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MADRAS MISCELLANY

The booty from Pondicherry



Rich haul General Eyre Coote

General Eyre Coote who ransacked Pondicherry in 1861 (Miscellany, April 6) brought back to Madras a whole lot of booty. One small part of that loot was to contribute significantly in the years that followed. It was “a hand-press, cases of type and other equipment”. This was the first printing equipment to reach Madras.

As was narrated in this column, printing in India started in Goa and the Malabar Coast, faded out and was revived in Danish Tranquebar (Tarangambadi) by the German Pietists from Halle in the early 1700s. One of the later Tranquebar missionaries walked all the way to Madras, and found himself being made the representative for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, which was unable to send out its own missionaries due to the East India Company not permitting British missionaries to come to India.

The missionary from Tranquebar who settled in Vepery was Johann P. Fabricius, a scholar, and soon to become fluent in Tamil and Telugu. He requested the Government of Madras for the equipment that had been found in Governor-General de Lally’s mansion where it had been lying unused from 1758. Fabricius offered to run the press in Vepery, giving priority to Government work, and only then taking up the Mission’s. The Government agreed, and so was born the East India Company’s Press aka the Vepery Press. In time, the two names were to develop as separate units, the former becoming today’s Government Press, the latter, the SPCK Press, then the Diocesan Press and now the CLS Press.

Fabricius, while running schools, translating Christian literature and doing a modicum of missionary work also found time to be a successful manager of the press. In 1766, he expanded the press by acquiring another printing machine from Tranquebar, imported Tamil type castings from Halle, and got a Tamil printer named Thomas from Tranquebar. It was this wing of the Vepery Press that enabled its growth over the years, making it one of the biggest printing presses in South India till the 1960s.

The first publication in Tamil from the Vepery Press was a catechism that Fabricius had translated. It was printed in 1766. Six years later there came out the first major work of the press, Fabricius’s revised version of the Malabar (Tamil) New Testament. In 1799, the Vepery Press issued its greatest publication, the Malabar-English Dictionary. Fabricius and his colleague Breithaupt then brought out the second part of this monumental work of theirs in 1786. Today, what survives of the press is the oldest surviving printing press in India. Obviously some good came out of the Carnatic Wars.

S. MUTHIAH

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