O T Cutter’s Letters to Miles Bronson

When Oliver T Cutter came to Sadiya (with Nathan Brown) on March 23, 1836 to start a mission station there, he brought with him a small printing press. The press was requested by Francis Jenkins, Commissioner and Agent to the Governor-General for Assam.  Tea was being newly cultivated and the British were keen to ‘pacify’ the frontier tribes through Christianity and education. The printing press was seen as an indispensable aid in this process. Later, Jenkins gave the missionaries another press. He also donated five hundred rupees to buy fonts from Calcutta. For the missionaries printing was of course an integral part of their evangelical work.

Siva dol temple in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

Siva Doul in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

In July 1836 Cutter printed his first book, a spelling book in English, Assamese, and Shan. Cutter worked in Assam till 1853. During this time, he set up the American Baptist Mission Press in Jaipur (after removing it from Sadiya) and then in its final location in Sivasagar. Cutter printed the first books in Assamese as well as in Shan, Singpho, and Naga. He also printed the Orunodoi, the first newspaper and periodical in Assam.

Cutter is not a very visible presence in missionary records.  He was dismissed from service in 1852 on ‘account of immorality.’ (The exact reason is not specified in the records I have consulted.) Thereafter details of his life and work disappear from official records.  About the early part of his career, we know that he was based in Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma (Myanmar). The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society had begun its proselyting activities in Burma in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The Burma Mission’s printing presses in stations like Rangoon, Moulmein, and Tavoy brought out a large amount of religious and pedagogical materials. Cutter seems to have arrived in Burma in 1832: a report mentions that he brought to that country a press gifted by a church in New York. He also worked in a press in Rangoon for about nine months in 1833-34.

Four of his letters written to Miles Bronson have survived. They are in a brittle condition and Cutter’s handwriting is awful. But they throw some light on Cutter. Interestingly, they show that he continued to take interest in missionary work and maintained warm relations with his missionary friends until the end of his life.

The first letter is dated September 12, 1864; though the letterhead is that of the Military Orphan Press in Calcutta, Cutter was working as superintendent of the Government Printing Press at Hastings Street. (In October 1863, the Government had taken over the Military Orphan Press.) Cutter says that he is writing in haste to correct an ‘erroneous impression’ in the minds of Miles Bronson and others that he had expressed a wish to return to missionary service. What he had done (apparently in a previous letter to Bronson in Nowgong) was merely assured ‘my beloved friends that altho no longer enjoying the honor and privilege of being their associate’, he nevertheless empathized with them and could feel the joys and sorrows of the missionaries who were toiling in Nowgong. ‘But I never for a moment thought of proposing to return to the field, and I write at once to prevent your writing to any one that such was your impression.’

Abihijit Gupta has a nice little piece on the mournful sounding press whose stationery Cutter used. It belonged to a charitable organization founded in the eighteenth century to look after (as its name suggests) the orphaned or deserted children of British soldiers in India. The press was started ‘to train the first-ever cadre of press-workers in South Asia.’ Incidentally, its first three superintends, G H Huttmann, W Ridsdale and F Carberry, all died in harness. Huttmann was thrown by a horse; Ridsdale drowned, as did Carberry.

The next letter, also written when Cutter was the superintend of the Government Printing Press, Calcutta is dated June 11, 1868.  It expresses concern for Miles Bronson who fell seriously ill on the ship taking him to America. It also informs Bronson that Cutter’s wife, Harriett, has not been keeping well, and carries some news of missionary acquaintances.

Cutter’s next letters are more interesting. The third letter is dated July 27, 1880 and is from London where Cutter apparently settled after retirement. Though he prefaces his letter by saying that he ‘can scarcely hold my pen to write’, having fallen and broken his right leg, he ends up using three pages. He sends news of Mrs King, wife of C. D. King, the missionary stationed in Kohima, who is staying with a Mr and Mrs Stanton, awaiting the arrival of Mrs Ward (another Assam missionary) so as to accompany her to New York. Both Cutter and Harriet have visited her several times, he writes. To this letter, Cutter adds another, dated the following day. He explains that he had a visitor, ‘a friend who has seen much affliction come in and kept me past the posting hour’; then the son and daughter of Robert Robinson, former missionary at Dacca, came and remained till 9 o’clock. These references, and others like mention of a letter received from Mrs Bruce from Tezpur (probably the widow of the pioneering tea planter Charles Alexander Bruce), and his enquiries about various missionaries suggest that Cutter, far from severing his ties or being a disowned person, was part of a circle of missionary friends. He seems to have prized his friendships and visited, and was visited by, missionaries passing through London on their way to or from Assam. An elderly man of nearly seventy years, Cutter grows nostalgic as he remembers a tour he made, four decades earlier, with Miles and Ruth Bronson: ‘How often I think of that trip with you and dear Sister Ruth on elephants up the Naga Hills – those old Namsangias – the first time a white woman ever entered those Hills – how zealously you labored for them, and what privations and hardships you endured, and you heartily rejoiced in them all. Ah my dear beloved brother – those were happy days!’

As is the usual fate of printers, Cutter’s role is overlooked. He himself had no doubt about the efficacy of printing and in a rare report, written in the early days in Sadiya, he said:

Although the press is an invaluable auxiliary in this infant mission, and very little could be at present be accomplished without it, yet it is not kept in constant operation, like the presses in Burmah, neither will our small editions of 500 and 1000 compare with their editions of 100,000 copies. But we should not despise the day of small things. I look forward with no slight degree of interest to the time when the door shall be fully opened, that missionaries may travel from this to Ava, and distribute tracts among the numerous Shyans who people the districts, and also enter the Bor Khamti (Great Khamti) country, and scatter among its thousands, pages of truth…  I see no reason why we cannot why we cannot enter the provinces of China with very little difficulty. Then the importance of the printing department here, will be more extensively felt, and in a few years I hope to see calls made for tracts and parts of scripture in six or eight different languages. 

Cutter’s grand vision of printing leading to the Christian conversion of tribes on a pan-Asian scale did not of course materialize. Bronson and the other missionaries abandoned this impracticable idea in 1841 and began instead to focus their evangelical activities on the Assamese population. Yet in his last letter Cutter clings to the hope that animated the Assam (Shan) Mission in its initial years:

 What a splendid field you [Miles Bronson] have traced out! And if Assam, & Burmah, and China can be connected by a line of Missionary posts, occupied by a united band of devoted, hard-working laborers, what “glorious consummation”! I wish my dear wife and I were as well and strong, and as young as we were 40 years ago, and you were as well and strong as you were 30 years ago, how pleasant it would be for us to buckle on the harness, gird up the loins and enter upon this grand and noble work!

As the man who introduced print in Assam, Cutter is undoubtedly important. We ought to know more about him. Some of his other letters – with his terrible handwriting – may have survived.  I, for one, would love to read them, especially if they have something to say about his professional life as a printer.


The Colporteurs of Nineteenth Century Assam

Bible societies  in America develpoed an extensive network of colporteurs.

Bible societies in America developed an extensive network of colporteurs. In Assam the missionaries used colporteurs though their numbers were small. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Soon after my trip to China (about which I wrote in my last post), I left for Pune to attend a book history seminar. My presentation was on the Orunodoi and I was hoping to meet other researchers working on missionary publishing and printing.  But there was only one other paper similar to mine. It was on the Bible and promised to be on its repurposing in India but the presenter, a gentleman with a long ponytail, chose to confine himself to the history of the Book in the western world. Luckily for me, the pioneering book historians Swapan Chakraborty and Abhijit Gupta were there to make made the seminar worthwhile. Professor Chakraborty delivered an erudite keynote address and turned out to be a mine of useful information. (I learnt that all the extant issues of the Orunodoi were digitized during his tenure as Director General of the National Library, Kolkata.) Dr Gupta gave a well-researched and entertaining presentation.

It is because I meet so few scholars interested in missionary publishing that the subject has come to acquire a private meaning for me. This has its pleasures but I do occasionally wish there were researchers I could compare notes with or just talk to. When I was in the US, I met book historians who thought I was working on an ‘interesting’ topic but who didn’t really want to dwell on it. I attributed their lack of interest to embarrassment since missionary activity was linked to colonialism. But it is less easy to account for the indifference of Indian book historians.

The book I carried with me to read on the plane was Faith in Reading: Publishing History and the Birth of Mass Media in America (2004) by David Paul Nord. This and Leslie Howsam’s Cheap Bibles: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society (2002) are the two books I know which do justice to the ambition and scale of missionary publishing and printing. Howsam’s book (which I feel has not received the attention it deserves) deals with the publishing activities of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in the mid-nineteenth century. The BFBS did not involve itself in doctrinal issues. Run by evangelical-minded philanthropists, practical politicians and by savvy businessmen, the BFBS’s non-commercial publishing project concentrated on supplying the world with affordable or free bibles. A recent tweet (or re-tweet) by Howsam conveys its gigantic achievement:  ‘In 160 years, the British & Foreign Bible Society – a missionary group founded in 1804 – published 723 million Bibles in 829 languages.’ David Nord, in his book, writes about Bible societies like the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the American Tract Society (1825) which made it their mission ‘to place religious tracts and books into the hands of every man, woman and child in America.’ These organizations, and the BFBS, were among the very first to take advantage of innovations in printing technology like stereotype printing and steam-powered presses.

The American Bible societies made effective use of colporteurs. In Europe itinerant sellers of books – chapmen, peddlers, packmen, and hawkers – had existed since the early days of the book trade and were not always regarded as respectable. (‘Colporteur’ is said to be derived from the Old French word ‘comporter’ and refers to the pack carried by the peddler or ‘porter’ over his ‘col’, that is shoulder or neck). The American Bible societies systematically developed a network of colporteurs to sell and distribute Bibles and tracts, especially in rural and remote areas. According to Nord,  in 1850 alone ‘the American Tract Society’s 569 colporteurs visited 505,422 families, sold nearly half a million volumes, and gave away 35 million pages of books and tracts.’

'Preaching in the Bazaar in Nowgong.' Illustration from a photocopy of Harriette Bronson Gunn's out of print In a Far Country.

‘Preaching in the Bazaar in Nowgong.’ (Illustration from a photocopy of Harriette Bronson Gunn’s out of print In a Far Country.)

In Assam (as elsewhere in India) the American Baptist missionaries not only wrote, translated and published books but had to improvise ways of delivering their Bibles, tracts and other printed material to potential readers. To do this they used colporteurs, though on a far reduced scale compared to the Bible societies in America.  In the missionary records we occasionally find the names of a few of the colporteurs: Biposu Judson (stationed at Guwahati), Babon Apinta (also at Guwahati), Kandura (Guwahati), Monroe B. Weed, Adiram, Besai, Adoniram, Modhu, Kolibor, and Ragmon (all Nagaon). They were paid a small salary for their work: in 1868, a (nameless) Garo man who had been receiving Rs 15 a month as a head constable was appointed colporteur (and Bible reader) on a monthly salary of Rs. 10. A colporteur was required to do itinerant preaching and had to write monthly reports to his missionary supervisor detailing the ‘tours, places visited, kind and number of tracts and scriptures distributed, and the conversations held with people.’

The colporteurs were converts from humble backgrounds. Kandura’s father ‘was a poor blind beggar, of the fisherman caste’; he was baptized by the missionary Ira J Stoddard when he was twelve. The Missionary Magazine, published by the American Baptist Missionary Union, carried an obituary of Biposu Judson in its September 1856 issue. Written by William Ward (the missionary who edited the Orunodoi from 1861 to 1873), it was preceded by an editorial note stating that ‘it should have appeared some months since, but was accidentally misplaced.’ The obituary written by Ward is a conventional missionary narrative of the power of the gospel to save a heathen soul (in this case that of Biposu) but it gives us a peep into Biposu’s life and character: the young widow and two little sons he left behind, his lack of education and his ‘good natural abilities, and [possession of] a candor and seriousness that commended him to listen.’ These colporteurs belonged to the hopeful phase of the Assam Mission, when the prospects of making converts among the Assamese still seemed bright.

A report written by A K Gurney in 1879 reminds one of the beginning of Homi Bhabha’s well-known essay, ‘Signs taken for Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817’:

The Assamese seem willing to hear, and are respectful in their treatment of preachers. On a recent trip I was surprised at the eagerness of both Hindoos and Mussulmans to get hold of Christian tracts. We sold a large number in a short time, charging a pice each. Hereafter I shall adopt this custom of selling tracts instead of giving them away. One explanation for this great eagerness for tracts I believe to be a great desire to get hold of reading-matter of any shape.

We give a central role to the Orunodoi in our accounts of the emergence of a nascent public sphere in Assam but the print runs for the periodical are surprisingly low (in the 400-1000 range). The print runs for the tracts were much higher. Over a period of roughly forty years many thousands of tracts were distributed and apparently read by two generations of nineteenth century readers in Assam. The missionary call to pay heed to the Word of God was ignored by most of the population in the plains (the missionaries were to be hugely successful in their evangelical quest in the hills of the Northeast) but though the tracts did not succeed in their primary purpose they – and the lowly colporteurs – seem to have been instrumental in the formation of a readership in nineteenth century Assam.

Last summer I was at the Andover Newton Theological School, looking at old and fragile missionary letters and documents. One day the archivist put more than a dozen booklets from the Sibsagor Mission Press on my desk. They had been discovered, she said, during a recent reorganization of the library.  Among the tracts, primers, and catechisms there was a copy of Miles Bronson’s A Spelling Book and Vocabulary, in English, Assamese, Singpho, and Naga, published in 1839, a few of its pages still uncut. But it was a copy of Hindu Objections to the Christian Religion Answered (translated from the Bengali by A H Danforth) that thrilled me most. There on its first page, in fading ink, was the signature of Babon Apinta, colporteur. 

Remembering Batiram Das Peck

A mid-nineteenth century missionary report gives us a rare glimpse of the Sibsagor Mission Press, the first printing press in Assam. It was here that the Orunodoi, the first Assamese newspaper and periodical, and many of the first Assamese books were published. We learn that the printing department consisted of two printing presses, a bindery, three engravers, and a small foundry for casting type. Especially interesting is the report’s reference to thirty-three individuals involved in ‘printing, binding, and type-casting’ work.  These ‘men and boys’ are anonymous but from other sources we know the names of the two Assamese converts who were an integral part of the Mission Press: Nidhi Levi Farwell and Batiram Das Peck. At the time of the report they had recently been appointed as preachers and transferred, temporarily, as it turned out, from the printing press.

This illustration accompanied Nidhi's 'Death of Batiram' which appeared in the June 1853 issue of the Orunodoi.

This illustration accompanied Nidhi’s ‘Death of Batiram’ which appeared in the June 1853 issue of the Orunodoi.

Nidhi, the better educated of the two, wrote quite frequently in the Orunodoi. On the basis of his writings and the occasional reference to him in the missionary records, Maheswar Neog was able to write a small monograph on him, which was published by Sahiyta Akademi in 1985. Neog believed that Nidhi was the right-hand man of the Orunodoi’s first editor, Nathan Brown, and also of subsequent editors (Appleton H. Danforth, Samuel M. Whiting, William Ward and Edward W. Clark), and that he had an important role in the management of the Orunodoi. Batiram was the compositor and the foreman of the press but it is difficult to reconstruct his life and work with any certainty because he seems to have written very little, if at all. Neog thought that an article on the evils of opium in the maiden issue of the Orunodoi was written by Batiram since it was signed ‘Bd’ but we cannot be sure. Two brief obituary notices, one written by Nidhi in the Orunodoi and the other by Whiting in the Baptist Missionary Magazine, are nearly the only sources of information on him.


Nidhi’s ‘Discovery of Printing’ appeared in the March 1846 issue of the Orunodoi.

An 1846 report on the Sibsagor Mission Press mentions that the ‘the services of a native assistant have been secured, and others can be trained to the work as may be required.’ Batiram is referred to by name for the first time in a report of July 1849 which says that O.T. Cutter, the printer of the Mission Press, has fallen ill and that in his absence the responsibility of the press has passed on to Nathan Brown who has ‘found a most faithful and valuable helper in the native assistant Batiram.’ The Sibsagor Mission Press’s annual statements of printing show that its presses were in constant operation, producing a steady stream of religious and pedagogical publications. The press did some job work for the colonial administration and tea planters as well. We can try and imagine a day in the life of the foreman of this busy press.  The job, which put Batiram at the head of a team and at the centre of most activity in the printing department, seems to have required several skills. Apart from Batiram’s duties of composing the layout and supervising the actual printing of the sheets, which involved the proper mixing of inks to obtain the required colour and consistency, he probably also did some proof-reading, handled the preparation of fonts and types, ensured that the persons engaged in binding did so correctly, and had the completed work or volumes delivered to the Depository.

Batiram became the third (or perhaps the fourth) Assamese to convert when he was baptized on March 9, 1845.  Whiting writes that Batiram nearly died in February 1845 as a result of illness and that he accepted Christianity on recovering, saying he had been a secret worshiper for two years. Batiram’s conversion caused quite a stir in Hindu society for, unlike Nidhi, the first Assamese convert, he came from a high caste. In Batiram’s journal, which he kept from the day of his baptism, and which Whiting described as ‘worthy of publication, in Assamese if not in English’, he recorded the hostility he faced for having converted. One Sunday evening in 1849 he confessed in church that he had been ‘guilty of the sin of licentiousness.’ It seems to have been quite a dramatic event: ‘For more than half an hour Batiram poured forth his confession with groans and tears. There was not a dry eye in the room.’  That same year Batiram married Moina, a girl from the Mission’s school at Guwahati. In 1851 his appointment as preacher was regularized. Whiting writes with feeling about a twenty-eight day preaching tour he undertook with Batiram in January 1852 to Jorhat and its vicinity. Since the reaction of the people was either hostile or indifferent, Whiting wondered if the Assamese would ever become Christians. Batiram replied ‘that he did not think the older persons ever would, but many of the young people, being able to read and hearing from time to time about the Christian religion, would believe in Christ.’ During this tour Batiram told Whiting he did not think he would live long: ‘Something,’ he said, ‘whispers to me that “time is short.”’ Batiram died on May 28, 1853 after a month’s illness and was buried in the mission cemetery at Sivasagar, (as it is currently spelled).

Batiram worked in the Sibsagor Mission Press from 1846 till July 1852 and was unable to devote much time to preaching. His expectation that the younger generation of Assamese would convert to Christianity did not of course come to pass. The story of how missionaries like Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson contributed to the ‘resuscitation of the Assamese language’ is well known. The American Baptist missionaries did indeed bring about a fundamental change by their introduction of print culture and technology in Assam, though not on the lines they had envisaged. The nineteenth-century Assamese intelligentsia appropriated print and used it to create a public sphere. In time they were not only able to win official recognition for the Assamese language from the British administration but also construct, in a competitive colonial environment, a set of new regional, national, and modern identities.

An unsigned article on printing which appeared in the Orunodoi’s July 1849 issue had this illustration.

In Book History through Postcolonial Eyes, Robert Fraser notes that early European authors and publishers often did not bother to acknowledge the local help that made their work possible. He cites the example of Nathaniel Brassey Halhed who published A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778), the first book to be printed in Bengal, but failed to mention the contribution of Panchanama Karmarkar, the metallurgist who designed the Bengali font. The missionaries were no different; their proselytization rested on the same assumptions as colonialism. So we do not know the name of the Khamti youth whose skillful woodcuts were used for an Assamese version of Worcester’s Primer published in April 1838, or the names of the thirty-three ‘men and boys’ who were part of the Sibsagor Mission Press in the 1850s.  We make much the same mistake when as readers, critics, teachers of literature, and literary historians we ignore the role of printers, book sellers and other (often humble) intermediaries who make reading material available to us. Batiram is honoured in the small Assamese Christian community as an early church leader and composer of hymns but he should be more widely remembered for the contribution he made by keeping the mission’s presses rolling.