Note: I have asked Audrey Bastian to be a guest blogger today to write about a missionary named Elder Elam Luddington who served in Siam in 1854 becoming the first missionary in Thailand and what his experiences were in serving among those who had disabilities. Audrey Bastian is a professional writer and freelance American Sign Language interpreter in the Washington DC metro area. She received her master’s degree in International Law and World Order from the University of Reading in England and a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Arabic from Brigham Young University. She is currently working on a narrative non-fiction account of the first Mormon missionary to Siam in 1852.
How would we render Mormon history differently if we viewed it through the lens of broken bones and disability?
Elam Luddington became a historic figure when as one of four missionaries assigned he arrived alone in Bangkok on April 6, 1853. Twenty eight years earlier at eighteen years old Luddington’s career trajectory looked promising but as a mariner based out of New York. He mounted the first rung of that ladder as a steward and cook on a sloop running cargo on the Hudson River. Then he apprenticed himself out to construct a large brig. In his autobiography he wrote, “I took quite a liking to the sea and clipper ships, brigs, and schooners with all sails set and colors flying.” A fall, however, may have driven him onto a new path and eventually a journey without purse or scrip through Southeast Asia. Luddington there faces ‘the broken’ in raw and close encounters.
In 1825 Luddington embarked on the “John Adams” carrying a cargo of cotton to the Bay of Havre de Grace, France then Liverpool, England. At Liverpool he recalls:
Here, while discharging cargo between daylight and dark I fell down the hold and broke my left arm. It was not properly set, and is lame to this day.
(Elam Luddington Autobiography.
http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vkbush/elamlud.html, Accessed on July 10, 2013.)
A fall down the hold may not seem significant at first until we discover that he never stepped foot onto a ship again employed as a mariner. Could the lame arm have anything to do with his sudden career change? Certainly the lives of every seaman depended on his shipmates. Hand over hand pulling and pushing of life at sea required two strong arms. A man with a low functioning arm would have been a liability to a sea captain.
Whatever the case, his career shifted dramatically inland eventually leading him to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints or the Mormons. Do we remember that he crossed the Plains twice, once as a Mormon Battalion soldier, and once as a pioneer company leader with that arm? Do we remember that sitting in the Church’s October conference of 1852 he received a ‘call’ across the pulpit to proselyte in Siam partially lamed? The very physical limitations he incurred precluding his original employment on ships, however, enabled this historic voyage to Siam.
Shifting our anchor into the Pacific, Southeast Asia has the highest percentage of people with disabilities in the world. Poverty, accidents (like Luddington’s), inaccessibility of medical care, wars causing disabling injuries, malnutrition affecting growth and brain development and the penal system of cutting off limbs for petty crimes were all common during the 1800s.
Elam Luddington, a quiet man with a mild disability of his own, arrived on the shores of Calcutta in 1853. In his missionary journal he traveled Southeast Asia referencing injuries. These ranged from religious rites causing pain or death to scenes of bloody warfare. He specifically records fighters who lost limbs during a struggle and the penal system of Siam torturing and starving prisoners or chopping fingers and hands.
Luddington arrived in China just before the Second Opium War. The Qing government ratified The Treaty of Nanjing in 1843 significantly reducing its power at the trading ports. Chinese society slowly unhinged and so did its coastal welfare structure. In Canton Luddington zooms in on some people with disabilities and their situation. He writes:
The mame, the holt, the [blind] & most deformed objects of pity these poor invaleads rooling in poverty & dirt, gathering the crumbs or chow chow or sumthing to support nature I hav often seen them sucking the stalks of old shugar cane beging in the streets & sullers, to keep from starving to death.
(Elam Luddington, Missionary Journal The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Archives MS 6104)
Although he may not have seen himself as disabled, impaired or impoverished like the “deformed objects” he describes, nonetheless he also begged for his own bread and shelter every night as a penniless missionary; journeying with his own lame arm. This vivid and tragic depiction reveals not only the broken in body, the broken in spirit, but more widely, the broken society.
Chinese likely saw the scene differently. Is this an example of Chinese humanity or dogma? For example, did either Chinese culture or even Cantonese law stipulate that sellers divvy their excess food to people with disabilities? Luddington then might have witnessed an element of Chinese welfare: providing food at the markets. Indeed we may be glimpsing acts of Chinese humanity toward people with disabilities despite however backward it appears to our age of disability rights. Luddington described his own situation thus:
I wos looked upon, as only fit for transportation or an outcast from the hopes of Eternity, or a poor Mormon Elder from Utah.
(Elam Luddington, Missionary Journal, see above)
In the chaos of pre and post war Canton, Chinese and specifically these people with disabilities found ways to stay alive and so did Luddington.
We would have to dig further into how other provinces in China regarded and cared for people with disabilities to compare the coastal region and the interior. We could also compare the way the British now ruling Canton treated their people with disabilities. Ironically Dickens had just published Hard Times the previous year attacking the Utilitarian idea of happiness for the majority, effectively creating misery for anyone outside of it; the very poor and disabled.
Using logic, not everyone in Canton disregarded the needs of people with disabilities. Even in the 1850s there were likely crusaders especially people with disabilities themselves striving for better conditions. A human “rooling in poverty & dirt” will not survive long without a network or scheme of some sort. The will to live encourages some level of resourcefulness and fraternity.
Likely Luddington’s observations do not represent the true identities of people with disabilities in Canton. Perhaps the “invaleads” he witnessed recently walked as other men on the streets only days or weeks before? Perhaps they succumbed to the injuries or accidents that led any man of the 1850s into that condition. Why did Luddington choose to write about these people in his journal, though? Besides the shock of seeing them “gathering the crumbs” could he also acknowledge that he himself teetered on that same desperate life. Though broken, Luddington and those that he witnessed carried on one more day. And through his words we gain insight into conditions leading to the Second Opium War and the life of an impoverished Mormon missionary from deepening our focus on people with broken arms and disabilities.
Building on the work of Mormon/Asian historian, Lanier Britsch, and former mission president to Thailand and Brigham Young University professor, Michael Goodman, a narrative non-fiction book is in process to bring the tale of Elam Luddington to a wider audience.
You can follow the research and writing:
Official website: MormonsLeftandRight.com