As a philanthropic advisor, I constantly discuss legacy with clients. Beyond a gift by will, a legacy transmits values, acts, and funds in a way that makes the world a bit better place. Quite unexpectedly, I recently found out my great-great grandfather, George Uglow Pope, left what I can only describe as palpable living legacy. I had to go to the south of India to discover it.
Pope was an Anglican missionary, educator and scholar of Tamil. Born in P.E.I. in 1820, at age 18 he sailed for Madras (Chennai) and arrived four months later fluent in Tamil. His first assignment was to establish the Christian town of Sawyerpuram near Tuticorin (Thoothukudi). As legend has it, working with a group of converts he cut the town out of the jungle, established a secondary school, a divinity college, and a church. He left Sawyerpuram in 1849 never to return.
In total Pope spent 42 years in south India. He found his true calling running schools, and bringing systematic teaching methods to both local and colonial population. His greatest accomplishment as educator and builder was Bishop Cotton School, Bangalore, which to this day is one of the finest Indian independent schools. After his return to England in 1882 he became a professor of Tamil and Telugu at Balliol College, Oxford. He translated the first English-language scholarly editions of the Tamil classics, the Tirukkural and Tiruvachagam.
In February, with my mother and two siblings, I went to India to retrace Pope’s footsteps. Our goals were modest: family history, a “church and school” tour, and discovery of a few plaques to photograph. Probing into our family’s imperialist past is a naturally fraught affair. Not surprisingly, all my email inquiries to various Pope related sites were met with deafening silence. My mother somehow found a connection to Sawyerpuram, and we were told that a “function” was planned in our honour.
That “function” ended up being a 12-hour day filled with marching bands, a classroom naming, an academic symposium, banquet, four schools (all named after Pope), three churches, tree plantings, speeches, and, yes, autograph signing. It was a tsunami of gracious good-will to the descendants of a man who had last set in the town 167 year before. My video is a poor record.
So what factors inspired this extraordinary outpouring? I have a couple of theories. The first relates to the context. Sawyerpuram is a thriving Christian town that has defined itself through its founder’s story. In one house there was a picture of Mother Teresa on one wall and G.U. Pope on the other. Success belongs to the community, but the inspiration for it has been attributed to Pope and God. The second theory is more speculative. Pope and his Oxford-published translations of Tamil classics are a potent political symbol in post-independence India. He provided validation for Tamil language and culture at a time when the north of India and the Hindi language were becoming dominant. Pope is now taught in schools and remembered throughout Tamil Nadu.
So what does this experience say about legacy? Legacy is the narrative of key acts. We tell stories to define purpose and direction. Most philanthropic legacies directly connect with only a few people, but they send practical help and hope to the future. G.U. Pope, through his own life’s work and the amplification of history, provides such an example, at least in the town of Sawyerpuram, Tamil Nadu.