These days I wake up at six o’clock in the morning so that I can leave my Cambridge apartment before eight. Walking quickly I reach the Harvard Square subway station in about ten minutes. It is rush hour; the trains are packed. I am on a sabbatical and can, if I wish, wait. But like the passengers commuting to work, I get into the first train that comes. An hour later I reach the little station at Newton Centre. Another ten minute walk, this time uphill, brings me to my destination, the Andover Newton Theological School. The Franklin Trask Library is being reorganized; it opens to the public at one o’clock for a couple of hours. But I knock on a ground floor entrance and Diana Yount, Co-Director of the Library, or one of her assistants, opens the door for me. After all, I am a foreign scholar who has travelled all the way from India to consult their archival material on Miles Bronson and the other missionaries who served in Assam in the nineteenth century.
Much of my excitement has to do with the fact that my research project on early printing in Assam is finally beginning to acquire shape. We know very little about our local collaborators. This puts them in distinguished if ghostly company: there is not much information, for example, about the metallurgist, Panchanan Karmakar, who composed the font for Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778), the first book to be printed in Bengali. From the archival material I have consulted, I have gleaned some information on Batiram Das, the compositor and foreman at the American Baptist Mission Press at Sibsagar and Nidhi Levi Farwell, who apart from his role as writer, assisted in printing the Orunodoi and other publications.
But a part of my interest and excitement has to do the side stories I discover daily. By side story I mean an instance like the following excerpt from a letter written by Rev. C.D. King to headquarters on January 2, 1885.
As one of the most insignificant of the incidents which go to prove that a missionary needs a wife, and needs her with him, I may mention the fact that I have been writing this report between intervals of what promises at present to prove a very unsuccessful attempt at making bread. Two months ago the military bakery was closed. There is no bread to be bought in Kohima. Tomorrow is our communion Sunday, that is, if I succeed in getting any bread made. I hope you will accord due weight to the argument contained in this sad recital, and will be moved to send my wife back to me with the least possible delay.
This, strictly speaking, is not really relevant to my research project and does not further it in any conceivable or practical way. I really ought to smile and pass on. But perhaps because I am more of a fiction person than book historian, I find myself lingering a little too long on this letter, imagining in detail Rev. King’s predicament in his lonely Mission compound in Kohima. How many months was it before his wife joined him? And did he learn to bake bread tolerably well by that time?
A somewhat guilty pleasure, then. So it was good to meet Barbara Anne Radtke whose very competent dissertation, ‘“What are we among so many?”: A theological investigation of Miles Bronson and the Nowgong Orphan Institution debate’, Diana gave me to read. Barbara works as an Instructional Designer (Continuing Education) in Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She has never been to Assam but talks about Miles Bronson as though he died yesterday. She talks of Ruth, Harriet and Sophie (Bronson’s wife and daughters respectively) as though they are her family. This familiarity, Barbara told me when I asked her, is the result of her involvement with side stories when she was helping Diana arrange the Miles Bronson Family Papers. (Incidentally, Barbara’s dissertation work was done under the Rev. George Peck’s supervision. Rev. Peck was President of Andover Newton and died in 1990. He came to Andover Newton in 1966; before that, he was head of the Eastern Theological College at Jorhat.)
The most interesting side story I have so far discovered is one about the African boy who studied at the American Baptist Mission’s Orphan School at Nagaon. Maheswar Neog made a passing reference to this boy in his 1985 monograph on Nidhi Levi but the story is not generally known even in the Christian community in Nagaon. Here is the relevant portion from Rev. Stoddard’s letter of January 21, 1850 (Baptist Missionary Magazine, Vol. 59, pp. 176-77):
The orphan school continues about the same. A poor African lad, whom br. Barker brought from Calcutta last spring, has been with us eight or nine months and was baptized on the first Sabbath of the new year. He gives the clearest evidence of a change of heart. Why he has been directed from his own heathen land to this far off heathen land is not yet evident to the eye of man. His love, zeal, piety and uprightness of character were a great astonishment to our Assamese disciples. As a man they looked upon him as vastly inferior to themselves, but as a Christian they all acknowledged that he was something superior, and seemed astonished, that such a poor wild jungle boy, as they called him, could entertain such exalted views of Jesus Christ and of the way of salvation. When he first came among us our house was visited daily for many days, by hundreds of the Assamese who came to see the “wild man”. They could not believe that he belonged to a large nation, but considered him as some curious animal found in the jungles. They even counted his fingers and toes to see if he possessed all the properties of a man, and were anxious to know if I could understand his words, – for he spoke English a little.
He is now studying English, and is very anxious to be a preacher of the gospel. As near as I can get hold of his history it is as follows: He was a slave to a hard master in his own country. About two or three years ago he made his escape and fell in with some missionaries where he heard the first words about Jesus. From what I could ascertain, one of those men of God was Rev. Mr. Saker. But the lad had been with him only a short time when he was seized and taken back to slavery. He did not remain long in this condition, but escaped to Fernando Po, where he boarded a Dutch ship for Calcutta. As soon as he arrived there, which was in the fall of 1848, he left the ship and went in search of Christians. He soon fell in with some of our Baptist brethren who befriended him and sent him to school. But as the temptations of that heathen city are great and there was no suitable school for him, they sent him to Assam last spring by br. Barker. How long he will remain with us I cannot tell, but think if he could be sent direct to the charge of some missionary family in his own country, it would be the best thing for him and the cause. He is about sixteen years old, and perfectly honest and trustworthy, – which cannot be said of all the Assamese.
An American friend to whom I described the letter politely said something about wonder, innocence and curiosity. But the racist attitude of the Assamese who came flocking to see the boy is unmistakable. Stoddard’s final comment on the Assamese is racist too. But for once moral indignation is not an option.
What part of Africa did the boy come from? How long did he live in Nagaon? (The Nowgong Orphan School was closed down some years later.) What were his thoughts and feelings? At this distance only fiction – another word for side story – can provide the answers.