine Hapugala. Mr. Peter De Abrew’s photos were taken from the Trustee G. C. S. De Silva, Mr. De Abrew’s grandson,” she said.

Tilaka Subasinghe and Seuvandi Wijesuriya are the teachers in charge of the college archives. Funds for this worthy project were provided by the Chairman and the Board of Trustees.

The Musaeus College archives are not open to the public, but those interested could visit after obtaining permission from the school.

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