An African Boy in the Nowgong Orphan School

The main entrance of the Franklin Trask Library. A major reorganization of the Library is currently on. So a side entrance on the ground floor is in use.

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.

This is the entrance I knock on to enter the Franklin Trask Library. Side doors and side stories – they kind of go together.

Gandhi and Print

The printing press made its appearance in Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century and the burgeoning of print occurred in the decades thereafter. However, print culture and technology arrived in many parts of India only in the first half of the nineteenth century. The belated introduction of print in India meant that even Indians of Gandhi’s generation were sometimes required to take decisions relating to its use, decisions that would have a lasting impact on Indian society and culture.

‘Typographic fixity’ occurs in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s pioneering history of the book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Communication: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe (1979). In his influential Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson drew on this concept to argue that ‘print-capitalism’ was responsible for the rise of nationalism. For Anderson, the fixing of ‘print-language’ (which he contrasts to spoken language) resulted from the ‘explosive interaction between capitalism, technology and human linguistic diversity.’ In Europe print-languages, Anderson writes

…laid the bases for national consciousnesses in three distinct ways. First and foremost, they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars. Speakers of the huge variety of  Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand each other in conversation, became capable of comprehending each other via print and paper…These fellow-readers…formed the embryo of the nationally imagined community.

Second, print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped to build that image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of nation…

Third, print-capitalism created languages-of-power of a kind different from the older administrative vernaculars. Certain dialects inevitably were closer to each print-language and dominated their final forms.

Gandhi’s advocacy of a ‘link language’ shows his understanding of the power of ‘print-language.’ One of the declared aims of Gandhi’s Navajivan Institution (cited on Navajivan Trust’s home page, currently under re-construction) was ‘to break the unnatural glamour the English language has gained in the eyes of the people all over the country and to propagate for the establishment of Hindi or Hindustani in its place.’ Gandhi was against the use of English between Indians and always made it a point to write in his mother tongue. However, he was pragmatic enough to translate anything he wrote almost immediately into English. (When he did not have the time to do so himself, he entrusted the job of translation to a trusted lieutenant.) This was a decision forced on him by the diversity of the linguistic situation in the country. However, in spite this inconsistency, Gandhi continued to be hostile to the use of English and advocated Hindi or Hindustani as a ‘link language.’

Gandhi’s attitude to copyright is worth noting. Copyright is a modern institution (the world’s first copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was enacted in Britain in 1710), made possible by the invention of the printing press. Gandhi seems to have realized that copyright is based on the concept of the individual creator who is entitled to make a profit out of his or her work. His own view was that an author should not have a proprietary claim on what he or she wrote: ‘Writings in journals which I have the privilege of editing must be the common man’s property. Copyright is not a natural thing. It is a modern institution, perhaps desirable to a certain extent…’ Like his other writings, Gandhi allowed chapters from The Story of My Experiments with Truth to be freely reprinted in Indian newspapers. However, he reserved the right to publish the chapters of his autobiography in book form. It was the only time he did this and it was done, according to Sunil Khilnani’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Gandhi’s autobiography, on the advice of his American publisher who was concerned about how many copies he might sell.

The copyright on Gandhi’s literary works expired on January 1, 2009. In 1990 Viswa Bharati lobbied to have the copyright of Rabindranath Tagore’s literary works extended by 10 years; it argued that unrestricted publication of his works could lead to distortions and misinterpretations. As a result of this lobbying, the Indian Copyright Act now permits copyright beneficiaries to receive loyalty for 60 years after an author’s death despite the fact that in many parts of the world copyright is limited to 50 years.  Navjivan Trust however did not lobby to have its copyright extended, even though fears were raised by a few of Gandhi’s admirers about his thoughts being misrepresented and distorted by other publishers. In 2004 Sonia Gandhi withdrew the copyright of Nehru’s books from Oxford University Press and handed it over to Penguin India. The Oxford editions were rather badly produced and were unattractive to look at. But while Nehru’s An Autobiography was available for only Rs 100 the better-looking Penguin paperback edition currently costs Rs 450. In contrast, Navjivan Trust has continued to bring out cheap editions of Gandhi’s works, thus making them available to a wide readership. Gandhi’s views on matters regarding copyright and easy availability of an author’s works continue to influence the way in which his writings are now disseminated.

Aware of the role of print in the promotion of nationalist sentiment, Gandhi nurtured journals and newspapers despite his hectic political schedule. He consciously addressed young readers in his writings in order to influence these future citizens of a sovereign nation. Incidentally, not only was he was a competent journalist, he was a good editor too; in the latter role, his comments on the manuscript version of Untouchable proved to be useful to the young, Bloomsbury-influenced Mulk Raj Anand. Gandhi could have been a devastating reviewer as well: he damned Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927) forever by categorizing it as ‘the report of a drain inspector.’

Given Gandhi’s attitude to copyright and his interest in reaching out to the young through his journals, it is logical to ask how he would have used the internet had he been alive now. As commentators have noted, Gandhi was a brilliant user of the press. They cite the Dandi March of 1930 as an example of the way in which Gandhi could dramatize and publicize political events. Gandhi deliberately built up expectations of his arrest to gain maximum publicity. The march from Sabarmati ashram to Dandi, a distance of 240 miles, took three weeks to complete – a pace suited to those pre-breaking news days – during which news of Gandhi’s novel protest (salt itself was a very well-chosen symbol) trickled out to the most remote parts of India. Picking up a piece of salt crust on the beach, Gandhi is reported to have said, ‘With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’ That simple image of him resonates even today. It is one of the reasons why I believe that instead of being hostile to TV and the internet, Gandhi would have surprised us by using electronic media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) as effectively as he used print.