Brett and Cornelius: Partners in ministry
History This Week
By Arlene Munro
June 2, 2005
Some of the early missionaries who worked among the Amerindians in British Guiana were J.H. Bernau, Thomas Youd, and W.H. Brett. During the 1830s and 1840s, J.H. Bernau, was responsible for mission activities in Bartica. The aim of this article is to highlight the work of William H. Brett and his most famous convert, Cornelius, an Arawak Christian.
In 1840, Rev. William Brett was appointed head of a mission to the aboriginal Indians which had been founded at Bartica in 1829 by the Church Missionary Society. He then started a mission on the Pomeroon. He served for forty years in the colony. He served as Rector of Holy Trinity in 1851, and as Bishop's Chaplain and Clerical Assessor. He retired in 1879 and died on 10th February 1886. He was called the 'Apostle to the Indians in Guiana'.
Rev. Brett was the author of Mission Work in the Forests in Guiana. In this book he states that he and Rev C. Carter were sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to plant Amerindian missions in British Guiana. Dr Coleridge, first Bishop of the diocese of Barbados which included British Guiana, had made this request of the organization. In 1841, Brett and Carter were sent first to Bartica because a mission had already been established there. While Richard Schomburgk was travelling through British Guiana, he found one of the mission stations for which Brett was responsible located at the confluence of the Arapiacro and Pomeroon rivers. It had a congregation of Arawaks and Negroes. Brett also worked up to 1843 at Fort D'Urban. He later moved the mission to the hilly area of Cabacaburi.
Brett encountered an Amerindian captain called Sacchi Barra who became a Christian convert and helped him in his missionary endeavours. Sacchi Barra received the name Cornelius when he was baptized and he persuaded Rev. Brett to establish his headquarters at his village in Cabacaburi.
Brett with the assistance of Cornelius successfully transplanted the Gospels into the Indian's native language. He deserves special recognition for his contribution to the study and documentation of the Arawak language and other Amerindian languages. An invaluable account based on his life and the manner in which he made that contribution is to be found in F.P.L. Josa's The Apostle of the Indians of Guiana. He was appointed chaplain by the Bishop in 1870 and was given the Lambeth degree of B.D.M. he was ordained on 25th July 1843. After experiencing ill health, Brett returned to his country in 1849. In 1851, he came back to British Guiana and served as a minister at St. Swithin's Church and later as Rector of Holy Trinity Church which placed him in a position to superintend the missions that he had planted until his departure from the colony in 1879.
Brett was the author of several books. One of his books was A Short Grammar of the Language of the Arawak Indians which was published in 1849. His other works include Guiana Legends, 1818-1886, The Indian Tribes of Guiana, Legends and Myths of the Aboriginal Indians of British Guiana and Mission Work among the Indian Tribes.
Perhaps the most zealous convert of Brett was Cornelius. Originally called Sacchi Barra, he was the nephew of the Arawak representative who attended a nineteenth-century conference for Caribs and Arawaks in Georgetown which the famous Indian Chief, Mahanarva, attended. Sacchi Barra later married and settled on the Pomeroon River where he was converted to Christianity. Rev Brett claims that he was the first of his tribe to embrace Christianity. He relates that Sacchi Barra came to him to learn about the Christian religion, then took the name of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who had been converted under Peter's ministry. Cornelius brought his children and other members of his family to Brett's residence. As a result of visitation other families also came and eventually a chapel was built. A school was also established. With Cornelius and his brother-in-law, Brett made voyages to Moruca and Manawarin.
Gradually, the mission was moved to Cabacaburi hill where Cornelius built a house. He helped Brett to translate the Lord's prayer and Creed into his own Arawak language and they were printed in Georgetown and distributed among the Arawaks. Brett taught Cornelius to read and explain Mark chapter 16 and then sent him to families in the remote areas to teach the gospel. Two weeks later he returned with twelve Arawak men who joined the mission.
Cornelius proved to be a Christian who was concerned about others. An appeal was made to the Arawak Christians to send some donations to the Irish who were experiencing a severe potato famine in Ireland. Although the Arawaks were themselves experiencing a drought in 1845-1846, Cornelius took ten dollars of his own, offered three dollars to the fund and lent the balance to his neighbours to donate to the fund.
In 1857, the Arawak community was devastated by cholera. Although Cornelius survived, he was considerably weakened. Yet this did not prevent him from dismantling the old mission chapel and constructing a new one with the help of other Amerindians. Cornelius was eventually appointed captain of his tribe and warden of the new chapel.
He travelled with Archdeacon Jones and Rev. Brett on a missionary expedition to the Arawaks above the Demerara rapids in 1865. Unfortunately, his health began to fail shortly after this journey.
He visited Rev Brett in 1867 just before his return to England and indicated that he was going to die before seeing Brett again.
He in fact died from fever shortly after Brett returned to the colony. His body was sent to the mission chapel for burial. Two years later a bell was sent to the chapel by friends in England. On the bell was inscribed the following words: "In memory of Cornelius, the first Indian convert to Christ in the Pomeroon district. Died February 1868."