Publishing In a Far Country

Finally my edition of In a Far Country (with editorial apparatus) is out from Bhabani Books. The book first appeared in 1911 and is a biography of Miles Bronson, the American Baptist missionary who lived and worked for four decades in nineteenth century Assam. It was written by Harriette Bronson Gunn, the fourth daughter of Ruth and Miles Bronson. In a Far Country has long been out of print and is not available on the net. So bringing out a print edition seemed justified. Somewhere in his voluminous writings, HK Barpujari dissed the book by calling is ‘an interesting sidelight.’ But he was reading it as a historian. When I bring my literary training to bear on historical sources and texts I find myself noticing the silences and absences that traditional historians often do not see. And so it was with In a Far Country. In my Introduction, I try (among other things) to create contexts for reading the book. One of my arguments is that it belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical writing. Protestants in nineteenth century America created their own print culture and evangelical public sphere by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, hymns, memoirs, and biographies. Missionary memoirs were an important part of this print culture. In a Far Country was written as an inspiring narrative of Christian sacrifice, heroism and achievement in nineteenth century Assam. But while describing the triumphs and tribulations of the Bronson family, the book throws light on a crucial period when modern Assam and modern Assamese was being formed.

Bringing out a book with a local publisher is rather like bringing out your PhD dissertation. Not only are you responsible for what you write, you are also involved in the material process of producing (proof-reading, deciding on composition matters like the layout, providing maps, diagrams, etc ) the printed volume. But I consider myself lucky to have Bhabani as my publisher. They are the finest publishers in north east India and, and thanks to all the orders they get, are doing very well businesswise. For them, publishing books is a hobby (hence the delay in publishing the book) – but their book production values are professional. Professor Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami recommended In A Far Country to them. They at once agreed to publish it, with no thoughts of profits. (Lately they have published a few out of print or difficult to acquire books.) I like the cover that Prince Choudhury and Nripen Barma have designed. The sepia tone is nice (my view) and the use of red lettering adds the right dash of colour. The cover picture of a ghat is from the original book and has been much enhanced in quality.

There are some intriguing photographs in the book. Is the one captioned ‘First Coverts at Sadiya’ of Nidhi Levi and Thuku, Nidhi’s wife (and their child), since the former is recorded as the first Assamese convert? But dates are a problem. Photography was just about invented in 1841, when Nidhi was baptized. The mission station at Sadiya was abandoned that same year, and photography did not become a prevalent medium for at least another decade or so. Was it taken later? When? I like the photo below of ‘missionary laborers’ on an elephant. Elephants were often used by the missionaries to undertake their tours. It was a fall from an elephant in Dibrugarh which forced the elderly Miles Bronson to finally call it a day and return to America.

Ruth Bronson, painted in Hamilton, NY by John Wilkie in 1836. (I am grateful to Mary Ann Titterington for sending this image.)

In a Far Country put me in touch with several descendants of Ruth and Miles Bronson. A blog post I wrote after first reading it interested Lori Walsh, a descendant of the Bronsons’ fifth daughter, Sophia. After Lori wrote to me I send her a copy of the book in my possession. It had a few pages missing. Later Lori was able to find an original copy of the 1911 edition in an American library. She kindly shared this with me and it is the version that the Bhabani edition is based on. Tom Billard, who is a descendant of Eliza Bronson Cotes Robinson, the third of the Bronson daughters, wrote to me as well. The Bronson family chronology in my edition is partly based on his research into his family’s past. Neither Lori Walsh nor Tom Billard knew each other. It made  me very happy to put the cousins in touch. (They were delighted.) I also corresponded with another descendant of Sophia, Mary Anne Titterington. She sent an image of a painting of Ruth Bronson. I didn’t use it in my book but, as I do not remember seeing it anywhere, I am posting it here.

Who is the book for? After my blogpost on the Bronson family appeared a Christian reader from Nagaland (I believe) contacted me saying she would feel blest to receive a copy. She and others like her are the book’s most logical readers. But the book should also be of interest to scholars of colonial Assam, Northeast India, church history (Bronson is locally revered but little known in the global history of missions ) and to those who –  often ‘reading against the grain’ – work in such areas as life writing and travel writing, modernity, and feminism (missionary women were an integral, if not always acknowledged, part of missionary projects).

On Nathan Brown’s ‘The Missionary’s Call’ and Other Hymns

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished preparing the manuscript of a new edition of In a Far Country (1911), Harriette Bronson Gunn’s biography of her father, Miles Bronson. Some consider this kind of work academic drudgery but I liked it. I particularly liked doing the annotations. I did similar work on an early Indian English novel some years ago. Then I was working in the very well-stocked library of a leading university. Hence I had all the books I could possibly want at my disposal. My current setting is rather different. But the internet is a great leveller. I did have misgivings about using Wikipedia but allowed myself to be reassured by a review in the TLS which described the Wikipedia entry on the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom as the ‘most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history’ currently available. YouTube was of great help as well, giving me access to musical sources and information I would not have had otherwise.

In the Introduction to the book (out, hopefully, in December), I point out that In a Far Country belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical and missionary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. Protestants in America (and in Britain) created their own print culture by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, memoirs, biographies, and hymns. So I should not have been surprised by the book’s allusions to a number of hymns.  Many years ago, when I first read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, I was struck by the novel’s continual allusions to ghazals. Ghazals were integral to old Delhi Muslim life; even beggars seem to have recited them. However, from a literary point of view, the hymn, unlike the ghazal, is regarded as a lowly form. This is because hymns are perceived to be conventional, both in sentiment and form, rather than creative. Poetry, the argument goes, must be imaginative.Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poems are religious but innovative and so qualify as poems.

Perhaps there is also a feeling that the religious piety expressed in hymns is hypocritical. After all, the hymn composer John Newton, who wrote ‘Amazing Grace, so greatly loved by Americans including, ironically, by African-Americans, was a slave trader. He became a born-again Christian in 1748. Newton captained a succession of slave ships till 1754, when serious illness forced his retirement from seafaring. He became a pastor in 1764 but expressed condemnation of the slave trade only in 1788. Despite this context, it is difficult not to be moved by the emotional power of this hymn. Religious leaders like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have known the importance of hymns in religion and worship. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, is said to have written over 6000 hymns; they were often edited by John. ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ has been called the finest hymn in English.

Hymns can be disrespectful in the cultural and other assumptions they make. One of the hymns referred to In a Far Country is ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,’ written in 1819 by Reginald Heber, who later became become Bishop of Calcutta.  Gandhi found the line ‘every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ offensive. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, he said, ‘My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary … [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so.’

Nathan Brown (1807-86), the first Baptist missionary in Assam, wrote a well-regarded hymn, ‘The Missionary’s Call.’ In The Whole World Kin (1890), his biography written by Elizabeth W. Brown, we read that it was originally a poem, written spontaneously when Brown was nineteen years old, following the inspirational commencement speech made by the President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837). It was sent to the Missionary Magazine and Brown made ‘its acceptance or rejection …a token from providence whether to offer himself for the foreign field or not.’ Though it was not accepted, Brown’s zeal to be a missionary did not diminish. In 1830, Brown published it in The Vermont Telegraph, a religious paper of which he was the editor. The complete poem is published in The Whole World Kin. The shorter, hymn version, set to music (by Edward Howe, Jr.), is printed as an appendix. There is this (slightly) variant version on the internet:

The Missionary’s Call

    My soul is not at rest.

There comes a strange and secret whisper to my spirit

like a dream of night that tells me I am on enchanted ground.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    Why live I here?

The vows of God are on me and I may not stop to play with shadows

or pluck earthly flowers till I my weary pilgrimage have done.

             The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    And I will go!

I may no longer doubt to give up my friends and idle hopes

and every tie that binds my heart to thee my country!

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

      Henceforth it matters not

If storm or sunshine be my earthly lot, bitter or sweet my cup; I only pray,

‘God make me holy, and my spirit nerve for the stern hour of strife.’

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

        And when I come to stretch me for the last,

in unattended agony beneath the cocoa’s shade

it will be sweet that I have toiled for other worlds than this.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

In 1806, five Williams College students had held the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting which gave rise to the American foreign missionary movement. There was intense interest in foreign missions in New England. The Whole World Kin tells us that The Vermont Telegraph carried the latest news from Burma to the villages and farm-houses of Vermont. Burma was the largest foreign field of the American Baptists missionaries, established by the first and foremost missionary couple Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and his wife Ann Judson (1789-1826), and there were calls to send out more missionaries to the field. My internet research turned up an essay ‘God and Man in Baptist Hymnals 1784-1844’ by David Singer. Singer argues that hymns popularized and brought to the average church-goer the sophisticated religious concepts that were otherwise the preserve of the theological and intellectual elite. Hymns also reflect doctrinal changes. He traces the change from ‘a strict Calvinism to Arminianism’ in the hymns produced during his period of study, and notes the rise of the number of missionary hymns in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Nathan Brown’s hymn is obviously a part of this upsurge of hymn writing.

In Bronson’s biography, Harriette relates an incident illustrating the tribal love of music. A group of missionaries reached a locality where no white man had yet penetrated. ‘They were confronted by a bristling array of spears, each tipped by deadly poison, and pointed straight toward them.’ One of the missionaries began to play ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ on his violin. The ‘wild hill men’ were entranced and lowered their spears. ‘And thus,’ writes Harriette, ‘through power of Christian song and melody, the gospel obtained a lodgment in this hitherto inaccessible part of the mountains.’ Several internet sources (here is one) identify the missionary as EP Scott who worked among the Karbis. You can see the evolution of this discourse of the tribal love of music in accounts of the tradition of church music in the Northeast and the success of the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Wikipedia, that modern fount of all knowledge, tells us that as of September 2016 the Bible has been has been wholly and partly translated into 554 and 2,932 languages respectively. It is unlikely we will ever have a reliable figure for all the hymns composed. Sites like hymnary.org and cyberhymnal.org exist and are useful. But these data bases are confined to Western hymns. Accounting for all the hymns translated into indigenous languages as well as composed in them is not impossible but it would be a challenging task requiring the labours of a global team of experts and informants. William Ward (the Assam Baptist missionary, not to be confused with his famous Serampore namesake) is just one of the several hymnists who composed hymns in Assamese. Ward revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new edition. According to Guwahati Baptist Church pastor Aziz-ul-Haq, Ward added scores of original and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book, published in 1890, sixty three hymns were Ward’s.

‘I get one of these hymns in mind,’ wrote Ward in a 1873 letter to Bronson,  ‘and it goes on grinding when I lie awake, or when I wake in the morning, or at odd intervals of other work.’ Ward’s description of hymn composition is not different from the accounts we have of poets describing the creative process of poetic composition. Hymns have been called the ‘poor man’s poetry.’ Perhaps they help articulate feelings and experiences that the average church-goer might not have been able to express on his or her own. I was moved by the story of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), the English poet and hymn writer, who was an invalid for the last fifty years of her life. She wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am’ in 1835, and called it her spiritual autobiography. (It was adopted by the famous evangelist Billy Graham as his theme song.) I would not like to disrespect the feelings hymns evoke or dishonour the sincerity behind some justly famous hymns.

Annotating In a Far Country (and reading up on evangelical and missionary print culture) has made me freshly aware of the importance of religion in literature. A list of all the writers influenced by Christianity would have to include Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Frost, and Auden (to mention only poets). That is a roll call of the greatest writers in British and American literature. I have always delighted in telling my students about under-theorized or overlooked genres like the essay or the letter (also known as ‘epistle’ back in the day when email did not exist). For me, hymns are a new discovery. Sadly, I do not have the time or the expertise or the resources to pursue this interest. But for a day or two I was a happy child playing on the beach of a vast sea, the roaring waves in the distance bringing me a dim awareness of the unplumbed depths beneath.

Teaching English in Nineteenth Century Assam and Now

‘The Goddess of English’ was two feet tall, wore a hat, and stood atop a computer. In her right hand she held a pen and in her left the Constitution of India. She was the brain-child of Chandra Bhan Prasad, the Dalit activist and writer. Interviewed in September 2010, he explained the symbolism of the Goddess (modelled on the Statue of Liberty) and why a temple was being built for her in Bankagaon in UP. Dalits, he said, would ‘use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.’ (The temple ran into opposition from an unexpected quarter.)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

‘The Goddess of English’ starred in a talk I gave on ‘Language Proficiency and Communication (including Soft Skills)’ at a workshop organized by the Education Department of my university. The participants were teachers and officials in higher education in the northeastern states. In the first part of my talk (which I confined to the English language), I reiterated the basic facts: how English has been the medium of higher education in India since the English Education Act of 1835; Macaulay’s programme of creating a class of brown sahibs, including the infamous ‘filtration theory’; and the divisive and alienating effects of English and the opposition to its use by Gandhi and others. I then talked about the surprising direction English has taken: instead of fading away with the British Empire, globalization and modern communication systems have made it the global lingua franca, thereby giving it unprecedented power. I proposed that we abandon our lingering colonial misgivings about English and look at it pragmatically, like previous generations of Indians had done, as a language of education and opportunity.

In the interactive session that followed, one participant objected to my advocacy of English; rural children, he pointed out, were forced to learn a strange and alien language. But the others agreed that it was important to learn English and wanted to know how acquiring it could be made more effective. We spoke of creating an ‘ecosystem’ in our schools and colleges, so that students could learn in informal situations. Some thought that it was easier to learn English nowadays because of the availability of educational videos on YouTube and various apps and aids like online dictionaries (which not only give you the meanings of words but also their pronunciation). Our discussion took in Norman Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy, a book which sells by the thousands every year. It was an animated exchange, made possible by the fact that most of the participants were from disciplines and departments other than English.

For, when it comes to teaching the language it is English Departments which show the least enthusiasm. (To be fair, English teachers in colleges and universities often have a rather heavy teaching burden. Also, there is an understandable feeling that if a student didn’t learn the language in eleven years of school and three of college, there is little that can be done at the university level.) There are several reasons for this. The first one is ideological. Postcolonialism in particular and theory in general have made us all too aware of how the English language has been and is complicit with power and oppression.  English departments therefore are likely to want less English, rather than more. But this is a paternal approach, one in which the privileged decide what is good for those not so lucky. (Which is why I cited the Dalit argument.)  Our universities and colleges are changing. They are no longer places for the elite. Students now come from schools and colleges where English is not spoken or taught with any competence. If education is to be meaningful, English Departments have a responsibility to teach English to the excluded.

The second reason (not always acknowledged) is the decline in instructional skills, especially on the part of those now coming into the profession. Generally speaking, younger faculty would rather teach theory or literary texts; they seem uncomfortable taking English classes. (This is a personal impression and may be incorrect. I hope so.) ‘English is a very funny language’, Amitabh Bachchan declares in Namak Halal. It is a tricky language; its grammatical rules are unhelpful and, as is amusingly noted in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie Chupke Chupke, its pronunciation and spelling systems do not correspond. In addition, unlike our Indian languages, it is stress-based (suhm-er, not sum-mar). Collocations like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ can only be learned through immersion.

A third reason is that our classrooms are not the best places to teach English (or, for that matter, any other language). When I began my career, it was in a college in a small town.  There were a hundred and fifty students in the class. I remember asking if they could hear me at the back. No, was the cheerful answer. (I have a loud voice but there was competition from the ceiling fans). Frequent bandhs, holidays and college functions meant that often there was a gap of a week or more between classes. In the university where I now teach, classes are regularly held. But here again the English classes for undergraduate science students tend to be very large. Colleagues in other departments, concerned by their students’ poor language skills, request us to take remedial classes. These classes usually have to be held at the end of the day (sometimes after work hours) because parent departments are reluctant to release their students earlier. After the first few classes (which are attended quite eagerly), students tend to drop out because they cannot cope with an additional course.

A few days after my talk, I was reading some missionary reports of the nineteenth century when I came across a letter by Rev. E.P. Scott, ‘What is to be the Language of Assam?’ Scott, who belonged to the American Baptist Missionary Union, arrived in 1863 and worked among the Karbis. The letter was written in February 1869 and is worth citing at length:

There is a question which begins to affect seriously the work of missions in Assam… By what language are these millions of Babel-like India to be reached with the gospel? I began my work, and prosecuted it confidently till [recently]… in accordance with the firm conviction that each tribe must be taught in its own tongue. This remains true in principle; but practically a new phase appears. The persistent and effective measures of the government in introducing English and Bengali into all its schools in Assam, shutting out Assamese from all its principal schools, importing Bengali and English teachers, requiring all legal business to be done only in Bengali or English, giving prizes to pupils who excel in those languages, etc., have at last produced marked changes. These languages, particularly English, are spreading rapidly. A large per cent of the boys and young men in all our principal towns of Assam can read, write, and speak English more or less, many of them quite correctly and fluently. There is a growing sentiment or presentiment, not only among educated Hindus, but among all classes, now extending up into the hills, that sooner or later, all these petty languages or dialects of barbarism must give way to one general language of enlightened civilization. With one consent all turn to the English language as that one. The book which the Mikirs [Karbis] were anxiously asking for in their own language three years ago, they turn away from. It is only by compulsion that the Mikir pupils in our schools read Mikir [Karbi] books – whether in native or English letters. The result is that I have been obliged to form a class in English, to prevent my best pupils from attending the government school here… The question is, Shall we give our chief efforts to this generation, or to those coming after? Every consideration answers, ‘Work for those now dying.’ Yet we cannot shut our eyes to the wants of the future. These Hill tribes’ dialects are gradually melting into Assamese. This in turn is melting into Bengali, which is fast becoming lost in English.

Christianity is destined to rule the world, no less truly than the language of Christian civilization is destined to be its prime minister. China has a language which is for generations to come will practically centre on itself; but Assam has entered within the outer gyrations of a movement which will find no rest till the languages of India shall be one. Shall we struggle to stem the tide? To do so would be an unwise and useless waste of time and strength. The question is, How can we best secure the salvation of these lost multitudes, while floating with them down the stream? How divide the work of today from that of tomorrow? I hope to print a few hymns and a few selections from the gospels in Mikir, for wants of today; nothing more….

Scott’s question about what language to use comes from his religious convictions.  He was committed to spreading the word of God in the mother tongue of the convert. This was the sola scriptura doctrine followed by the American Baptist missionaries. Hence their feverish study of Assamese, Karbi, and Garo and their project of printing the Bible in the local languages. The Baptists missionaries persisted with Assamese in their schools, even though this pitted them against the British (on whom they were otherwise dependent), whose official policy decreed using Bengali in schools in Assam.

The letter is evidence that English was becoming a language of aspiration in Assam in the 1860s, something that had happened in Bengal nearly half a century earlier. Scott’s ‘outer gyrations of a movement’ are his way of referring to the early winds of globalization. When Scott wrote his letter, the travelling time of the sea voyage from Boston (mission headquarters) to Calcutta had been reduced to four months; it had taken nearly twice that when the missionaries had first come to the field. From Calcutta missionary stations in Assam could be reached in a mere two weeks (it would have less but the steamer pilots would not risk plying the Brahmaputra at night). Then there was tea – Assam was being invested in and connected to the global economy. Of course, not all of Scott’s predictions came true. The Assamese language did not fade away. In a less than a decade, it would be recognized as the official language. The Karbi language has survived.  And the world has come to be ruled not by Christianity (as he had hoped) but by ‘the Goddess of English’.

I have come to terms with English but there have been several stages in my journey. There was a stage when I believed in the distancing effects of English, a view that is expressed in this passage from Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). (It is interesting that it occurs in a novel that is part of the Ibis trilogy which is admired for the linguistic and creative exuberance of its many Englishes.)

Neel’s schooling in English had been so thorough and so heavily weighted towards the study of texts that he found it easier, even now, to follow the spoken language by converting it into script, in his head. One of the effects of this operation was that it also robbed the language of its immediacy, rendering it into words comfortingly abstract, as distant from his own circumstances as were the waves of Windermere and the cobblestones of Canterbury.

A darker period, in which English became a source of much philosophical gloom, I now call my Jhumpa Lahiri phase. Her just-published memoir, In Other Words (2016), translated by Ann Goldstein, is written in Italian, even though, as she says, she does not have the command over it that she has over English. However, Italian apparently gives her a freedom that neither Bengali, which she learnt to please her parents, nor English, which she learnt because she wished to be American, ever did – she was suspended between languages. The melancholy note which pervades her fiction we can trace to her parents, who mourned their separation from Bengali all their lives in America.

Thanks to the example of the Dalits, and that of generations of Indians in the past who learnt the English language for career reasons (no more, no less), and thanks to my recent discovery of Scott’s letter, I have reached a more hopeful and pragmatic phase.

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 Children’s Tree: The Bronson Family in Assam

Harriette Bronson Gunn. I am grateful to Lori Walsh for sending me this photograph.

Harriette Bronson Gunn.  (I am grateful to Lori Walsh, a fourth great granddaughter of Miles and Ruth Bronson, for sending me this photograph.)

When the pioneering American Baptist missionaries came to Assam in the first half of the nineteenth century, they were accompanied by their wives who assisted them in their work as equal, or almost equal, partners. In fact, the American Mission  Board permitted the wives of Nathan Brown, Oliver Cutter, and Miles Bronson to call themselves missionaries (later, in a backward step, the Board was to disallow this status to missionary wives). Curiosity about the lives of these women missionaries and their children led me to read Harriette Bronson Gunn’s memoir of her missionary parents, In a Far Country: A Story of Christian Heroism and Achievement, brought out by the American Baptist Publication Society in 1911, and long out of print.  Harriette was the fourth of the seven daughters born to Ruth and Miles Bronson; she and her sisters spent a part of their childhood in Nowgong (as Nagaon used to be spelled). The details about the Bronson family in this post are mostly plundered from Harriette’s book.

My interest in the lives of missionary families was initially aroused by this stoical, single sentence entry in Nathan Brown’s journal (dated January 19, 1840): ‘Today we have discovered that one of our little boy’s eyes is diseased, and we fear, unless some remedy is found, he will soon lose his sight.’ I began to see how a missionary – by definition, a driven man – could subject not only himself but also his loved ones to the dangers and privations of living in a distant, unknown and even hostile land. When Eliza and Nathan Brown, Harriet and Oliver Cutter, and Ruth and Miles Bronson came to Assam the difficulties were considerable. The voyage from America to India would take eight months. Railway and steamer services had not been introduced, and diseases like malaria and cholera were rampant.  During times of political trouble, the danger to life was very real.

Reading In a Far Country, I found myself often thinking of the famous opening line of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ For, no matter how hard we try, we cannot now fully imagine the force of conviction that made missionary men and women leave their homes. The book has references to ‘dusky natives’ and heathens, and there is the inevitable Orientalist frame (the frontispiece carries an illustration, ‘The Most Famous Ghat in India – Benares’). However, what makes Harriette’s book likeable are the ordinary, human details like ‘the children’s tree’ – a peepal tree under which the Bronson girls played in their Nowgong home. Also, we can relate to such human feelings as the sadness of parents separated from their children or the happiness of returning, after a long journey, to a place one has learnt to call home.

Ruth, painted in Hamilton, NY by John Wilkie in 1836. (I am grateful to Mary Ann Titterington, a descendant of Sophie, for sending this image.)

Miles Bronson was a student at the theological seminary at Hamilton, New York. He met Ruth Lucas when he went to preach in the village church in nearby Madison. Ruth’s father, a storekeeper, initially opposed the marriage as he could not bear the idea of Ruth marrying a missionary bound for a distant land. A severe illness in which her life was despaired of resulted in John Lucas’s acceptance – he implored God to save Ruth in return for which he would ‘surrender his darling one to foreign missionary service.’ The couple arrived in Calcutta in April 1837 and journeyed by boat to Sadiya in Assam. They were not far from their destination when the missionary Jacob Thomas, who (with his wife) had been travelling with the Bronsons, died because a large tree fell on his country boat.

The Bronsons’ eldest daughter, Mary, was born in Sadiya. In March 1838 they moved to the new station of Jaipur to work among the Nagas. Sadiya was attacked by the Khamtis in 1839; they burned the station and killed the British political agent and dozens of others. An attack on Jaipur seemed imminent; however, the expected attack never came. After peace was restored, the Bronsons moved to Namsang village (in present-day Arunachal Pradesh). Miles Bronson prepared primers and tracts, while Ruth opened a school.  Harriette writes about a peculiar difficulty Ruth had to face in her school; every time ‘a chase went by after deer or other wild animals, without permission from their teacher, the dusky pupils would jump out of the windows to join the hunters. She was obliged to sit alone patiently until their return, which would be sooner or later according to the results of the chase.’ Harriette relates that an ayah was employed and given the responsibility of taking up baby Mary at the first sign of danger (‘the villages in this region often made raids on each other’). She promised to do so but when an attack occurred she forgot all about Mary and was instead found collecting her personal property, exclaiming, ‘My bustu! Oh, my bustu!’

Rhoda Bronson, Miles Bronson’s sister, inspired by her brother’s example, decided to join him in the Naga hills. (We know from other sources that Rhoda made the trip at her own expense.) It was then rare for a single woman to cross the ocean. She became an object of great curiosity to the Nagas, who flocked to see her. Rhoda died seven months later. She was of delicate health and from the beginning the food (rice three times a day) did not suit her.  She was buried in the English cemetery at Jaipur.

In 1841 the Bronsons left the Naga hills to establish a station in Nowgong. Here the family spent some of its happiest years.  There were six daughters: Mary, Maria, Eliza, Harriette, Sophia, and Frances. During the day, the little girls played under ‘the children’s tree’ in the mission compound. When evening came the sisters and their parents mounted on the back of an elephant and enjoyed a ride around Nowgong. Miles Bronson planted a tree to mark the birth of each daughter. When Maria returned to Nowgong twenty years later, she was pleased to see the trees had grown to ‘a goodly size.’

When a new missionary couple, Drusilla and Ira Joy Stoddard, arrived at Nowgong in 1846, the Bronsons decided to take their daughters to America ‘to be reared in a more healthful climate and receive the advantages of education in a Christian land.’ In October 1848, the family left Nowgong. (Incidentally, on this trip two local youths, James Tripp and Lucien Hayden, accompanied the Bronsons to America.) On doctor’s advice, Frances, who was only eighteen months old, was left behind in the care of Mrs Stoddard. Frances died during Ruth and Miles Bronson’s absence.  In America, the task was to find suitable homes for the girls. A Mrs Stokes of Philadelphia offered to take Mary.  Maria and Eliza were taken in by a Mrs Davis Cotes of Springfield, New York.  Harriette was adopted by a wealthy family in Philadelphia while Sophia was placed in the family of her uncle, Weston Bronson, Miles Bronson’s eldest brother, who lived in Hamilton, New York. (Later, Mary too was adopted by Mrs Stokes.) However, the Bronsons had second thoughts about leaving Harriette with a rich family to be brought up ‘in a worldliness of which they could not approve’ and so at the last minute they took her away and brought her back to Nowgong. During the return voyage, a child was born to the Bronsons but did not survive. Baby Martha (the seventh daughter) was buried in the English cemetery at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. (On a subsequent voyage, Ruth and little Harriette visited the grave.) After returning to Nowgong, the reduced family visited the grave of baby Frances. Ruth must have been thankful for Harriette’s presence for without her it would have been much more painful to return to Nowgong without her daughters.  In a letter to Harriette when she had grown up, Ruth described her as her ‘Benjamin, the last of my little flock left to me, and … such a source of comfort to my poor, lonely heart.’

Harriette was now without her sisters.  Years later Miles Bronson remembered a game Harriette played in her Nowgong home in which she set up an imaginary seminary: ‘This wonderful seminary was unique, having only one solitary scholar, who every morning put on her bonnet, took her satchel of books and umbrella, and bidding her parents good morning, went out of one side of the house and came back into the other!’ Since there were no white children for Harriette to play with, she was allowed to do so with Aitie, the daughter of one of the native preachers. Harriette had a pet cat as well.

Miles Bronson frequently made evangelistic tours by boat and sometimes he took Ruth and Harriette with him. Harriette writes nostalgically about these river journeys:

There were snug sleeping accommodations on this boat, but no room for culinary uses, so a cook-boat followed, where the native cook prepared the meals. When they were ready he pulled alongside the ‘budgerow’, or large boat, and proceeded to set the table and serve up a meal in a style amusing to an American. The repast ended, he removed the dishes and withdrew to the cook-boat, where he washed up and prepared for the next meal. At nightfall the native captain bade his boatmen fasten the boat to the shore, as it is not safe to travel after dark on these waters. A sandbank was usually chosen near which to anchor the vessel, and large fires were kindled to keep away the savage beast that lurked in the adjoining jungles … The boatmen cooked their simple meal of rice, and often on pleasant evenings a tent would be pitched in preference to sleeping on the boat, forming quite a rural encampment…

And if there was romance in this tenting out at night upon these Indian rivers, it was scarcely less romantic to travel by them by day. In places where the jungles had been cleared away, native settlements extended for miles in the midst of as beautiful scenery as ever met the eye. 

But there were dangers from wild elephants and tigers. One evening Miles Bronson went for a walk leaving the boat when he saw a mad elephant emerging from the depths of the forest. Noticing the boat, the elephant plunged into the river while Miles Bronson watched helplessly from the bank. Fortunately, the elephant decided to turn and swim off in the opposite direction, thus sparing the passengers in the boat. On another occasion, he had a narrow escape when the behaviour of his pet dog, Trusty, alerted him to the presence of a tiger.

Two of the sisters returned to Nowgong to carry on their parent’s work. Having completed her studies in Philadelphia, Mary arrived in Nowgong in May 1856. (As a child, she had been baptized in Nowgong along with some of the first Assamese converts.) Maria reached in March 1870 and took charge of the Nowgong girls school which was established by Ruth in 1844. A letter from Maria to Harriette reveals some interesting aspects of missionary life:

You see that we are again in dear old Nowgong, the home of our childhood and the scene of our loved mother’s labors.   Many things make this a sacred place, and I feel it a privilege to be stationed here…

I watch darling papa with a great deal of anxiety. He is better than we could expect, but I can see that the great sorrow tells upon him. I often hear him weeping and praying that God may help him to be submissive, and then he comes to us cheerful; but I can see he has had a hard struggle…

This is a pleasant home, dear ones. Nature has made it beautiful, and papa’s skilful hands have erected one of the most comfortable bungalows in the station. You would find us nicely settled and with all things in common… Indian housekeeping is very different from American. We often want to send all the brothers and sisters invitations to dinner or tea, but fearing you (sic) will not accept have to be content by inviting English neighbors. There are quite a number of them, so we are not without society. I do not feel we were in the wilds of India, for it is more civilized than I expected to find it. Sometimes I forget so great a distance separates us, especially when we are reading the papers from home. Letters and papers are the greatest comfort out here, and without them the separation from our loved ones would be almost intolerable … 

The uprising of 1857 was a very stressful time for Ruth, Mary and Miles Bronson. Because there were no British officers or officials in Nowgong, the Bronsons felt especially vulnerable. The previously respectful sepoys who lived in the barracks across the street from the mission compound now became insolent. Attempts were made to frighten the Bronsons at night.  Ruth and Mary learnt how to fire a gun. The family spent many nights in terror before heading for Gauhati (present-day Guwahati), leaving the bungalow in the care of the native Christians.  A dark night was chosen for the escape.  After three days the Bronsons reached their destination safely. There was a good deal of suspense as they approached Gauhati, not knowing if it had fallen, with an ill Ruth placed in the back of the boat, while father and daughter gathered their guns and ammunition in case they were attacked. The Europeans at Gauhati, including the missionaries, numbered about thirty; they drilled everyday in an attempt to cow down the sepoys. Eventually a steamer with armed reinforcements arrived from Calcutta. The Bronsons left for America soon after in order to recover from the strain of living in Assam during this period.

During this trip Mary married Cyrus Fisher Tolman, a student in Madison University. The Tolmans were deputed to Assam and left for Nowgong but Miles Bronson had not fully recovered his strength. So he accepted the offer of becoming pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield, NY.  This was a happy time for Ruth since she had the opportunity to see her daughters who were living with Mrs Cotes: ‘How Ruth Bronson’s heart treasured those hours when her darlings could be with her again, as in their happy childhood days, and again she seemed to listen to gay voices and merry laughter under the old tree near the mission bungalow.’

This lasted about a year. Then it was time for the Bronsons time to ‘tear themselves away from the clinging arms of their children and friends’ and return to Nowgong. The consolation though was that their daughter and son-in-law were there.  A letter from Ruth written after her arrival conveys her feelings of what Nowgong had come to mean to her:

Oh, this delightful November weather! It is nearly as perfect as weather can be.  The only drawback is now and then a foggy morning, which, however, is quite made up by the exceeding beauty of the sky as the fog melts away before the brilliance of the sun. I really think there is no more lovely spot on earth than dear, quiet Nowgong.

She kept herself busy running the school. Two of the girl students are mentioned by Harriette:  Junaki and Humptira, Ruth’s ‘Assamese daughter’. (Her father was the Bronson’s dhobi.)

Miles Bronson is known for his Assamese and English dictionary. A letter written in 1867 by Ruth to Harriette shows how the former contributed:

Could you visit your old home today you would find your room occupied by papa as study, where he is working hard all day on the dictionary. You would see in the center a long table, covered with green baize, on which are piled at long intervals large books and writing materials, in orderly confusion. You would see papa sitting at one side of the table, and on the other side three dusky pundits, assisting him in his slow work. You would see mamma’s rattan work-basket standing close by papa’s chair, where I sit near, ready to render him any assistance in my power – such as looking up references, synonyms, and definitions. I cannot give my time as fully to assisting papa as I did in Sibsagor, where I had no household cares to interrupt… Here I have school duties, housekeeping cares, and a thousand little things to attend to. I have aided him in the revision of the manuscript, which is now ready for the press. 

The strain of dictionary work had its effect on Miles Bronson’s health. The Bronsons decided to go to America, their departure hastened by news that one of their daughters was seriously ill. During the voyage, Ruth was thrown off the sofa on which she was lying by a sudden lurch of the ship. She recuperated in her daughter’s house in Chicago. Mrs Cotes was asked to permit her three adopted daughters to visit Ruth so that ‘there might be a family reunion for the first time in twenty years.’ Sophia, the youngest daughter, recently graduated from the Monticello Seminary, joined the family. Ruth however continued to be feeble and in spring she was taken to her home in Madison.  She was so weak that she could not attend Harriette’s wedding on June 29, 1869. Ruth was hopeful of recovering and even gave directions for her trunks to be prepared for the journey to Assam. But it was clear that she was dying. She was taken to Elmira, New York for a water cure; Mary and Maria arrived to look after her.  But she died on September 30, 1869. She had served for thirty three years as missionary in Assam.

Miles Bronson left for Assam on December 15, 1869 with Maria, the daughter who was still single.  This time the trip was made as much as possible by land.  They arrived in Nowgong on March 28, 1870. The older native Christians remembered Maria Baba and there were inquiries about Harriette Baba, the last of the girls to leave Nowgong. Miles Bronson married the widow of another missionary, AH Danforth.  The second Mrs Bronson however fell ill soon after and was advised to take a sea voyage to Singapore.  Maria accompanied her. But Mrs Bronson died on the steamer, on the return voyage, on February 3, 1874 and was buried at the missionary cemetery at Rangoon. Maria herself contracted cholera while returning to Nowgong and was buried in Goalpara.

Miles Bronson was moved to the mission station at Gauhati in 1874:

thus severing the long-cherished associations of the years at dear old Nowgong. There, all but three of his children had been born; there, lingered memories of the sweet wife of his youth, and those pioneer years; there, later, the devoted daughter, Maria, had lavished on him her love and care, and gazing sorrowfully at ‘the children’s tree’, which still stood beside the bungalow, he felt that no other spot could seem so much like home.

He married Mary Rankin, a missionary of Woman’s Foreign Society of the West, and a friend of his deceased daughter, Maria. A son was born to the couple and named Miles Bronson. Ruth and Laura, twin daughters, followed. Five years later Miles Bronson moved to his new headquarters, Dibrugarh. One day, soon after his arrival, he fell from his elephant. The resulting injury compelled him to leave for America in order to treat his leg and put an end to an active missionary career.

The Bronsons decided to settle at Eaton Rapids, Michigan where Sophia, the youngest daughter, and her husband lived – the later was the pastor of the Baptist church there. A house was rented near Sophia’s home.  The daughters now decided to buy their father a house. Miles Bronson attended various missionary meetings and gatherings. He died on November 9, 1883 and was buried in the cemetery at Eaton Rapids. His widow, Mrs. Mary Bronson, left with her three children, received a monthly pension from the Missionary Union; this with the rent from letting out a portion of her house was all she had to bring up the children. To support the family, her son (the young Miles Bronson) dropped out of school. Harriette writes that this was a disappointment to his mother as she had hoped he would ‘have a college education and perhaps take up his father’s lifework in dear old Assam.’ Miles joined his uncle in the railroad business. Initially he lived in Detroit with his mother; later a promotion took him to Cleveland, Ohio. Here Mrs Bronson was appointed church missionary, until failing heath forced her to resign. Miles again received a promotion – he was now appointed superintend of a branch of the New York Central Railroad. He moved to Yonkers, New York where he set up house with his wife and his mother. The sisters continued to live in Cleveland. Mrs Bronson contracted cancer, died in her son’s home in Yonkers, and was buried next to her husband in Eaton Rapids.

Harriette's hisband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

Harriette’s husband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

In her concluding chapter Harriette asks, ‘Was it Worthwhile?’  The question is a rhetorical one. For, as she notes, all the Bronson daughters became missionaries or wives of missionaries. We have seen how Mary married Cyrus Tolman. She and her husband worked among the Karbis. Recurring attacks of malaria compelled Cyrus Tolman to return to America. Mary stayed on for some time before following him with her two children. The Tolmans settled in Chicago, where Cyrus became district secretary of the Mission Union. Mary became one of the founders of the Woman’s Baptist Missionary Society of the West and its first corresponding secretary. Maria, who died in Assam, was one of the first woman missionaries appointed by this Society. Eliza (the third daughter) married Albert Robinson, pastor and associate editor of ‘The Gospel in All Lands’. Harriette married William Campbell Gunn, the pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield (where Miles Bronson had been a pastor for a while). Sophia (the youngest) married John Titterington, who served as a pastor in many churches in the Midwest (she also came to be known as a children’s author).

There is a fair amount of material on the well-known male missionaries who were active in Assam in the nineteenth century but little on the missionary women who did the same work, faced the same hardships and made the same sacrifices as the men. Harriette’s book gave me an understanding of the contribution of the Bronson wives and siblings. It offered me a glimpse into their interconnected lives and a sense of how the women shared and shaped missionary work. It also left me with the impression that perhaps, more than the men, it was the women who bore the brunt of missionary realities.

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.