Cynthia Farrar — Missionary woman who inspired Jotirao Phule

Jotirao Phule

Cynthia Farrar (1795–1862) was an American missionary who ran schools for girls in the Bombay Presidency. When she was a teacher in Ahmednagar, Jotirao Phule visited her to observe her schools. In a speech delivered in 1853, he says,

With a friend, I visited the girls’ schools in Ahmednagar which were managed by Farrar madam of the American missionary department. I felt really happy seeing those schools because they were being run really well. Once I returned to Pune, I immediately started a school for girls where subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics and grammar were introduced.

Jana Tschurenev and Sumeet Mhaskar, citing MG Mali, say in their paper “Wake up for education”: colonialism, social transformation, and the beginnings of the anti-caste movement in India that Savitribai Phule trained under Farrar for a couple of months before beginning her own teaching career.

Following is the reproduction of a chapter from Memorial papers of the American Marathi Mission, 1813-1881, published in 1882. It gives us an idea about Farrar’s work as well as the situation of women’s education in the 19th century.

Day Schools for Girls 

The first school for girls of which we find mention was commenced by the American Mission in Bombay in March 1824. It was taught by a native woman named Gangabai. This, it is believed, was the first School of the kind on this side of India. As soon as it was opened, two English ladies in Bombay offered to pay all the expenses of the school. But in the month of May following, there was a serious and fatal outbreak of cholera, “and among the dying thousands in Bombay, Gangabai, the schoolmistress, was one. As no one could be found to take her place, the school was broken up.”

We regret that no further mention is made of this Gangabai, the first native woman employed in Bombay to teach a Christian school. How did she herself learn to read? And in the face of odium attaching to such an occupation, where did she get the courage to enter upon it? How mysterious the stroke which called her away when she was the only one to be found who could and would teach this school!

Not long after, however, these efforts were renewed, and several schools for girls were in successful operation, with male teachers superintended by the missionaries and their wives. At the close of 1825, the number of pupils was 75; and in August 1826 their report says:—

“We now have nine schools for girls attended by 204 pupils. Among these are several daughters of Brahmans, and many others of high caste. They are taught reading, writing and arithmetic; and commit to memory the Ten Commandments and a catechism prepared for them. About 80 of these girls have learned to write.”

At the close of 1827, Miss Cynthia Farrar joined the mission, and engaged in earnest efforts to improve the schools for Hindu girls in Bombay. She labored incessantly for this object, and, considering the strong prejudices of the natives at that time against female education, she achieved a wonderful success. In the report of the mission for 1829, it is stated that the number of these schools had been increased, so that there were over 400 girls in attendance, of whom 122 were good readers, and could write a fair, legible hand.

In 1832, a public examination of the girls was held, of which the following account was given in a native paper of that time. It first appeared in Guzarati in the Bombay Hurkaru and Wartaman, and the English translation appeared in the Darpan :—

“Last Thursday, November 29th, there was an examination at the American Mission Chapel in Bhendi Bazar of the schools for Hindu girls. Many European ladies and gentlemen were present, and we also attended. At 11 o’clock the children were examined in Marathi, which they read fluently. They answered questions promptly, and sang a Christian hymn in a pleasant manner, seldom excelled even by English children. After the examination in reading was concluded, the girls’ needlework, embroidery, and the stockings they had knitted, were exhibited; and these appeared equal to work of the same description performed in England. There were children’s woolen stockings finer than those made in England. The ladies present praised the girls, and the lady who had taught them. The children having learned so much during the short period of six months, [the needlework, knitting, &c.] every one present felt convinced that they would soon learn to make many other useful things. We forgot to mention above that the handwriting of the girls was so neat as almost to pass for lithography.

A later writer says:-

“These schools attracted the attention and received the cordial and efficient support of the highest and best members of the European community. The Governor, the Chief Justice, Members of Council, the Archdeacon (afterwards Bishop,) of the Diocese, and ladies of rank, supported them by their presence at the examinations, and by liberal contributions. In one year Rs. 1,880, and in another Rs. 2,000 were received for the support of these schools. Among the donations was one of Rs. 500 from His Excellency Mountstuart Elphinstone, then Governor of Bombay, and another of Rs. 300 from his successor, Sir John Malcolm.”

These schools in Bombay were continued in efficient operation for several years. Changed circumstances made it necessary afterwards to reduce the number of them. Miss Farrar’s health failed, and a visit to America became imperative for her. Other laborers coming to the mission found themselves drawn into other spheres of effort. When Miss Farrar returned to India, she went to Ahmednagar, and commenced the same line of effort there. In 1845 and 1846, it is said in the report, “Miss Farrar has had four girls’ schools under her superintendence, containing over 100 pupils.” She kept up several of these schools until 1862, the year of her death.

Miss Farrar’s careful superintendence of her schools, and her persistent personal efforts, often secured a measure of success where others would have failed. The difficulties she encountered were such as would have deterred most ladies, at the outset, from attempting this kind of labor. Owing to the strong prejudice then existing against the education of girls, there was on the part of parents an utter want of appreciation of the value of the instruction received, and of the importance of regularity in attendance. Hence for any trivial reason the girls might be suddenly withdrawn, and kept at home, or sent to some distant village for a month or a six months’ visit. The custom of marrying the girls in childhood was of itself nearly fatal to any plans for their proper education. The training under the tongue and hand of the sásu, (mother-in-law,) was thought more important than the teaching in school; and before the girl was old enough to receive the full benefit of any course of study, she was often taken out of school, and sent to the home of her husband, which means to the home of his parents. It was chiefly by gaining the love of her pupils, and making it pleasant for them to attend her school, that Miss Farrar could keep them long enough to learn to read, and acquire a little knowledge of that truth which has done so much for women in Christian lands. Yet often did she lament that her lifework bore so little fruit, because the girls were withdrawn from her schools, and remanded to all the evil influences of an idolatrous home before there was time for the truth to gain a firm lodgment in their hearts.

Others besides Miss Farrar have felt the above difficulty with regard to this kind of missionary labor. Most of the ladies of the mission at the different stations have kept up one or more such day-schools for Hindu girls. In some places the old prejudice has so far yielded as to allow of the employment of Christian teachers. In such cases we may hope for better results. But to what extent this kind of effort has been helpful in promoting the great end we all seek, the Christianization of India, it is impossible to say. Individual instances occur here and there in which the truth learned in childhood, was recalled by a pupil in after years, and proved the very help needed to lead her into the way of life. But aside from these isolated cases, there is reason to believe these schools have been useful as a preparatory work. Who can doubt that they have done much to remove the strong prejudice against the education of women, and thus have prepared the way for other forms of effort which in the early stages of the missionary work in India were impossible. And although in their discouragement these toilers were often ready to say, we “have labored in vain, and spent our strength for nought,” yet in the final summing up it may be seen that their labors held an important place in the system of operations for the overthrow of Hinduism.

(Transcribed by Sana Irshad.)


  1. I thank my sister Cynthia Farrar that she has done a lot of good work for our country and our sisters. Thanks sister.
    God bless you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button