What could possibly make one of the first Westerners ever to become a Buddhist monk so disreputable that he would be airbrushed out of history, despite being famous in his day and featured in US magazines and the Sunday Independent? Laurence Cox takes up the story for us.
Being a white man who took off the shoes and hat that set Europeans apart from Burmese in 1900, picked up the monk’s begging bowl and converted to Buddhism at a time when empire was being justified in terms of bringing the gospel to the poor benighted heathen certainly didn’t help in making him popular.
Being an Irish ex-hobo, ex-sailor, ex-alcoholic who left school at 14 to work his way round the world and not a nice, calm, gentleman-scholar sort of Buddhist might have had something to do with it.
Setting himself against “the Bible, the Gatling gun and the whiskey bottle” (missionaries, the British empire and cultural colonialism) probably helped to make him the kind of figure best ignored if possible.
Not agreeing that being Irish meant you had to be either Catholic or Protestant, and that “all Sahibs are Christians” as one poor missionary put it, would have been a bit head-wrecking for simpler souls – never mind being a Buddhist who was a hardcore atheist and won public arguments with missionaries because he knew the contradictions in the Bible better than they did.
But doing all these things in front of large Asian audiences at the height of the British empire – with thousands of people travelling for days to hear him in rural Burma, a massively controversial tour of Ceylon, setting up projects in Singapore, networking with pan-Asian activists in Japan, and distributing tens or hundreds of thousands of bookeens free – that would do it every time.
So this particular Irish Buddhist rabble-rouser was quickly brushed under the carpet by imperial historians, Buddhist organisations, Irish popular memory and for that matter Asian nationalists who couldn’t quite squeeze him into an easy story.
But U Dhammaloka (his Buddhist name) also did his best to hide his own tracks. Rabble-rousing was a risky business in countries under the gun, and he was put on trial for things like the observation that the British “had first of all taken Burma from the Burmans and now we desired to trample on their religion”. Not that this stopped him – he had another trial for sedition a decade later, and was put under police and intelligence surveillance – but it probably made him that little bit more cautious. Maybe this is why he used at least five aliases (we think his original name was Laurence Carroll, born in Dublin in 1856), or why he faked his own death.
He might have had something big to hide too – which could explain why there are 26 years missing in the middle of his life story, somewhere between hoboing across the States and getting ordained as a Buddhist monk in Rangoon. It’s possible too that this little omission has something to do with where he learned to be such a good organiser. If so, it had to be something pretty big to be worth hiding all that time – and there was a lot going on in the late nineteenth century in the US alone (Fenianism, labour agitation, anarchism, socialism….) A network of researchers from Ireland, Canada, Sri Lanka, the US, Thailand, Burma and Japan have spent much of the last five years trying to catch up with this elusive man, filling in many of the gaps and uncovering this extraordinary story in a battle of wits with his own efforts to cover his tracks. We have well over a thousand pieces of information and we’re still tracking down (and translating) more – there is a lot to know.
Back in 1905, the “vagabond journalist” Harry Franck, who spent a year travelling around the world with nothing in his pocket (and so had a much more interesting time than the well-off travel writers of his day) ran into Dhammaloka on a ferry crossing the Ganges delta:
“As a young man he had emigrated to America, and, turning “hobo”, had travelled through every state in the Union, working here and there. He was not long in convincing both Rice [another hobo] and me that he knew the secrets of the “blind baggage” [riding a train out of sight] and the ways of railroad “bulls” [security]. More than once he growled out the name of some junction where we, too, had been ditched, and told of running the police gauntlet in cities that rank even today as “bad towns”.”
He went on to win an argument against the Christian missionary who thought “all Sahibs are Christians” – in front of an audience of grinning Burmese migrants.
The Burmese had something to grin about – it wasn’t that long since the country had been “pacified” with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, complete with all the atrocities that went with “civilization”.
Laurence Cox is one of the core members of the Dhammaloka research team and part of the team that have launched a crowd funding project to make this story into a documentary. Give it a look.