The American Knight of the Indian Empire

Remembering renowned educationist Dr James Caruthers Rhea Ewing who won laurels for services in subcontinent

The American Knight of the Indian Empire

Throughout the British Raj, honours were a much sought after distinction. While British honours were used to recognise exemplary work in the early years of the Raj, by 1861 an elaborate system of honours was instituted by Queen Victoria for her British Indian subjects. The first such order was the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, which had three grades: Knight Grand Commander, Knight Commander and Companion. Only men could be awarded this order of chivalry [and women rulers] and only the first two grades permitted the bearer to use the title ‘Sir.’ After the Most Honourable Order of Bath, this became the fifth most senior chivalric order in the British Empire.

Subsequently, with the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1878, another order was instituted, viz. The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, with the same three grades and rules. This was the junior Indian honour, after the Order of the Star of India. In the same year, the Queen-Empress also instituted an order for women called the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, mainly for consorts and female members of the aristocracy.

Usually, only British subjects were eligible for these honours, however, occasionally a non-British subject could become an honorary member, due to his exceptional service in either British territories or for British interests. In India, the first [and perhaps the only] non-British subject to receive this distinction was Dr. James Caruthers Rhea Ewing, M.A., Litt.D., L.L.D, D.D., K.C.I.E, Principal of the Forman Christian College from 1888-1917, and Vice Chancellor of the University of the Punjab from 1910-17.

In my current work on the history of Forman Christian College, I have learned a lot about this great man and of his over 40 years devotion to the cause of education in India, which merited him to receive his high honour. Below I shall mention a few of his roles in public service in India, as a remembrance and example for us all.

A significant moment in the public life of Dr Ewing came when he was appointed president of the Kangra Valley Earthquake Relief Committee. Occurring on April 4, 1905, it was a massive earthquake which caused the death of about 15-20,000 people. The devastation was widespread [approximately 10 per cent of the area’s population had perished] and concerted efforts had to be made by the government for the relief efforts, and Dr Ewing coordinated all such efforts. Ewing noted:

"Sir Charles Rivas at once proceeded to organize relief. Public meetings were held in Lahore, and a committee consisting of four Indians, of whom two were Hindus and two Mohammedans, four European and one American (myself) was appointed. Of this Committee, I was appointed President. The need of the occasion stimulated liberality in many quarters, and about thirteen and a half lakhs of rupees were collected. To this committee was committed the charge of the distribution of this large sum of money. This involved many months of work."

Dr Ewing’s last decade in India was spent in further public service with yet another honour being bestowed on him -- that of being the VC of the University of the Punjab from 1910 to 1917.

Dr Ewing’s work as chairman of this committee was very much appreciated by the government and he was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind medal. This distinction was lauded by the local press and a Muslim newspaper showered praises on the commendable work of Ewing and said: "Dr Ewing has done work of an unusually high character and it is no more than right that he should receive some tangible recognition of his service." The medal was bestowed by the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Sir Charles Rivaz, when he visited the college in April 1906. The College Monthly noted the events in these words:

"On the last Saturday of April, His Honor the Lieutenant Governor, attended by the Secretary to Government, the Commissioner and several of the officials of the Educational Department, came to the College to present to DR. J.C.R. Ewing the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal, which His Majesty King Edward had bestowed on him in recognition of his services in connection with the Kangra Relief Fund. Sir Charles Rivaz with a few fitting words, presented the medal to Dr Ewing in the presence of the assembled students, after which he made an inspection of the College."

Dr Ewing was so much loved by the people of the Punjab that just before he left on furlough to the United States in 1907, a dinner was arranged in his honour in Lahore, where distinguished members of all communities -- Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and others -- were present. Held at a time when nationalist sentiment was high in the wake of the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Swadeshi movement, such honour for a non-Indian was indeed spectacular. Professor J.D. Fleming, who was on the college staff at that time, noted:

"A really unique gathering took place last week at one of the largest hotels in Lahore, in which all friends of this station (Lahore) must be interested. It was a dinner party given by twenty-five Indians to twenty-five foreigners in honour of Rev. J.C.R. Ewing. There were two Judges of the Supreme Court [Chief Court], the leading banker of the province, the vice chancellor of the university, a former Director of Public Instruction, the leading editor of the city, professors from other colleges, and the leader of the famous Tibetan Expedition…But even more interesting and significant were the Indian hosts. To Dr Ewing’s right was the leader of the Mohammadan community, while to his left was the leader of the Hindus, both members of the Supreme Court. Amongst the others were eight lawyers, influential Brahmo Somajists and Christians."

Dr Ewing was also aware of his rare honour and wrote "…I feel that it marks an era in the Punjab; indeed, I doubt if such a thing has ever happened before in India. It was a regular English dinner, the usual toasts, etc., etc., and several of the hosts were high caste Brahmans. The speeches were Oriental in their imagery as they dealt with my place and work in Lahore. And yet they meant it well, and I fully confess that their attitude has given me great pleasure."

Also read: The Maharaja’s American visitor 

For Dr Ewing, his last decade in India was spent in further public service with yet another honour being bestowed on him -- that of being the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Punjab from 1910 to 1917, having been reappointed in 1912, 1914 and 1916. Dr Ewing was himself cognizant of the uniqueness of his position. He noted: "This appointment was in some respects entirely unique; in one particular especially, inasmuch as no other person -- not a British Subject -- has ever held the office. In point of continuous service, my term was longer than anyone except that filled by Sir William Rattigan, and this was only a few months longer than mine. Amongst all the Indian universities I was the third Christian missionary appointed, the others being Dr William Miller of Madras and Dr Machichan of Bombay. Throughout my entire term I had occasion to appreciate very highly the confidence reposed in my by not only the government but also the people, especially those directly connected with education work."

In fact, Dr Ewing’s association with the university had been since his arrival in Lahore. In 1889, he was nominated as a Fellow of the university and in 1890 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts, a position he held till 1907.

A leading newspaper of the Punjab, The Tribune of Lahore, congratulated Dr Ewing on his appointment. Its editorial of February 13, 1910 made a substantial comment:

"We heartily congratulate His Honour the Chancellor and the University on the selection of Rev. Dr. J.C.R. Ewing, M.A., D.D., LL.D., as Vice-Chancellor…It goes without saying that it is the University that deserves to be felicitated on its great gain in securing a gentleman of Dr. Ewing’s preeminence and position to take up the helm of its affairs…Indeed it must be declared without the slightest fear of contradiction, that no one is more thoroughly deserving of the high honour or more preeminently fitted for it by his lifelong devotion to the cause of education, by his deep and abiding interest in the educational welfare of the province, and by his genuine and deep-seated solicitude for the student community and by his close identification with the moral and social welfare of the people than Dr. Ewing."

Dr Ewing’s time as vice chancellor was a period of great significance in India. During his seven years at the helm of the University of the Punjab relations between the Indians and the British on the one hand and between Hindus and Muslims on the other hand became precarious.

The piecemeal Minto-Morley reforms of 1909 disappointed most Indian politicians since even though they increased Indian participation in the Legislative Councils both at the centre and the provinces, they kept power firmly in the hands of the British. Further, the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the introduction of separate electorates for Muslims in the reforms had created a rift between the Hindus and the Muslims, with several in the Indian National Congress opposing the move.

The Swadeshi Movement, in response to the Partition of Bengal, further created fissures among the communities. The annulment of the partition at the Durbar of 1911, antagonized the Muslims in response and created more political instability. In such trying circumstances, Dr Ewing retained the confidence of both the government and the several communities in India in the discharge of his duties as vice chancellor of the university, even when, for example, as an American questions could be raised at the hesitation of the United States in the First World War -- though Dr Ewing was clear where his sympathies lay. He wrote: ‘How some of us wish that we could see the American government take an attitude in these days of which we could be proud of, or of which we could even approve. I fear that I am not very ‘neutral’."

During his tenure as vice chancellor, Dr Ewing received the further honour of becoming a Companion of the Indian Empire ‘C.I.E’ in the New Year’s Honours List for 1915. He wrote to Dr Fleming: "The C.I.E. came on New Year’s Day, with 300 letters and telegrams since, including an autograph letter from Lord Hardinge. The order is for Britishers only, but they got around it by appointing me an Honourary Companion of the Indian Empire, with all its privileges and emouluments."

Dr Ewing presided over all the convocations of the University of the Punjab except when the Governor, the Chancellor of the University, was present. At the last convocation, the university, recognizing his contributions to the cause of education in the province, honoured him with an honourary Doctor of Literature.

Dr Ewing resigned his position as principal of Forman Christian College and vice chancellor of the University of the Punjab in 1917, owing to ill health, but still continued to work in India for a couple of years in the Presbyterian Mission. Thereafter, in recognition of his services to education and the public at large the King-Emperor conferred on him an honorary knighthood and made him a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire on January 1, 1923.

Upon his death in 1925, the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore made a very befitting comment that Dr Ewing had "a record of devoted service which can rarely have been surpassed." Indeed.