Rosalie was the second missionary from New Zealand, the first sent beyond the Pacific, and the first missionary sent by the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society, 1886.
The New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society was new on the scene, founded in 1885, and nobody had yet been sent overseas. Its focus was a special need of Bengal which they had heard about from both British and Australian Baptist missions—the seclusion of women in zenanas where they could never hear the Gospel of Christ. The mission took this so seriously that they were seeking only women missionaries.
A Miss Fulton from Hanover Street Baptist Church in Dunedin volunteered and Rosalie Macgeorge from the same church, offered in August 1886 with the idea that the two should work together. Miss Fulton then pulled out but Rosalie stayed the course.
Rosalie was born in Australia, the third of nine children, and all but one were girls. She probably came to NZ when she was about five. In her middle twenties, Rosalie is described as “A young woman of fine appearance, strong character, and deep devotion to her Lord.” She had been baptised 12 years before, had joined the church, served in many departments of the church life, and was an able speaker. She had grown up in the Hanover Street church from a child, her family were respected and active members and she herself was held in the highest esteem. She was a trained teacher, and had a special love for children — a love and understanding that was demonstrated later in the many letters she wrote to them from India.
Rosalie’s departure was a rush. She could travel with Calcutta-bound English Baptist missionaries Mr and Mrs Kerry. Her farewell was on 28th September, 1886, and she asked for the prayers of God’s people, especially as difficulties would confront her. The minister, Rev Alfred North, noted that the occasion was unique as Rosalie was the first missionary from the Baptist denomination in New Zealand to go overseas, and the first woman sent by any NZ group for mission work. Then he said, and this proved very true, ‘the work which lies before you is exceptionally hard and exhausting.’ He mentioned disappointments, pity, compassion, hope deferred, ignorance, time-consuming language study, separation from loved ones and climate.
Rev North charged her,
…Go! In the assurance that His presence yields. Go! In simple faith in the power of the Gospel of His love. Go! Your heart over-brimming with love to all on whom His love is set, and for whom His blood was shed. So shall the blessing of the Lord Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, rest upon you for ever.’
Rosalie reached Calcutta in December that year and travelled to Faridpur to join women on the South Australian mission society while she studied Bengali. The next month she wrote to the children at her church how a woman who was helping her learn was crying bitterly because her baby had died. Rosalie was deeply distressed that she had not words to tell of Jesus and his love. She was impatient to start work but recognised she must do about two years of study.
There was bookish, classical Bengali as well as common spoken language. Once she got her words mixed and called her pundit not ’teacher’ but ‘cow’. He was not amused. But Rosalie was never content with the books. She insisted on gaining colloquial words, tones and twists of language, even asking local children to correct her. She wanted free conversation style, something many missionaries had missed out on.
By early 1888 she could write, ‘I feel I could do a little in the zenanas is necessary, but it would be blundering work, and would cripple me in the language for the future.’ She kept studying. She prepared a short talk she could give as her first one, carefully correcting the pronunciation. Her joy was great when seven weeks later, very uncertain, she found she was understood when she spoke to the women in a house. Yay! She was getting somewhere. She visited five houses a week and talked to the women for an hour.
Later in the year Rosalie started a young men’s Bible Class for Hindu boys who were learning English. ‘Of course, my motive is to teach you about the Bible, but at the same time you will have the advantages of hearing English spoken and of having your mistakes corrected.’ The class grew from three to eight, to eleven… Soon they were more interested in the Bible than in English. By May two of this class were definite enquirers to know more of Jesus and by the end of the year 100 students had been through her class at some point.
An Indian Pastor was preaching at a mela (festival) and an Australian young woman, Miss Newcombe, and Rosalie helped by giving out tracts and singing hymns and Rosalie added playing on her concertina, with which she was quite competent. Miss Newcombe told the story of Rosalie saving a little girl’s life. The girl was bitten on the leg by a snake, and her father saw Rosalie walking past and called her. ‘She ran and applied a ligature above the bite, and then sucked out the snake poison. Her quick resourcefulness undoubtedly saved the life of the child, who, within a few days was almost completely well again. The parents sent two sons to the Sunday School.’
The New Zealand Baptist mission wanted a site of their own from which to work. Dacca (Dhaka) was suggested, but Rosalie wanted somewhere smaller, so they chose the sizeable river port, Narayangunj. The Australians and Rosalie asked the committee in NZ to send them more workers as soon as possible. Rosalie’s sister Lillian offered to come, and soon Hopestill Pillow as well. Rosalie started by walking the streets of Narayangunj in a muslin saree over her dress to indicate she wished to identify with the people. Initially she spoke to a few women who were willing to learn to read.
It was tough going, though. Hindus did not mind her Bible teaching but on occasion Muslims asked her, ‘Do you intend to teach that Jesus is the Son of God?’ When she said ‘Yes,’ they said point blank, ‘We don’t want you.’ The men grew noisy and vehement. But Rosalie quietly and bravely held her ground, said a Bengali hymn or gave out tracts, offered to come into the homes and talk to the women if they invited her. After, she asked to be allowed through the crowd and walked quietly away, followed by the children.
Soon she had permission to enter 30 homes weekly where there were about three women in each. Some women listened happily. Some didn’t. Some babies cried too loud for lessons. Some women chattered non-stop. Some asked questions. ‘Why don’t you get married?’ ‘What soap do you use?’ ‘Will you have a smoke?’ ‘What did you eat for breakfast?’ ‘How much money does the government pay you?’ ‘How do you twist your hair up?’ ‘Let us see the colour of your feet.’ It was hard work, especially with the language difficulties, but some women were also interested in the Bible stories.
Children loved Rosalie and she loved them and taught them songs that helped them remember her lessons.
Miss Newcombe became unwell and in 1889 doctors told her to return to Australia and not return to Bengal. This was a big blow to Rosalie, who longed for, indeed needed, a fellow-worker.
Rosalie’s health had been good but in April 1889 she was unwell and sent to the cool of the hills, to Darjeeling at 7000 feet, to take a break. In June she returned to Narayangunj feeling much better, but was promptly dragged down in health and by July was again unwell and feeling affected by the loneliness. Right then, while expecting her sister Lillian to set out for India, Lillian was given a negative health report and told to stay in New Zealand.
Staying was becoming difficult. No land had been bought for the NZ mission base and no decision made. But Narayangunj itself added to Rosalie’s difficulties. Her biographer notes that ‘The sights and sounds appalled her, the smells, the poor hygiene, the lot of women, the plight of the widows, the sad little child-wives, the rudeness and discourtesy of the men, the poverty, the disease, and the godlessness of the English residents, the idolatry…She was never free of it and she had no one to share it with.’
Still, there were some good things. A woman who, in great discouragement, turned to Jesus for help and continued to pray. Another, at the end of Rosalie’s tiring day of visiting homes, who said she believed in Jesus Christ and her husband had concluded the Bible was a true book. Rosalie now had some new converts to nurture. Two men (able to write where most women could not) sent letters later, appreciating so much her kindness and proud to be younger brothers in Jesus.
Strategy and developments
During 1889 Rosalie worried the NZBMS committee back in NZ by refusing, after praying about it, to accept personal salary. They tried to dissuade her, fearing she may no longer obey them if not in their pay. But she was determined. She believed God would bless a simple life of trust. She felt receiving a salary compromised people’s view of her, making them think she was a government agent. And she wanted to free up mission funds to support others. So instead she lived with a Hindu family and earned her keep by teaching some of them English and other subjects, and also she would understand their culture more. The Baptist Assembly in NZ made a resolution that they were highly satisfied with her usefulness, devotion and success but regrets that she does not accept her salary and hopes there may be no cause for divergence between them.
Rosalie wrote and delivered a ‘paper’ at a missionary conference of Baptists in Bengal to the effect that if a missionary was convinced of trying a new method from the others, she should be allowed to move to a branch station and do so.
At this time the NZBMS enlisted the help of Baptist missionaries of Australia and UK to try to settle on a place for a NZ mission site. They chose against Narayangunj (no high enough ground to avoid the river’s floods), and got Rosalie to move to Comilla to the south-east. They then considered Pabna (west of Narayangunj) at the request of the Australians, and then, with Rosalie’s encouragement, chose Brahmanbaria (east of Narayangunj). Rosalie was caught up in this stressful indecision.
Rosalie made an initiative to the town of Muradnagar and told schoolboys she would like to meet their mothers. This worked. A Hindu man invited her to stay in a bamboo hut on their family grounds. It turned out he had given up worshiping idols, forbidding his wife and children to do so as well, and wanted to learn about Christ and God from Miss Macgeorge. Rosalie enjoyed her 10 days there, so many people wanted her to teach them.
About this time Rosalie again became ill. She stayed in her hut and one evening a small boy peered in and saw her pray to her God. When she asked her house owner for some goat’s milk she carefully checked that the woman’s child would not receive less milk because of her. This little story had a surprising aftermath: many years later a man asked at a nearby mission station to be baptised. The pastor asked how he was converted. He said he was the small boy that Rosalie had been concerned about. His mother had then pledged not to decrease his milk, and he’d been deeply impressed by this, and the lady’s piety, unselfishness and gentleness. So years later he had searched for and found Rosalie’s Saviour.
Two new companions and an experienced middle-aged couple arrived from New Zealand to work with Rosalie. Wonderful! Miss Hopestill Pillow worked with her for a while and then went to Faridpur to concentrate on Bengali study. The next was Miss Bacon, also going to Faridpur. The couple, arriving in December 1890, were Mr and Mrs Emeric de St Dalmas, who had joined NZBMS after experience in India within the British Baptist Missionary Society. Their new task, to head up the NZ work, was a relief to Rosalie, who had spent so much time alone.
In January 1891 she wrote home that she was well and strong again and ready for another year’s work. However, at a routine doctor’s visit, she was told to return immediately to New Zealand. She left East Bengal to go home via Calcutta and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), dispirited and unhappy. Old friends the Carters met her in Ceylon, finding her ill with a fever, and immediately arranged a stay inland. Though attended by a skilled doctor she passed away six days later on 12 April 1891. She was 31.
Missionaries and Tamil Christians sang as they carried her to her resting place in the garden town of Kandy. In four and half years she had, with devotion and zeal, forged a pathway for others while winning many converts.
Summarised from ‘Rosalie Macgeorge—Missionary Pioneer’, by R.J. Mardle, a Paper of New Zealand Baptist Historical Society, published November 1960.
NZ Missions Interlink https://missions.org.nz/about/ Accessed Jan 2020
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/199041739/rosalie-macgeorge Accessed Jan 2020