Literary Review

First English book in India

A page from Thomas Dyche’s ‘A guide to the English tongue’.  

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Do these word groups mean anything to you? Are they lodged in your memory from some distant childhood day when you made your first faltering attempts to say some English words? If so, then your early schooling connects you all the way back to the first English textbook for beginners ever printed in India.

Today, India is the world’s largest publisher of English books after the U.S. and the U.K., a direct legacy of British colonial rule. Every year, about 20,000 English-language titles are printed, despite the preference for publishing in regional languages growing steadily.

But when did this English-language publishing phenomenon begin? Was it the result of British parliamentarian T.B. Macaulay’s infamous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), ending the East India Company’s funding of pathshalas and madrasas in favour of government schools with English as the medium of instruction?

Or did it start earlier, with the Company’s remorseless promulgation of English regulations from the late 18th century onwards? No, we must go further back in time still. The answer lies in the history of missionary education in Chennai.

Exactly 300 years ago, on May 12, 1716, a small edition of an English schoolbook rolled off the press at Tharangambadi. This was Thomas Dyche’s A guide to the English tongue, printed for use in the charity school for poor Protestant children, established in Chennai in 1715 by East India Company’s chaplain, William Stevenson. This was the first book to be printed in English in India, or in the whole of Asia.

Dyche, a London schoolmaster, had first had his Guide published in London in 1707 and it became an instant success. One London printer alone, Charles Ackers, issued no less than 33 editions between 1733 and 1747, averaging yearly sales of 18,000 copies! The emphasis in Dyche’s book was on teaching children to recognise and pronounce words correctly. Learning to stress on the correct syllable would prevent, in Dyche’s own phrase, “vicious pronunciation”.

His Guide contained lists of similar-sounding words, such as those quoted above . First monosyllables were listed, then words of two syllables, then words of three. Words of two syllables were divided into those with the stress on the first syllable, followed by those with the stress on the second syllable, and so on. Clearly, this was a textbook explicitly designed for learning by rote.Children were instructed to repeat these word groups over and over until they were fully committed to memory. Dyche believed that words that rhymed by eye as well as ear would develop children’s reading memory — what he called “gingling” with words.

The 1716 Tharangambadi edition of Dyche’s Guide was printed as part of Stevenson’s plan for his new charity school on the English model, opened a year earlier. Copies of Dyche’s work had probably already been used in the free-school conducted by George Lewis, Stevenson’s predecessor as East India Company chaplain, from 1712 until 1714, when Lewis returned to Britain.

These could have been copies of the first 1707 or second 1710 London editions that had been imported. By 1716 perhaps, those copies had become worn out and needed replacing; or maybe the number of pupils began to exceed the number of copies available. But Stevenson had no means of printing more copies locally.

Chennai’s first press would not arrive until 1761, looted by the British from the French at the siege of Pondicherry. Stevenson’s only option therefore was to apply to the mission press at Tharangambadi. On November 14, 1715, he wrote to the Lutheran missionary Johann Ernst Gründler requesting a print run of 200 copies of Dyche’s Guide. The Tharangambadi missionaries agreed to do the work free of cost. It was no doubt an unauthorised reprint — a pirate edition, like many early Indian imprints.

The book obviously proved its worth as a textbook in the Chennai mission school. No doubt its attraction to Stevenson, as to Lewis before him, was enhanced by the Christian messages and child’s morning and evening prayers included among the reading passages to be memorised. Seven years later, in 1723, a second edition was printed, again at Tharangambadi. Only two copies of even this second edition are recorded worldwide, neither in India itself. One is held in the Sterling Memorial Library of Yale University and the other in the Royal Library at Copenhagen. Both holdings have direct links to India — to Chennai and Tharangambadi.

Elihu Yale amassed a fortune through illegal profiteering while serving as the East India Company’s first president of Fort St. George, from 1684 to 1685, and again, from 1687 to 1692. Part of that fortune funded his purchase of books for the Connecticut College that would later bear his name. The work’s presence in Copenhagen reflects the fact that by decree of the King of Denmark, the Tharangambadi missionaries were required to send back a copy of every book they printed in the colony for inspection and approval.

Sadly, not a single copy of the first edition has ever been traced, adding to the common myth of schoolbooks being studied to destruction. So, wouldn’t it be wonderful — in this tercentenary year of English publishing in India — if a copy could at last be located in Chennai itself? In a small institutional library? Or perhaps, in a private family collection? A long-overdue rummage through neglected shelves may yet reveal an important milestone in India’s publishing history.

Graham Shaw is the former Head of Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections at the British Library, London. He has written widely on the history of printing and publishing in India.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 10:04:48 AM |

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