An outpost of Aberystwyth

Jan Morris discovers a foreign field that is forever Wales; Gwalia in Khasia by Nigel Jenkins Gomer Press, pounds 17.50
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We seldom think of the Welsh as imperialists. As Empire-builders they were often half-hearted and as settlers they were generally soon assimilated. Their attempts to create New Waleses in distant parts - in Virginia, in Tennessee, in Newfoundland - were mostly doomed to failure, and the only Welsh colony generally remembered is the one in Argentinian Patagonia, happily surviving to this day.

Now, here comes the gifted Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins to rescue from oblivion, in this lively travel-cum-history book, "the biggest overseas venture ever sustained by the Welsh". Actually, the venture was a Presbyterian mission, intended essentially to propagate the True Light of Calvinist Methodism; but between the 1840s and the 1960s, generations of Welsh people, supported by chapel collections and pious bequests from home, distributed not merely their faith but their tastes and their manners among the far- flung Khasis of north-eastern India.

As it happened, the Khasis, a healthily bloody-minded people living in the Assam hills, had much in common with the Welsh. They cherished profound ancestral traditions, they lived in rugged mountain country, they went in for megaliths, cromlechs, poetry and choral singing, and their way of life was constantly threatened by the outside forces of India and the British Empire. The Welsh themselves, determined as they were to wean the Khasis from their paganism, were seen by some as oppressors, but in general they seem to have been a popular success.

For they were the saviours of the Khasi culture. When the Rev Thomas Jones devised an alphabet for the hitherto unwritten Khasi language, and translated the Bible into it, he was laying the first foundations of a Khasi literature, and probably rescuing the tongue from extinction. The Welsh started hundreds of schools, too, introduced female education and ran the best hospitals in north-eastern India. "The Welsh... made us what we are", cried one Khasi lady to Jenkins, "they gave us everything..."

The Welsh legacy is far from dead in the Khasi hills. Presbyterianism thrives there still, and expresses itself often in heartfelt renderings of old Welsh hymn-tunes. The anniversary of Thomas Jones's death was commemorated by a quarter of a million celebrants - more than had lately turned out to greet the Pope. The national anthem of the Khasis is a local adaptation of "Land of my Fathers", and when the Mazo sub-tribe recently rebelled against Indian rule, it did so on St David's Day. Lace curtains, scones, souvenir tea-towels from Aberystwyth, smatterings of the Welsh language, pipe-smoking chapel deacons and a reverence for dead educationalists - all these cultural mementos are reminders that out there on the very fringe of the British Raj, there was once a sub-Empire of the Welsh.

Mr Jenkins has aimed his book directly at a Welsh audience, making no allowance for English ignorance. This seems to me a pity. There is nothing parochial about the story he tells: it is the allegorical tale of two small strong peoples, coming together from the ends of the earth, to find themselves curiously in sympathy.